Genre: Dialogue and Polemics
The extant text of GJW presents a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. In line →2, the disciples are addressing their remarks to Jesus, and in line→4, the antecedent of the third person plural “them” most probably refers to “the disciples.” It is therefore highly probable that Jesus is directly addressing his disciples in the first person in the other extant lines. On the verso, another instance of “my mother” occurs, indicating more direct speech. It is not clear whether the dialogue was part of a more extensive work that contained narrative passages.
Dialogues are familiar constituents of early Christian gospel literature, both in canonical and extracanonical gospels,59 and the broader generic category for GJW is gospel, insofar as this category is defined capaciously to include all early Christian literature whose narrative or dialogue encompasses some aspect of Jesus's career (including post-resurrection appearances) or that designates itself as “gospel” already in antiquity.60 Although it is unknown whether the fragment belongs to a larger work titled a “gospel,” in content it most closely resembles works that are (e.g., Matt, Luke, Gos. Thom., Gos. Mary, and Gos. Phil.).61
The dialogue concerns family and discipleship. Jesus speaks of “my mother” and “my wife” in lines →1 and 4, and line →5 refers to a female person who is able to be Jesus's “disciple.” Moreover, there appears to be some controversy or polemic, although it is unclear precisely what the concerns are. The term in line →3 indicates that something or someone is being denied or rejected, and the line goes on to address whether Mary is worthy of something. In addition, line →7 contains what appears to be, if not a curse, at least a strong wish that the wicked should swell up, indicating some kind of antipathy.
More tentatively, the first four extant letters of line →1 () may be the conclusion of a well-known Jesus saying found in Matt 10:37, Luke 14:26 (Q 14:26), and Gos. Thom. 55 and 101.62 This suggestion is based on two factors. First, the topics of family, worthiness, and discipleship are similar, and secondly, the version in Gos. Thom. (NHC II,2 49.34, 36) also ends with these four Coptic letters.63 In addition, line →5 offers a construction () similar to Gos. Thom. 55 and 101 (though the sentence in GJW is positive and the personal prefix is feminine not masculine). Furthermore, the version of the saying in Gos. Thom. 101 (NHC II,2 49.36–50.2) continues with a contrast between Jesus's (natal?) mother and his true mother who gave him life. While no such contrast is apparent in GJW, the similarity suggests that the restoration of “li[fe]” at the end of line →1 () is possible. Together these similarities make the restoration of some version of this saying highly likely in my opinion. However, given that none of the variants in this widespread tradition exactly match GJW, the precise form of the saying here cannot be definitively determined, nor is its direct literary dependence upon Gos. Thom. assured.
The verso of the fragment, which has only two clearly legible Coptic words, “my mother” and “forth,” offers little help to interpretation. Nor is it certain that the verso text belongs to the same literary composition as the recto, although that should be considered a possibility given the topic of “my mother” on both sides of the fragment.
Much remains tantalizingly open, given the tiny size of the fragment, the loss of text at the beginning and end of every extant line, and the serious damage, especially to line →8 and to the entire verso. What is being taught about family and discipleship? What is the issue (or issues) of the polemics? What is being stated about “my mother,” “Mary,” “my wife,” and “my disciple”? To whom do they refer? Might these figures be related? If so, how? Any answers to these questions will remain speculative to a greater or lesser degree, as is true for all historical reconstruction, but all the more so for fragmentary texts like GJW. Nonetheless, the themes of family and discipleship stand out, as well as the attention given to female figures. The topic of Jesus's marital status invites consideration as well.
Who is Worthy and Able to be Jesus's Disciple?
