In 2010, Jehanne De Quillan published The Gospel of the Beloved Companion: The Complete Gospel of Mary Magdalene. De Quillan is a member of an independent religious order rooted in the Languedoc region of southern France. The order claims a spiritual lineage to Mary Magdalene, who is said to have come to the region in the first century, bringing with her an original Greek text of her own version of the story of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the early twelfth century, Jehanne De Quillan’s community translated the text into Occitan, the common language of the Languedoc in those times. They claim to have protected both the Greek and Occitanic versions of the text in the centuries since. The hidden nature of that protection stems from the early thirteenth century Albigensian Crusade and ensuing Inquisition, a twenty-five-year reign of terror unleashed by the Roman Church in this region, aimed at rooting out and destroying an elevated apostolic status of Mary Magdalene and other perceived heresies.
De Quillan claims, for the first time, to present a modern English translation of the original Greek Gospel of Mary Magdalene. She does this with the permission, but not universal support of her community, which fears reprisal and persecution even today. Reading the text, that fear seems justified in the shadow of a centuries old religious patriarchy.
The clear and consistent message of Jesus’s teaching in this gospel is simple, yet deep and very beautiful. It is this: The Kingdom of Heaven is within you, a seed of the Living Spirit waiting to be discovered, nurtured and cultivated. And it is to be lived into the world outside you.
The fruits of this cultivation are described in a lovely vision of a tree at the close of the gospel, with eight levels separated by seven guardians, each to be overcome and left behind before the fruit of the level can be consumed, allowing ascension to the next. These levels and gates are:
- level one, the fruit of love and compassion, hidden by the guardian of judgment and wrath
- level two, the fruit of wisdom and understanding, hidden by the guardian of ignorance and intolerance
- level three, the fruit of honor and humility, hidden by duplicity and arrogance
- level four, the fruit of strength and courage, hidden and defended by weakness of the flesh and the illusion of our fears
At the completion of this fourth level, the guardians are replaced by lessons or truths to be learned and fully embodied through the consumption of the fruit of the associated level:
- level five, consumption of the fruit of clarity and truth, yielding the clarity and truth of our soul with the understanding that we are truly children of the Living Spirit
- level six, consumption of the fruit of power and healing, yielding the power to heal our own soul
- level seven, consumption of the fruit of light and goodness, yielding freedom from darkness and a resulting fullness of the light and goodness which is the Living Spirit
- Having completed these seven levels, the eighth level is granted, which is described as a fierce joy in knowing and being embraced fully by the grace and beauty of the Spirit.
All else is folly. In this narrative, Jesus is even more explicit than in the canonical gospels about this folly and the oppression practiced by dominant religion through laws, rules and dogma. At one point, for instance, when challenged about the importance of circumcision, he responds that if God wanted males circumcised, he would cause them to be born that way. And in his closing admonition to the disciples at the last supper he says, “Tell others of what you have seen, but do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed you; and do not give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be constrained by it.” Mary Magdalene 35:22
The Gospel of the Beloved Companion reads at heart like a truer version of the Gospel of John. Why do I say truer? Somehow it hangs together better. Whereas John is told by a narrator, this gospel is told in first person by someone who was not only an eye witness, but an intimate participant in the life and teachings of Jesus.
There are simple things. De Quillan points out, for instance, that when the various events and their locations – which are sometimes different than in John – are plotted on a map, they make more sense in terms of the walking distances of the day. We don’t have John’s mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is unambiguously clear that this is a story told by a woman, Mary, also called the Migdalah, or tower, who is the beloved companion of Jesus.
There is nothing sensational about any of it, and the message at every turn points to the teaching about being born of the Spirit, living as a child of the Spirit, experiencing the Kingdom of God. But it has a much more whole and human feel throughout:
- Without making any particular point of it, it is simply clear that what we know as the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, was actually the wedding of Jesus and Mary.
- It is clear in this gospel that Mary Magdalene is the Mary of the Mary, Martha and Lazarus household, and they were essentially home base for Jesus during his ministry.
- There is a different and gender balanced inner core of disciples who consistently understand the message of Jesus. This core includes: the original disciples Thomas and Matthew (referred to as Levi in this book); Mary, Martha and Lazarus; two women called Salome, one of whom is the mother of Peter and Andrew and the other who is the woman we know as the woman at the well; and Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who seem to be close friends.
- The gospel does not try to disguise tension between this group and particularly Peter and Andrew, who challenge Mary at several points, indignant at the idea that Jesus might have told Mary, a woman, things that he did not tell them, or that she, a woman, might better understand the core message and teachings of Jesus than they did.
All of these very human interactions give the book an air of authenticity, as opposed to a story that was augmented or glorified in an artificial manner to prove the divine and extraordinary nature of Jesus. Jesus is clearly someone sent by the Living Spirit with a message and invitation to his human companions that they, like him, are children of that Spirit. He invites them to own it and live it.
I say authenticity. To be clear, when I read this, it rings true to me.
OK, so you may ask the sardonic question of Pilate, which appears in this gospel just as it does in John, “What is truth?” That is an excellent question when it comes to any scripture and, for most of us, especially the traditional biblical scriptures, which, as we grew up, were presented as ultimate truth.
Let’s ask it again today. What is truth?
- Is truth a canon of gospels, letters and visions written and rewritten to suit the tastes of a male hierarchy of patriarchs, three centuries after any fact and in league with the government of Rome?
- Is truth the Gospel of John, which when read side by side with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene does not hang together with nearly the same consistency and authenticity? I come away from the reading with a sense that John, while certainly a unique and lovely book, was a redaction of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene intended to make it palatable and acceptable to a patriarchal church.
- Is truth what appears in the traditional gospels to be a systematic denigration of a woman, the only person who consistently in all the narratives stayed by the side of Jesus through his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – the first one to whom Jesus appears and speaks? The institutional church, from the days of canonization forward, has painted Mary as a demoniac and whore. Her only redeeming quality in that picture is that she is repentant. I find it more likely that the portrayal of her as someone possessed by seven demons was a male redaction and upending of the vision Jesus gave her of the seven gates to be conquered in the journey to complete experience of the tree of the Living Spirit. And the casting as a whore seems the ultimate stake of death, hammered through the heart by a male power structure that could not bear the possibility of a woman being the closest disciple and companion to their savior and champion.
What is truth? By now we know that truth is not historical inerrancy of every word of the canonized scripture. The inconsistencies are too glaring, the contradictions too complete.
Truth, capital T truth, seems something quite other than facts which can never be firmly established. Even if, for instance, the Greek text guarded by this spiritual community in Languedoc turned out to be a first century original, there is no guarantee that it is factually true. Anyone can write a story.
Truth, it seems, is something entirely other than proof positive. So what is it? Jackson Browne touches it for me, somehow, in a line from a song titled The Dancer: “I don’t know what happens when people die. Can’t understand it as hard as I try. It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear, I can’t sing it. I can’t help listening.”
Truth, I believe, is the song sung in a quiet heart. It is as much a sound as it is an object. Jesus, in every portrayal, whether canonized or otherwise, is consistent in this. He says that the children of God, the children of the Living Spirit, are the ones who truly hear his words, who understand them and live them from their hearts.
Truth is the abandonment of wrath and judgment in favor of love and compassion; the eschewing of ignorance and intolerance in favor of wisdom and understanding; the forsaking of duplicity and arrogance to take on honor and humility. Truth is the journey of the soul toward embrace and union with the light and joy of the Living Spirit.
May we quiet our hearts. May we hear the song. May we follow that sound to the Tree of Life, with its fruit in every season and its leaves for the healing of the nations.
© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden. Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.
Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078. Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.