Home > Christianity, Early Christianity, History, Study of the New Testament, Women in Christianity > Which Mary? : the Marys of early Christian tradition

Which Mary? : the Marys of early Christian tradition

  • Editor:  F. Stanley Jones
  • Series:  Symposium series (Society of Biblical Literature), no. 19
  • ISBN 10:  1589830431
  • ISBN 13:  9781589830431
  • Published:  2002
  • Pages:  156
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF
  • Price: $ 85.00

This book, edited by F. Stanley Jones, brings together cutting-edge contributions on early Christian Marys, offering a variety of perspectives by leading scholars, suggesting answers for known questions, and attempting to reframe the discussion through new questions. The studies evaluate the recent insight that the somewhat revolutionary Mary in ancient Christian writings who has often been assumed to be Mary Magdalene is sometimes specified to be Mary the mother of Jesus. The book analyzes the cross-fertilization of traditions that has apparently occurred and also probes into the earliest preserved traditions on the Marys, both canonical and non-canonical, as preserved in Western and Oriental languages.

Review bout this book

Esther A. de Boer

Theological University of Kampen


This volume of the Symposium series is based on the session on Early Christian Marys, sponsored by the Christian Apocrypha Section at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2000. The first five articles are about the intriguing question whether the nonidentified Mary who appears in several early Christian texts should be identified as Mary Magdalene or as a conflated Mary, a generic, universal Mary and not a specific historical personage. This is not only an interesting question for scholars. As is stated on the cover: “at stake, in part, is the larger question of female leadership in early Christianity, which has ramifications for current-day debates over the ordination with women.” This applies especially to the first five articles, since the last two contributions focus on the miraculous birth of Jesus in the apocryphal Mary of Nazareth traditions.

The first two articles give a broad introduction to the general politics of identification, whereas the next three each examine a specific writing. Stephen J. Shoemaker argues against the common consensus in modern scholarship that the Mary in “Gnostic” writings must be identified as Mary Magdalene. In his view, although the “historical gnostic” Mary could have been the Magdalene, later Christians would have had a composite figure in mind who combined aspects of both the mother of Jesus and the Magdalene into her identity. Shoemaker especially refers to the Mary of the apocryphal Mary of Nazareth traditions in which it is not Mary Magdalene but Mary the mother of Jesus who communicates hidden mysteries about the cosmos. He argues that when hidden mysteries are concerned, an unidentified Mary need not be identified as Mary Magdalene, as most scholars do, but could be identified as Mary the mother of Jesus as well.

Antti Marjanen gives a critical response to Shoemaker’s arguments and defends the consensus of modern scholarship that the “Gnostic” Mary is Mary Magdalene. He carefully examines Shoemaker’s thoughts on the spelling of Mary’s name (Maria, Mariam, Mariamne), on the apocryphal Mary of Nazareth traditions, and on the identity of the unidentified Mary in Pistis Sophia. Marjanen also briefly considers the unidentified Mary in all so-called “Gnostic” Mary texts. In contrast to Shoemaker, Marjanen suggests that the later apocryphal Mary of Nazareth traditions, especially the Dormition texts in which Mary the mother of Jesus communicates hidden mysteries to the apostles, could have used earlier Mary Magdalene traditions.

Although Marjanen’s article is informative, one gets the impression that Shoemaker would not be convinced by his arguments. Marjanen and other scholars point to the Gospel of Philip and Pistis Sophia to argue that an important characteristic of the image of Mary Magdalene seems to be that she is in conflict with the male disciples, as is the unidentified Mary in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. However, according to Shoemaker the so-called Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip is already an composite figure, and in Pistis Sophia the Mary in conflict with the male disciples is the mother of Jesus.

In her clear and thorough article, Ann Graham Brock specifically goes into the identification of the unidentified Mary in Pistis Sophia. Her argument is very important. If the Mary in conflict with the male disciples in Pistis Sophia is Mary Magdalene, one could argue that the parallel portrait of the unidentified Marys in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas and the perhaps composite figure of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip all point to Mary Magdalene as well. Brock admits that she had some initial frustration with Pistis Sophia for not making the identity of the unspecified Mary clearer, but her detailed study convinces the reader that the text offers numerous identifying phrases, leading to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene, not Mary the mother of Jesus, as Shoemaker argues, is the primary figure of Pistis Sophia and thus the one who is in conflict with Peter.

