The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Jean-Yves Leloup, translated by Joseph Rowe, with a foreword by Jacob Needleman.

The gospel of Mary Magdalene was discovered in the late 19th century as part of the Berlin Codex; it is not part of the later Nag Hammadi finds, although they may have stoked interest in it. Translators and readers in the first few decades after its discovery tended to pass over it in favor of the Pistis Sophia. The text itself is brief and amply intriguing. Perhaps a third of the book-in-hand consists of front matter and the nine surviving pages of the Gospel. This English edition includes the original Coptic on facing pages, almost as an ornamental touch, since the book is clearly addressed more to a popular than to an academic audience. The remaining two-thirds of the volume provide a decidedly modern commentary on the text, by its translator into French, Jean-Yves Leloup.

As appetizing as I found the ancient text, I was actually a little put off by the front matter. Jacob Needleman, whom I have read with enjoyment in more scholarly contexts, effuses in his foreword about “the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world.” (vi) English editors Tresemer and Cannon provide a preface called “Who Is Mary Magdalene?” in which they exhibit various sorts of credulity, including praise for the “meticulous research” in Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (x, n.)

But Leloup’s commentary is worth reading, and on the evidence of his notes, French-to-English translator Joseph Rowe has done a capable and thoughtful job. I was not entirely sympathetic to Leloup’s perspective: his being-based metaphysic, his emphasis on deity as “creator,” and even his borderline monism were all features I could live without. Still, he artfully invokes Corbin’s mundus imaginalis, and his final pages exhort the reader to self-overcoming in a way I could not help but admire. Most surprisingly, he offered philologically-informed readings of the great Abrahamic “mountaintop” dicta, i.e. the Decalogue of Mount Sinai and the Beatitudes of Mount Eremos, that I found palatable as a Thelemite.

The ancient text has a tone rather comparable to the Gospel of Thomas. I can imagine both Christian and Thelemic neo-Gnostics putting it to good use. [via]