The gospel according to Mary
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Hal Taussig, co-pastor of the Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia, chose one of his favorite bits of scripture to build his sermon upon. It’s called The Thanksgiving Prayer, and the portion of it that Taussig chose goes like this:
“O light of life we have known you/
O womb of all that grows we have known you/
O womb pregnant with the nature of the Father we have known you/
O never-ending endurance of the Father who gives birth, so we worship your goodness.”
If you are thinking that you’ve never come across such a prayer in the New Testament, you’re right, of course. The prayer was part of a treasure trove of early Christian documents, written in Coptic, discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. The Nag Hammadi find was, in turn, among the 75-plus early Christian documents that have been unearthed over the last century and a half. Collectively, these works were once known as The Gnostic Gospels, and they were viewed by many theologians as the work of early Christian heretics, as their interpretation of the life of Jesus was often quite different than the one recounted in the four gospels of the New Testament.
In addition to his responsibilities at the church in Philadelphia, however, Taussig is a professor of biblical literature at Union Theological Seminary in New York. One of his areas of expertise is those early Christian texts that are not part of the New Testament. Along with Karen King of Harvard Divinity School and others, he has championed the idea that the Gnostic Gospels were not necessarily heretical but were rather an example of the diversity of thought and ideas that Christians were grappling with in the first and second centuries. Many of the academics who study these texts no longer use the term “gnostic” because of its connotation of heresy.
What’s more, Taussig believes that many of these texts are, in their own way, scriptural, as worthy of meditation and prayer as the texts in the 27 books of the New Testament. He often preaches from the early Christian texts. And in February 2012, he and a group of nationally known spiritual leaders and scholars got together in New Orleans to conduct an interesting exercise: to choose texts that might integrate well with the New Testament itself. They chose 10 of them, and the results were published in a book titled “A New New Testament.” This year, the book landed on my desk, which is how I stumbled across Taussig and his work.
Those early Christian texts can seem quite astonishing. Several of them are told from the point of view of a woman, something that is not true of any of the New Testament. The Gospel of Mary, for instance, tells the story of Mary Magdalene, “who is portrayed as one of Jesus’s closest associates,” as Taussig writes in an introduction to that gospel, and has been given teachings from Jesus that she passes on to his male disciples. A second book that is written mostly in the female voice is “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” A poetic work, what is particularly amazing about it is that the female voice is that of the deity Herself.
Another book, The Gospel of Thomas, has no narrative at all; it is, instead, a collection of 114 of Jesus’ sayings, some of which are familiar and many of which are not. In “A New New Testament,” Taussig and the other spiritual leaders decided to place it in front of the four traditional gospels because, as Taussig writes, “it is a near perfect example of how these additional books offer both ... strong connections to the traditional New Testament and eye-popping new content not previously known.”
One point Taussig and other academics make is that we really have no idea why certain books are in The New Testament and others are not. “The making of the New Testament took 500 years,” Taussig told me, who also notes that we have no idea, in fact, who wrote many of the books that make up the New Testament — or the early Christian texts. What is almost surely true is that they were not written by Luke or Mark — or Mary Magdalene, for that matter. Even the earliest of them was written decades, if not centuries, after Jesus’ life. The matter of heresy came centuries later as well.
In his sermon about The Thanksgiving Prayer, Taussig used it to offer a meditation on the difficulties of both societal and personal growth. “There is a womb pregnant with divinity itself,” he said as he neared the end of his sermon, “making us ready for taking that next step forward, in the relationship that is hurting, the psyche that doesn’t know what to do, and the society that needs help.”
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.