What Became of God the Mother?
Elaine H.Pagels (2)
Further research might disclose how social and cultural forces converged to suppress feminine symbolism—and women's participation— from western Christian tradition. Given such research, the history of Christianity never could be told in the same way again.
Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity
All of these are, of course, mythical explanations. To look for the actual, historical reasons why these gnostic writings were suppressed is an extremely difficult proposition, for it raises the much larger question of how (i.e., by what means and what criteria) certain ideas, including those expressed in the texts cited above, came to be classified as heretical and others as orthodox by the beginning of the third century. Although the research is still in its early stages, and this question is far from being solved, we may find one clue if we ask whether these secret groups derived any practical, social consequences from their conception of God—and of mankind—that included the feminine element? Here again the answer is yes and can be found in the orthodox texts themselves. Irenaeus, an orthodox bishop, for example, notes with dismay that women in particular are attracted to heretical groups—especially to Marcus's circle, in which prayers are offered to the Mother in her aspects as Silence, Grace, and Wisdom; women priests serve the eucharist together with men; and women also speak as prophets, uttering to the whole community what "the Spirit" reveals to them.(33) Professing himself to be at a loss to understand the attraction that Marcus's group holds, he offers only one explanation: that Marcus himself is a diabolically successful seducer, a magician who compounds special aphrodisiacs to "deceive, victimize, and defile" these "many foolish women!" Whether his accusation has any factual basis is difficult, probably impossible, to ascertain. Nevertheless, the historian notes that accusations of sexual license are a stock-in-trade of polemical arguments.(34) The bishop refuses to admit the possibility that the group might attract Christians—especially women—for sound and comprehensible reasons. While expressing his own moral outrage, Tertullian, another "father of the church," reveals his fundamental desire to keep women out of religion: "These heretical women—how audacious they are! They have no modesty: they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!"(35) Tertullian directs yet another attack against "that viper"—a woman teacher who led a congregation in North Africa.(36) Marcion had, in fact, scandalized his "orthodox" contemporaries by appointing women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops among his congregations.(37) The teacher Marcillina also traveled to Rome to represent the Carpocratian group, an esoteric circle that claimed to have received secret teaching from Mary, Salome, and Martha.(38) And among the Montanists, a radical prophetic circle, the prophet Philumene was reputed to have hired a male secretary to transcribe her inspired oracles.(39)
Other secret texts, such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Wisdom of Faith, suggest that the activity of such women leaders challenged and therefore was challenged by the orthodox communities who regarded Peter as their spokesman. The Gospel of Mary relates that Mary tried to encourage the disciples after the crucifixion and to tell them what the Lord had told her privately. Peter, furious at the suggestion, asks, "Did he then talk secretly with a woman, instead of to us? Are we to go and learn from her now? Did he love her more than us?" Distressed at his rage, Mary then asks Peter: "What do you think? Do you think I made this up in my heart? Do you think I am lying about the Lord?" Levi breaks in at this point to mediate the dispute: "Peter, you are always irascible. You object to the woman as our enemies do. Surely the Lord knew her very well, and indeed, he loved her more than us." Then he and the others invite Mary to teach them what she knows.(40) Another argument between Peter and Mary occurs in Wisdom of Faith. Peter complains that Mary is dominating the conversation, even to the point of displacing the rightful priority of Peter himself and his brethren; he urges Jesus to silence her—and is quickly rebuked. Later, however, Mary admits to Jesus that she hardly dares to speak freely with him, because "Peter makes me hesitate: I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race." Jesus replies that whoever receives inspiration from the Spirit is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.(41)
As these texts suggest, then, women were considered equal to men, they were revered as prophets, and they acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, and even bishops. In some of these groups, they played leading roles and were excluded from them in the orthodox churches, at least by A.D. 150-200. Is it possible, then, that the recognition of the feminine element in God and the recognition of mankind as a male and female entity bore within it the explosive social possibility of women acting on an equal basis with men in positions of authority and leadership? If this were true, it might lead to the conclusion that these gnostic groups, together with their conception of God and human nature, were suppressed only because of their positive attitude toward women. But such a conclusion would be a mistake—a hasty and simplistic reading of the evidence. In the first place, orthodox Christian doctrine is far from wholly negative in its attitude toward women. Second, many other elements of the gnostic sources diverge in fundamental ways from what came to be accepted as orthodox Christian teaching. To examine this process in detail would require a much more extensive discussion than is possible here. Nevertheless, the evidence does indicate that two very different patterns of sexual attitudes emerged in orthodox and gnostic circles. In simplest form, gnostic theologians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature. Most often they refer to the creation account of Genesis 1, which suggests an equal (or even androgynous) creation of mankind. This conception carries the principle of equality between men and women into the practical social and political structures of gnostic communities. The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine terms and often uses Genesis 2 to describe how Eve was created from Adam and for his fulfillment. Like the gnostic view, the orthodox also translates into sociological practice: by the late second century, orthodox Christians came to accept the domination of men over women as the proper, God-given order—not only for the human race, but also for the Christian churches. This correlation between theology, anthropology, and sociology is not lost on the apostle Paul. In his letter to the disorderly Corinthian community, he reminds them of a divinely ordained chain of authority: As God has authority over Christ, so the man has authority over the woman, argues Paul, citing Genesis 2: "The man is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man; and besides, the man was not created for the woman's sake, but the woman for the sake of the man."(42) Here the three elements of the orthodox pattern are welded into one simple argument: the description of God corresponds to a description of human nature which authorizes the social pattern of male domination.
