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What does the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” say?

What is known as the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” is a Gnostic document, originally written in Greek, found in Oxyrhynchus ( in northern Egypt) as two fragmented texts:

– a papyrus from the 3rd century (P.Ryl. III 463 y P.Oxy. L 3525),

– and another fragment translated to Coptic from the 5th century (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502). Both were published between the years 1938 and 1983; 

– but the original text was very likely written in the 2nd century. 

Mary, probably Mary Magdalene – although she is always referred to only as Mary – is seen as a source of “secret revelation”, since she seems to maintain a close relationship with the Lord. 

In the fragmented text available to date, there are details on an encounter in which the disciples ask the risen Christ questions and he responds.

Christ then sends them to preach the Good News to the gentiles, and he leaves. The disciples are left sad, without confidence to fulfil their mission. Mary encourages them to carry on with what they have been asked to do. 

Peter asks Mary to communicate to the disciples the words they have not heard from Jesus, since they knew that Jesus “loved her more than the rest of the women”. Mary talks about one of her visions, full of Gnostic connotations. In the context of a world which is disintegrating, Mary explains the difficulties the soul has to overcome to reveal its true spiritual nature in ascending to its eternal resting place. 

When she finishes relating her vision, Andrew and Peter do not believe her. Peter doubts the Lord preferred her to the other disciples, and Mary starts crying. Levi defends her (“You, Peter, always been hot tempered”) and blames Peter for attacking Mary. 

Then Levi encourages the disciples to accept that the Lord preferred Mary to themselves, and invites them to go and preach the Gospel. So they finally do.

This is all the testimony left on the fragmented texts of this gospel. Not much, certainly. Some authors wanted to see in the Apostles’ opposition to Mary (in some way also present in the gospels according to Thomas, Pistis Sophia and in the Greek gospel according to the Egyptians) a reflection of the existing confrontations within the Church in the 2nd century. That would indicate that the official Church would be opposed to the esoteric revelations and leadership by a woman.

Considering the Gnostic nature of these texts, it is more plausible to believe that these “gospels” do not represent the true circumstances in the Church, but do reflect particular conflicts and antagonisms towards the Church. We could reason that an idea proposed from a sectarian group should not be extrapolated in an attempt to understand more general circumstances of a larger reality. Just as we understand that an exception should never become the rule.

Juan Chapa

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Who are the Gnostics?

The term “Gnostic” originates from the Greek word “gnosis” meaning knowledge.

A Gnostic is therefore a person who acquires a special knowledge and lives in accordance with it. In this respect, the term “gnosis” does not carry any negative connotation.

Some of the early Fathers of the Church such as Clement of Alexandria and St Irenaeus speak about ‘gnosis’ in the sense of the knowledge of Jesus Christ that we acquire through faith: “the true gnosis” – writes St Irenaeus – “is the doctrine of the Apostles” (Against Heresies IV, 33, 8).

The term “Gnostic” acquired a negative meaning when these very early Fathers applied it to designate certain prominent heretics prevalent between the 2nd and 4th centuries. 

St Irenaeus was the first one to use it in this sense in order to refer to the heresy of Simon the Samaritan (Acts 8:9-24). He mentions that Simon’s followers spread throughout Alexandria, Asia Minor and Rome with the result that "a multitude of Gnostics have sprung up, and have been manifested like mushrooms growing out of the ground" (Against Heresies I, 29,1). These in turn, St Irenaeus continued, gave rise to the followers of Valentinus who are the ones he tackles in a more direct manner.

He explains the abundance and diversity of sects by saying that "numbers of them – indeed, we may say all – desire themselves to be teachers, and to break off from the particular heresy in which they have been involved. Forming one set of doctrines out of a totally different system of opinions, and then again others from others, they insist upon teaching something new, declaring themselves the inventors of any sort of opinion which they may have been able to call into existence" (Against Heresies, I, 28, 1)

From Irenaeus' information and from that of the other Fathers who also had to combat these heresies (especially St Hippolytus of Rome and St Epiphany of Salamina), we can see that there was such a proliferation of splinter groups (Simonians, Nicolaites, Ophites, Naassenes, Sethians, Peratae, Basilidians, Carpocratines, Valentinians, Marcosians…) falling under the heading “gnostic”, that we can only apply this term in a most generic manner. 

From the around the forty or so “gnostic” heretical works discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi (upper Egypt) we gain a similar impression; each work contains its own distinct heretical direction.

Of the varieties described above, the best known are the Valentinian Gnostics, who are also the ones who exercised the most influence.

Acting within the Church they were like "a beast poised to spring" says St Irenaeus.

They had the same Sacred Scriptures as the Church, but they interpreted them differently. The true God, according to them, was not the Creator of the Old Testament; they distinguished several Christs from among the beings of the heavenly world (Aeons).

They considered that salvation is obtained:

-by the knowledge of oneself as a divine spark enclosed in matter;

-that the redemption of Christ consists in awakening ourselves to this knowledge;

-and that only spiritual men (pneumatiokoi) are destined for salvation. 

The elitist character of the sect, and its undervaluing of the created world, make up, among other traits, the mindset of these heretics, the most significant representatives of the "gnostics".

Gonzalo Aranda

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What are the canonical and the apocryphal gospels? How many are there?

