Mary and the coming of Jesus
Some details of Mary’s life before her resurrection later attached to Jesus. She was the daughter of Joseph and had several brothers including one called James. She was Jewish born under the law. She grew up in Galilee, probably in Capernaum. At the time of her resurrection experience she was about thirty years old placing her date of birth around that traditionally assigned to Jesus.
Mary was believed to be, at least by her followers, of the line of King David. The gospels give two different genealogies for the descent of Jesus from David. In both of these genealogies the descent is through Joseph and not Mary. In the terms of the gospels of belief this is odd since Jesus is not the son of Joseph. But it does make sense if Mary is the daughter and not the wife of Joseph.
She knew Jesus before she saw him. How did she come to this first conception of the saviour? It was from the Jewish Wisdom tradition that Jesus was first perceived. She, Wisdom, is called Sophia in Greek and by the Gnostics was called Achamoth. She existed with the father before the creation and was his helper at the creation. Long had men searched for the loving Wisdom of God. They told proverbs the answer of which was she and composed poems in praise of her. For with Wisdom a man is complete and without her he is empty. Many are her children and yet she is barren.
Achamoth is from the father, an emanation of his loving Wisdom, a bridge between man and god. Some said that the soul of man is itself a type of Achamoth. In the secret of the hearts of her disciples Achamoth whispered to those who loved her that they were not slaves of Yahweh mindlessly to obey his law, but children of the father and worthy of their inheritance. And in the secret of the depths of their mediations came to them the thought, like a glimpse out of the corner of the eye, of one who was the consort of Achamoth. A male power, a son, emanating from the father: husband and brother to Achamoth.
Being Jewish they sought support for their intuitions in the scriptures. The scriptural references to Wisdom had enabled the cult of Achamoth to develop yet there are no scriptural references to a male equivalent. Instead they found what they were searching for in the prediction of the messiah. Whereas most Jews believed that the messiah would be a man, a powerful military leader who would redeem his people and establish dominion over the world, these lovers of Wisdom interpreted the prophesies non-literally. They conceived of a mystic messiah who would establish a spiritual kingdom over mankind. This one would be the Christ – the word meaning nothing more than ‘messiah’.
Who was the person who first identified the male consort of Achamoth with the Messiah? The tradition in the gospels of belief is that John the Baptist predicted the coming of the Christ and perhaps this is so. It may have been John who first identified the mystic son of god with the predictions for the Christ. Not that he would have said that the Christ would come in the form of a man. That would have been blasphemy. Instead John would have seen him as a spiritual figure who descends to earth at the end of time to establish his kingdom upon earth. The same belief would later be held by many of the follows of Mary.
The prophecies of the coming Christ would have been absorbed eagerly by a young woman who may have been one of John’s disciples - Mary the Magdalene. If she were a female disciple then she is unlikely to have had the same status as the males. Doubtless the females were expected to cook and do other chores for the group. But they were also instructed even if they themselves were not permitted to teach. The story in the gospels of Mary and Martha may go back to Mary’s time as a disciple of John. The story records Mary as ignoring her household duties in order to listen to Jesus. She is scolded by Martha but defended by Jesus. This may record a tradition that Mary would often neglect her chores in order to sit at John’s feet. Even though scolded by the other female disciples she is defended by the master himself. Mary’s name itself may indicate she was a favourite disciple - the Magdalene. There is no reason to believe that she came from the town of Magdala any more than that Jesus came from Nazareth because he is called the Nazarene. Magdalene derives from the word for tower as does the town name of Magdala. It is a nickname or honorific title meaning Mary the Tower. Perhaps it was John himself who gave her that name. If so it testifies to a high opinion of her since tower signifies fortress like strength.
But was not Mary a prostitute? This story can probably be dismissed as a later legend. It is not in the earliest sources and was prevalent only in the Western church and not the Eastern. It may reflect the opposition between the mainstream and Gnostic forms of Christianity. In the gospels of belief Mary the Magdalene plays almost no part before the crucifixion so that her key role as the first witness of the resurrection comes as a surprise. But in the Gnostic gospels Mary is centre stage – in some cases she is portrayed as the first of the disciples and the recipient of privileged communication with Jesus. So Mary came to represent Gnosticism as well as participation of the female at the highest levels of the church. The mainstream church rejected both aspects and making her a prostitute was a convenient way of attacking both causes.
Yet there are two sayings in the Gospel of the Twin that could be interpreted to support the whoredom of Mary. One says:
Jesus said: Teach me concerning this stone which the builders rejected; it is the corner -stone.
Builders would reject stones that were cracked or defective. A prostitute Mary who became the cornerstone of the Jesus movement would certainly fit this saying perfectly. But another possible meaning is that Mary as a woman has been rejected from the highest levels of participation in Judaism and yet the church of god will be built upon her. Another saying is more explicit:
Jesus said: He who shall know father and mother shall be called the son of a harlot.
