This latest book follows up the authors’ previous scholarly historical work to examine how the authorities in both Judaism and Christianity rewrote history ‘to erase the feminine side of faith, deliberately ignoring Jesus’s real message and again condemning women to marginalisation.’ It breaks new ground in showing how goddess worship was present in early Judaism, while continuing the revolutionary work instigated by the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic gospels in 1945, which have given a very different picture of Jesus as a messenger of wisdom – as indicated in my review in the previous issue of books about Mary Magdalene.

The story begins in Egypt and immediately highlights the political importance of religious orthodoxy in legitimising and reinforcing the authority of the King ruling on behalf of a single God. The cult of Yahweh ‘was increasingly identified with centralised royal power’ entailing the removal of other gods such as Baal and the merging of El with Yahweh. This picture in fact represents the Deuteronomist rewriting of the Bible in the seventh century and airbrushing out the figures such as Asherah, originally a Canaanite goddess and the consort of Baal. Many artefacts testify to her worship alongside Yahweh as the great mother and sacred tree as a symbol of fertility. An eighth century inscription refers to ‘Yahweh and his Asherah.’ It is remarkable to read that the statue of Asherah was present in Solomon’s Temple for 236 of the 370 years of its existence. The existence of a goddess implies the office of priestess, which in all probability also involved ritual sexuality and the hieros gamos or sacred union.

A later development is the emergence of Sophia as wisdom, which is more of a symbol – ‘the old Testament version of the Blessed Virgin Mary – than a ‘full-blooded female archetype’ also embodying the erotic. Then we come to the Hellenisation process in Alexandria, also incorporating Isis. Interestingly, Philo identifies Sophia with Logos, thus conferring enormous power, but in the Gospel of John we find the Logos associated with Jesus. Interestingly, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon both equate God’s Holy Spirit with Sophia while the indwelling presence of God is represented by Shekhina. We now move on into the New Testament where there is a fascinating discussion of the parallels between Simon Magus and his consort Helen with Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It turns out that it is precisely on account of these similarities that Simon is demonised as the origin of all heresies. Ironically, this is all documented by Hippolytus in his book The Great Revelation and later by Justin. These theologians naturally interpreted Simon’s wonder-working as that of the devil, while identical actions by Jesus were divinely inspired. At issue is the crucial question of authority: people could not be left free to choose, and the very word for heretic is derived from haerein meaning to choose.

The authors propose that both Simon and Jesus were trying to reintroduce the goddess element, and a very different picture of Mary Magdalene emerges from the Gnostic Gospels, especially those of Thomas, Philip and Mary; and in the source gospel for the Synoptics, Q, Jesus attributes his teachings to Wisdom/Sophia, which is also the case in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion, where the Holy Spirit is explicitly feminine, as it apparently was for early Christians. These Gospels portray Mary rather than Peter as the true successor of Jesus as the one who fully understood and embodied his message and who, even in the canonical gospels, anoints Jesus as Christ. Significantly, the anointing is performed by a woman whose role was subsequently distorted, and especially by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. Instead, Gnostic Gospels understand Mary’s position as a priestess and the consort of Jesus. In the Valentinian Gospel of Philip, Jesus is the bridegroom and Mary as Sophia the bride who together enter into the bridal chamber.

A contributory factor to the editing out of Mary might have been her similarity to Helen as well as the subsequent equating of virginity and celibacy with spiritual perfection. The authors rightly observe that ‘the great calamity of the last 2000 years is that the goddess’s fate in Judaism was repeated in Christianity’ (p. 270) – hence our current spiritually incomplete faith but also the revival of the sacred feminine that is underway. The emergence of the church as a patriarchal authoritarian and political institution in the fourth century played a critical role, but the orthodox view of Jesus has in my view been overturned by the Gnostic Gospels, from which a new and more balanced picture emerges. I believe that we are now ready as a culture for a fully fledged sacred feminine that embraces all of its aspects. This book is an important contribution to this process.

 

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