Mary Magdalene by Luca Signorelli, 1504, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Prato, Italy
Mary Magdalene by Luca Signorelli, 1504, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Prato, Italy
Religious scholar and author Elaine Pagels, author of several books, including The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), has researched and written about early Christianity for three decades. Much of her work is based on the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (Coptic translations, dating to about 400 A.D., of Greek texts written in the first or second century), which were discovered in 1945 buried in a field in southern Egypt.

Some of Pagels’ findings, such as that Mary Magdalene was an important leader in the early Christian church, were popularized by author Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. Pagels talked with MWP by phone from her office at Princeton University.

MWP: Are there parallels between your work and The Da Vinci Code? EP: Indeed there are. The author mentioned my work as one of the historical accounts that influenced his work; it was one of the sources for his imagination to take off from.

MWP: How do you feel about that?

EP: I think that’s one of the ways that scholarly work begins to be known. He’s raising important questions about history, like if we didn’t know Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, what else don’t we know?

MWP: What do you think of his idea that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and they produced a family tree?

EP: It’s the flip side of the ancient claim that she was a prostitute. What I find even more interesting is that she doesn’t appear as a disciple of Jesus and an important leader—neither the ancient nor the contemporary image of her gives her this role…they give her exclusively sexual roles.

MWP: Why do you think that is?

EP: [She laughs.] I tend to suspect [it’s because] it’s men who are writing these fantasies. She’s either the lover-seductress, or the wife, but not the leader and disciple.

MWP: Is it now generally accepted that she was a leader in early Christianity?

EP: I would say no, because if you ask in traditional churches…well, the Pope of the Catholic Church says of course not, because the Lord didn’t have any women among his disciples. That’s of course the case if you use the gospels which were placed into the New Testament. That’s one reason that you wouldn’t want the Gospel of Mary in that collection is that it makes the opposite case. I mean, you and I might, but the people who put it together did not.

MWP: It makes the case that she was a leader, she was an important leader?

EP: Yes. And that she is qualified and chosen by Jesus to be a preacher. It has a completely different perspective.

MWP: Is that the only gospel that portrays her in that light?

EP: The text called Wisdom of Faith portrays her among the disciples asking questions, so does the Dialogue of the Savior; and the Gospel of Thomas suggests that she’s among the disciples but Peter doesn’t want her there and challenges her. So she appears in about five works that are known to us as among the disciples but challenged by Peter on the grounds that she’s a woman, and, as he says, not worthy of life.

MWP: Meaning not worthy of eternal life?

EP: Yes.

MWP: Would you say this is why she’s such a critical figure, because there’s this debate over her?

EP: Yes…there was a debate about Mary Magdalene that because she was known to have seen Jesus after the resurrection, which would ordinarily have made her qualified to be one of the major apostles—and we know that some people did see her that way—we suspect that it’s that that led people to say, ‘Oh no, she was a prostitute, she couldn’t have been a great disciple.’ Partly because an unmarried woman traveling around with men in first century Judea would have been suspect anyway. It’s an easy inference to say, ‘Well, she must have been a prostitute,’ and if so, that would discredit her personally.

MWP: I read somewhere that the prostitute thing started with a pope in the sixth century.

EP: Yes. The stories get conflated so that the story of the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair is interpreted to be Mary Magdalene when of course the story doesn’t say that at all. That’s church tradition, begun in the sixth century.

MWP: And then, in the 1960s, didn’t the Vatican officially announce that she was not a prostitute?

EP: Yes, because it was recognized by people working on the text, particularly Raymond Brown, that there’s no grounds for that, historically. And some churches, like the Russian Orthodox Church, have taken her always to be a saint.

But what [this debate] shows is that these issues about women are not invented by feminists in the 20th century; they’re issues that have been engaging Christians from the very beginning of the movement.

MWP: It’s interesting to see it that way, as thousands of years old.

EP: Yeah, isn’t it?

MWP: The other thing I wanted to ask about was the feminine divine, which you also talk about a little bit in The Gnostic Gospels.

EP: Well, these texts suggest…if the Christian groups could diverge from Jewish teachings on the most essential issue, which is that the Lord your God is one God, to talk about God in three persons, how is it that two are masculine and one is neuter? If you’re going to use anthropomorphic language and talk about God as Father and Son, I mean who would you expect to find with the father and the son? The mother.

And of course that appears in many of these texts because the authors are thinking of the Holy Spirit, and in gendered languages like Hebrew and Syriac, in which the term spirit would be feminine. When you translate it into Greek, as the New Testament is written, then the [term] “spirit” becomes neuter and not feminine, and so people don’t note the connotation of a feminine power, as you would if you’re reading Syriac or Hebrew.

In the Secret Book of John, which is discovered with these other texts, God is said to be Father, Mother and Son. Meaning the Heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus.

MWP: Which makes more sense.

EP: Well, it does. As an image. But that language gets eradicated at the time when women’s authority is eradicated from Christian groups, in the late second century.

MWP: And you would say that’s because of the political atmosphere of the time?

EP: Yes, and the accommodation of Christian groups to the political structures of the Roman Empire.

MWP: Can you explain that a little bit?

EP: Well, the power of the father is not challenged. In law, women stand under what’s called the power of the father, and the children too, the slaves, everybody, so there’s no question who’s in charge in a Roman household. And this movement and its adherents conformed to that. As [Christianity] became more widespread, it adopted structures that would not offend its constituents, the people who were joining.

MWP: You mentioned in your books this really had to happen, that the Christian faith only survived because they adopted this one path, and the Gnostic gospels were axed, and this sort of thing, where they adopt the structures of the Roman empire, because they kind of had to do that to survive.

EP: Well, of course that’s a guess. You don’t know what would’ve happened had they not. That’s my assessment of it. I think that it would’ve been harder to keep the movement together.

MWP: With that perspective, how would you look at what’s going on today, with the fundamentalist movement here in the U.S.? When you look at that in a historical sense, and looking at in a political context, what do you see happening?

EP: That’s interesting. Traditional religious groups, whether they’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish, often start with the suppression of women. It seems to be very important. I don’t really know how to answer that. That’s a really good question but that’s more a question for you to ask yourself.

MWP: You’ve talked about how important the Christian faith is for you. On a personal level, how do you sort that out? Like, this is something important to me, this is what I believe, but there are people also calling themselves Christians that have these beliefs that vary wildly from what I believe?

EP: The Christian movement has always been diverse. That it was diverse in the beginning is very clear. It’s still diverse. I think that what that says is that if you’re going to participate in it at all, you make choices about what you participate in. What kind of groups, what kind of understanding. You have a wide range of choices. I do make choices about those things, quite consciously, and I think that most people are aware that they’re making choices about that.