As scholars translated 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 long-ago Christians, scattered across the Eastern Mediterranean, who derived 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?
Only later did an organized Church sort the answers to those questions into the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. (Some scholars prefer the term “Gnostic” to heretical; King rejects both, arguing in a 2003 book that “Gnosticism” is a construct “invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.”)
A mystery these newly discovered gospels touched on—and that came to preoccupy King—was Jesus’ relationship with Magdalene. The New Testament often lists her first among the women who followed and “provided for” Jesus. When the other disciples flee Christ on the cross, Magdalene stays by his side. She is at his burial and, in the Gospel of John, is the first person Jesus appears to after rising from the tomb. Thus she is the first to proclaim the “good news” of his resurrection—a role that later earns her the title “apostle to the apostles.”
The gospel of Philip, one of the Nag Hammadi texts, goes further, describing 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 whether these “kisses” were spiritual or symbolic or something more is left unstated.
The gospel of Mary, which surfaced in January 1896 on the Cairo antiquities market, casts Magdalene in a still more central role, as confidante and chief disciple. The text, King argues in her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, is no less than a treatise on the qualifications for apostleship: What counted was not whether you were at the crucifixion or the resurrection, or whether you were a woman or a man. What counted was your firmness of character and how well you understood Jesus’ teachings.
The efforts of historians to reclaim the voices in these lost gospels have given fits to conservative scholars and believers, who view them as a perversion of long-settled truth by identity politics. “Far from being the alternative voices of Jesus’ first followers, most of the lost gospels should rather be seen as the writings of much later dissidents who broke away from an already established orthodox church,” Philip Jenkins, a historian at Baylor University, writes in his book Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way. “Despite its dubious sources and controversial methods, the new Jesus scholarship... gained such a following because it told a lay audience what it wanted to hear.”
Writing on Beliefnet.com in 2003, Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek’s longtime religion editor, argued that “Mary Magdalene has become a project for a certain kind of ideologically committed feminist scholarship.” He added that “a small group of well-educated women decided to devote their careers to the pieces of Gnostic literature discovered in the last century, a find that promised a new academic specialty within the somewhat overtrodden field of Biblical studies.”
In a reply posted to Beliefnet, King called Woodward’s piece “more an expression of Woodward’s distaste for feminism than a review or even a critique of [the] scholarship.”
“You don’t walk over her,” one of King’s former graduate students said.