Short Overview of Karen King’s ‘The Gospel of Mary of Magdala’

This semester I had to write a (very) short overview of King’s premise and why it’s important.  I share it here, for my readership.  Enjoy.


Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala

Karen King’s thesis in her monumental book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala—that the origin of the Christian movement are far more shadowed in mystery and convoluted by diversity than is normally accepted by some parties in academia and modern Christian communities—is an important one.   King lays out the foundation of a realistic socio-cultural landscape; it is one that demonstrates multiple milieux wherein the various Christian communities are embittered by a sometimes-fierce rhetorical and polemical battle over which group has more authority.  Rather than the prima facie narrative presented by some early Christian apologists, there had not been a singular, perfect dissemination of ‘truths’ passed on from Jesus, to the Apostles (or Disciples—not necessarily the same thing—depending on which narrative one follows), to the early Christian church.[i]  While this particular narrative is enticing, especially in certain fundamentalist and conservative wings of the modern church movements,[ii] it presents an unlikely scenario wherein a perfect community is set upon by a wave of ‘heretics’—the so-called ‘gnostics’—who had been led astray by evil forces (à la Satan/Lucifer),[iii] in an attempt to pull individuals away from the perfect church.

Instead of following this status quo laid out by the author(s) of Luke-Acts,[iv] King argues (convincingly, in this author’s opinion) that this is fantasy.[v]  She presents a logical sitz im leben for these communities, providing evidence from other early Christian texts which show diversity and disorganization even in the time of Paul.[vi]  As the documents themselves suggest, testaments to the struggles within these communities from voices that probably lived through them, there had been no uniformity, no general orthodox doctrine.  With this is mind, King theorizes that what has come to be known as ‘orthodoxy’ must have originated during this polemical war between communities[vii] and then established as official church policy during some of the earliest ecumenical councils (like the Council of Nicaea) by ‘those who won’.[viii]

King then goes on, drawing upon later Christian traditions to demonstrate the means upon which the linear history laid out by figures such as Eusebius was fabricated.  She focuses, for example, on the Nicene Creed as a point of definitive later-Christian doctrine wherein a set of beliefs and foundational dogmatic claims are presented which, anachronistically, present themselves as ancient.  King aptly argues that even the term ‘heresy’ is itself a later Christian polemic instituted by the victors—after all, something cannot be ‘heretical’ if there existed no ‘orthodoxy’ from which a viewpoint could ‘stray’.[ix]  It is this so-described ‘orthodox community’ which defines the narrative, or ‘master story’, of Jesus.

Yet before this victory for the so-defined orthodoxy (to become known as the Catholic church—Catholic, from the Greek καθολικός, meaning ‘universal’, may itself be rhetorical), King lays out the struggle in a few ways.  She draws upon the ‘gnostic’ gospels, like the Gospel of Mary, to demonstrate some of the diverse sets of views in these early communities.  These views included: (1) no established order for rules, (2) the spiritual soul alone is what is immortal and not the fleshly body they currently inhabit, (3) Jesus as divine mediator of truth, and (4) no belief in an eternal hell or punishment.[x]

In sum, King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala presents a well-argued and supported criticism of some of the categories established by scholarship (these ‘scholarly constructs’) which don’t necessarily apply to the early Christian church.  In the process, she dissolves all notions of a status quo in the study of Christian Origins, showing that the early church was far more complex and contains more fluidity than has commonly been accepted.


[i] The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 159-160; King writes, ‘The narratives of the canonical gospels form the basis for this linear history.’

[ii] Also, in this author’s humble opinion, this line of reasoning can be found in certain wings of academia, where language such as ‘trajectories’ dominate the tone of the early Christian communities, suggesting that, perhaps, there had been one original path—something that does not fit any of the available evidence.  Even if one were to presuppose that ‘Jesus’ was the origin and his followers moved in different ‘trajectories’, this presumes that the figure of Jesus was always consistent in his own teachings, something for which there is no verifiable data and thus should not be taken for granted.

