In 1896, German scholar Carl Reinhardt strolled through an antiquities market in Cairo, Egypt. While shopping, he came across a fifth-century papyrus book written in the Coptic language. Intrigued by ancient text, Reinhardt purchased the book and took it home with him to Berlin. There it was placed into the Egyptian Museum, where it found its way into the hands of Egyptologist Carl Schmidt. As Schmidt translated the text, he uncovered bits and pieces of the lost Gospel of Mary.
Written in the second century CE, the Gospel of Mary consists of eight pages of ancient text, though more than half of the ancient gospel is missing. This text tells a particular story of Jesus's appearance to his disciples after he rose from the grave, including spiritual ideas not often found in modern Christianity, as well as the fear the disciples felt after their Savior disappeared.
Although the Gospel of Mary documents an important moment in Christ's resurrection, scholars have not reached a consensus regarding which Mary the gospel refers to. Mary Magdalene is the obvious option, but some theologians believe the text refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Even more shocking, other scholars posit that Mary is the forgotten sister of Christ.
The Gospel of Mary documents the disciples' reactions to Christ's command that they preach his teachings among the people. After Jesus rose from the grave three days after his crucifixion, he made several appearances to his followers confirming his miraculous act. Most notably, he emerged to a roomful of mourning disciples.
The disciples were committed followers of Christ, but their desire to learn from him wasn't so great that they would risk their own lives. When the disciples learned that they were meant to spread Christ's gospel, they were afraid they would meet the same fate as Christ. This account differs from the story told in Matthew, where the disciples immediately set out to preach the gospel with joy.
In the Gospel of Mary, Mary encouraged the disciples to overcome their fear and follow Christ's command. She reminded them of God's grace, explaining that Christ would follow them on their journey and protect them from harm. Only after her speech did the men put their fears aside and embrace their new directive.
As the disciples express their fear of preaching the gospel, Mary steps forward not only to encourage them, but to reveal a special teaching Christ demonstrated to her in a vision.
In her vision, Christ appeared to her and commended her for not being afraid. She asked him if she was seeing him through her soul or spirit, and Christ answered that she saw him through her mind, which links both her soul and spirit together. Over the course of the vision, Mary explained that she saw her soul overcoming various powers, including ignorance, desire, and wrath.
Mary’s soul vanquished each challenge, finding peace in the knowledge that it was released from the world and returned to its heavenly state. In this way, Mary explained the secret of salvation and outlined what each soul must accomplish to find success in the afterlife.
When Mary told Jesus's followers about her vision, she was met with anger and disbelief from Peter and Andrew.
Both men doubted the truth of Mary's words; Andrew took issue with the ideas behind them, but Peter's disagreement was far more petty. Peter didn't think Christ would confide in a woman above himself and the rest of the disciples. His pride bristled at the idea that Christ preferred Mary over him, and he accused Mary of lying.
Mary defended herself, claiming she would never lie about their Savior. Levi supported her by pointing out Peter's long history of hot-headed behavior. Levi claimed that Christ did prefer Mary, and that all men should try to be like her in order to garner the same favor.
In this gospel, Mary's personal relationship with Christ takes center stage. She proves herself to be a committed follower with a deep understanding of spirituality, much deeper than those of the men Christ favored.
In the Gospel of Mary, Jesus's teachings focus on the nature of sin. He tells the apostles that people are inherently good, but they don't recognize their spiritual nature. Instead, they crave a lower nature that leads to sin. Once people can overcome these lower temptations and discover their true spiritual nature within themselves, they'll achieve salvation.
In answer to a question from Peter, he tells his followers that there is nothing inherently sinful in the world, but that sin is created when the soul seeks its lower nature, rather than the balance of a higher nature. Finally, Christ cautions the disciples against following one leader or even one doctrine, claiming that they should search for spirituality within themselves to find inner peace.
Mary's vision builds upon this idea. It explains how the soul will rise to its final resting place, as well as the obstacles that will keep humans ignorant of their spiritual nature. The teaching subtly asserts that sin doesn't play as large a role as Christians tend to believe. In addition, it focuses on the internal being rather than the outward systems of religion that the disciples immediately built while spreading their Christian doctrine.
Although Mary was defended in the moment, the disciples largely ignored her words. They went on to build the religion they believed in, refusing to accept Mary's vision as a valid element of their teaching.