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 as a dyad who is both masculine and feminine.

One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene. Members of this group prayed to both the divine Father and Mother: “From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven, humanity, of the mighty name….”5 Other gnostic authors asked to whom a single, masculine God proposed, “Let us make man (adam) in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Since the Genesis account goes on to say that humanity was created “male and female” (1:27), some concluded that the God in whose image we are made must also be both masculine and feminine—both Father and Mother.

Who wrote these texts and how do they characterize the divine Mother? About the gnostic writers themselves and the setting in which they lived we know little, although gnostic Christians were influential enough to be denounced at length. The texts we now have are far more diverse than was previously thought. We can see, for example, that several gnostic groups described the divine Mother as part of an original couple. Valentinus, the second-century gnostic teacher and poet, begins with the premise that God is essentially indescribable. But he suggests that the divine can be imagined as a dyad; consisting, in one part, of the Ineffable, the Depth, the Primal Father; and, in the other, of Grace, Silence, and Womb and “Mother of the All.”6 Valentinus reasons that Silence is the appropriate complement of the Father, and designates the Silence as feminine and the Father as masculine because of the grammatical gender of the Greek words. He goes on to describe how Silence receives, as in a womb, the seed of the Ineffable Source; from this she brings forth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious pairs of masculine and feminine energies.


Followers of Valentinus prayed to her for protection as the Mother, and as “the mystical, eternal Silence.”7 For example, Valentinus’ disciple Marcus, who was called a magician, invokes her as Grace (in Greek, the feminine term charis): “May She who is before all things, the incomprehensible and indescribable Grace, fill you within, and increase in you her own knowledge.”8 In his secret celebration of the mass, Marcus teaches that the wine symbolizes her blood. As the cup of wine is offered, he prays that “Grace may flow” into all who drink it. A prophet and visionary, Marcus calls himself the “womb and recipient of Silence”9—much as she is the recipient of the Father. His visions of the divine being appeared, he reports, in female form.

Another gnostic writing, called the Great Announcement, quoted by the orthodox writer Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies, explains the origin of the universe as follows: From the power of Silence appears “a great power, the Mind of the Universe, which manages all things, and is a male…the other…a great Intelligence…is a female which produces all things.”10 Following the gender of the Greek words for “mind” (nous—masculine) and “intelligence” (epinoia—feminine), this gnostic author explains that these powers, joined in union, “are discovered to be duality…. This is Mind in Intelligence, and these are separable from one another, and yet are one, found in a state of duality.” This means, the gnostic teacher explains, that

there is in everyone [divine power] existing in a latent condition…. This is one power divided above and below; generating itself, being mother of itself, father of itself, sister of itself, spouse of itself, daughter of itself, son of itself—mother, father, unity, being a source of the entire circle of existence.11

How did these gnostics intend their meaning to be understood? Some gnostic teachers insisted that God be considered as a “great male-female power.” Others claimed that since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female, the terms were meant only as metaphors. 12 A third group suggested that the primal Source could be described in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intended to stress. Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine should be understood as a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites—a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity.

A second group of gnostic writers describe the divine Mother as the Holy Spirit. The Apocryphon [Secret Book] of John, one of the codices found at Nag Hammadi, relates that in his “great grief” after the crucifixion John had a mystical vision of the Trinity:

the [heavens were opened and the whole] creation [which is] under heaven shone and [the world] trembled. [And I was afraid, and I] saw in the light…a likeness with multiple forms…and the likeness had three forms. [1.31-2.9]13

To John’s question the vision answers: “It said to me, ‘John, Jo[h]n, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid?…I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]: I am the Mother; I am the Son’ ” (2.9-14).

