The Gospel of the Beloved Companion: A Review

Posted by on July 21, 2014 in book review, female divine, Gospel, Jesus, religion, Sacred Texts, women | 6 comments

The Gospel of the Beloved Companion by Jehanne de Quillan, published in 2010, is the first English translation of a gospel that was preserved by the author’s spiritual community based in the Languedoc region of France. Originally written in Greek, the text came from Egypt to Languedoc in the first century, and was kept at great cost since that time. de Quillan’s book provides an English translation of the text, followed by commentary that compares it to the Gnostic gospels of Thomas and Mary, and to the canonical gospels. The Gospel of the Beloved Companion (GBC) is most similar to the canonical Gospel of John. I would like to review the book as a whole, then provide my own comparison of GBC to the Gospel of John.

In the introduction to the book de Quillan writes that the original text for the GBC is extant, but protected and not available for public view. Therefore, there is no way to verify whether the text is a translation or an invention; she invites readers to determine whether the text is authentic based on its content, rather than on empirical evidence. In this sense it’s like the Book of Mormon; readers are invited to make up their minds about its veracity based on what they feel. My point of view here will be one of accepting the text as what it claims to be, a gospel written by Mary Magdalene.

The GBC is unique because it tells the story of Jesus’ life from the perspective of a woman. The Beloved Companion is Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and Martha. Overall the message of the GBC is the same as the canonic gospels: Jesus is the way to eternal life.  The stories of the GBC are mostly identical to the stories in John.  So in many ways the message is not significantly different because it came from a female author, which is what I suspect may be true of what would happen if we had female prophets and priests in the church today: the message would still be “Come unto Christ.”  But it matters that the messenger can be female, and it calls into question whether an authoritative account by a woman could have been included in the canonic gospels but was excluded.

de Quillan uses textual analysis to argue that the companion whom Jesus loved, mentioned in the Gospel of John, was Mary Magdalene, not John. She argues that the GBC is actually an older text than the source documents for the canonic gospels, as well as older than the gnostic gospel of Thomas. She uses historical and textual evidence to argue that Mary Magdalene was the beloved companion present at the Last Supper, and points out that after Jesus’ death Joseph of Aramathea begged his body from Pilate, and would have given it to Jesus’ family. Traditional Jewish funerary conventions gave women the duty of preparing bodies for burial, and giving the body to Mary Magdalene’s care should mean she was family, possibly his wife. This idea would have been very unpalatable to the Roman church, which could explain Mary Madgalene’s reduced status in the canonic gospels.

An interesting feature of the GBC is the scarcity of the words “God” and “Father.” Whatever word gave rise to “Father” or “God” in the canonic gospels, de Quillan translates “spirit” and she uses the feminine pronoun for it.  Her reasoning is that in Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach), is feminine, in Aramaic the word (ruah) is feminine, and in Greek the word (pneuma) is neuter. The GBC refers to Jesus as the “son of humanity” not the “son of man” or “son of god.” It doesn’t use the word “father,” but instead “spirit,” for example John 5:19: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.”  GBC 13:9: “For whatever things the spirit does, these the son does likewise.”

The GBC is perhaps somewhat lower in christology overall.  It does not include the mystical beginning of John 1 about Christ being the Word.  The GBC uses softer language when it comes to Jesus’ personhood and resurrection, for example GBC 24:1 “I bring light to the world” compared with John 8:12 “I am the light of the world.”  And when Mary Magdalene meets Jesus at the tomb, John 20:17 reads, “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” GBC 40:6 says, “Jesus said to her, Mary, do not hold to me, for I am not of the flesh, yet neither am I one with the spirit; but rather go to my disciples and tell them you have seen me, so that all may know that my words are true and that any who should choose to believe them and keep to my commandments will follow me on their last day.”  But the GBC is clear that Jesus points the way to eternal life.

The GBC follows the gospel of John very closely until about John 20, after which it differs. The GBC concludes with a sermon by Mary Magdalene, after which Peter and Andrew say her words are untrue, and Matthew defends her. de Quillan makes the point that Peter had a different understanding of Jesus’ teaching than Mary and Matthew, and perhaps the very first split of what would become Christianity happened very soon after Jesus’ death, and that this also represented the first attempt to silence the feminine from Christianity. This is an interesting idea to me as a Mormon, who has always been taught that a falling away from Christ’s full gospel happened fairly soon after his death.

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Now here, for what it’s worth, are some comparisons I made between the GBC and the gospel of John.

