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This supplemental article deals more directly with the question of women and female imagery in the Gnostic writings and teachings from the early centuries A.D. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of this subject (cf. the discussion in Part 9, and also my article on Gnosticism), I felt it worth devoting a separate short article to explore it further. While it is not possible to say whether, or to what extent, women had greater freedom of participation among the supposed Gnostic groups (described by Irenaeus, et al), when reading the actual writings which survive—primarily in the collection of texts from Nag Hammadi [NH]—one is struck by certain language and imagery that is often quite different from what we find in the New Testament and early Church Fathers, and which makes significant use of female symbolism. I would isolate four main aspects or components to Gnostic thought in this regard, which may also be grouped together in related pairs:

  • (1) Inclusion of female disciples alongside the male
    (2) The goal for the disciple to “transcend” the duality/multiplicity of the created order (male-female), reuniting that which has been separated
  • (1) The process of creation/fall, described in the mythological (and sexual) language of birth/generation/propagation, involving the interaction of male and female powers
    (2) Birth and sexual imagery is also applied to the believer (gnostic), at the intellectual and spiritual level, who ultimately seeks to transcend these powers and return to the Eternal Father

I begin the discussion with reference to the the role of female disciples of Jesus in the Gnostic traditions, and two in particular—Mary Magdalene and Salome.

We know from Mark 15:40-41 par and Luke 8:1-3 that a number of women followed along with Jesus and the other disciples; they served and ministered in their own way, though there is no indication that they were ever sent out to preach and work miracles (Mark 6:6b-13 par; Luke 10:1-12). Some of these women made the last journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and were standing by watching at his death; Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned prominently among them in Mark 15:40 par. All four Gospels attest to the core tradition that women were the first to see the empty tomb, hear the Angelic announcement of the resurrection, and see/meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11, 22-24; John 20:1-2, 11-18). Though the names and combinations of women differ slightly, Mary Magdalene appears in all the accounts; this is rather remarkable (and absolutely reliable), considering the fact that she otherwise scarcely appears at all in Gospel tradition, nor in the New Testament (apart from Luke 8:2-3). She does, however, play a larger role in Gnostic traditions; her position, along with Salome, is due to several factors:

  • She experienced the reality of the resurrection before any other (male) disciples
  • According to Gospel tradition, the men were unwilling to accept her witness (i.e., revelation through the women)
  • She received direct communication (revelation) from Jesus which other disciples were (or may not have been) privy to
  • Her intimate relationship to Jesus, suggested by John 20:11-18 (and/or underlying traditions)

In several Gnostic texts, Mary (and/or Salome) is counted among the closest disciples of Jesus, to whom he gives special teaching and insight. There are three illustrative passages from the so-called Gospel of Thomas—a collection of more than 100 sayings by Jesus (many similar to those in the canonical Gospels), probably dating from the early 2nd century, preserved in Coptic (from Nag Hammadi, NH II.2) as well in several Greek fragments. Here are the passages, listed by logion (saying) number and NHL reference:

Log. §§21-22 [37]—Two partially related sayings are joined together. The first (21) begins with a question by Mary: “Whom are Your disciples like?” Jesus responds with an agricultural illustration similar to a number in the Synoptic Gospels: “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs…” (italics mine). There is a definite gnostic (and Gnostic) sense to this saying—the field is the fallen (material) world in which the disciple (the Soul) is trapped. There is danger and testing until the time of the harvest, which is probably to be understood in negative terms, as a warning—i.e., do not let yourselves be caught up in the way of the world, lest you be plucked away by those (powers) which belong to it. The second saying (22) is again similar to several in the Synoptics, in Jesus’ use of children to illustrate entrance into the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15 par; Matt 18:3-4). Jesus states that infants being suckled “are like those who enter the Kingdom”. When the disciples ask if they will, or should, enter the Kingdom as children, Jesus responds:

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female… then you will enter [the Kingdom].”

There are two main points to Jesus’ instruction here, which again has a very gnostic sound to it: (1) the need to transcend the dualistic character of the created order (which includes gender distinction and sexuality), and (2) the importance of interpreting the material, conventional aspects of the world in an intellectual and spiritual sense. A similar saying by Jesus is attested in at least two other early sources (early/mid-2nd century)—2 Clement 12 and the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians” (for more detail, cf. my note on Galatians 3:28).

