Saturday, February 6, 2010

Was Mary Magdalene the first Quaker?


It would probably not have surprised George Fox and early Friends to learn that there was a gospel according to Mary Magdalene and that in this gospel Mary speaks of silence as the highest form of worship. Fox and Margaret Fell both endorsed the view that Mary Magdelene was the first evangelist and carried to the message of Christ’s resurrection to the male disciples, who in their chauvinist ignorance derided her. For this reason, Fox believed that women had a gift for prophetic ministry and should be allowed to speak out of the silence during meeting for worship.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Inner Traditions: 2002), edited by Jean-Yves Leloup with a foreword by Jacob Needleman, survives in two 3rd century Greek fragments and a longer 5th century translation into Coptic, but its origin dates back to the early days of the Christian movement. Mary's Gospel confirms that women were spiritual leaders in the early Christian community and had profound wisdom to offer which the institutional church rejected. Leloup does an excellent job of unpacking Mary’s Gospel with an introduction and commentary exploring its spiritual depths.


In the Gospel of Mary, Mary shares with the other disciples her vision of the inner life, as it was revealed to her by the one she calls the Teacher. Towards the end of her vision quest, she describes an internal struggle between Craving and the soul. Craving tells the soul that it has no right to ascend to the spiritual realm since “you belong to me.” The soul responds by describing how it transcended Craving and Ignorance and became conscious of itself and of the forces blocking its ascent. After overcoming these various opponents (darkness, craving, ignorance, enslavement to the body, intoxicated wisdom, guileful wisdom), all of which stem from wrath, Mary’s soul became liberated. “My craving has faded, and I am freed from ignorance,” proclaims Mary’s soul. At this point, her soul experiences inner peace, as the text makes clear:

“Henceforth I travel towards Repose,
where time rests in the Eternity of Time;
I go now into silence.”
Having said all this, Mary became silent,
for it was in silence that the Teacher spoke to her.

This is the “good news” that Mary proclaims to the disciplines: the soul can find peace by letting go of selfish desires and resting in the silence that is rooted in Eternity.
Several of the disciples balk at being instructed by a woman, thereby revealing the tension between chauvinist patriarchal Christians and the emergent women prophets and teachers. Karen King has observed, "The confrontation of Mary with Peter, a scenario also found in The Gospel of Thomas, Pistis Sophia, and The Gospel of the Egyptians, reflects some of the tensions in second-century Christianity. Peter and Andrew represent orthodox positions that deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach."
But not all men are chauvinists. In the Gospel of Mary Levi (i.e. Matthew, the tax collector) responds with humility and defends Mary, saying: “Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than use. Therefore, let us atone, and become fully human (anthropos), so that the Teacher can take root in us. Let us grow as he demanded of us, and walk forth to spread the gospel, without trying to set down any rules and laws other than those he witnessed”( p. 39).
This of course is Margaret Fell, one of Quakerism’s founders, proclaimed in her pamphlet with the long and self-explanatory title: "Women's Preaching Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ's own Command, before he Ascended to the Father, John 20. 17." http://www.godswordtowomen.org/fell.htm .

Today Christians are still divided between those who acknowledge the spiritual wisdom of women, and those which see women as second-class citizens in God’s heavenly kingdom. I recently went to a talk given by a courageously faithful priest named Roy Bourgeois who is calling for the ordination of women. The Vatican is threatening him with excommunication for taking this stand.

We need to remember that women played a vital role in the spiritual life of the early Christian community, and continued to do so through its history, despite opposition from the instituional patriarchy. I am glad that Leloup and Needleman have done such a fine job of making Mary's Gospels accessible to modern readers interested in learning Sophia from one of Christianity's great early teachers.

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