What Became of God the Mother?
Unlike many of his contemporaries among the deities of the ancient
Near East, the God of Israel shares his power with no female
divinity, nor is he the divine Husband or Lover of any.(l) He
scarcely can be characterized in any but masculine epithets: King,
Lord, Master, Judge, and Father.
Elaine H.Pagels (1)
Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity
Unlike many of his contemporaries among the deities of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel shares his power with no female divinity, nor is he the divine Husband or Lover of any.(l) He scarcely can be characterized in any but masculine epithets: King, Lord, Master, Judge, and Father.(2) Indeed, the absence of feminine symbolism of God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast to the world's other religious traditions, whether in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome or Africa, Polynesia, India, and North America. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologians, however, are quick to point out that God is not to be considered in sexual terms at all. Yet the actual language they use daily in worship and prayer conveys a different message and gives the distinct impression that God is thought of in exclusively masculine terms. And while it is true that Catholics revere Mary as the mother of Jesus, she cannot be identified as divine in her own right: if she is "mother of God," she is not "God the Mother" on an equal footing with God the Father.
Christianity, of course, added the trinitarian terms to the Jewish description of God. And yet of the three divine "Persons," two—the Father and Son—are described in masculine terms, and the third—the Spirit—suggests the sexlessness of the Greek neuter term pneuma. This is not merely a subjective impression. Whoever investigates the early development of Christianity—the field called "patristics," that is, study of "the fathers of the church"—may not be surprised by the passage that concludes the recently discovered, secret Gospel of Thomas: "Simon Peter said to them [the disciples], `Let Mary be excluded from among us, for she is a woman, and not worthy of Life.' Jesus said, `Behold I will take Mary, and make her a male, so that she may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For I tell you truly, that every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'"(3) Strange as it sounds, this only states explicitly what religious rhetoric often assumes: that the men form the legitimate body of the community, while women will be allowed to participate only insofar as their own identity is denied and assimilated to that of the men.
Further exploration of the texts which include this Gospel—written on papyrus, hidden in large clay jars nearly 1,600 years ago—has identified them as Jewish and Christian gnostic works which were attacked and condemned as "heretical" as early as A.D. 100—150. What distinguishes these "heterodox" texts from those that are called "orthodox" is at least partially clear: they abound in feminine symbolism that is applied, in particular, to God. Although one might expect, then, that they would recall the archaic pagan traditions of the Mother Goddess, their language is to the contrary specifically Christian, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Thus we can see that certain gnostic Christians diverged even more radically from the Jewish tradition than the early Christians who described God as the "three Persons" or the Trinity. For, instead of a monistic and masculine God, certain of these texts describe God as a dyadic being, who consists of both masculine and feminine elements. One such group of texts, for example, claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James, and significantly, through Mary Magdalene.(4) Members of this group offer prayer to both the divine Father and Mother: "From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven, mankind of the mighty name."(5) Other texts indicate that their authors had pondered the nature of the beings to whom a single, masculine God proposed, "Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Since the Genesis account goes on to say that mankind was created "male and female" (1:27), some concluded, apparently, that the God in whose image we are created likewise must be both masculine and feminine—both Father and Mother.
The characterization of the divine Mother in these sources is not simple since the texts themselves are extraordinarily diverse. Nevertheless, three primary characterizations merge. First, a certain poet and teacher, Valentinus, begins with the premise that God is essentially indescribable. And yet he suggests that the divine can be imagined as a Dyad consisting of two elements: one he calls the Ineffable, the Source, the Primal Father; the other, the Silence, the Mother of all things.(6) Although we might question Valentinus's reasoning that Silence is the appropriate complement of what is Ineffable, his equation of the former with the feminine and the latter with the masculine may be traced to the grammatical gender of the Greek words. Followers of Valentinus invoke this feminine power, whom they also call "Grace" (in Greek, the feminine term charis), in their own private celebration of the Christian eucharist: they call her "divine, eternal Grace, She who is before all things."(7) At other times they pray to her for protection as the Mother, "Thou enthroned with God, eternal, mystical Silence."(8) Marcus, a disciple of Valentinus, contends that "when Moses began his account of creation, he mentioned the Mother of all things at the very beginning, when he said, `In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,' "(9) for the word beginning (in Greek, the feminine arche) refers to the divine Mother, the source of the cosmic elements. When they describe God in this way, different gnostic writers have different interpretations. Some maintain that the divine is to be considered masculo-feminine—the "great male-female power." Others insist that the terms are meant only as metaphors—for, in reality, the divine is neither masculine nor feminine. A third group suggests that one can describe the Source of all things in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intends to stress.(10) Proponents of these diverse views agree, however, that the divine is to be understood as consisting of a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites—a concept that may be akin to the eastern view of yin and yang but remains antithetical to orthodox Judaism and Christianity.
