Over the weekend I watched an interesting documentary from BBC Four called Gnosis: The Lost Gospels. I’m sure that some of you are familiar with the apocryphal New Testament books that are often referred to as “Gnostic.” Many of these papyri were discovered with the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in 1945. While exploring a variety of these pieces, I was particularly intrigued by one assertion. Some people believe that there might have been tension between Peter and Mary Magdalene. In fact, one argument was that Mary should have actually been the first “pope” or highest apostolic officer in the Church.
To most Christians, this idea is complete fiction. However, I began to ponder the possibilities of this potential feud between these two early church leaders. If this feud existed and Mary had prevailed, would the Church be different today? To begin, I want to point out a few ideas that we know from Scripture:
1. Peter had a conflict with Paul on at least one occasion. In the letter to the church in Galatia, Paul references his rebuke to Peter about not living consistently with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). While we do not know the intensity of Peter and Paul’s conflict, we understand that there was some sort of disagreement between the two. This is simply to say that Peter could have easily had a conflict with other early church leaders.
2. Peter was a great leader in the church, but prior to Jesus’ death Peter denied Jesus three times. I am not trying to point out all of Peter’s flaws, but I am attempting to show the difference between Peter and Mary’s commitment to following Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, was the first apostle to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ (John 20:18). In Luke’s Gospel, Mary and a few other women told the apostles about the resurrection and the apostles initially thought that the women were telling a tale (Luke 24:11). In Peter’s defense, he did run quickly to the tomb after hearing this news.
3. Mary is mentioned rarely in the earlier parts of the Gospels. She is mentioned briefly by Luke as one of the women who was financially supporting the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). However, during the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magdalene plays a much more significant role in the Gospels. In three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) Jesus actually first reveals himself as the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene. Some people believe there is great significance in this, while others see it as less significant.
Keeping those ideas in mind, we turn to two different gnostic texts to understand this possible feud. (Disclaimer: I am not endorsing these texts as Scripture, fact, or truth. Rather, I am simply exploring these ideas to help understand the entire context.)
At the conclusion of the Thomas’ Gospel of sayings, we find a very troubling statement where Jesus responds to Peter’s statement by indicating that Mary must be transformed into a man in order to receive life. Peter’s statement to Jesus was:
Let Mary leave us, for women do not deserve life… – Gospel of Thomas 114:1 (H. Taussig, p. 23*)
After Jesus had ascended, his followers were very sad, but Mary gave them insight and clarification on some of Jesus’ words, based on special knowledge she claimed to have had. She responds to what appears as to be an interrogative question from Peter. Then after her conclusion, Peter said:
‘Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and all listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’ Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘My brother, Peter, what are your thinking? Do you think I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’ Levi responded and said to Peter, ‘Peter, you have always been an angry person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her? Surely the Savior’s knowledge of her is trustworthy. That is why he loved her more than us.’ – Gospel of Mary 10:3-10 (H. Taussig, pp. 225-226*)
Interestingly, these scenarios seem to indicate a very harsh and exclusive picture of Peter. In both accounts, we find Peter in opposition to Mary Magdalene. I am going to strongly indicate that I do not believe the Gospels of Thomas or Mary to be actual Scripture. However, it is important to keep in mind that there were some early Christians who would have read these books like Scripture. Although the content is not certifiable, the stories are interesting and certainly do make us ponder the idea of a feud between Mary and Peter. It is worthwhile also wondering about how the Church might be different today had Mary not been so strongly opposed by Peter (assuming that there was a feud.) Would women be recognized as bishops, elders, and deacons in the early catholic church? Could Mary Magdalene been viewed as the Pope?
With all of this said, we come back to the primary question – did Peter and Mary Magdalene have a feud? In this limited amount of research, I would say that we do not have enough information available to make this assumption. Based primarily on the Scriptural canon, we have nearly no evidence to address this topic. With the less-than-ideal reliability of the gnostic texts, we do not have much more evidence to really assert this claim. In conclusion, “Peter vs. Mary Magdalene” may have been a great story, but that’s all that it may have ever been – just a story.
* Gnostic citations were taken from A New New Testament, 2013, ed. Hal Taussig.