Family and discipleship were issues that deeply concerned early Christians. In a world where family membership assumed strong ties of duty, loyalty, and a social identity that carried religious or cultic obligations, those who followed Jesus would often have found themselves at odds with natal family members. Sayings in the early gospel tradition emphasize that mission and loyalty to Jesus should override familial relations and could put followers at risk of losing their lives.64
Yet at the same time, Jesus's followers were constituting themselves using the language of family, with God as Father, Jesus as his Son, and members of the churches as brothers and sisters—or alternatively Christ as bridegroom and the Church as his virginal bride. For example, in Mark 3:31–35 when Jesus's mother and brothers come asking for him, Jesus tells the crowd, “Whosoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”65 The Gospel of Thomas differentiates natal and spiritual families in the sharpest terms. For example, in Gos. Thom. 101, Jesus distinguishes between parents one should hate and those one should love, differentiating his (birth?) mother from his “true” mother who gave him life.66 And in saying 105 Jesus says, “Whoever knows father and mother67 will be called the child of a harlot” (Gos. Thom. 50:16–18), equating birth through human lust with sexual illegitimacy and implying that one's true identity is as a child of the divine Father (and Mother?).68 By using this strong language of hating family, slurring natal relations as illegitimacy and harlotry, and by contrasting natal family with the family of God in Christ, gospel writers were attempting to dis-embed believers from their natal families, at least in terms of primary loyalty, and to re-embed them as concrete members in a new (fictive) family, the church. In later centuries, these sayings took on new significance as Christians faced ruptures with natal families and broader communities during times of persecution69 or as believers were urged to give up marriage and reproduction in favor of lives of sexual renunciation.70
Might the similarities of these dominical sayings to the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in GJW indicate similar concerns with the cost of discipleship or the identification of one's true (spiritual) family? Jesus speaks in GJW about worthiness and who is able to be his disciple, and, as we have seen, the mention of family members (mother and wife) in such a context is not surprising. Indeed the clear focus on female figures—“Mary,” “my mother,” “my wife,” “my (female) disciple”—suggests a special interest in the worthiness of women to be disciples. That someone or something is being denied or rejected (→3), that someone speaks about the (un)worthiness of Mary (→3), and that Jesus defends some particular woman's ability to be his disciple (→5) all seem to indicate that the topic under discussion concerns questions or challenges about women and discipleship, in particular sexually active and reproductive women (wives and mothers). We know these were topics under debate in the early period of Christian formation. For example, in Gos. Thom. 114 Peter declares, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life” (a position Jesus corrects), and 1 Timothy condemns those who forbid marriage, insisting that women will be saved through childbearing (4:1–5; 2:15). Might GJW, too, be weighing in on such controversies? Let us take a closer look.
Women and Discipleship: Mary, My Mother, My Wife, My Disciple
While certainly Jesus's reference to “my wife” is the most startling aspect of the fragment for modern readers, it is also notable that he refers as well to “my mother,” “Mary,” and “my (female) disciple.” All these figures, except a wife, are characters in narratives of Jesus's life found in early Christian writings both within and outside of the New Testament canon. It is not entirely clear, however, how many women are being referred to in GJW,71 who they are, precisely what is being said about them, or what larger issues are under discussion.
To whom, for example, does “Mary” refer—Jesus's mother, his wife, a female disciple, yet another figure, or even all of these? Early Christianity's well-known profusion and confusion of Marys should make us cautious in identifying Mary here. “Mary” was a popular name among Jewish women, and six of the sixteen named women in the New Testament are called “Mary.”72 Two Marys, however, are particularly prominent: Jesus's mother and Mary Magdalene. It seems likely that “Mary” refers to one of these, but which? Orthography is not decisive since early Christian literature uses the spelling of “Mary” () found in GJW →3 variably for both Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.73 Further difficulty arises in that later tradition not infrequently assigns to the mother Mary roles otherwise belonging to Mary Magdalene,74 and the reverse occurs as well, albeit more rarely.75 Both are traditionally regarded as disciples of Jesus. In one case multiple Mary figures are directly identified. Gospel of Philip 59.6–11 first refers to three Marys but then conflates them into a single figure76: (There are three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, who is called his partner [koinônos]. For Mary is his sister and his mother and his spouse [hôtre]).77
Moreover, it is possible that the references to mother, Mary, and wife do not refer to characters in the career of the historical Jesus but are being deployed metaphorically as figures of the Church (fem.) or heavenly Wisdom (Sophia; fem.) or symbolically/typologically as brides of Christ or even mothers. Examples abound. In the later church, Jesus's mother is presented as the model for virgins who are understood as brides of Christ. Athanasius, for example, writes: “But Mary, the bearer of God, remains a virgin [so that she might be a pattern for] everyone coming after her. If a woman desires to remain a virgin and bride of Christ, she can look to her [Mary’s] life and imitate it.”78 Thus Mary the mother is, in that sense, “the image” for both his mother and his bride. As for Mary Magdalene, she too was allegorically interpreted as the bride of Christ, for example in a fourth-century intertextual interpretation of Song 3 with John 20.79 Moreover, in Gos. Phil., it may be that Mary Magdalene is identified as “the mother of angels” and the type of the heavenly Wisdom.80 However, Gos. Phil. also teaches that Mary the mother conceived not by the Holy Spirit but from the Father of the All, and from their union Jesus's body came into being (Gos. Phil. 71:4–9; see also 55:23–36). Thus Gos. Phil. ascribes roles in the heavenly drama of salvation to the “historical” figures of both Mary Magdalene and Jesus's mother.