A second characterization of the divine Mother describes her as Holy Spirit. One source, the Secret Book of John, for example, relates how John, the brother of James, went out after the crucifixion with "great grief," and had a mystical vision of the Trinity: "As I was grieving . . . the heavens were opened, and the whole creation shone with an unearthly light, and the universe was shaken. I was afraid . . . and behold . . . a unity in three forms appeared to me, and I marvelled: how can a unity have three forms?" To John's question, the vision answers: "It said to me, `John, John, why do you doubt, or why do you fear? . . . I am the One who is with you always: I am the Father; I am the Mother; I am the Son.'(11) John's interpretation of the Trinity—as Father, Mother, and Son—may not at first seem shocking but is perhaps the more natural and spontaneous interpretation. Where the Greek terminology for the Trinity, which includes the neuter term for the spirit (pneuma), virtually requires that the third "Person" of the Trinity be asexual, the author of the Secret Book looks to the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah—a feminine word. He thus concludes, logically enough, that the feminine "Person" conjoined with Father and Son must be the Mother! Indeed, the text goes on to describe the Spirit as Mother: "the image of the invisible virginal perfect spirit.... She became the mother of the all, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater]."(l2) This same author, therefore, alters Genesis 1:2 ("the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep") to say, "the Mother then was moved."(13) The secret Gospel to the Hebrews likewise has Jesus speak of "my Mother, the Spirit."(l4) And in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus contrasts his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, with his divine Father—the Father of Truth—and his divine Mother, the Holy Spirit. The author interprets a puzzling saying of Jesus in the New Testament ("whoever does not hate his father and mother is not worthy of me") by adding: "Whoever does not love his father and his mother in my way cannot be my disciple; for my [earthly] mother gave me death but my true Mother gave me the Life."(15) Another secret gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Phillip, declares that whoever becomes a Christian "gains both a father and a mother."(l6) The author refers explicitly to the feminine Hebrew term to describe the Spirit as "Mother of many."(17)
If these sources suggest that the Spirit constitutes the maternal element of the Trinity, the Gospel of Phillip makes an equally radical suggestion concerning the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth. Here again the Spirit is praised as both Mother and Virgin, the counterpart—and consort—of the Heavenly Father: "If I may utter a mystery, the Father of the all united with the Virgin who came down" (l8)—that is,.with the Holy Spirit. Yet because this process is to be understood symbolically, and not literally, the Spirit remains a virgin! The author explains that "for this reason, Christ was `born of a virgin'"—that is, of the Spirit, his divine Mother. But the author ridicules those "literal-minded" Christians who mistakenly refer the virgin birth to Mary, Jesus' earthly mother, as if she conceived apart from Joseph: "Such persons do not know what they are saying; for when did a female ever impregnate a female?"(19) Instead, he argues, virgin birth refers to the mysterious union of the two divine powers, the Father of the All with the Holy Spirit.
