On the Topic of Gnosis
Through the persons of
Mary Magdalene, The Apostle Paul and Judas Iscariot
“Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared/united us and made us human beings.” [Gospel of Mary 5:5-8]
Over the last five years, in my continuing religious and theological education, I have spent a great deal of time investigating the notion of “special knowledge” or shall we say “Gnosis,” that knowledge given to specific disciples and servants of the Christ.
I will take this paper in three directions as I explore the lives, writings and knowledge that were imparted to Mary Magdalene [the Gnostic Gospel], the apostle Paul, through his letters and epistles and finally this paper will expand with the addition of Judas Iscariot, the famed “betrayer of the Christ.”
Being a forward thinker myself and a supporter of the beliefs of Gnostic Christianity, I am personally aware that spiritual formation takes many forms, one by the teaching of faith, two, the practice of that faith, and three, and the inner transformation that must take place in order to transcend the earthly body that one inhabits in human form. Each person mentioned above played a critical role in the life of the Christ [Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot] who knew Jesus, and Paul, with his writings and his role in [the propagation of Christian teachings] never having met the Christ but in a heavenly vision. It has been my experience that there is truth in the statement that “Each was made aware of special knowledge as imparted to them by the Christ [Jesus].
This continuing study begins with Mary Magdalene as she was the catalyst that began my study into Gnostic Christianity. Let us begin our look deeper into the lives of biblical Christians and explore further what we know about special knowledge and why that bestowal of knowledge was so important for the transmission of Christian teachings for today’s Church.
Mary Of Magdala – Mary Magdalene
History would attempt to paint Mary Magdalene, as the repentant whore mentioned in the New Testament, a claim that was later recanted by the Catholic Church. We begin with a reading from the Gospel of John “Jesus, said to her, Mary, she turned to him in Hebrew Rabouni! Jesus said to her, do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” John. 20:16-17
As a feminist writer, I am partial to the life and experience of Mary Magdalene, as a human, a Christian and an early apostle of the Christ. We have known about the legends about the woman at the well, the repentant whore and the one woman who was blessed, healed and graced by the Christ. In recent years we have heard of the Golden Legend where it is believed that Mary Magdalene was the lover of the Christ and carried his message and his child into Europe after fleeing Jerusalem after the resurrection of the Christ.
This concept of ‘gnosis’ and my interest in the concept of special knowledge began when I started reading the Gnostic gospels, namely “the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” In that text, we find that Mary Magdalene occupies a specific location in the life of Jesus and as well, her presence in the ‘Christian story.’
“It is important to remember that Jesus Christ does relieve Mary of the seven demons – or, perhaps, those aspects that can cloud vision and energy at each of the seven charkas. Presumably, she no longer possesses the seven deadly sins… In their place exist the corresponding virtues – the way has been cleared for “the seven virgins of light… On the third morning after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene feels a call to visit Jesus’ tomb. She takes with her a container of unguent, perhaps one in the series of ancient oils to assist the dead through the underworld and into the realms of spirit. She alone meets Jesus Christ at the tomb in his resurrected body. It is easy to imagine that she receives an important teaching [special knowledge] here, one that can be comprehended by a person whose seven demons have been lifted.”
Karen King seconds this thought when she states that
“Although it [the gospel of Luke] does not explicitly say that Jesus himself cast out the demons, he was well known as an exorcist – however moderns may understand that practice – and it is probable that Luke intends readers to think that he healed Mary.”
In The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Karen L. King, we read that
“The Gospel of Mary clearly agrees that only spiritually advanced souls have visionary experiences. Mary, for example, is praised by the Savior because she has not wavered at the sight of him. The Savior ascribes Mary’s stability to the fact that her mind is concentrated on spiritual matters. Mary has clearly achieved the purity of mind necessary to see the Savior and converse with him. The vision is a mark of that purity and her closeness to god. Note, too, that her stability is in marked contrast with the contentious fearfulness of the other disciples. Because the mind is not associated with the senses, it is not dimmed in the presence of the spirit. Madness and ecstasy are not necessary characteristics of true prophecy from the gospel of Mary’s point of view; rather the purified mind is clear and potent.”
Looking through the text that Karen has written she explains that Mary played a specific role in the transmission of the teachings of the Christ, post resurrection, and this role she played in the future of Christianity was to the consternation of her male counterparts and to the church as a whole for centuries. It is said that Mary Magdalene had been cleansed and thereby allowing her to see the risen Christ, ‘between the veil’ of the earth and the heavens. Her prominence in biblical literature is readily apparent, as the one woman who has had a series of blessed encounters with the Christ, in service, prayer, and suffering and most importantly in the ‘resurrection.’