Much more could be said here, but this brief discussion already illustrates that early Christian literature offers numerous examples where a Mary appears as Jesus's mother, bride, sister, heavenly Wisdom, Church, or archetype for virginal brides of Christ. Moreover, the practices of “confusing” or identifying various Marys with each other or assigning them metaphorical or typological roles in Christian dramas of salvation demonstrate the “flexibility” of early tradition in appealing to these important female figures for various ends.
Where might the references to “mother,” “Mary,” “my wife,” and “my disciple” in GJW be situated in this field? The polemics of the fragment may help in answering this question. What are the issues under debate?
While non-Christian outsiders did ridicule the notion of Mary's virginal motherhood,81 among Christians Jesus's mother became increasingly valorized, even venerated, for her exemplary piety and virginity.82 Her motherhood, however, was also a crucial, if contentious, site to explore and debate theological questions about the nature of the incarnation. Certainly some Christians were questioning the fleshly status of Jesus's birth, suggesting for example that his birth mother was only a pipe through which he flowed, contributing nothing.83 Other Christians emphasized the very physical character of the birth.84 For GJW, the insistence that his mother gave him life might well be an affirmation that his birth mother did indeed give him life—perhaps in opposition to views such as that of Gos. Thom. 101, which distinguishes Jesus's birth mother from his true mother. While such debates may have their focus on the incarnation or the spiritual nature of believers, representations of Jesus's mother also impacted Christian attitudes toward women generally, especially in regard to controversies over female virginity and reproduction. If GJW →3 concerns Jesus's mother, it would seem to support mothers against those who deny their worthiness.
What about Jesus's reference to “my wife” (GJW →4)? Might it belong to intra-Christian polemics over the value of marriage? Let us consider this question in the broader context of what early Christians said about Jesus's marital status.85
The New Testament gospels never explicitly claim that Jesus was not married, but other literature does portray Christ as married metaphorically to the Church or to Jerusalem.86 The first Christians to claim that Jesus was not married used the claim to denounce all marriage, according to Clement of Alexandria. In his Stromateis, he reports on some second-century Christians “who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world, boasting that they understand the gospel better than anyone else.”87 Tertullian, too, stated that Christ was “totally unwed” (innuptus in totum) and he urged believers to a higher perfection by imitating Christ's status as spado in carne (“an impotent person” or “eunuch in flesh”—perhaps referring to Matt 19:8–9, 12), although Tertullian invoked Jesus's celibacy not to forbid marriage altogether but to charge believers against a second marriage.88 As a high valuation of celibacy and virginity flourished, the position that Jesus was a virgin who never married came to be dominant, even though the extreme denunciation of marriage was rejected.89 On the other hand, the ascetic movement tended to produce many “brides of Christ,” virgins who pledged themselves to him in “spiritual marriage.”90 Without referring to a married Jesus, however, other Christians already in the second century pushed back against the devaluation or rejection of marriage and childbearing. 1 Timothy, for example, requires bishops to be married (3:2), argues that woman are saved by bearing children (2:15), and rebukes those who reject marriage as liars possessed by demons (4:15).