This gnostic description of God—as Father, Mother, and Son—startling as it may seem, can be recognized as another version of the Trinity. The Greek words for the Trinity, which include the neuter term for spirit (pneuma), virtually require that the third “Person” of the Trinity be asexual. But the author of the Apocryphon of John has in mind the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah, a feminine word; and so concludes that the feminine “Person” conjoined with the Father and Son must be the Mother. The Apocryphon of John goes on to describe the divine Mother:

She is…the image of the invisible, virginal, perfect spirit…. She became the Mother of everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater]….[4.34-5.7]

The secret Gospel to the Hebrews likewise has Jesus speak of “my Mother, the Spirit.”14 In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus contrasts his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, with his divine Father—the Father of Truth—and his divine Mother, the Holy Spirit. Interpreting one of Jesus’ more puzzling sayings from the New Testament, (“Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot be my disciple”), the author of the gospel adds that “my (earthly) mother [gave me death], but [my] true [Mother] gave me life.” So, according to the Gospel of Philip, another text found at Nag Hammadi, those who become Christian gain “both father and mother” (52.24), for the Spirit (ruah) is “Mother of many” (59.35-60.1).

While some gnostic sources suggest that the Spirit constitutes the maternal element of the Trinity, the Gospel of Philip makes an equally radical suggestion about the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth. Here again, the Spirit is both Mother and Virgin, the counterpart—and consort—of the Heavenly Father: “Is it permitted to utter a mystery? The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down” (71.3-5)—that is, with the Holy Spirit descending into the world. But because this process is to be understood symbolically, not literally, the Spirit remains a virgin. The author goes on to explain that as “Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth” so “Christ, therefore, was born from a virgin” (71.16-19)—that is, from the Spirit. But the author ridicules those literal-minded Christians who mistakenly refer the virgin birth to Mary, Jesus’ mother, as though she conceived apart from Joseph: “They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?” (55.25-26). Instead, he argues, virgin birth refers to that mysterious union of the two divine powers, the Father of All and the Holy Spirit.


Yet other gnostics suggest that the divine Mother can be characterized as Wisdom. Here the Greek feminine term for “wisdom,” sophia, translates a Hebrew feminine term, hokhmah. Early interpreters had pondered the meaning of certain Biblical passages—for example, the saying in Proverbs that “God made the world in Wisdom.” Could Wisdom be the feminine power in which God’s creation was “conceived”? According to one teacher, the double meaning of the term conception—physical and intellectual—suggests this possibility: “The image of thought [ennoia] is feminine, since…[it] is a power of conception.”15 The Apocalypse of Adam, discovered at Nag Hammadi, tells of a feminine power who wanted to conceive by herself:

From the nine Muses, one separated away. She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous. She fulfilled her desire, and became pregnant from her desire….[81.2-9]

In the work of the poet Valentinus the story becomes a parable about Wisdom: Desiring to conceive by herself, apart from her masculine counterpart, she succeeded, and became the “great creative power from whom all things originate,” often called Eve, “Mother of all living.” But since her desire violated the harmonious union of opposites that some gnostics believed was intrinsic in the nature of being, what she produced was aborted and defective;16 from this, says Valentinus, originated the terror and grief that mar human existence.17 To shape and manage her creation, this account goes, Wisdom brought forth the demiurge, the creator-God of Israel, as her agent.18

Personified Wisdom, then, appears in several different ways in gnostic sources. Besides being the “first universal creator”19 who brings forth all creatures, she also enlightens human beings and makes them wise. Followers of Valentinus and Marcus who prayed to the mother as the “mystical, eternal Silence” and as “Grace, She who is before all things,” also saw her as “incorruptible Wisdom,”20 the source of insight or gnosis. Other gnostics believed she conferred on Adam and Eve the benefits received in Paradise. She taught them self-awareness, guided them to find food, and assisted in the conception of their third and fourth children—according to this account, a son, Seth, and a daughter, Norea.21 She also saved Noah when the creator became angry with the human race:

…because they did not worship or honor him as Father and God, he sent forth a flood upon them, that he might destroy them all. But Wisdom opposed him…and Noah and his family were saved in the ark by means of the sprinkling of the light that proceeded from her, and through it the world was again filled with humankind.22