 

GBC starts with John the Baptist, not with the Nativity, just like the Gospel of John does, and proceeds directly to the calling of the disciples. Next is the miracle at Cana.  In attendance it mentions brothers of Jesus: Jacob and Joseph, and a sister Mary. Mary (the beloved companion) and Martha, sisters of Lazarus.  Also Matthew, and Thomas (a friend to The Companion).  However the GBC adds an interesting detail GBC 6:9: “This beginning of his signs Jesus did at his wedding feast at a place near Cana in the land of Judah, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believe him” (emphasis mine). I’ve heard speculation that this was Jesus’ own wedding feast, and in this text that is explicit.

Next we have the story of the overthrowing the moneychangers at the temple, in John 2. The GBC adds a striking commentary by Jesus.

GBC8:6: “You are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger.  The dog does not eat, nor does it let the cattle eat. You have stolen the keys to the temple and locked and barred the door.  You have not entered yourselves nor have you permitted others who wish to enter to do so.  Instead you have become as dishonest merchants, selling that which does not belong to you and over which you have no power.”

The stories of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, healing a nobleman’s son, and healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 3-5) are nearly identical. Next is the feeding of 5,000, as in John 6.  He goes out on the sea of Galilee with the disciples, but in GBC he does not walk on water. Jesus said he is the bread of life, and that their father’s ate manna and are dead, like in John 6, but the GBC text is more verbose.  It continues into John 7, where the disciples argue about whether a prophet could possibly come from Galilee.  Instead of concluding just with “every (man) went to his own house,” GBC adds, “But Jesus went back to Bethany to the house of the Beloved Companion near the Mount of Olives.”  There is something dear about the possibility of Jesus returning to beloved friends for comfort. The exchange with Pharisees about being Abraham’s children and the story of healing a blind man follow closely (John 8 and 9). Unique to the GBC is a passage about the Pharisees wanting to stone Jesus for claiming to be the messiah. John 10 has no correlate in the GBC.

John 11 contains the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. The miracle is somewhat downplayed in this Gospel.  Jesus says, “Your brother is not dead but sleeping,” without the clarification in John 11:14 “Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.” The part about Lazarus stinking and being dead four days is not there.

Next comes a passage that has no correlate in John.  It’s reminiscent of passages in Matthew that talk about the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed, or treasure in a field, or a pearl of great price, or leaven.  But also unlike anything I can think of in the New Testament.

GBC 30:3-5: “The kingdom is like a man who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it.  And when he died, he left it to his son.  The son did not find the treasure, nor did he use the field, but sold it on to a neighbor.  The new owner then, desiring to make best use of the field, set to plowing the soil in preparation for planting a good crop, and struck the treasure.  Have I not told you that the kingdom lies hidden within you?  Then the disciple Salome, the woman who had given Jesus water to drink at the well of Jacob, asked him, ‘Rabbi, who shall I find my treasure?’ And Jesus said to her, ‘If you do not fast from the world, you will not find the kingdom.  Only from the truth I tell you, unless you overcome the ruler of the world, you will never know the spirit and discover that which lies within you.”

GBC 38:8 “If your leaders say to you, look, the kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, it is in the sea, then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.”

There’s nothing in the New Testament that says the kingdom of God is within you.  That seems like a pretty modern sentiment to me.

John 12 (Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet) follows closely. But instead of John 12:7: ‘Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this”  the GBC relates,

GBC 32:4 “But hearing this Jesus said to them, “Leave her be.  She has anointed me for what I am come to do, and done what she is appointed to do.  Only from the truth I tell you, whenever they speak of me, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.  You do not know or understand what she has done. I tell you this: when all have abandoned me, only she shall stand beside me like a tower.  A tower built on a high hill and fortified cannot fall, nor can it be hidden.  From this day forth, she shall be known as Migdalah, for she shall be as a tower to by flock, and the time will soon come when her tower shall stand alone by mine.”

Note the difference between the two accounts of the last supper:

John 14:18-21: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.”

GBC 35: 16: “I will not leave you orphans.  When a father goes away, it is the mother who tends the children. Only from the truth I tell you, there is one amongst you who has had my commandments, and keeps them.  That one is the one who loves me, adn that one who loves me isa lso loved by me, and by the spriit.  To that one will I reveal myself so that you will know that what I have said to you is true, that I am in the spirit as the spirit is in me.  And that same one will the spirit complete in all ways, so that by this sign you may know my words are true, and that my testimony is of the spirit, the one who sent me… Those amongst you who understand and keep my commandments will not taste death.”

John 15 is mostly the same, but John 16 and 17, in which Jesus teaches of the Comforter, of his death and resurrection, and offers his intercessory prayer, are not found in the GBC.

John 18 and 19 align – this is where the Roman soldiers come for Jesus and Peter smites off one of their ears.  Mary Magdalene appears again, it says she is the one who let Peter in at the gate where Jesus met with Caiaphas (this is where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.)

