Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a sexual relationship?

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Jesus and Mary MagdalenYale Divinity School dean Harold Attridge asked this question recently in a short piece piece prepared in response to The Da Vinci Code. He concludes that such a relationship was improbable based on his interpretation of the Gospel of Philip, one of the codices discovered in the 1940’s in Upper Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi.

The Gospel of Philip has caused quite a stir for several reasons. It says Jesus' companion (also translated as "consort") was Mary Magdalen, and that he "loved Mary more than the rest of us because he used to kiss her on the ____ [hole in the text]." Philip also speaks of a "stainless physical union" which has great power. Early scholars translated the 'union' phrase as "undefiled intercourse," which would mean that the text advises, "Understand/seek the undefiled intercourse, for it has great power." However, in recent years orthodox scholars have tended to translate the phrase as "pure embrace" or "marriage." Attridge claims that it is a reference to an early Christian practice of offering one's fellow worshipers a kiss, known in some circles as "passing the peace."

I wonder. Like French scholar Jean-Yves Leloup, I believe there is strong evidence that the Gospel of Philip is speaking of actual intercourse, and not the ritual kiss that "passes the peace."

Admittedly, I approach this gospel from an unusual angle. For years I have been intrigued by ancient Taoist prescriptions for overcoming disharmony between the sexes. The Taoists advise another way of making love, during which orgasm is avoided. This is a laughable concept in today’s media-driven, thrill-seeking culture, yet in the experience of my husband and myself it does promote harmony between the sexes, and works quite well even for the sex-positive.

The same insight about benefit from this type of lovemaking has turned up in other cultures (Tantric left-hand path of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths) and even in the writing of a somewhat infamous 19th century graduate of the Yale Divinity School, John Male Continence coverHumphrey Noyes (Male Continence). Subsequently, Quaker Alice Bunker Stockham, MD (Karezza: Ethics of Marriage) and J. William Lloyd (The Karezza Method) refined Noyes' ideas in their own inspiring little books on the same concept. (All three texts may be downloaded freely from the right-hand margin.)

Intriguingly, recent neuroscience research reveals that sex is governed by a primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. A good name for that center would be the "temptation center," as its biological function is to drive us to act impulsively when confronted with activities or substances that once furthered our ancestors' survival or the passing on of their genes.

The reward circuitry is dominated by a neurochemical known as dopamine. It's associated with all addictions. It shoots up at orgasm and plummets afterward…and changes our perceptions of the world dramatically. We're likely to feel like we're "in love" when it's high. When it drops, we "fall out of love." Subconsciously, we begin to associate our lovers with this post-passion, neurochemically-induced sensation of lack and uneasiness.

The upshot is that when we attempt a long-term, monogamous relationship, we're confronted with a very powerful evolutionary program that works against us. It is present not just in humans but in mammals and birds; virtually none are truly monogamous. This program serves to increase the genetic variety of our offspring, hence its success - even though it often makes our lives miserable whether or not we manage to stay married.

Over time, or even very rapidly in some of us, fertilization-driven sex thus tends to drive an emotional wedge between mates. And, if the Gospel of Philip is to be believed, this built-in separation between the sexes contributes to our dualistic perception of the world, blinding us to gnosis (true knowledge in the form of a first-hand experience of our divine nature). The Gospel of Philip says that overcoming the alienation between the sexes was a key part of Christ's mission, which he accmplished in the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber:

Christ comes again to heal this wound [which Adam began when he engaged in procreative sex], to rediscover the lost unity, to enliven those who kill themselves in separation, reviving them in union. Man and woman unite in the bridal chamber, and those who have known this sacred embrace will never be separated. (LL 78-79)

In my view the Gospel of Philip is referring to the practice of controlled intercourse when it says, "seek the experience of the undefiled intercourse, for it has great power." (L 60). It would also be a stretch to suggest that the following phrase from the Gospel of Philip is referring to a kiss of peace:

The embrace that incarnates the hidden union [is] not only a reality of the flesh, for there is silence in this embrace. It does not arise from impulse or desire; it is an act of will. (L. 122)

Divine loversIn our experience, the practice of lust-free, affectionate, disciplined union does indeed tend to heal the separation between the sexes brought about by biologically-driven sex, possibly because it keeps lovers off of the neurochemical roller coaster ride described earlier. Their perception of each other remains more constant, which preserves their love for each other allowing it to deepen with time.