Could this refer to Mary’s role as the ‘mother’? Yet according to the Gnostics the true mother of man was Achamoth. She spawned the demiurge Yahweh as an abortion without the approval of her consort, and through him gave rise to the creation. Achamoth herself descended into the creation and became a ‘prostitute’. So in Gnostic terms we are children of the mother, Achamoth, and so sons and daughters of a harlot.
Here perhaps is the source of confusion that Mary was a prostitute. For both Mary and Achamoth are brides of Jesus. A woman’s spirit is in the form of Jesus so that the union with her spirit that takes place in the bridal chamber represents, on the spiritual plane, the union of Jesus and Achamoth. At such times a woman comes to represent Achamoth herself just as a man represents Jesus. As the supreme incarnation of Jesus, Mary became confused with Achamoth and in some stories she became a prostitute.
The circle of John the Baptist may have first recognised the mystic messiah, the Christ, as an emanation of God coming to rule at the end of time. Yet it is in the Jesus movement that the Christ becomes the redeemer figure who is crucified and brings the resurrection. He is the grain that dies and is reborn. His body is the bread and his blood is the wine. This is the stuff of the mystery religions. For the concept of Jesus, as redeemer, did not arise first with the Jews but with the Egyptians where he is known as Osiris.
The story of the flight into Egypt may recall an actual journey by Mary into Egypt. Or it might be a garbled remembrance of Jesus coming, in disguised and ‘immature’ form to the Egyptians. As it says in Mathew:
… that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. (Mathew 2)
Osiris was the brother and husband of the great Egyptian feminine deity Isis. It would have been natural for the Jews to equate Isis with Wisdom. This equation was made explicitly in the later Gnostic work Thunder: Perfect Mind:
I am the one whose image is great in Egypt
Isis plays a vital role in the legend of Osiris. She is the queen and sister of Osiris who ruled the land of men wisely. However his brother Set was envious against him and one day tricked him into a box secured with dark magic. In that box he was killed and the box was cast into the Nile. Isis searched long for the box and found it lodged into a tamarisk bush that has grown into a great tree. She tore open his box and wept over his body and in the form of a bird was to conceive by his spirit the god Horus who would eventually avenge Osiris. With the help of Thoth, Lord of Knowledge, the Ritual of Life was created to bring Osiris back to life – the same ritual that later be given to the Egyptians to bring men and women back to life. But Set found Osiris’ body and tore it into many pieces and scattered them. Isis with the help of Nephthys searched long for the pieces and eventually with the aid of the magic of Thoth was able to bring him back to life. But one who has died may not dwell in the land of the living and Osiris was confined to the underworld of which he became the lord. In the underworld he judges souls and decides which ones should go to the Blessed land.
The conventional Jew and the conventional Egyptian both sought to appease their gods by the dead enactment of rituals. The Jew had the law; the Egyptian had the mummification of the dead; and around each had grown a complex and prescribed body of ritual. Yet there were others, both Jew and pagan, who were not followers of the dead path of ritual but seekers of living knowledge of god. These were the Gnostics. Pagan Gnostics attaining to the secret heart of the mysteries of Osiris began to conceive of the redeemer, ascending and descending who, like Osiris, would create a new path to eternity for the soul of man. Jewish Gnostics, in deep prayer and mediation, understood that Isis was one of the many names of Wisdom, for unlike Yahweh she was not jealous but gave her bountiful love to all the peoples of the earth, although only the Jews knew her truly, and of those, only the Jewish Gnostics, followers of Wisdom, understood her innermost nature and true place in the fullness. These conceptions were brought together and some Jewish Gnostics began to perceive that the redeemer was the same as the mystic Christ, who would come at the end of time. To these the god Osiris was a pre-figuration of the Christ, a dim conception of the truth that would be revealed to his Jewish followers in all its glory.
One of these was Mary. She must have had some sense of the Christ before he came to her for otherwise she could not have penetrated his mystery so completely. If you wish to help a princess escape from imprisonment in a high tower then you tie a thread to a rock and throw it through her window. Attached to the thread is a string and attached to the string is a rope. She can pull up the thread and by it the string and by the string the rope which is heavy and strong enough to climb down. The thread is a person’s belief in Jesus and his suffering, the string is the perception of the soul, the rope is the spirit and it is the spirit that brings escape into the Kingdom of Heaven and the direct experience of Jesus.
That experience came to Mary in the form of the passion and resurrection. Later she and others tried to explain the experience in myth form. Thus evolved the myth of the descent of Jesus, the myth that was the precursor to the passion story in the gospels of belief.