The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism

Unlike many deities of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel shared his power with no female divinity, nor was he the divine husband or lover of any.1 He can scarcely be characterized in any but masculine epithets: king, lord, master, judge, and father.2 Indeed, the absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast to the world’s other religious traditions, whether in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, or in Africa, India, and North America, which abound in feminine symbolism. Modern Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologians deny that God should be characterized sexually.3 Yet the language they use daily in worship and prayer conveys a different message: who, growing up within Jewish or Christian tradition, has escaped the distinct impression that God is masculine? And while Catholics revere Mary as the mother of Jesus, they never identify her as divine in her own right: she is “mother of God,” but not “God the Mother” comparable with God the Father.

Christianity, of course, added the idea of the trinity to the Jewish description of God. Yet of the three divine “Persons,” two—the Father and the Son—are described as masculine, and the third—the Spirit—suggests the sexlessness of the Greek neuter term for spirit, pneuma. Studying the early history of Christianity (the field called “patristics,” that is, study of “the fathers of the church”) one is not surprised to come across passages like the one that concludes the recently discovered secret Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “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 will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” [51.19-26]4

Strange as it may seem, this passage simply states what more familiar Christian doctrine often assumes: that the men form the legitimate body of the community, while women are allowed to participate only through association with the Christian “brotherhood.”

Further exploration of the archaeological find that included the Gospel of Thomas—the discovery, in 1945, of some fifty-two ancient papyrus texts, hidden nearly 1,600 years ago on a cliff near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt—has identified many of the texts as Christian works which were attacked and condemned as “heretical” perhaps as early as AD 150. These gospels, revelations, and other writings are unique in many ways. But one of the most striking differences between these so-called “heretical” sources and orthodox ones is that gnostic sources characteristically describe God with sexual imagery—often feminine imagery. One might expect that these texts would show the influence of archaic pagan traditions of the Mother Goddess, but for the most part their language is specifically Christian, and unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Yet instead of describing the monistic and masculine God familiar from orthodox tradition, many of these texts speak of God…

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