A striking exception to this orthodox pattern occurs in the writings of one revered "father of the church," Clement of Alexandria. Clement identifies himself as orthodox, although he knows members of gnostic groups and their writings well; some scholars suggest that he was himself a gnostic initiate. Yet his own works demonstrate how all three elements of what we have called the "gnostic pattern" could be worked into fully "orthodox" teaching. First, Clement characterizes God not only in masculine but also in feminine terms: "The Word is everything to the child, both father and mother, teacher and nurse.... The nutriment is the milk of the father. . . and the Word alone supplies us children with the milk of love, and only those who suck at this breast are truly happy.... For this reason seeking is called sucking; to those infants who seek the Word, the Father's loving breasts supply milk.(43) Second, in describing human nature, he insists that "men and women share equally in perfection, and are to receive the same instruction and discipline. For the name `humanity' is common to both men and women; and for us `in Christ there is neither male nor female.'"(44) Even in considering the active participation of women with men in the Christian community Clement offers a list—unique in orthodox tradition—of women whose achievements he admires. They range from ancient examples, like Judith, the assassin who destroyed Israel's enemy, to Queen Esther, who rescued her people from genocide, as well as others who took radical political stands. He speaks of Arignole the historian, of Themisto the Epicurean philosopher, and of many other women philosophers, including two who studied with Plato and one trained by Socrates. Indeed, he cannot contain his praise: "What shall I say? Did not Theano the Pythagoran make such progress in philosophy that when a man, staring at her, said, `Your arm is beautiful,' she replied, `Yes, but it is not on public display.'"(45) Clement concludes his list with famous women poets and painters.
If the work of Clement, who taught in Egypt before the lines of orthodoxy and heresy were rigidly drawn (ca. A.D. 160-80) demonstrates how gnostic principles could be incorporated even into orthodox Christian teaching, the majority of communities in the western empire headed by Rome did not follow his example. By the year A.D. 200, Roman Christians endorsed as "canonical" the pseudo-Pauline letter to Timothy, which interpreted Paul's views: "Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not allow any woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; she is to remain silent, for [note Gen. 2!] Adam was formed first, then Eve and furthermore, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was utterly seduced and came into sin."(45) How are we to account for this irreversible development? The question deserves investigation which this discussion can only initiate. For example, one would need to examine how (and for what reasons) the zealously patriarchal traditions of Israel were adopted by the Roman (and other) Christian communities. Further research might disclose how social and cultural forces converged to suppress feminine symbolism—and women's participation— from western Christian tradition. Given such research, the history of Christianity never could be told in the same way again.
What Became of God the Mother?
Elaine H. Pagels
33. AH, 1.13.7.
34. Ibid., 1.13.2-5.
35. Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum (hereafter cited as DP), ed. E. Oethler (Lipsius, 1853-54), p. 41.
36. De Baptismo 1. I am grateful to Cyril Richardson for calling my attention to this passage and to the three subsequent ones.
37. Epiphanes, De Baptismo, 42.5.
38. AH, 1.25.6.
39. DP, 6.30.
40. The Gospel according to Mary, Codex Berolinensis, BG, 8502,1.7.1- 1.19.5, ea., intro., and trans. G. MacRae, unpublished manuscript.
41. Pistis Sophia, ed. Carl Schmidt (Berlin: Academie-Verlag, 1925), 36 (57), 71 (161).
42. 1 Cor. 11 :7-9. For discussion, see R. Scroggs, "Paul and the Eschatological Woman," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40 (1972): 283-303; R. Scroggs, "Paul and the Eschatological Woman: Revisited," Journal of the Amencan Academy of Religion 42 (1974): 532- 37; and E. Pagels, "Paul and Women: A Response to Recent Discussion," Journal of the Amencan Academy of Religion 42 (1972): 538-49.
43. Clement Alexandrinus, Paidegogos, ed. O. Stählin (Leipzig, 1905), 1.6.
44. Ibid., 1.4.
45. Ibid., 1.19.
46. 2 Tim. 2:11-14.