Another newly discovered text from Nag Hammadi, called Trimorphic Protennoia (literally, the “Triple-formed Primal Thought”), celebrates the feminine powers of Thought, Intelligence, and Foresight. The text opens with a divine figure who claims,

[I] am [Protennoia, the] Thought that [dwells] in [the Light]…, [She who exists] before the All…. I move in every creature…. I am the Invisible One within the All. [35.1-24]

She continues. “I am perception and knowledge, uttering a Voice by means of Thought. [I] am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within” (36.12-16). The second section, spoken by a second divine figure, opens with the words

I am the Voice…. [It is] I [who] speak within every creature…. Now I have come a second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them…. I have revealed myself in the Thought of the likeness of my masculinity. [42.4-26]

Later the voice explains:

I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and Father], since [I copulate] with myself…[and with those who love] me…. I am the womb [that gives shape] to the All…I am Me[iroth]ea, the glory of the Mother. [45.2-10]

Even more remarkable is the gnostic poem called Thunder, Perfect Mind. This text contains a revelation spoken by a feminine figure:

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore, and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am [the mother] and the daughter…. I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband…I am knowledge, and ignorance…I am shameless; I am ashamed. I am strength, and I am fear…I am foolish, and I am wise…I am godless, and I am one whose God is great. [13.16-16.25]

What does the use of such symbolism imply about the gnostics’ view of human nature? Their conception of the feminine and the androgynous evidently draws on a variety of sources, notably on Genesis and on the Platonic traditions that circulated among Hellenistic writers. Gnostic writers often refer to the first creation account in Genesis 1:26-27 (“Then God said, Let us make man [adam] in our image, after our likeness…in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”). A Greek version of this passage circulated during the early Talmudic period. It suggested to Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, who had been influenced by Plato’s myta of androgyny, that

when the Holy one…first created mankind, he created him with two faces, two sets of genitals, four arms and legs, back to back. Then he split Adam in two, and made two backs, one on each side.23

Some gnostics adopted a similar idea, teaching their followers that Genesis 1:26-27 narrates an androgynous creation. Marcus not only concludes from this account that God is dyadic (“Let us make humanity”) but also that “humanity, which was formed according to the image and likeness of God (Father and Mother) was masculo-feminine.”24 His contemporary, the gnostic Theodotus (c. 160), explains that the saying “according to the image of God he made them, male and female he made them,” means that “the male and female elements together constitute the finest production of the Mother, Wisdom.”25 Gnostic sources which describe God as a dyad often suggest that human nature is also androgynous.

Yet all of these sources—secret gospels, revelations, mystical teachings—were called heretical and were excluded from the New Testament collection compiled by orthodox Christians. By the time the heretical texts were sorted from the canonical ones—probably as late as the year 200—virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition.

What is the reason for this total rejection? Some gnostics suggested that the God of Israel, whom some called Ialdabaoth, had initiated the polemics which his followers carried out in his name. They argued that he was a derivative, merely instrumental power created by the Mother to administer the universe, although he had a far more grandiose conception of himself. He believed that he had made everything by himself, while, in reality, the argument ran, he had been able to create the world only because Wisdom, his Mother, had “infused him with energy” and influenced him with her own ideas. Followers of Valentinus suggested that the Mother herself had encouraged the God of Israel to think that he was acting autonomously, but, as they explain, “It was because he was foolish and ignorant of his Mother that he said, ‘I am God; there is none beside me.’ “26 According to another account, he so disappointed his Mother when he created inferior beings that she left him alone and withdrew into the upper regions of the heavens. “Since she had departed, he imagined that he was the only being in existence; and therefore he declared, ‘I am a jealous God, and besides me there is no one.’ “27 The Apocryphon of John also suggests that God’s motive was jealousy:

…he said “I am a jealous God, and there is no other God beside me.” But by announcing this he indicated to the angels…that another God does exist; for if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?… Then the Mother began to be distressed. [13.8-14]

Others declared that his Mother refused to tolerate such presumption:

[The creator], becoming arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those things that were below him, and exclaimed, “I am father, and God, and above me there is no one.” But his mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him, “Do not lie, Ialdabaoth.”28

Often, in these gnostic texts, the creator is castigated for his arrogance—nearly always by a superior feminine power. According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, discovered at Nag Hammadi, both Wisdom and her daughter, Life, objected when

he became arrogant, saying “It is I who am God, and there is no other apart from me”…[and] a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying, “You are wrong, Samael” [which means “God of the blind”]. And he said, “If any other thing exists before me, let it appear to me!” And immediately, Sophia [“Wisdom”] stretched forth her finger, and introduced light into matter, and she followed it down into the region of Chaos…and he again said to his offspring, “It is I who am the God of All.” And Life, the daughter of Wisdom, cried out; she said to him, “You are wrong, Saklas!” [94.21-95.8]

The second-century gnostic teacher Justinus describes the Lord’s terror and anxiety “when he discovered that he was not the God of the universe.” Gradually his shock gave way to wonder, and finally he came to welcome what Wisdom had taught him. Justinus concludes that this is the meaning of the saying, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”29

Yet all of these explanations for the suppression of the gnostic texts are derived from mythology. Can we find any historical reasons why the writings were suppressed? This raises a much larger question: by what means, and for what reasons, did certain ideas come to be classified as heretical, and others as orthodox, by the beginning of the third century? In part, at least, the answer lies in the practical and social implications of the gnostic Christians’ belief in a feminine element, or creative principle, which they associated with God—and with all humanity.

Bishop Irenaeus notes with dismay that women especially are attracted to heretical groups. “Even in our own district of the Rhone Valley,” he admits, the gnostic teacher Marcus had attracted “many foolish women”—including the wife of one of Irenaeus’ own deacons—from his congregation.30 He suggested that Marcus himself was a diabolically clever seducer, a magician who compounded special aphrodisiacs to “deceive, victimize, and defile” his prey. Whether Irenaeus’ accusations have any factual basis no one knows. But when he describes Marcus’ techniques of seduction, Irenaeus indicated that he is speaking metaphorically. For, he says, Marcus addresses women “in such seductive words” as in his prayers to Grace, “She who is before all things,”31 and to Wisdom and Silence, the feminine element of the divine being.

Second, he says, Marcus seduced women “by telling them to prophesy” 32—which they were strictly forbidden to do in the orthodox church. When he initiated a woman, Marcus concluded the initiation prayer with the words “Behold, Grace has come upon you; open your mouth, and prophesy.”33 Then, as the bishop indignantly describes it, Marcus’ “deluded victim…impudently utters some nonsense,” and “henceforth considers herself to be a prophet!” Worst of all, in Irenaeus’ view, Marcus invited women to act as priests in celebrating the eucharist with him: he “hands the cups to women”34 to offer up the eucharistic prayer, and to pronounce the words of consecration. Tertullian, a second-century spokesman for the orthodox church in North Africa, expresses similar outrage at the behavior of gnostic women:

These heretical women—how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize! 35

Tertullian directed another attack against someone he calls “that viper”36—a woman teacher who led a congregation in North Africa. He himself upheld what he called the “precepts of ecclesiastical discipline concerning women,” which specify:

It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function—not to mention any priestly office.37

Tertullian was particularly virulent in his criticism of the heretic Marcion, who had scandalized his orthodox contemporaries by appointing women as priests and bishops. The gnostic teacher Marcellina traveled to Rome to represent the group called Carpocratians,38 which claimed to have received secret teaching from Mary, Salome, and Martha. The Montanists, a radical prophetic circle who were not gnostics, honored two women, Prisca and Maximilla, as founders of their movement.