John 19:25-27 is interesting.  It replaces Mary Magdalene for John the Beloved at the cross:
“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.”

GBC 39:3 – “But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary the beloved companion, also called Magdalene.  Therefore when Jesus saw his mother and the companion whom he loved standing there, he said to his other ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the Companion, ‘Woman, behold your mother!’ From that hour, the companion took her onto her own.”

The GBC expands on the “they” in John 19:40 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.  GBC says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jacob, Joseph, and Salome.  The Joseph is apparently Joseph of Arimathea.

After the scene at the tomb, the GBC relates a scene not found in the canonic gospels.

GBC 41:5 “Simon Peter said to Magdalene, ‘Sister, we know that he loved you more than any other among women.  Tell us the words of the Rabbi, which you remember, which you know and understand, but we do not, nor have we heard them.’”  42:1 “Magdalene answered and said, ‘What is hidden from you, I will proclaim to you.’ And she began to speak to them the words that Jesus had given her. My master spoke thus to me. He said ‘Mary, blessed are you…There is a great tree within you that does not change, summer or winter, its leaves do not fall.  Whosoever listens to my words and ascends to its crown will not taste death, but know the truth of eternal life.’ Then he showed me a vision in which I saw a great tree that seemed to reach unto the heavens; and as I saw these things he said, ‘the roots of this tree are in the earth, which is your body.  The trunk extends upward through the five regions of humanity to the crown, which is the kingdom of the spirit.  There are eight great boughs upon this tree and each bough bears its own fruit, which you must eat in all its fullness.  As the fruit of the tree in the garden caused Adam and Eve to fall into darkness, so this fruit will give to you the light of the spirit that is eternal life.  Between each bough is a gate and a guardian who challenges the unworthy who try to pass.  The leaves at the bottom of the tree are thick and plentiful, so no light penetrates to illuminate the way.  But fear not, for I am the way and the light and I tell you that, as one ascends the tree, the leaves that block one from the light are fewer, so it is possible to see all more clearly.  Those who seek to ascend must free themselves of the world.  If you do not free yourself from the world, you will die in the darkness that is the root of the tree.  But if you free yourself, you will rise and reach the light that is the eternal life of the spirit.”

It goes on to describe passing through the boughs, gaining wisdom, strength, courage, clarity, and truth, power, healing, and grace.  At the top of the tree, Magdalene says,

“I felt my soul and all that I could see dissolve and vanish in a brilliant light, in a likeness unto the sun.  And in the light, I beheld a woman of extraordinary beauty, clothed in garments of brilliant white.  The figure extended its arms, and I felt my soul drawn into its embrace, and in that moment I was freed from the world, and I realized that the fetter of forgetfulness was temporary.”

The GBC then relates that some of the disciples did not believe that Jesus said these teachings, including Andrew, and Peter. Matthew defended her.  And they were divided, and it says they went to teach what they understood of Jesus in their own ways.  This concludes the Gospel of the Beloved Companion.

 

 

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Wow! Emily U, this is fascinating. The changes you describe in the GBC resonate with me. I love how they include women more and de-emphasize the maleness of God. And you’re so right — that the messenger is a woman matters. It matters a lot, even if the thrust of it is similar to the canonical gospels.

  2. This is fascinating, Emily! I admit to not knowing about the gospel of Mary much more than what I’ve read in news articles. I love that this telling of the Christ story comes from a woman, that feels monumental to me. We really don’t have any examples of women speaking their own words since even when women are quoted in the scriptures it’s filtered through a male editor. It’s interesting that in the GBC the maleness of God is less emphasized, I wonder what caused Mary to take this approach? That seems revolutionary. I’m so glad that you shared this.

  3. Thank you so much for this thorough review. I wish we had more feminine perspective in our canon. It is interesting how this gospel shows a woman in leadership, and that only some of the men in religious power would accept a woman’s leadership, seems unfortunately likely too. I also love the words of Jesus to the money changers–it seems like he is describing what we call unrighteous dominion in our church.

  4. A thorough review. I appreciate that.

    Oh, and in reference to GBC 38:8 “the Kingdom of God is within you” does show up in Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. It’s in Luke 17:20-21

    • Thanks, MB. I’m sure I’ve read those verses before but they didn’t stick in my memory. Knowing that reference is there in Luke adds a different dimension for me.

  5. I read through this quickly when it was first posted, and came back to read it more carefully when I had a bit more time today. This is so interesting! The differences between the two texts are really enlightening. It makes me think about a lesson from seminary when we talked about how each of the canonized gospels were written for different audiences. Maybe the GBC was written for women. How cool would that be??

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