Log. §61 [43]—A curious (and provocative) episode involving Salome is narrated here, a kind of mini-dialogue with Jesus, which seems to build upon an earlier (authentic?) saying:

(Saying): “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live” (cf. Matt 24:40-41 par)
Salome: “Who are You, man, that You {…} have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus: “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of My father.”
Salome: “I am Your disciple.”
(Saying): “Therefore I say, if he is <undivided>, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

The concluding saying, perhaps also inspired from Synoptic tradition (cf. Matt 6:22-23 par), is more decidedly Gnostic (cf. below), and probably is intended here as a kind of commentary or interpretation on the first saying. In between is the mini-scene with Salome, which might suggest the conversion of a sinful woman (a prostitute?), along the lines associated with Mary Magdalene in later tradition (blending Lk 7:36-50 and 8:2). However, in the immediate context, it more likely symbolizes Jesus’ rescue of the disciple from the divided material world, back to the undivided Eternal light.

Log. §114 [50]—This saying concludes the Gospel and well reflects the uniquely Gnostic use of women (and Mary Magdalene) in their traditions. It begins with a very ‘orthodox’ (in the worst sense) and sexist-sounding declaration by Simon Peter: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life”. To which Jesus responds:

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This gender-based language is strange (and repellent) from our standpoint today, and can be easily misunderstood. The statement really is another way of approaching the same issue addressed in §22 (cf. above)—that the disciple must transcend the fallen material condition of the world, which is bound by dualistic categories, including male-female (i.e. gender distinction and sexuality). Gnostics, like many other Christians of the 2nd century, espoused a strong ascetic ideal, which involved celibacy and the renunciation of sexuality, marriage and childbearing. All such gender-based distinctions are to be reinterpreted spiritually. For women, to become “like a man” is different terminology for bridging the same gulf, based on the male-dominated mindset of the period (cf. below).

To see how some of these themes play out in other Gnostic writings, I offer here a brief survey of three specific texts, followed by a concluding note.

The Dialogue of the Savior [NH III.5]

Mary (Mariam) is among the disciples (along with Matthew and Judas) who ask questions of Jesus [126, 131-2, 134-5, 137, 139, 140ff], and, at one point, is marked as having special insight—”(she) spoke this word as a woman who knew the All” [139.10]. However, it is important to realize that the three disciples in the dialogue, even more so than in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. above), essentially symbolize the Soul of the believer (gnostic), who is brought to saving knowledge of his/her true (spiritual and religious) identity by the Redeemer Jesus. Several passages are worth citing:

  • It is said that the disciple(s)—i.e. the divine Soul—will rule over the powers/archons of the world, transcending the material condition, described in evocative symbolic language: “when you remove envy from you, then you will clothe yourselves with the light and enter into the bridal chamber” [138.15ff]
  • This imagery of “clothing oneself” draws upon early Christian metaphor, especially connected with the ritual of Baptism (Gal 3:27; cf. also Rom 13:12-14; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2ff; Col 3:10ff; Eph 4:24). Similarly here—disciples (gnostics, the Soul) are to strip themselves of the earthly/material and “clothe themselves” with garments of light (i.e. reveal the divine light) [143.20]
  • The recognition of one’s true identity (the light) frees one from bondage to the fallen material world and eliminates the distinctions associated with it, often described in gender-specific terms (male-female)—”Pray in the place where there is no woman”, “Destroy the works of womanhood”, “The works of womanhood will dissolve” [144-146] (cf. above on Gosp. Thom. §114).
The (First) Apocalypse of James [NH V.3]

This text offers a relatively clear presentation of Gnostic symbolism, describing the return of the Soul to the pre-existent Father. “Femaleness” is specifically tied to the generation/propagation of the powers and the universe (the created world) [24.25]. Twelve hebdomads (sevens)—that is, the archons or powers—are parallel to the Twelve disciples. James is instructed on how to transcend the powers and return to Him (the Father). We also read of women (seven or four?) who have been Jesus’ disciples [38-41], especially Salome and Mary (Mariam)—on these two, cf. above. Here, again, the inclusion of women is necessary to symbolize the transcending of the material condition, marked by gender-distinction—i.e. the ascent of the Soul: “the perishable has gone up to the imperishable, and the female element has attained to this male element” [41.15].