The evidence, then, clearly indicates a frequent correlation between religious theory and social practice. Among such gnostic groups as the Valentinians, women were considered equal to men; some were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops. In some cases, however, belief does not seem related to social order; at least three heretical circles that retained a masculine image of God included women who held positions of leadership—the Marcionites, the Montanists, and the Carpocratians. But among orthodox churches, from the year 200, we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, and episcopal roles.39

This exclusion of women was extraordinary in view of the remarkable openness toward women the Christian movement showed in its earliest years. Jesus himself violated Jewish convention by talking openly with women, and he included them among his companions. In the gospel of Luke in the New Testament, Martha, his hostess, complains to him that she is doing housework alone while her sister Mary sits listening to him: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her, then, to help me.” But instead of supporting her, Jesus chides Martha for taking upon herself so many anxieties, declaring that “One thing is needful; Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”40 Some ten to twenty years after Jesus’ death, orthodox women still acted as leaders of Christian groups, as prophets, teachers, and evangelists. Professor Wayne Meeks of Yale University suggests that the person presiding at early Christian initiations ritually announced that “in Christ…there is neither male nor female.”41 Paul quotes this saying, and praises the work of women he recognizes as deacons and fellow workers; he even greets one, apparently, as an outstanding apostle, senior to himself in the movement.42

Yet Paul also expresses ambivalence about the practical implications of human equality. Discussing the public activity of women in the churches, he argues from his own—traditionally Jewish—conception of a monistic, masculine God for a divinely ordained hierarchy of social subordination: as God has authority over Christ, he declares, citing Genesis 2-3, so man has authority over woman:

…a man is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; and neither was the man created for woman, but woman for the sake of man.)43

While Paul acknowledged women as his equals “in Christ,” and allowed for them a wider range of activity than did traditional Jewish congregations, he did not advocate their equality in society and politics. Such ambivalence opened the way for the statement found in I Corinthians, whether written by Paul or inserted by someone else, that “…the women should keep silence in the churches. For they…should be subordinate…it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

These contradictory attitudes toward women reflect the social changes taking place during the formation of early Christianity, as well as the diversity of cultural influences on the churches scattered throughout the known world.44 In Greece and Asia Minor, women participated with men in religious cults, especially the cults of the Great Mother and of the Egyptian goddess Isis.45 While the leading roles were reserved for men, women took part in the services and processions. Some women took up education, the arts, and professions such as medicine. By the first century AD, Egyptian women were relatively emancipated, socially, politically, and legally.

In Rome, since around 200 BC, the education of some children from the aristocracy had been virtually the same for girls as for boys. Two hundred years later, at the beginning of the Christian era, the archaic, patriarchal forms of Roman marriage were being replaced by a new legal form in which the man and woman voluntarily exchanged mutual vows. The French scholar Jerome Carcopino explains that by the second century AD, upper-class women often insisted upon “living their own life.” Male satirists complained of women’s aggressiveness in discussions of literature, mathematics, and philosophy, and ridiculed their enthusiasm for writing poems, plays, and music.46 Under the Empire,

women were everywhere involved in business, social life, such as theaters, sports events, concerts, parties, traveling—with or without their husbands. They took part in a whole range of athletics, even bore arms and went to battle…47

and began to take some part in professional life. In the Jewish communities, on the other hand, women were excluded from actively participating in public worship, education, and social and political life outside the family.48

Yet despite these new opportunities, and despite the previous public activity of Christian women, most Christian churches in the second century joined the majority of the middle class in opposing the move toward equality for women—a movement that found its support largely in rich or bohemian circles. By the year 200, most Christian communities endorsed the pseudo-Pauline letter to Timothy, which stresses, and exaggerates, the anti-feminist element in Paul’s views: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” 49 Also attributed to Paul and accepted into the orthodox canon were the letters to the Colossians and those to the Ephesians, which order that women “be subject in everything to their husbands.”50

Clement, Bishop of Rome (c. 90 AD), writes in his letter to the unruly church in Corinth that women are to “remain in the rule of subjection”51 to their husbands. While in earlier times Christian men and women sat together for worship, in the middle of the second century—precisely at the time of struggle with gnostic Christians—orthodox communities began to adopt the synagogue custom, segregating women from men.52 By the end of the second century, women’s participation in orthodox worship was explicitly condemned: groups in which women continued to act as leaders were branded as heretical.