The ultimate goal, as several of the Nag Hammadi codices make clear, is an experience of wholeness that recreates a gnosis of our divine origins as androgynes (the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber). The Nag Hammadi gospels suggest that this is the way the Christ is reborn in mankind. Similarly, the ancient Chinese Taoists recorded that the practice of non-orgasmic sex could give birth to a non-physical "holy fetus." (The Art of the Bedchamber: Chinese Sexual Yoga, Douglas Wile, PhD) This concept of a union that gives rise to spiritual children, rather than physical children, is also echoed by Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham in her work about the virtues of controlled intercourse.

Some academics believe that the Gospel of Philip is the product of the Valentinian school. Valentinus, born around 100 CE, taught that sex and procreation were both off limits for good Christians. If the Gospel of Philip arose from his school, then it is likely that it is strictly allegorical and not a physical prescription.

On the other hand, a few decades later, a Roman Catholic church father, Irenaeus, wrote that those who practiced the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber (of whom he strongly disapproved) sometimes fell into the scandal of pregnancy. His remarks suggest that some early Christians incorporated intercourse into the Sacrament. No doubt some schools of Christianity abhorred physical contact between the sexes. I don't believe the Gospel of Philip was authored by one of them. In fact, this gospel it may not be all that closely related to the Valentinian school, despite their shared concepts about the spiritual need to go beyond the birth/death. Certainly, the phrase from Philip, "The union is in this world man and woman, the place of the power and the weakness," would make far more sense if sex were considered both risky (the cause of the fall) and yet potentially the key to a great mystery. [1]

Another of the texts from the Nag Hammadi trove, the Exegesis on the Soul, certainly sounds like allegory. Yet I suspect it also contains practical information about this practice:

Those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with the intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they do not separate from each other.

This passage accurately describes the experience of those who employ this practice, as is apparent in the works of Stockham and Lloyd. The practice protects both the desire for deep union and a profound sense of fulfillment between mates, but soothes the insatiable quality of dopamine-driven sexual desire.

Holy loversWe don’t know what Jesus actually taught, but Professor Dennis R. MacDonald (There Is No Male or Female) has persuasively argued that there was a widespread, very early (i.e., pre-Paul's letters to the Galatians) oral tradition that Jesus taught, "you enter the Kingdom of Heaven when male and female become one." I suspect that the Gospel of Philip dates from this era.

Perhaps scholars would benefit from broadening their search for the meaning of the Nag Hammadi documents. I believe that if they consider Sections 65-70 of the Hua Hu Ching by Lao Tzu,[2] and study the more recent American works cited earlier, they will see clear parallels with the confounding claims about "undefiled intercourse" contained in the Nag Hammadi texts. For me, such an interpretation does less violence to the text of Philip than the pure-allegory interpretation, the ritual-kissing interpretation, or the creation-of-superior-physical-children interpretation of French scholar Jean-Yves Leloup.

Of course, without exploring the practice oneself, it would be nearly impossible to conceive of intercourse that is not geared toward physical procreation or lively lust, but rather toward the deeper reunion of male and female for a spiritual end. This lack of first-hand experience could account for why scholars have sought elsewhere for interpretations of key passages in the Nag Hammadi texts.

To be sure, even independent thinkers are obliged to view these early works through two thousand years of dark glass furnished by the early Church fathers. Unfortunately, the Church's counsel on the subject of human sexuality has been one of its most injurious legacies. Jesus and Mary MIts message, "procreate, yet see yourselves as a sinners" is the complete antithesis of Philip's "avoid begetting physical offspring, but nurture each other in sacred oneness with a view to awakening spiritually."

This second prescription is especially easy to dismiss as absurd, thanks to the programming of our mammalian brains. Yet, as a neurochemical matter, it may be quite a valid approach to promoting deep harmony between the sexes….and perhaps even heightened spiritual awareness.

If you found this article interesting, please see our Open Letter to Gnostic Scholars

  1. The Taoists taught that sex is like fire or water, "Both fire and water can kill, yet both may also bestow life."
  2. The first integration of yin and yang is the union of seed and egg within the womb. The second integration of yin and yang is the sexual union of the mature male and female. Both of these are concerned with flesh and blood, and all that is conceived in this realm must one day disintegrate and pass away. It is only the third integration which gives birth to something immortal. In this integration, a highly evolved individual joins the subtle inner energies of yin and yang under the light of spiritual understanding…. Because higher and higher unions of yin and yang are necessary for the conception of higher life, some students may be instructed in the art of dual cultivation, in which yin and yang are directly integrated in the tai chi of sexual intercourse…. The result of this is improved health, harmonized emotions, the cessation of desires and impulses, and, at the highest level, the transcendent integration of the entire energy body…. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration [or, "not in separation, but in oneness"?], it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness.

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