The canonical gospels are the ones which the Church has recognised as divinely inspired and which faithfully hand on the apostolic tradition. There are four, and only four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 

At the end of the second century we find this stated explicitly by St Irenaeus of Lyon (“Against the Heresies”, 3, 11, 8-9). The Church has always maintained this, eventually proposing it as a dogma of faith when defining the canon of Holy Scripture at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The composition of these gospels is rooted in what the apostles saw and heard in Jesus’ company and in his appearances to them after his resurrection. 

In fulfilment of the Lord’s command, the apostles immediately began to preach the good news (or gospel) about him and the salvation he brought mankind. Small Christian communities began to spring up in Palestine and in other places (Antioch, the cities of Asia Minor, Rome, etc.)

In these communities the tradition took the form of accounts or teachings about Jesus, always under the guidance of the apostles who had witnessed them. At a third stage these traditions were written down and put together to form a sort of biography of Jesus, giving rise to the gospels for the use of the communities for whom they were intended. 

The first gospel seems to have been that of Mark, or perhaps a Hebrew or Aramaic version of Matthew somewhat shorter than the one we actually have; the other three imitated its general style. In doing this, each evangelist chose some things from among the many which were handed on, synthesised others, and tailored it all for the benefit of his immediate readers.

That the four were regarded as apostolic is seen by the fact that they were received and handed on as written by the apostles themselves or their immediate disciples – Mark being the disciple of St Peter, and Luke of St Paul.

The apocryphal gospels are those which the Church did not accept as part of the genuine apostolic tradition, even though they themselves claim to have been written by one of the apostles.

They began to circulate quite early on – they are already referred to in the second half of the second century. They did not have the apostolic guarantee of the four recognised gospels; and moreover many of them contain ideas which are at variance with the apostolic tradition.

“Apocryphal” originally meant “secret”, in the sense that they were written for a special group of initiates who circulated them among themselves. Later it came to mean spurious and even heretical.

With the passage of time the number of apocryphal writings grew, mainly to fill in details of Jesus’ life which were not provided by the canonical gospels (for example, the apocryphal infancy gospels), and also to place under the name of an apostle teachings which were at variance with common Church tradition (for example, the gospel of Thomas).

Based on information gleaned from the Fathers of the Church, on extant apocrypha themselves, or manuscript references, the number of apocryphal gospels is known to be in excess of fifty. Origen of Alexandria (+ 245) wrote: “The Church has four gospels, the heretics many”.

Gonzalo Aranda

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What do we really know about Jesus?

We have more and better information about Jesus of Nazareth than any other personalities of his time. We have testimony from witnesses to his life and death: both written and oral tradition about him. Among these feature the four gospels, which have been transmitted by the community of living faith which he established and which continues today.

This community is the Church, made up of millions of followers of Jesus throughout history. They have learnt the facts which have been handed down uninterruptedly from the first disciples.

The data which appear in the apocryphal gospels and other extra-biblical references don’t offer anything additional in substance to the information already available in the canonical gospels, such as they have been transmitted by the Church.

Until the Enlightenment, both believers and non-believers accepted that the gospels contained what was known about Jesus. However, some historians of the 19th Century began to question the objectivity of their contents since they were written from the viewpoint of faith. For them, the gospel accounts were hardly credible as they did not contain what Jesus said and did, but rather what Jesus’ followers believed some years after his death. Consequently, in the decades that followed until the middle of the 20th Century, the veracity of the gospels was questioned by those who accepted this view and it was said that “we cannot know almost anything” about Jesus (R. Bultmann, Jesus, Deutsche Bibliothek, Berlin 1926).

Today, with the development of the science of history, archaeological advances, and a wider and better knowledge of ancient sources, one can quote a well-known specialist of the Jewish world, who cannot be labelled as a conservative: “we can know a lot about Jesus” (E .P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, London-Philadelphia 1985).

For example, Sanders points out “eight undisputable facts” from the historical point of view concerning the life of Jesus and Christian origins:

1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

2. He was a Galilean who preached and worked miracles.

3. He limited his activity to Israel.

4. He called up those who would become his disciples.

5. He raised controversy over the role of the temple.

6. He was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities

7. After the death of Jesus, his followers continued forming an identifiable group.

8. Some Jews at least persecuted certain groups of the new movement (cf Gal 1:13,22; Phil 3:6) and, it seems, this persecution lasted at least until the time close to Paul’s  final ministry (cf 2 Cor 11:24; Gal 5:11; 6:12; Matt 23:34; 10:17).

On this minimal base which historians are in agreement, one can rely about on other facts contained in the gospels as being reliable from the historical point of view. 

Applying the criteria of historicity to these facts allows one to establish a degree of coherence and probability in the gospel statements, and that what is contained in these narratives is substantially certain.

Finally, it is worthwhile noting that we know Jesus to be trustworthy and credible, because the witnesses are worthy of credibility and because tradition is critical of its very self. 

In addition, what tradition hands down to us stands the test of historical criticism.

Certainly, of the many things which have come down to us, only some can be proved by the methods used by historians. Nonetheless, this does not imply that those events which cannot be demonstrated by these methods did not take place, but that we can only offer information on their being probable to a greater or lesser extent.

And we cannot forget, on the other hand, that probability is not the determining factor. For, events which have a low probability have historically taken place, What is also undoubtedly true is that information in the gospel is reasonable and coherent with demonstrable facts. In any case, it is the tradition of the Church, in which these writings were born, which gives us the guarantee of reliability and which tells us how to interpret them.

Juan Chapa

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