Mary Magdalene as Sophia

The Gnostics had an image of divine feminine that was purged from the Christian texts of the early church fathers. However, she did appear often in the Gnostic writings as Mary Magdalene allegorized as Sophia/Wisdom/Goddess. She was portrayed as Jesus' most trusted apostle and companion (Gospel of Philip), as a visionary and prophet who possessed a secret teaching that Jesus gave her but not the other disciples (in the Gospel of Mary), as the “woman who knew the All” (in the Dialogue of the Savior) and as the Sophia, the brilliant questioner of Jesus (in the Pistis Sophia). Two Gnostic texts — On the Origin of the World and The Hypostasis of the Archons — proclaim that Sophia alone produced the Judeo-Christian God. A God who would send his only Son to be crucified was unthinkable to some Gnostics, who preferred to contemplate a transcendent God as Goodness and Light.

Followers of Valentinus and his disciple, Marcus the magician, believed that God is indescribable but could be imagined as having two aspects: the masculine (variously called the Primal Father, the Ineffable, and the Depth), and the feminine, seen as the Mystical Eternal Silence, Incorruptible Wisdom, and Mother of All. Marcus claimed his visions of the divine being were female.

The wisdom texts of the Hebrew scriptures often personify wisdom as Sophia or Hokhmah. She articulates knowledge through the proverbs, riddles, and sayings found in those texts. The Apocryphal book of Sirach, for example, states that the Lord “poured her [Wisdom] upon his works” and every living thing and also on his friends (Sirach 1:8).

Mary Magdalene's Divine Wisdom

Mary Magdalene, the disciple of Jesus, sought wisdom; as Sophia, she expressed the divine attribute of Wisdom (as in the Pistis Sophia). Yet in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (verse 114), Peter tells Jesus that Mary Magdalene was not worthy of being an Apostle because she was a woman. Peter was married, yet in the Gnostic literature he is the one most often at odds with Mary Magdalene. But to the Gnostics, Mary Magdalene was filled with wisdom that the Lord poured upon her. For Gnostic women, she must have stood as a powerful spiritual example. The Naassenes, one of the early Gnostic sects, possessed a lesson containing initiatory teachings of Jesus from the Last Supper, which mentions Mariamne [Mary Magdalene].

To understand how the Gnostics might have seen Mary Magdalene as the personification of Sophia, an understanding of a few (of the great number) of the roles Sophia played in ancient times might be in order. In the Ptolemaic tradition, Sophia, the Aeon known as Wisdom, was called Achamoth, or Mother of the Seven Heavens. To the followers of Valentinus, Sophia was represented as higher aspect — Lightsome Mother — and a lower one — Achamoth. In the Gnostic Acts of Thomas, she is the focus of the Eucharistic Prayer. As such, she becomes the ancient goddess known as Astarte or Isis (both were called goddesses of wisdom). The symbol for Astarte was the dove, which is also the symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Gnostic Women and Sophia

It is difficult to say with certainty what theological views about Sophia, the Divine Mother, and other feminine references to God meant to Gnostic women going about their daily activities within their communities. It seems clear that, in the spiritual realms, they did officiate at church fellowship gatherings, prophesied, and performed functions that their conservative counterparts reserved for priests. They likely prepared foods for a simple or celebratory meal for Christian fellowship. But the Gnostic texts for the most part bear the names of men.

Who conducted baptisms in the house churches of different congregations in different urban areas of the Diaspora?

The Apostle Paul with co-workers evangelized communities and established individual homes as “house churches” where he baptized the house-church owners or residents and, they, in turn, baptized the others. Women not only baptized but also may have presided over the Eucharist.

Scholars still seek answers about how Gnostic women lived their lives on a daily basis and how much equality with men they really had. Patriarchy had not disappeared. Slavery still existed. Roman domination and persecution continued at least until the reign of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. While much of what survives in ancient literature offers conflicting images, it is likely that the zeitgeist did not change much while they went about their lives while inwardly searching for the special spiritual knowledge that would set them free.

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