What was the reason for these changes? The scholar Johannes Leipoldt suggests that the influx of many Hellenized Jews into the church may have increased the influence of Jewish traditions.53 Professor Morton Smith suggests that the changes may have come about as increasing numbers of Christians were recruited from the middle classes. He observes that in the lower classes, where all labor was needed, women had been allowed to perform any services they could (as today, in the Near East, only middle-class women are veiled).

Both orthodox and gnostic texts suggest that this question was explosively controversial. Antagonists on both sides produced polemical literature that allegedly derived from apostolic times, and was said to give the original apostles’ views. The Gospel of Philip tells of rivalry between the male disciples and Mary Magdalene, who is described as Jesus’ most intimate companion, the symbol of divine Wisdom:

…the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] by it…. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as much as [I love] her?” [63.32-64.5]

The Dialogue of the Savior found at Nag Hammadi not only includes Mary Magdalene as one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching but also praises her above the other two, Thomas and Matthew: “she spoke as a woman who knew the All” (139.12-13).

Other secret texts use the figure of Mary Magdalene to suggest that women’s activity challenged the leaders of the orthodox community, who regarded Peter as their spokesman. The Gospel of Mary relates that after the crucifixion, the disheartened and terrified disciples asked Mary to encourage them by telling them what the Lord had told her secretly. She agrees, and teaches them until Peter, who is infuriated, asks, “Did he really speak privately with a woman, [and] not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Distressed at his rage, Mary replies, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?” Levi breaks in at this point to mediate the dispute: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, indeed, to reject her? Surely the Lord knew her very well. That is why he loved her more than us” (17.18-18.15). Then the others agree to accept Mary’s teaching, and, encouraged by her words, go out to preach.

Another argument between Peter and Mary occurs in Pistis Sophia (“Wisdom of Faith”). Peter complains that Mary is dominating the conversation with Jesus and interfering with his more important words with Peter and his brother apostles. He urges Jesus to silence her and is quickly rebuked. Later, however, Mary admits to Jesus that she hardly dares speak to him freely because, in her words, “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race” (36.71). Jesus replies that whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.

Orthodox Christians retaliated with alleged “apostolic” letters and dialogues, including the pseudo-Pauline letters cited above, which claimed that the apostles did not favor equality for women. In I and II Timothy, Colossians, and Ephesians, “Paul” insists that women be subordinate to men. The letter of Titus, in Paul’s name, directs the selection of bishops in a way that entirely excludes women—for the bishop is to be a father figure to the congregation. He must be a man whose wife and children are “submissive [to him] in every way”; this proves his ability to keep God’s church, the “household of God,”54 in order, and its members properly subordinated.

Before the end of the second century, the Apostolic Church Order appeared in orthodox communities. Here the apostles are depicted discussing controversial questions. With Mary and Martha present, John says,

When the Master blessed the bread and the cup and signed them with the words, “This is my body and blood,” he did not offer it to the women who are with us. Martha said, “He did not offer it to Mary, because he saw her laugh.” Mary said, “I no longer laugh; he said to us before, as he taught, ‘Your weakness is redeemed through strength.’ ” 55

But Mary’s explanation is ignored; the male disciples agree that, because Jesus did not offer communion to women, no woman should be allowed to become a priest.

We can see, then, very different views of God and of women emerging in orthodox and gnostic circles. The gnostic Christians, who frequently describe God as androgynous, also encourage social equality between men and women—equality both in the church and in the community. Most often they refer to the account of creation in Genesis 1, which suggests an equal or androgynous human creation. The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine imagery, and typically refers to Genesis 2 to describe how Eve was created from Adam, and for his fulfillment. Like the gnostic view, this translates into social practice: by the late second century, the orthodox community came to accept the domination of men over women as the divinely ordained order, not only for social and family life but also for the Christian churches.