The Gospel of Philip [NH II.3]

The Gospel of Philip is one of the best known texts from Nag Hammadi, often attributed to Valentinian Gnostics and dated to mid-3rd century. The work abounds with male-female and sexual imagery, which is interpreted and applied spiritually, according to Gnostic principles. The basic principle involves the resolution of duality back to the original unity [53.15ff]. Much use is made of the Genesis Creation account to illustrate this. The (apparent) multiplicity in creation is marked by names (Gen 2:19-20), which are necessary in order to teach the Truth. The envious Powers took the names and bound Man (to the worldly order of things). Jesus came to undo this, bringing saving knowledge out of this condition, as described pictorially in the episode of Jesus at the dye-works of Levi: the 72 colors come out all white by Jesus [63.25]. Or, stated another way, “The children of the bridal chamber have just one name” [72.20]. A distinctly Gnostic view of this process of salvation is detailed in 56-58: the Soul is a precious thing which came to be in a contemptible body [56.25]—the light/spirit in the flesh (invisible in the visible) was rescued by Christ and will ‘rise’. This essentially involves a docetic view of Christ [57-58]. For the purposes of our discussion here, the following images should be noted:

  • Believers are begotten spiritually, symbolized by the kiss [58-59]
  • Three women walked with Jesus, all named Mary—his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene (his companion/lover) [59.5-10]
  • The true Mother is Wisdom (Sophia) [59.25-30; 63.20]
  • Mary was Jesus’ companion, whom he loved [63-64], parallel to Mary the mother (Wisdom)—Jesus’ relationship with Mary symbolizes the wisdom/understanding which the other disciples still lack

Especially significant is the nuptial imagery—marriage and the “bridal chamber”—used prominently in the second half of the text. For believers (gnostics), it is all to be realized spiritually, connected with the symbolism of the baptism rite and chrism (anointing)—light/fire (soul/spirit) come into being in the water [67]. This bridal chamber belongs to the “free men and virgins”. The ritual (baptism/bridal-chamber) symbolizes the spiritual (re)union of that which was divided (just as Eve was separated from Adam). The Divine joined with the man Jesus to effect this reunion [68-71]. True marriage (and sexual intercourse) is not fleshly—but “husband and wife” symbolize Spirit uniting with Spirit [82]. The bridal chamber remains hidden in the current order of creation [84.15-20]. “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light” [86.5].


Whatever oddities and/or errors one may find in these Gnostic writings, there is a certain appeal (for many modern readers at least) in their extensive use of female types and symbols. The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene, in particular, has caught the fancy of the popular imagination, and well demonstrates, I think, how little the ancient Gnostic way of thinking relates to the modern. I believe the examples cited above show clearly enough two main points: (1) how and why characters such as Mary and Salome functioned, as disciples receiving special insight (revelation) from Jesus, and (2) that the inclusion of female disciples was essential to Gnostic symbolism and interpretation. It is not a matter of merely recording historical traditions about Mary and Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2; Jn 20:11-18); rather, any core traditions have undergone an elaborate (and often radical) re-interpretation. The outlines of this process can be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of the writing known as the Gospel of Mary (Coptic version in the Berlin Gnostic codex, along with another Greek fragment), dated perhaps as early as the latter part of the 2nd century. A Gnostic revelation regarding salvation, i.e. of the Soul from the powers of the world, is couched in the context of Mary’s post-resurrection announcement to the disciples (Peter, Levi, etc)—cf. Lk 24:10ff; [Mark 16:10f]; John 20:18. As in the Synoptic narrative, many of the disciples are unwilling to accept Mary’s word (“I at least do not believe that the Savior said this… Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge… Did he prefer her to us?”). Peter, at first wants to hear Mary (“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you… tell us the words… which you remember, which you know but we do not…”), but, upon listening to her, doubts that she brings genuine revelation. It is the disciple Levi who offers (the pro-Gnostic) support for Mary’s words:

“…I see you [i.e. Peter] contending against the woman like the adversaries (do). But if the Savior has made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel…”

How far did these Gnostic groups go in the inclusion of women as equals, such as the text itself suggests? This is difficult to say, as we have very little direct evidence on the matter, one way or the other. There is at least one Gnostic writing which was addressed to a female believer—Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, surviving only in fragments, preserved in book 33 of the Panarion by Epiphanius. It deals primarily with a specific (Gnostic) approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. What is particularly worth noting, however, is the nuanced, relatively sophisticated (and semi-critical) treatment of the material. Flora must have been an educated and religiously astute person, who, one may assume, wished to know more about such questions, from the “Gnostic” point of view. It is to be regretted that more such writings—whether Orthodox or Gnostic—from this period have not come down to us.

The quotations and short extracts of Gnostic writings, included above, are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson (Brill: 1978), translating from the Coptic:
“The Gospel of Thomas”, transl. by Thomas O. Lambdin, pp. 117-30
“The Gospel of Philip”, transl. by Wesley W. Isenberg, pp. 131-51
“The Dialogue of the Savior”, transl. by Harold W. Attridge, pp. 229-38
“The First Apocalypse of James”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 242-8
“The Gospel of Mary”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 471-4

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