[iii] Specifically Mary of Magdala, 160, ‘[Eusebius] wrote the first comprehensive history of the church, alleging that Christianity in its original unity, purity, and power had survived the attacks of Satan from both within (heresy) and without (persecution) in order to triumph finally in the conversion of the emperor….’  This ‘orthodox’ concept as seen in Acts 15.24, for example, suggests that those without Apostolic authority will confuse and trouble people, leading them astray; in addition, those who did obey and accepted Apostolic authority were strengthened (Acts 16.4). Interestingly, the idea of ‘Satan leading the perfect astray’ has roots in the polemical ‘war’ between these early Christian communities—which may be why such teachings found themselves in the Catholic canon in the first place.  Origen, in his De Principiis 3.2.1 interprets the words of Ephesians 6.11in this way, that Satan has invisible workers on Earth to lead many astray; ‘Sed et Salvatorem crucifixum esse dicit a principibus huius mundi’.  It is worth noting that some commentators have translated ‘huius mundi’ as ‘this world’, though often in the New Testament and the epistles, ‘huius mundi’ and variations of the phrase often signify the underworld/hell, or any ‘world’ opposite God’s holiness. Indeed a similar wording found in the Latin Vulgate, Jn 12:31 (cf. Eph. 2.2), goes ‘precips huius mundi’ where the ruler of the cosmos (world) is traditionally Satan (ἀρχων του κόσμον). Irenaeus goes so far as to say that these ‘heretics’ are not just under the influence of Satan, but are agents of Satan (Adversus Haereses 5.26.2).  This certainly seems to support King’s thesis.

[iv] According to King, (Mary of Magdala, 159) Luke-Acts portrays a ‘master story’ of authority, wherein Jesus lays his hands on the Apostles, granting them authority, and later these Apostles lay hands on others granting them authority, and thus authority and truth are transmitted, as the narrative goes, from individual to individual, but ultimately from Jesus himself.  This is demonstrated in verses like Luke 10.16 and 22.29 (cf. Acts 1.5, 1.15, and 6.6).

[v] Mary of Magdala, 157; King suggests that the gnostic gospels and other early texts are instrumental in ‘drawing aside the curtain of later Christian perspectives.’

[vi] Such as in 1 Cor. 15.12, where Paul contends with communities which seem to deny the resurrection of the dead.  Though prominently the disagreements between Paul and the so-called Jerusalem Pillars; what is noteworthy is that Paul seems to have, as well as earn, authority despite the fact that he did not know Jesus personally (and according to tradition, the Jerusalem Pillars did, though Paul does not explicitly suggest this).  One has to wonder about the implications of this, whereby Paul has authority and continues to gain authority even after his death—particularly through these so-called gnostic communities—and yet none of the Jerusalem Pillars’ works survive (presuming they wrote something down in the first place).

[vii] This is supported by the Easter cyclical by Athanasius of Alexandria, where he suggests in 367—42 years after the Council of Nicaea—the canon has been ‘accredited as divine’; the suggestion, even following the council’s proclamations, seems to be that there still exists diversity even in post-orthodox-doctrinal communities which may be using texts deemed ‘heretical’.

[viii] Mary of Magdala, 157.

[ix] She writes, ‘…in practice “heresy” can only be identified by hindsight, instituting the norms of a later age as a standard for the earlier period.’  Mary of Magdala, 160.

[x] Mary of Magdala, 30-34.  She also draws upon various texts to express the diversity issues between the communities, like the Gospel of Thomas which demonstrates that the true means to immortality are through Jesus’ teachings, and the Gospel of Truth and Mary both suggest that Jesus saved people from suffering, not by suffering.


Note to readers: I dislike Karen King’s title.  I think it is a little misleading. While I did not include this in the paper (I wanted to get a good grade),  I think it is important to stress that King may be swaying public opinion here, since the Gospel of Mary is not the ‘Gospel of Mary of Magdala‘.  And while it is presumed that the Gospel of Mary is about ‘Mary of Magdala’ is doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a specific, isolated figure.  Instead, and I agree with Mark Goodacre, that what we have is a composite ‘Mary’ figure.  See Goodacre’s brilliant expose on this here:

2 Responses

  1. […] Short Overview of Karen King’s ‘The Gospel of Mary of Magdala’ […]

  2. I’m intrigued. Enough to buy it? Probably not.

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