Arguably, however, Gos. Phil. does portray Mary Magdalene as the spousal partner of the fleshly (incarnate) Jesus, as part of its complex theological articulation of Jesus's incarnation and Christian salvation.91 It interprets Eph 5:22–33 in conjunction with a developing incarnational theology in which everything about Jesus is considered to have spiritual meaning, not only his teaching and deeds, but his birth, death, and resurrection—and his marriage. The Gospel of Philip interprets that marriage as a symbolic paradigm enacted by Christians in an initiation ritual (involving the normal water baptism, anointing with oil, the communal greeting of a kiss, and the Eucharist meal) that effectively made initiates into members of the body of Christ, the Church, and thus restored human unity with the divine. Just as Jesus's incarnation was the result of the union of the Father of the All with the virgin, so, too, the spiritual truth that Jesus taught in his marriage with Mary Magdalene was the union and restoration to unity with God. Baptism also purified Christians from demon possession and its pollutions, so that marriage between Christians was pure, free from demonic presence, and a matter of will not the lust of sexual desire. In short, Gos. Phil. offers an incarnational theology that embraces the pure marriage of Christians as a paradigm established by Christ in his own incarnate life.92
While it is impossible to read such a fully developed incarnational theology into the GJW fragment, if “Mary” (GJW →3) is the antecedent for “my wife” (GJW →4), it may be that this Mary is understood to be Mary Magdalene. Moreover, if the antecedent for “disciple” (GJW →5) is “my wife” (GJW →4), what might the polemics in GJW imply?
While later tradition in the West erroneously identified Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute,93 earlier Christian literature portrays her as an exemplary woman disciple and even a leader in the Jesus movement.94 Some early Christian writings, however, challenge her status,95 notably through the figure of Peter.96 In Gos. Mary, for example, Peter states that Jesus loved her more than other women (10:1–3), but later he and Andrew challenge her role as a leading disciple (17:10–22). Levi, however, defends her, stating: (For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior's knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us; 18:10–15).97 Jesus's love of Mary affirms her status as favored disciple and does not explicitly refer to her as a wife.98 There are, however, some intriguing semantic similarities to GJW. Although the precise terms used in Gos. Mary are different from GJW →3, the Greek ἄξιος can render the Coptic ,99 and the semantic ranges of (cast out, discard) and (deny, reject) are perhaps not so far apart. Moreover, grammatically, the antecedent of in GJW →3 could be (discipleship), a point that would fit Jesus's statement in GJW →5 that “she is able to be my disciple.” Such similarities are not sufficient to establish a direct literary relationship between the two works. The relatively widespread polemic against Mary Magdalene as beloved of Jesus and as a follower whose discipleship is challenged, however, provides a compelling context in which to read the GJW fragment.
Finally, let us consider the remarkable opinion of Simon Peter in Gos. Thom. 114: (Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life).100 Given the “confusion” of Marys, it is again not entirely clear who is being referred to here. But whether Mary is Jesus's mother, the prominent disciple Mary Magdalene, or even some third Mary, the statement that all women are not worthy of life is remarkable. And even though Jesus steps in to defend Mary (and women), stating that he will make her a “living spirit resembling you males,”101 this response is not a particularly robust defense of femaleness. In contrast, Jesus's statement in GJW that his mother brought him life and is worthy (GJW → 1, 3) and his claim that his wife is able to be his disciple (GJW →4–5) offer a more robust affirmation that women who are wives and mothers are worthy and able to be disciples of Jesus.
In the end, many possibilities remain open. The Mary in line →3 could refer the Jesus's mother, his wife, or even a different figure. Jesus's marriage in GJW might be carnal, celibate,102 metaphorical, and/or symbolic-paradigmatic. I consider it highly likely, however, that the polemical issue of the dialogue concerns the discipleship of women. There is no direct evidence that the issue of women's discipleship under discussion here centered around leadership roles within Christian communities. Rather it may be that GJW is interested in countering views that valued virginal celibacy over marriage and childbirth or positions that made rejecting sexual life a requirement for discipleship. The dialogue may be representing Jesus's mother and his wife as paradigms for married, child-bearing Christian women and affirming that they are worthy and able to be his disciples. Other interpretations are of course possible, but this one makes good sense within the early history of Christianity, when questions of marriage and reproduction, the status of Mary the mother and Mary Magdalene, and the meaning of Jesus's incarnation were all widespread topics of theological and ethical concern.