The Da Vinci Code suggests that the Gospel of Philip reveals hidden truths about Jesus and suggests that it was written earlier than the canonical Gospels. (The canonical gospels being the gospels in our New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The most important “hidden truth” that TDC claims comes from the Gospel of Philip is that Jesus was married. Is it true that the Gospel of Philip is an overlooked historical source for the teachings of Jesus? Does it really provide evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene?
The answer to both questions is no.
The Gospel of Philip Lacks Worth for Studying the Historical Jesus
In the first instance, the Gospel of Philip is not really a “Gospel” at all. While the canonical Gospels provide us with biographical information about Jesus and his activites, the Gospel of Philip “is an anthology of seemingly unconnected sayings and statements, without any narrative or biographical structure.” Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way, page 70. Even if we had reason to believe that the author had some information about Jesus, he does not even purport to write about his life, actions, or background.
In any event, the consensus among scholars from all backgrounds is that the Gospel of Philip was probably written in the third century (the 200s), and certainly is not any earlier than the late-second century. “The standard translation suggests that the work ‘was probably written in Syria in the second half of the third century C.E.,’ that is, between 250 and 300, and it is not even claimed as an early text in the various new canons proposed by the Jesus Seminar.” Ibid., page 117.
On the other hand, even liberal scholars believe the canonical Gospels were written in the first century when there were still influential eyewitnesses and disciples of eyewitnesses in the Christian movement. When historians and scholars study the historical Jesus, they use the canonical Gospels, not third-century knock-offs like the Gospel of Philip.
It is always more likely that those sources that come from eyewitnesses or those who were in contact with eyewitnesses will provide us with the best data about an ancient person than documents that were composed several centuries later, as were the Gnostic Gospels.
Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code, page 32.
Accordingly, the Gospel of Philip has no historical worth when it comes to learning what Jesus actually said and did. It was simply written too late and demonstrates no access to trustworthy historical sources.
The nature of the Gospel of Philip and other Gnostic gospels is fundamentally different than that of the canonical Gospels. The canonical Gospels were based on the public preaching of the Christians. From very early, there was a focus on recording and passing along what was preached by the early Christians. The information, in other words, was public knowledge. The Gnostic gospels, on the other hand, were based on secret or hidden knowledge. Moreover, we can trace the core doctrines expressed in the Gospels back from before their time, in the letters of Paul, who ministered with Peter and James, and the other early New Testament epistles. We can trace it forward through the later first century, in the Didache and 1 Clement, into the early second century, with Ignatius and Polycarp, and into the middle-second century. No such lineage can be produced for the Gnostic gospels. Once again, this lends much more credence to the canonical gospels over and against the Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Philip.
The Gospel of Philip Does Not Suggest that Jesus was Romantically Involved with Mary Magdalene
Even if it were possible to recover useful historical information from the Gospel of Philip, nothing in that writing suggests that Jesus was married. Teabing, the resident historican in TDC, points to a passage in the Gospel of Philip that refers to a kiss given by Jesus to Mary Magdalene:
And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [... loved] her more than [all] the disciples [, and used] to kiss her [often] on her [….]. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?"
The text is not intact and the brackets indicate missing elements and possible reconstructions of the original. It is likely that Mary is referred to as the companion of Jesus and that the kiss is on her hand or mouth or cheek. But what does this passage mean, even if the reconstruction is correct?
According to Teabing, the word “companion” is an Aramic word that “literally meant spouse.” This is simply not true. The Gospel of Philip was not written in Aramaic, but in Coptic. “The word here for ‘companion’ (koinonos) is actually a loan word from Greek that is neither a technical term nor a synonym for ‘wife’ or ‘spouse.’ …. There was another Greek word, gyne, that would have made this clearer. But in fact it’s much more likely that koinonos here means ‘sister’ in the spiritual sense, this is how it is used elsewhere in this sort of literature.” Witherington, The Gospel Code, page 26.
But if the reference to being a “companion” does not suggest that Mary was Jesus’ wife, does the reference to a kiss at least suggest a romantic relationship? Not in the least. Earlier in the Gospel of Philip, it is made clear that a kiss is representative of imparting spiritual knowledge:
It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment. [...] him from the mouth. And had the word gone out from that place, it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.
The meaning here is one of spiritual nourishment and impartation. That the meaning is the same in the passage referring to Mary is confirmed by Jesus’ response when the disciples ask Jesus why he loves Mary more than they. The answer is a reference to spiritual enlightenment, not a romantic relationship: “When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness."
Yet another Gnostic document reinforces this point. The Second Apocalypse of James has a parallel story about how Jesus imparted special revelation to James by a kiss on the mouth:
“And he kissed my mouth. He took hold of me, saying, "My beloved! Behold, I shall reveal to you those things that (neither) the heavens nor their archons have known. Behold, I shall reveal to you those things that he did not know, he who boasted, "[...] there is no other except me. Behold, I shall reveal to you everything, my beloved. Understand and know them, that you may come forth just as I am. Behold, I shall reveal to you him who is hidden. But now, stretch out your hand. Now, take hold of me.”
A final point is that – contrary to suggestions made in TDC – the Gnostics did not revel in sexuality. Most of them despised and rejected it. To them, the material world, including the human body and its passions, were evil. Many sects forbid sex even between husband and wife.
So, as difficult as it may be for our often sex-drenched culture to fathom, there is nothing sexual hinted at by the reference to Jesus placing a kiss on Mary. The meaning is typically Gnostic and represents the impartation of spiritual knowledge. Even Paul tells the church in Thessanolica to “Greet each other with a holy kiss.”
All told, the Gospel of Philip is a very late Gnostic gospel and it is the unanimous opinion of scholars that it is dated well into the second and probably into the third century. Unlike the canonical Gospels, it has no historical worth for learning about the historical Jesus. Moreover, nothing in the Gospel of Philip supports the claims in TDC that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Rather, it depicts her as a spiritual companion to Jesus who received special spiritual knowledge from him.