Yet gnostics were not unanimous in affirming the equality of women—nor were the orthodox unanimous in denigrating them. Certain gnostic texts speak of the feminine in contemptuous language. The Book of Thomas the Contender from Nag Hammadi addresses men with the warning, “Woe to you who love intimacy with woman-kind, and polluted intercourse with it!” (144.8-10). The Paraphrase of Shem, also from Nag Hammadi, describes the horror of Nature, who “turned her dark vagina and cast from her the power of fire, which was in her from the beginning, through the practice of darkness” (27.2-6). According to the Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus warns his disciples to “pray in the place where there is no woman,” and to “destroy the works of femaleness” (144.16-20).

Yet in each of these cases the target is not woman but the power of sexuality. In the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, Mary Magdalene, who is praised as “the woman who knows the All,” stands among the three disciples who receive Jesus’ commands: along with Judas and Matthew, she rejects the “works of femaleness,” that is, apparently, the activities of intercourse and procreation (139.12-13). Some gnostics clearly believed that only those who renounce sexual activity can achieve human equality and spiritual greatness.

In other gnostic sources the social position of men is assumed to be superior to that of women. Some gnostics, who reasoned that as man surpasses woman in ordinary existence, so the divine surpasses the human, used terms of gender as metaphor. The puzzling saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas—that Mary must become male in order to become a “living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (51.23-26)—may be taken symbolically: what is merely human (therefore female) must be transformed into what is divine (the “living spirit” the male). So, according to other passages in the Gospel of Thomas, Salome and Mary become Jesus’ disciples when they transcend their merely human nature, and so “become male” (37.20-35; 43.25-35). In the Gospel of Mary, Mary herself urges the other disciples to “praise his greatness, for he has prepared us, and made us into men” (9.20).

Conversely, we find a striking exception to the orthodox pattern in the writings of one revered father of the church, Clement of Alexandria. Clement, writing in Egypt c. 180, identifies himself as orthodox, although he knows members of gnostic groups and their writings well: some scholars even suggest that he was himself a gnostic initiate. Yet his own works demonstrate how all of the characteristically gnostic views of women could be worked into fully orthodox teaching.

First, Clement describes God with feminine as well as masculine imagery:

The Word is everything to the child, both father and mother, teacher and nurse…. The nutriment is the milk of the Father…and the Word alone supplies us children with the milk of love, and only those who suck at this breast are truly happy. For this reason, seeking is called sucking; to those infants who seek the Word, the Father’s loving breasts supply milk.”56

Second, in defining “humanity,” he insists that

….men and women share equally in perfection, and are to receive the same instruction and the same discipline. For the name “humanity” is common to both men and women; and for us “in Christ there is neither male nor female.”57

As he urges women to participate with men in the community, Clement offers a list—unique in orthodox tradition—of women whose achievements he admires. They range from ancient examples, like Judith, the assassin who destroyed Israel’s enemy, to Queen Esther, who rescued her people from genocide, as well as others who took radical political stands. He mentions Arignote the writer, Themisto the Epicurean philosopher, and many other women philosophers, including two who studied with Plato and one trained by Socrates. He concludes his list with famous women poets and painters.

Clement demonstrated that even orthodox Christians could affirm the feminine in God—and the active participation of women. But his view, formed in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Alexandria among wealthy and educated Egyptians, found few followers in the Christian communities scattered from Asia Minor to Greece, Rome, and provincial Africa and Gaul. Most Christians adopted instead the position of Clement’s severe, provincial contemporary, Tertullian:

It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function—least of all, in priestly office.58

That orthodox view, which ruled out Clement’s position, has continued to dominate most Christian churches: nearly 2,000 years later, in 1977, Pope Paul VI, Bishop of Rome, declared that a woman cannot be a priest “because our Lord was a man”—a position recently underscored by John Paul II. The Nag Hammadi sources, discovered at a time of contemporary social crises concerning sexual equality, challenge us to reinterpret history—and to reevaluate the present situation.

(This is the third of four articles.)

This Issue

November 22, 1979