Besides the eternal, mystical Silence, and besides the Holy Spirit, certain gnostics suggest a third characterization of the divine Mother as Wisdom. Here again the Greek feminine term for wisdom, sophia, like the term for spirit, ruah, translates a Hebrew feminine term, hokhmah. Early interpreters had pondered the meaning of certain biblical passages, for example, Proverbs: "God made the world in Wisdom." And they wondered if Wisdom could be the feminine power in which God's creation is "conceived"? In such passages, at any rate, Wisdom bears two connotations: first, she bestows the Spirit that makes mankind wise; second, she is a creative power. One gnostic source calls her the "first universal creator";(20) another says that God the Father was speaking to her when he proposed to "make mankind in our image."(21) The Great Announcement, a mystical writing, explains the Genesis account in the following terms: "One Power that is above and below, self-generating, self-discovering, its own mother; its own father; its own sister; its own son: Father, Mother, unity, Root of all things."(22) The same author explains the mystical meaning of the Garden of Eden as a symbol of the womb: "Scripture teaches us that this is what is meant when Isaiah says, `I am he that formed thee in thy mother's womb' [Isaiah 44:2]. The Garden of Eden, then, is Moses' symbolic term for the womb, and Eden the placenta, and the river which comes out of Eden the navel, which nourishes the fetus."(23) This teacher claims that the Exodus, consequently, symbolizes the exodus from the womb, "and the crossing of the Red Sea, they say, refers to the blood." Evidence for this view, he adds, comes directly from "the cry of the newborn," a spontaneous cry of praise for "the glory of the primal being, in which all the powers above are in harmonious embrace."(24)
The introduction of such symbolism in gnostic texts clearly bears implications for the understanding of human nature. The Great Announcement, for example, having described the Source as a masculo- feminine being, a "bisexual Power," goes on to say that "what came into being from that Power, that is, humanity, being one, is found to be two: a male-female being that bears the female within it."(25) This refers to the story of Eve's "birth" out of Adam's side (so that Adam, being one, is "discovered to be two," an androgyne who "bears the female within him"). Yet this reference to the creation story of Genesis 2—an account which inverts the biological birth process, and so effectively denies the creative function of the female—proves to be unusual in gnostic sources. More often, such sources refer instead to the first creation account in Genesis 1:26-27. ("And God said, let us make mankind in Our image, after Our image and likeness . . . in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them"). Rabbis in Talmudic times knew a Greek version of the passage, one that suggested to Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman that "when the Holy One . . . first created mankind, he created him with two faces, two sets of genitals, four arms, and legs, back to back: Then he split Adam in two, and made two backs, one on each side."(26) Some Jewish teachers (perhaps influenced by the story in Plato's Symposium) had suggested that Genesis 1:26-27 narrates an androgynous creation—an idea that gnostics adopted and developed. Marcus (whose prayer to the Mother is given above) not only concludes from this account that God is dyadic ("Let us make mankind") but also that "mankind, which was formed according to the image and likeness of God [Father and Mother] was masculo-feminine."(27) And his contemporary, Theodotus, explains: "the saying that Adam was created `male and female' means that the male and female elements together constitute the finest production of the Mother, Wisdom."(28) We can see, then, that the gnostic sources which describe God in both masculine and feminine terms often give a similar description of human nature as a dyadic entity, consisting of two equal male and female components.
All the texts cited above—secret "gospels," revelations, mystical teachings—are among those rejected from the select list of twenty-six that comprise the "New Testament" collection As these and other writings were sorted and judged by various Christian communities, every one of these texts which gnostic groups revered and shared was rejected from the canonical collection as "heterodox" by those who called themselves "orthodox" (literally, straight-thinking) Christians. By the time this process was concluded, probably as late as the year A.D. 200, virtually all the feminine imagery for God (along with any suggestion of an androgynous human creation) had disappeared from "orthodox" Christian tradition.