In the next article, on the unidentified Mary in the Gospel of Mary, Karen L. King also points to the theme of conflict to identify Mary as Mary Magdalene, but, in addition, she examines the other roles of Mary in the Gospel of Mary, namely, as a visionary and leading female disciple. King concludes that only the traditions of Mary Magdalene (“as a woman, as an exemplary disciple, a witness to the ministry of Jesus, a visionary of the glorified Jesus, and someone traditionally in contest with Peter”) made her the one who could play all Mary’s roles in the Gospel of Mary. Mary Magdalene could perfectly legitimize the Gospel of Mary’s starting point that merely hearing or seeing Jesus, before or after the resurrection, was not enough to ensure that the gospel was preached in truth. And only Mary Magdalene could be used for the Gospel of Mary’s argument for a leadership based on spiritual maturity, not solely on apostolic transmission and never on sex-gender distinctions.

In the fifth article Francois Bovon’s argument, like King’s, is one of characterization too. After having argued that the same Mary may have been known by each of the three forms of the name of Mary, he examines the Mariamne who appears in the Acts of Philip. He identifies her as Mary Magdalene, since she has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus but, instead, with his resurrection and ministry. However, he also observes that titles, metaphors, and functions, which in patristic texts are associated with Mary the mother of Jesus, appear in the Acts of Philip as characteristics of Mariamne. He notes that one of the newly edited texts of the Acts of Philip confirms the presence of women ministers in encratite communities. Bovon concludes that Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is not only a figure of the past but also a model and a justification for the present women’s ministry.

The last two articles of the volume relate to the first five in that they are about apocryphal Mary of Nazareth traditions, but not about the texts emphasizing Mary’s leadership position, to which both Shoemaker and Marjanen refer. Instead, Jonathan Knight examines the portrait of Mary the mother of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah, and George T. Zervos does the same with the Protevangelium of James. Neither are concerned with Marian leadership, but with Marian belief in early Christian history and theology, and especially in the belief of her Davidic root, her virginity before and after the birth of Jesus, the miraculous short duration of her pregnancy, and the absence of a midwife and of any pain during the birth. Knight argues that these elements in the Ascension of Isaiah are meant to point to the divinity of Jesus. In his article, Zervos maintains that there was a first-century source, which he calls the Genesis Marias, that was the primary source document of the Mariology of the ancient Christian world and that is discernible in the Protevangelium of James.

Rather than these two articles about the miraculous birth of Jesus, I would have preferred studies of texts about the mother of Jesus teaching the apostles or meeting her risen son: the texts that Shoemaker uses for his identification of the unspecified Mary as Mary the mother of Jesus instead of Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, the volume contains enough detailed arguments for the identification of the “Gnostic” Mary to be important for all those interested in Mary Magdalene and leadership in early Christian sources.

Citation: Esther de boer, review of F. Stanley Jones, ed., Which Mary?: The Marys of Early Christian Tradition, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2003).

 Stephen Felder

University of California, Irvine

Irvine CA 92697

As F. Stanley Jones points out in his introduction to these essays, this volume points to two important trends in the study of early Christianity: the growing awareness of the importance of extracanonical writings and the importance of “Mary” in this early period. Jones has edited this collection of essays that were originally presented to a session on early Christian Marys sponsored by the Christian Apocrypha Section at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. These essays can be divided into two groups. The first group deals with the “unspecified” references to Mary in the so-called gnostic literature of the second and third centuries. While the tendency has been to identify the unspecified Marys with Mary Magdalene, Stephen Shoemaker has challenged this view, suggesting that many of these references may be to Mary Nazareth (i.e., the mother of Jesus). The second group of essays consists of two articles discussing the trajectory of the traditions about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the early church.

Though most scholars have tended to identify the “gnostic Mary” with Mary Magdalene, Shoemaker has challenged this consensus, wondering if many of these (unspecified) texts might refer to Mary Nazareth or perhaps to a composite figure that includes many features associated with Mary Nazareth. First, he argues that the tendency to associate Mary Nazareth with the spelling maria and Mary Magdalene with the spelling mariham(mē) in Coptic texts may be misguided, since in some Greek texts both spellings can refer to Mary Nazareth. Also, though some scholars have argued that Mary Magdalene’s importance as a disciple make her a likely candidate for that role in the gnostic texts, Shoemaker points out that Mary Nazareth had a very important place in early Christianity as well. Finally, while the Gospels tend to depict Mary Magdalene as an apostola apostolorum, there is evidence (e.g., in some version of the Diatessoron) that Mary Nazareth may have been seen that way as well.