Leloup continues later, in saying that:
“In the legends and stories told about Mary Magdalene there can be found some hint of what she may represent to us today: As one who was cleansed from sin; who remains with Christ throughout his death on the cross; and who first witnesses, understands and believes Christ’s resurrection, she represents a human being who is open and available to true ‘inner knowing,’ who can ‘see’ in deeper, clearer ways through a unique spiritual connection to both earthly death and the Divine.”
Patriarchy is not kind to women in the church and Mary was the recipient of much bitterness by men throughout Christian history. What role did she play in the life of the Christ beyond that of disciple is still up for scholarly discussion, but it is my personal belief that she was more to the Christ than history gives her credit and that she was imbued with more than what he gave to the men in his charge.
What writers have said about Mary Magdalene and the position they interpret that she took after the resurrection of the Christ, tells us that she was a sainted woman who spent her later years teaching the faith that she had in the Christ [Jesus], she ministered to the apostles, and she ministered to those she came in contact with.
And if we are able, to believe in the Golden Legend, Mary Magdalene makes her way to France where she is said to bring the child of the Christ [Sara] she set up a ministry, converted a king and his queen and led a nation to embrace Christianity as a faith and finally, became a hermit and upon her death was taken up to heaven.
The Apostle Paul
It is my postulation that like Mary Magdalene, Paul was the recipient of ‘cleansing’ of the former ways he was a persecutor of the Christ. Unlike the Apostles of the living Christ, having lived, worked and suffered along with him,
“Paul’s experiences will be examined as a cross-section of the tree of Christian experience. St. Paul was the first experient of Christ after the Spirit who wrote down his experiences, and he quite definitely identified the Christ of his vision with the Jesus whom the other apostles had known in Galilee.”
I was very interested in the way Paul wrote his many epistles and why. Through academic research I have come to learn that Paul, in fact, did understand more deeply the words he was writing, there was special insight and understanding of Christian ritual and his vision of community and what was most important to the Christian community, those being ‘community and the Eucharist.’
I have posed these questions to academics in my field of study and have attempted to entertain my fellows about the ideas of Paul having special ‘gnosis’ or knowledge. None of those respondents dared to offer even speculation on my queries. I am led, then to investigate texts that may enlighten my investigation of Paul to a greater extent.
I have spent a great deal of time looking for writers who would definitively answer this question once and for all, and to my dismay, those answers have not materialized. Although, through research we can make several educated observations about Paul. Elaine Pagels is one of my favorite authors and educators on the topic of Gnostic literature, many disagree with my adoration of her, but I offer some words from her book, The Gnostic Gospels.
“Paul, referring to himself obliquely in the third person, says that he was “caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.” There, in an ecstatic trance, he heard “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Through his spiritual communication with Christ, Paul says he discovered “hidden mysteries” and “secret wisdom,” which, he considers “Mature” but not with everyone. Many contemporary scholars, themselves orthodox, have followed Rudolph Bultmann, who insists that Paul does not mean what he says in this passage.”
Elaine goes so far to say that indeed Paul discovered hidden mysteries. Can we then postulate that hidden mysteries are synonymous with ‘special knowledge’ or ‘Gnosis?’
Pagels goes on to say later that “Gnostic authors often attribute their own tradition to persons who stand outside the circle of the twelve – Paul, Mary Magdalene, and James.” 
It just seems interesting that Paul’s post resurrection vision of the Risen Christ imbued him with zeal and adoration for the Christ, that became a contention with those apostles who knew, lived and participated in the life of Christ. The movement from zealot and persecutor of Christ to the position of one of the most important figures in the propagation and ministry of Christian faith in early history as a faithful “bond-slave” as Rattenbury writes must indicate that along with the ecstatic vision that Paul witnessed came with certain special knowledge that Christ must have known that Paul needed to convict his heart and to be able to share the ministry of Christ with others.
When one sifts through the writings on and about St. Paul, there is such a wealth of insight to be learned. It is my understanding and belief that Paul was imbued with an understanding from his religious conversion experience, well beyond his peers and detractors, and even the apostles themselves.
I imagine that when Paul wrote his epistles that he had this foreknowledge, which I think, was lost on those he was writing to, is quite stunning and religiously informing, that Paul was given special insight to the ministry of Christ, that is stunning thought to ponder, and sheds new light on the preacher Paul. Nevertheless, he persevered in teaching them from his perspective. I am not sure that the communities he wrote to had the wherewithal kind of ‘depth of thought’ to really ‘understand’ the minutiae of what he was trying to impart.
