With the discovery of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, several early gospels not included in the canon of the New Testament have come to light. In recent years many books have been written on the Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary, and Peter with The Gospel of Judas probably being the most well known with all the controversy it caused. Books written on these extra-canonical gospels fall into two camps: scholarly and sensational, which makes it difficult for the normal layperson to find a well researched book that you don’t need a specialized theological vocabulary to understand. That is no longer a problem with The Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach.
Independent scholar and general editor of the New Testament: Divine Feminine Version, Mark M. Mattison has written a translation and commentary on The Gospel of Mary that is aimed at the typical layperson who is curious to know more about the only gospel that carries a woman’s name. Mattison offers two translations in his book: first a more dynamic equivalent version, then a more literal public domain version. Mattison has also provided a formatted version of each translation which groups the verses into paragraphs along with an unformatted version where each verse is on a separate line as it is in the original Greek and Coptic texts (Coptic is the result of the Egyptian language being written in the Greek alphabet).
Mattison begins by giving us an overview of who Mary Magdalene was as portrayed in both the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as well as the gospels that did not make it into the New Testament. After the translation of the The Gospel of Mary, he provides a commentary that explains the theology and spirituality of Mary’s gospel along with its place among the earliest writings of the young Christian movement. Normally the section of the gospel called the Ascent of the Soul is interpreted to mean the various trials and tormentors the soul must get past on its way to heaven after death. At this point most Christians write this gospel off because we believe that Christ is all we need for entrance into heaven. But Mattison offers another way to translate Mary’s teaching on the ascent of the soul:
It’s difficult to read about these seven evil powers and not think about the seven demons which were said to have “gone out” of Mary in Luke 8:2. Just as Mary was released from the grip of the seven demons that terrorized her and kept her bound, so Mary’s vision in 15:1–17:7 describes the soul’s victory over seven oppressive powers whose ravages we’ve all experienced to some degree–powers with names like “darkness,” “ignorance,” “wrath, “and so on. These powers are thus described in terms that invite us to confront our own “personal demons,” so to speak–demons like addiction, anxiety, and anger (p. 43).
Scholar Karen King and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault have also advocated this way of interpreting the teachings in the Gospel of Mary. This gospel provides instructions on living an authentic spiritual life based on the teachings and life of Jesus. After the resurrection it gave early believers a guideline on dealing with their own demons and living a Christlike life.
Here is where the genius of Mattison’s book really shines: it doesn’t stop with explaining theology. Following Bourgeault’s example from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, he shows his readers how to live this theology. He offers a chapter on the contemplative practices of lectio divina and contemplative prayer, so his readers can start putting into practice the teachings they learn from The Gospel of Mary. Readers of this book will be equipped to start or deepen their own soul’s ascent to a more self-aware and Christlike life. Mattison also provides resources for those who would like to delve into contemplative spiritual practices. The bibliography provides plenty of resources for those who want to continue their study of Mary’s gospel.
The Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach will give the reader a sound grasp and understanding to The Gospel of Mary. I recommend it for both personal and group study.
Mark M. Mattison is an independent scholar who was the founder and is still a contributor at The Paul Page, which keeps up with all the scholarship coming out on the Apostle Paul (no small task). Mark is also one of the founding members of The Christian Godde Project and the general editor of the New Testament: Divine Feminine Version.
Disclaimers: I received a copy of this book agreeing to review it, and I saw and gave feedback on early drafts of this book. I also work with Mark on the New Testament: A Divine Feminine Version as an associate editor. In other words, I am a biased reviewer.