However, several essays in this volume address Shoemaker’s objections. Antii Marjanen, who has in the past most clearly articulated the view Shoemaker opposes, argues against Shoemaker’s argument point by point. Most important, he argues that the evidence from the second and third centuries (as opposed to the Dormition texts) seems consistent: most of the “unspecified Marys” refer to Mary Magdalene.

Ann Brock focuses her reply on the evidence in the Pistis Sophia. She acknowledges that this text contains many unspecified references to Mary (i.e., without “Magdalene” or “Mother” attached) and the juxtaposition of these references can sometimes be confusing. Still, she favors reading most of these as references to Mary Magdalene. The fact that Christ says “Excellent, well done” to Mary (the Mother) means nothing because this is a fairly standard comment he makes to almost all the disciples. The fact that Mary Magdalene is sometimes referred to as “the other Mary” is a literary device, not a sign of her secondary status. In fact, when Mary Magdalene is referred to specifically in Pistis  Sophia 1-3 she is called “superior” and the “pure spiritual one.” Finally, attempts to link Mary Nazareth with the superior Mary in Pistis Sophia because Luke 1:42 refers to her as the “Blessed One” are less convincing when one considers that Luke 11:27-28 seems to reverse the importance of Mary’s role as mother in favor of any disciple who hears and follows Jesus’ teaching.

Karen King’s response focuses on the role of Mary in the Gospel of Mary, in which she is as much a type of the “faithful woman” as she is a real individual. In the Gospel of Mary she functions as an example of the faithful, spiritual disciple in the conflict between Mary and Levi on one side, and Peter and Andrew on the other. King suggests this conflict cannot be reduced to a matter of simple contests of visions versus succession, Gnostic “versus orthodox, or the Twelve versus ‘All Comers” but instead represents a real concern over which (and whose) teaching can be trusted. Peter’s failure to recognize Mary as a mature, spiritual disciple points to the problem of assuming that having heard the teaching of Jesus (without understanding it) is enough. Mary’s spiritual comprehension and maturity point to a better model.

François Bovon’s article works with the Acts  of  Philip.  He begins with a very helpful historical and linguistic survey of the name “Mary.” Miriam, the Hebrew name, is rendered Maria/m by Philo and the LXX, but Josephus calls her, Maria/mmh. This could be because Greek words ending in consonants other than n, r, or j sounded barbaric to Greeks, so this might explain a preference for Mari/a and Maria/mmh in some of the Greek texts (cf. Shoemaker). He then focuses on the role of Mariamne in the Acts of  Philip,  noting that she was important in healing, baptizing (women), suffering with Philip, and providing strength and support for Philip when he encountered opposition. In these capacities she served as a model for and justification of a certain kind of female ministry.

Concerned readers will want to weigh Shoemaker’s arguments for themselves, and this volume provides an excellent place to begin that study. Though most of the essays in this volume contradict Shoemaker’s thesis, the value of his challenge is obvious. He has forced scholars to defend their decisions to equate “unspecified Marys” with Mary Magdalene and, more importantly, to consider the significance of such an equation. This point is particularly well made by King and Bovon’s articles, which attempt to clarify the function of Mary (Magdalene) in early Christian thinking.

The last two essays are less concerned with identifying which Mary is in question than they are in plotting the trajectory of early Christian ideas about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Jonathan Knight’s essay is concerned with the relationship between the (Christian) kerygmatic summaries in the Ascension of Isaiah and corresponding material in Matthew  and the Protevangelium  of  James.  He believes that the Ascension of Isaiah, composed toward the end of the first or beginning of the second century, represents a development of ideas about Mary influenced by christological concerns. Among these developments are the supernatural features of a short pregnancy, a spontaneous, unassisted birth, and a virginitas in partu.

George Zervos suggests a different course of development, placing the Protevangelium of  James much earlier in the process. He laments the fact that the Protevangelium of James  has not received the same level of scholarly attention as the Ascension  of  Isaiah and believes that such attention would demonstrate an earlier date for much of the material. He argues that a source for the Mary sections of the Protevangelium of James, the “Genesis  Marias,” also underlies Ascen. Isa.  11.2-16 and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.

Readers of Raymond E. Brown et al., eds., Mary  in  the  New  Testament  (Philadelphia: Fortress; New York: Paulist, 1978), will find this slim volume to be a useful “next step” in their attempts to understand the role of Mary(s) in early Christianity. Furthermore, as Knight and Zervos illustrate, attempts to construct a New Testament Christology can no longer be undertaken without extracanonical texts, including the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha.

Citation: Esther de boer, review of F. Stanley Jones, ed., Which Mary?: The Marys of Early Christian Tradition, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2003).

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