But I can imagine that maybe some understood at some level. This kind of vision and understanding of religious writing could only come from Godly inspiration and this gives us more insight to what may have been imparted to Paul on the road to Damascus by Jesus. I would even venture to believe that Paul might have had some ‘sacred vision’ of reality and scripture as Mary Magdalene has been purported to have at the time she witnessed the risen Christ on Easter morning. This special vision has only been conferred on few religious figures that I have run across in my studies.
Judas Iscariot – The Betrayer???
Through the ages, as we were taught our religious education and in community we partook in the mass celebrating and remembering the life of Jesus, Holy week would become the focal point and meaning for every Christian journey.
The life of Christ, his being handed over to the authorities and his death on Calvary and most importantly, his resurrection on the third day, was the ‘pinnacle of celebration’ in the liturgical season.
The bible teaches that Judas Iscariot was the man who sold his soul and gave over the Christ for a mere thirty silver pieces, and hung himself after the fact. Judas Iscariot has been vilified over the centuries as the one who betrayed the Christ and facilitated the trial, death and in a sick way, preordained the resurrection by his actions. All of this information would be reviewed under a new lens, so to speak, with the publishing of the “Gospel of Judas Iscariot.”
I have found a most fascinating book, written by Bart D. Ehrman. This text sheds new light on the relationship that existed between Judas Iscariot, the other eleven disciples and Jesus. The earth shattering truth that Ehrman speaks to is that yes, Judas did betray the Christ, but also, that betrayal was necessary for Jesus to transcend his human body into the spirit, as Gnostic teaching believes.
On the topic of special knowledge of “Gnosis” we find in this text references to the truth that Jesus imparted to Judas special knowledge of the kingdom and the universe. This action of bestowal elevated Judas from simple disciple to most trusted confidant. For some, this new spin on the story of Jesus’ last night on earth is turned on its ear. Ehrman writes:
“Gnostic texts are filled with secret knowledge (gnosis) that is given by the divine revealer to his faithful followers. Often these revelations are hard for readers to understand, and that’s no accident. The entire point of this secret knowledge, or the mysteries of salvation, is that they are not easily accessible or intelligible
to the normal person. They are reserved only for the Gnostics, for those in the know.”
Judas knew about Jesus the Christ, he had universal knowledge of the person and where he really came from and he becomes a prominent participant in the biblical story.
“Judas is above all other humans. He has received Jesus’ mysterious revelation and is about to do Jesus’ mysterious will… Judas will make it possible [Jesus’ transcendence] possible for Jesus himself, who is a divine being temporarily entrapped in a body of flesh. At his death, Jesus will be released: Judas will make it possible. Far from being Jesus’ enemy, he is his most intimate confidante and faithful disciple. He wull enable Jesus to return to his heavenly home.”
Within these texts we are given vision to see what the Gnostic writer sees in this text, as to who Jesus really is and what his “location” is as well. Ehrman gives us a glimpse of the Gnostic location of other realms, one of which Jesus originates from, when during an argument Judas stands and confesses the following”
“Judas stands up and confesses the truth about Jesus, that in fact he comes from another realm, that of Barbelo – a divine being known from other Gnostic texts as the mother of all creation, who resided in the Pleroma, far above the realm of the creator God of this world. This confession of who Jesus is leads to a private conversation between Jesus and Judas.”
Jesus moves forward and shares secrets of the universe with Judas, because he is favored above the other disciples. This Gnostic gospel clearly tells us that Gnostic wisdom is reserved for those in the know, and so we must add this knowledge to our lexicon of Christian teaching and adopt that “secret knowledge” and make it our own as well.
I have demonstrated through text and scripture my understanding of “gnosis” through the eyes and experience of Mary Magdalene, the apostle Paul and finally in Judas Iscariot. Each of these persons enlightens the life of Jesus and biblical history… Gnostic literature is not acceptable canonized biblical teaching, yet we have access to these texts today and so like those Gnostics in early Christianity, we have the opportunity to transcend our mortal bodies and look at Jesus with new eyes, having been given this “special knowledge.”
Accepting new teachings into Christian faith is not for the feint of heart, because only those with deep foundational Christianity can assimilate these teachings and understand how they fit into our Christian belief system.
 NRSV – Holy Bible, John 20:16-17
 Jean Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2002, Inner Traditions Pub, pgs. Xvii-xxi
 Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2003, Polebridge Press, pg. 142
 Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2003, Polebridge Press, pg. 67
 Leloup, Jen Yves, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2002, Inner Traditions Pub, pg. xxi
 Rattenbury, Ernest, The Religious Experience of St. Paul, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, pg. 51
 Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1989, pg. 15
 Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1989, pg. 22
9 Bart D. Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas, Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 89
10. Bart D. Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas, Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 96
11. Bart D. Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas, Oxford University Press, 2006, pg. 87