Until the last century, virtually everything scholars knew about these other gospels came from broadsides against them from early Church leaders. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, France, pilloried them in A.D. 180 as “an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ”—a “wicked art” practiced by people bent on “adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” (It’s a certainty that some critics will view “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” through much the same lens.)
The line between true believer and heretic hardened in the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to—and legalized—Christianity. To impose order on its factions, he summoned some 300 bishops to Nicaea. This council issued a statement of Christian doctrine, the Nicene creed, that affirmed a model of the faith still taken as orthodoxy.
In December 1945, an Arab farmer digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, stumbled on a cache of manuscripts revealing the other side of Christianity’s “master story.” Inside a meter-tall clay jar containing 13 leatherbound papyrus codices were 52 texts that didn’t make it into the canon, including the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip and the Secret Revelation of John.
As 20th-century scholars began translating the texts from Coptic, early Christians whose views had fallen out of favor—or were silenced—began speaking again, across the ages, in their own voices. A picture began to take shape of early Christians, scattered across the Eastern Mediterranean, who derived a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory teachings from the life of Jesus Christ. Was it possible that Judas was not a turncoat but a favored disciple? Did Christ’s body really rise, or just his soul? Was the crucifixion—and human suffering, more broadly—a prerequisite for salvation? Did one really have to accept Jesus to be saved, or did the Holy Spirit already reside within as part of one’s basic humanity?
Persecuted and often cut off from one another, communities of ancient Christians had very different answers to those questions. Only later did an organized Church sort those answers into the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. (Some scholars prefer the term “Gnostic” to heretical; King rejects both, arguing in her 2003 book, What is Gnosticism?, that “Gnosticism” is an artificial construct “invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.”)
One mystery that these new gospels threw new light on—and that came to preoccupy King—was the precise nature of Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene. (King’s research on the subject preceded The Da Vinci Code, and made her a sought-after commentator after its publication.)
Magdalene is often listed first among the women who followed and “provided for” Jesus. When the other disciples flee the scene of Christ on the cross, Magdalene stays by his side. She is there at his burial and, in the Gospel of John, is the first person Jesus appears to after rising from the tomb. She is also, thus, the first to proclaim the “good news” of his resurrection to the other disciples—a role that in later tradition earns her the title “apostle to the apostles.”
In the scene at the tomb in John, Jesus says to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended…” But whether this touch reflected a spiritual bond or something more is left unstated.
Early Christian writings discovered over the past century, however, go further. The gospel of Philip, one of the Nag Hammadi texts, describes Mary Magdalene as a “companion” of Jesus “whom the Savior loved more than all the other disciples and [whom] he kissed often on the mouth.”
But scholars note that even language this seemingly straightforward is hobbled by ambiguity. The Greek word for “companion,” koinonos, does not necessarily imply a marital or sexual relationship, and the “kiss” may have been part of an early Christian initiation ritual.