There is a very common misunderstanding of the Gospel of Philip, which has been promoted by Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code.” Of course, it isn’t the only mistake Dan Brown has made, but it is one of the more interesting mistakes (his mistakes about the Council of Nicea, apparently confusing it for Carthage I, or his suggestion that there were any texts about Jesus among the Dead Sea Scrolls, are comical, but not very interesting beyond that). As I remember it, Brown suggests, through the mouth of his favorite antagonistic character Sir Leigh Teabing, that the Gospel of Philip bears witness to a dark secret which the Vatican doesn’t want people to know about; that Jesus was Mary-ed. In the Gospel of Philip it calls Mary Jesus’ companion, and the argument in the Da Vinci Code is that since the word ‘companion’ in Aramaic connotes sexual intimacy, this Gospel is bearing witness to Jesus’ intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. One might be tempted to point out in reply that the word companion could carry that connotation in any language (including English), and thus context is important – but here there is a more glaring problem with this suggestion that since Companion in Aramaic can connote sexual intimacy, it is likely that the Gospel of Philip carries this connotation. Namely, the Gospel of Philip was not written in Aramaic at all, but Coptic! Nor is there any evidence of any Aramaic roots or traditions which contributed directly to GosPhil. Moreover the same term in Coptic, translated ‘companion’ is also used without the connotation (eg. the Disciples are said to be Jesus’ companions on the road).
Let’s take a closer look at the passages often cited:
There were three Mariams who walked with the Lord at all times: his mother and [his] sister and (the) Magdaleneº—this one who is called his Companionº. Thus his (true) Mother and Sister and Mate¹ is (also called) ‘Mariam’.
The wisdom which (humans) call barren is herself the Mother of the Angels.¹ And the companion of the [Christ] is Mariam the Magdalene. The [Lord loved]Mariam more than [all the (other)] Disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth].² The other [women]saw his love for Mariam,cthey say to him: Why do thou love [her] more than all of us? || The Saviorºreplied,³ he says to them: Why do I not love you as (I do) her?!
There are a number of things to say about these curious passages. The first is perhaps that the theology of Gospel of Philip has to be taken into consideration when reading such passages. Instead of simply stipulating what that Theology is, I’m going to try to work my way there. The most obvious and striking element of these passages is the fact that Jesus kisses Mary often on her mouth. Or at least, that’s what scholars reconstruct the text to say, but we don’t actually know that the word here is mouth, since there is a hole in the manuscript at that point, but we have good reason (once one understands the theology of kissing in this Gospel) to suppose that it is the mouth – moreover if one measures the letters, one finds that the word fits what we would expect based on the size of the hole. Now, Christians should not be altogether unfamiliar with the idea of kissing each other. In fact, kissing was even originally part of the Mass, which today is usually done in various ways (today in the Novus Ordo we usually simply say ‘peace be with you’ and shake each other’s hand). However, St. Paul talks about kissing:
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
~1 Thessalonians 5:26
All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
~1 Corinthians 16:20
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
~2 Corinthians 13:12
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
Peter also refers to this tradition of kissing:
Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.
~1 Peter 5:14
This Christian practice of kissing is often overlooked, but for the Valentinian theology, reflected in the Gospel of Philip, kissing was developed into a theological theme in itself. This notion of kissing doesn’t only exist in the Gospel of Philip either. In the second Apocalypse of James (56:14-20) Jesus kisses James on the mouth, and immediately afterwards James’ mind was illuminated and received the revelation of divine mysteries of God. Jesus even goes on to say that those who drink from his mouth will become like him. Kissing, thus, is about spiritual begetting. That makes sense of the Gospel of Philip where it says, in the context of talking about begetting:
[Grace comes] forth from him thru the mouth, the place where the Logos came forth; (one) was to be nourished from the mouth and to become perfected. The perfect are conceived thru a kiss and they are born. Therefore we also are motivated to kiss one another—to receive conception from within our mutual grace.
Now, one might think to suggest that just because ‘kissing’ was developed into this theologically symbolic act, that doesn’t preclude the Gospel of Philip from really witnessing indirectly to Mary and Jesus having an intimate relationship. One might go about arguing that, since according to normative Judaism a man had a religious and moral duty to marry and procreate, Jesus almost certainly could not have been tolerated as a religious leader were he not married himself. Indeed, it would have been odder for Jesus not to have been married than for him to have been married. Moreover (one might argue), perhaps the Gospel of Philip developed this higher theology of kissing in order to deal with the apparently embarrasing fact that Jesus had loved Mary Magdalene.
There are a few interesting points to be made here. Obviously the first thing to note is that Jesus wasn’t tolerated as a religious leader in the Jewish community. The earliest and most reliable witnesses we have do not bear any witness to any relationship of Jesus and Mary, and seem to bear witness to Jesus’ celibacy. Moreover, one would have expected that the earlier the sources, the more likely they would be to contain embarrassing information, where we would expect the latter sources to edit such things out over time. But the Gospel of Philip is rather late, not an early witness by any stretch. Moreover, one of the themes which is popular among Gnostic texts is juxtaposing the figures of Peter and Mary, arguing that although Peter thinks himself the head of the Church, Mary Magdalene was given in secret revelations which Peter and the other Apostles never even heard about. This was likely a Gnostic attempt at a response to the Heresiologists (the Church Fathers who combated heresies through apologetics), who had often turned to Peter and his successors, along with the other bishops who succeeded from other apostles and made a point of contrasting the ‘universal’ teaching with the novelties of the Gnostics. The argument was meant to demonstrate that since even the closest disciples of Christ had never heard of such strange teachings, those teachings were likely not the teachings of Christ, but of somebody else. The Gnostic response comes ‘ah yes, but Jesus told some people things in secret, and the greatest and fullest revelation was never given to the Apostles (or else certainly was never given to Peter himself)’. This concern with figures receiving surer revelation than Peter betrays the awareness in the early Church of a Petrine authority in the Church, thus indirectly the Gospel of Philip is, and other Gospels like it are, actually bearing witness to the Papacy.
What’s more, in the Gospel of Philip sexual relations are looked upon poorly. In fact, in the Gospel of Philip the sacrament of the Bridal Chamber is not holy Matrimony, but rather is the true matrimony of human beings with the angels who are our true spouses (of course, Angels aren’t quite viewed the same way as you might think, but they are seen in the context of the standard Gnostic cosmogonic myth). Notice as well that in the Gospel of Philip there is intentional symbolism: what happens here on earth is supposed to be a cosmic reflection – thus, Mary actually stands for Wisdom itself (Sophia) and Jesus’ love for her is intended to communicate a truth about the Gnostic myth.
One very intelligent student in my Gnosticism class the other day mentioned that this theology of Jesus kissing people may also have some theological connection with Isaiah’s kissing a coal (Isaiah 6:6-7). That is possible as well, but the theology here isn’t principally dealing with purity but with immediate revelation.
Finally, perhaps I’ll flesh out in a further post the point about Jewish Celibacy in the first century. In any case that is an auxiliary argument which has no connection to the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Philip has been demonstrated, in scholarship today (to the satisfaction of almost everyone), to have absolutely no implications about Jesus’ actual marital status.