Subtitle: The First Apostle, Her Feminist Gospel, & the Christianity We Haven’t Tried Yet
Author: Meggan Watterson
The author, Meggan Watterson, is a feminist theologian with a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University. She has authored or co-authored several other books, so she knows how to research and interpret historical documents of theological import.
This is a remarkable and thought-provoking book—some will say controversial or even heretical—about the Gospel of Mary, attributed to Mary of Magdala, who traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to his crucifixion and its aftermath. All four gospels identify her (either alone or as a member of a larger group of women which includes Jesus’s mother) as the first to witness the empty tomb, and the first to witness Jesus’s resurrection.
In the fourth centurym Mary’s teachings were ordered to be destroyed by powerful men in the early church who wanted to control believers’ access to God and salvation. In 591, Mary Magdalene’s reputation was further ruined when Pope Gregory I conflated her identity as Mary of Bethany and the “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’s feet (In the Gospel of Luke), cementing the idea that she was a repentant prostitute. Even the disciple Peter, as recorded in the Gospel of Mary, felt threatened by Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Christ. He doubted that Christ would have taught her anything he didn’t teach his other disciples. Though the church issued a reversal of her standing, her disrepute lingers today.
Thankfully, some copies of the Gospel of Mary were illegally hidden by a group of ancient Egyptican Christians called Copts. Many fragments are still missing, but the existing fragments—as well as references to it in other ancient manuscripts—have been turning up since 1896 and well into the 20th century.
This is the only gospel (to date) written in the name of a woman. It is among the ancient writings—and several others are mentioned—that restores Mary Magdalene to her rightful place as a spiritual teacher and disciple in the early church. It is a radical message of love—love that belongs to each of us and is inside each of us. She teaches that we are not sinful and should not feel unworthy or ashamed of being human. We are, in fact, both human and divine, and our spiritual goal on our journey on this earth is to recognize and integrate these parts of ourselves. She teaches us to access this love within us through meditation. In so doing, we can tap into a love that connects everyone and everything in a transformative love.
I have two primary quibbles with this book. In the author’s attempt to reveal her own humanity, she crosses (in my opinion) the “too much information” line in sharing her private life and issues. It wasn’t all needed to make her points. The second error, I believe, is one made by many other ardent feminists who, through well-intentioned efforts to right centuries of gender inequities, lean so far in the other direction that it can be off-putting.
But overall, the teaching she finds and interprets from this ancient manuscript is thrilling and liberating…surprisingly contemporary with today’s fight for justice on so many fronts. Here are a few excerpts:
“There is no hierarchy in the spiritual world.”
“We’re all connected…we unify ourselves with love.”
“So being human is a privilege and a purpose itself. To be the bridge bewteen the created world and creating world. To be the voice of love for the voiceless.”
Mary’s gospel suggests that Christ wanted us to focus on becoming like him, not worshipping him. The author believes that through the centuries, the love preached by Christ, and continued to be taught by Mary, has been obscured by fear: fear of judgment, fear of abandonment, fear of being left out, fear of not being saved. Mary’s gospel and other more recently discovered sacred texts focus on the internal transformation that Christ went through and we can all go through. The Gospel of Mary, Watterson maintains, espouses a doctrine of wisdom (sophiology) rather than salvation (soteriology).
Whatever your take on the author’s interpretations, the book reflects fascinating thought and scholarship. I found it both enriching and inspiring.
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