What is the reason for this wholesale rejection ? The gnostics themselves asked this question of their "orthodox" attackers and pondered it among themselves. Some concluded that the God of Israel himself initiated the polemics against gnostic teaching which his followers carried out in his name. They argued that he was a derivative, merely instrumental power, whom the divine Mother had created to administer the universe, but who remained ignorant of the power of Wisdom, his own Mother: "They say that the creator believed that he created everything by himself, but that, in reality, he had made them because his Mother, Wisdom, infused him with energy, and had given him her ideas. But he was unaware that the ideas he used came from her: he was even ignorant of his own Mother."(29) Followers of Valentinus suggested that the Mother herself encouraged the God of Israel to think that he was acting autonomously in creating the world; but, as one teacher adds, "It was because he was foolish and ignorant of his Mother that he said, `I am God; there is none beside me.' "(30) Others attribute to him the more sinister motive of jealousy, among them the Secret Book of John: "He said, `I am a jealous God, and you shall have no other God before me,' already indicating that another god does exist. For if there were no other god, of whom would he be jealous? Then the Mother began to be distressed."(31) A third gnostic teacher describes the Lord's shock, terror, and anxiety "when he discovered that he was not the God of the universe." Gradually his shock and fear gave way to wonder, and finally he came to welcome the teaching of Wisdom. The gnostic teacher concluded: "This is the meaning of the saying, `The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.' "(32)
What Became of God the Mother?
Taken from Womanspirit Rising pp107-119. Ed. Carol P.Christ and Judith Plaskow. Harper & Row, 1979.
Elaine H. Pagels received her Ph. D. from Harvard University and now teaches at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is author of The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis and The Gnostic Paul. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Theological Review, Journal for Biblical Literature, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion. This essay originally appeared in Signs (Vol. 2, no. 2), c 1976 by The University of Chicago, and is reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
1. Where the God of Israel is characterized as husband and lover in the Old Testament (OT), his spouse is described as the community of Israel (i.e., Isa. 50:1, 54:1-8; Jer. 2:2-3, 20-25, 3:1-20; Hos. 1-4, 14) or as the land of Israel (cf. Isa. 62:1-5).
2. One may note several exceptions to this rule: Deut. 32:11; Hos. 11:1; Isa. 66:12 ff; Num. 11:12.
3. The Gospel according to Thomas (hereafter cited as ET), ed. A. Guillaumount, H. Ch. Puech, G. Quispel, W. Till, Yassah `Abd-al-Masih (London: Collins, 1959), logion 113-114.
4. Hippolytus, Refutationis Omnium Haeresium (hereafter cited as Ref), ed. L. Dunker, F. Schneidewin (Göttingen, 1859), 5.7.
5. Ref, 5.6.
6. Irenaeus, Aduersus Haereses (hereafter cited as AH), ed. W. W. Harvey (Cambridge, 1857), 1.11.1.
7. Ibid., 1.13.2.
8. Ibid., 1.13.6.
9. Ibid., 1.18.2.
10. Ibid., 1.11.5-21.1, 3; Ref, 6.29.
11. Apocryphon Johannis (hereafter cited as AJ), ed. S. Giversen (Copenhagen: Prostant Apud Munksgaard, 1963), 47.20-48.14.
12. AJ, 52.34-53.6.
13. Ibid., 61.13-14.
14. Origen, Commentary on John, 2.12; Hom. On Jeremiah, 15.4.
15. ET, 101. The text of this passage is badly damaged; I follow here the reconstruction of G. MacRae of the Harvard Divinity School.
16. L'Evangile selon Phillipe (hereafter cited as EP), ed. J. E. Ménard (Leiden: Brill, 1967), logion 6.
17. EP, logion 36.
18. Ibid., logion 82.
19. Ibid., logion 17.
20. Extraits de Théodote (hereafter cited as Exc), ed. F. Sagnard, Sources chrétiennes 23 (Paris: Sources chrétiennes, 1948).
21. AH, 1.30.6.
22. Ref, 6.17.
23. Ibid., 6.14.
24. AH, 1.14.7-8.
25. Ref, 6.18.
26. Genesis Rabba 8.1, also 17.6; cf. Levitius Rabba 14. For an excellent discussion of androgyny, see W. Meeks, "The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity," History of Religions 13 (1974): 165-208.
27. AH, 1.18.2.
28. Exc, 21.1.
29. Ref, 6.33.
30. AH, 1.5.4; Ref, 6.33.
31. AJ, 61.8-14.
32. Ref, 7.26