The Sacred Breath: “Two Becoming One” in The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Matthew

When it comes to discussions surrounding the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene in the Western consciousness, Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Mary and her role in the ministry of Jesus does a marvelous job of walking through the so-called “gnostic gospels” to find their meaning and to apply it to the canonical gospels for new considerations on Mary as a disciple. Indeed, allowing Mary to flourish in her role as “apostle to the apostles,” Bourgeault uses all the gospels, both “gnostic” and canonical to repaint the ministry of Mary Magdalene as the disciple of Jesus who best understood and put into practice the teachings of Jesus.

While her book weaves together many aspects of Mary, one particular chapter introduces an interesting take on kissing, and gives new implications for shading the famous betrayal scene from the canonical gospels. In chapter eleven of Bourgeault’s book, she addresses the thorny issue of The Gospel of Philip, namely in its implications that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were something more than just teacher and disciple. In Leloup’s translation and commentary on The Gospel of Philip, she translates plate 55 as saying, “The companion of the Son is Miriam of Magdala. The Teacher loved her more than all the disciples; he often kissed her on the mouth.”[1]

In her commentary of this text, Leloup cautions against a modern, Western reading of this kiss and its sexual implications. Rather, she argues that this kiss is steeped in Judaic and gnostic meaning, and should be understood within that context. Pulling from the Pirouch esser sefirot belima, Leloup notes that the mouth was seen as the “source and outlet” of the breath, and therefore a kiss on the mouth necessarily mixes the breath of both parties.[2] Since breath was indicative of the very life essence, source or even spirit of a person, a kiss on the mouth indicated a mingling of essences by mingling of breath.

One does not have to look further than the Hebrew Bible to get this understanding of kissing outlined in stark detail. There are several scenes of kissing in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word for “kiss” is nashak, and it means “to breathe together or have the same breath.”[3] In Deuteronomy 34:5, the Hebrew states that Moses died at the “mouth of God,” which the midrash is quick to state was the divine kiss. Likewise, the same imagery is used in the second creation account in Genesis 2, where God forms man and then breathes his spirit into the man. While nashak is not explicitly used here, the same imagery is at work. In Genesis 27, Isaac first kisses Jacob (thinking him Esau) before bestowing the family blessing on him. This kiss is meant to bring Esau (Jacob) into the same spirit as Isaac. In 1 Samuel 20:41, David and Jonathan, best friends facing a separation of indeterminate time, kiss each other and weep together, a sign of their affection towards each other and their oneness in spirit.

With these few examples of kissing, it is plain to see that kissing was less a sexual act and more an act denoting oneness, sameness, togetherness. It was a mingling of breath (spirit), and an indication that two people were of one mind and spirit. Therefore, while Leloup does not forcefully rule out a romantic or sexual connotation to the claim in The Gospel of Philip, she finds it more helpful to read the kissing of Jesus and Mary as a connotation that they shared the same spirit, as indicated in their shared breath.[4] As Bourgeault notes in her book on Mary Magdalene, The Gospel of Philip does indicate that Jesus and Mary had a special intimacy, often referring to Mary as Jesus’ koinonos, companion or mate. This term is often used to describe someone who has experienced the “sacred embrace of the bridal chamber.”[5]

According to Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas offers the same understanding of breath and kissing. Her translation of logion 108 has Jesus claiming, “Whoever drinks what flows from my mouth will come to be as I am and I also will come to be as they are, so that what is hidden can become manifest.”[6] In other words, what flows out of Jesus’ mouth is his words, teachings, and his very spirit. What better way, according to Bauman, to receive the spirit of Christ than through a kiss, indicating a special understanding and communion between the two. With the sexual connotations stripped out of the act of kissing therefore, Bourgeault can claim that the kisses that Mary and Jesus shared can be, “understood as an indication that theirs is an engendering, begetting, fully incarnate, spiritually procreative friendship through which the sacred spirit flows.”[7] This kissing indicates “two becoming one,” their spirits coming together.

This Semitic understanding of the sacred kiss serves the purpose of calming the minds of most Christians concerning the claims of The Gospel of Philip, while at the same time lending a deep shading of the act of kissing in the biblical narrative. If this context is true (and I believe it is), then the indication is less that Jesus and Mary shared some sort of physical, sexual intimacy, and more implies that Mary and Jesus shared a deep knowing between each other. Mary understood the sacred breath (spirit) of Jesus; she understood his teachings and way of being on an intimate level. She traveled the road of the disciple further than her male counterparts and was somehow closer in spirit to the spirit of Jesus than all others. This is beautifully portrayed in their mutual kissing, their co-mingling breath indicating her deep-seated understanding of the way of Jesus.

With this image in mind, then, it is intriguing to turn to another kiss, more famous and perhaps more scandalizing than the kissing between Mary and Jesus. The kiss I refer to is, of course, between Judas and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and is recorded in all four canonical gospels in the New Testament. This kiss has always been striking to me, not only because of its intensely intimate nature. The fact rests plainly that this is a rather dubious way of identifying Jesus (which Judas claims is the whole point of the exercise in Matthew 26:48). The plan of Judas (called the Betrayer by an obviously jilted Matthew), was to arrive in the garden, greet Jesus with a seemingly benign kiss which would tip off the angry mob of armed Jerusalemites headed by the chief priests and lead to the arrest and trial of Jesus. For all intents and purposes, Judas’ plan works. He arrives with the angry crowd, greets Jesus with an intimate term, “Greetings Rabbi!” and kisses him. Jesus, in reply to the events, simply calls Judas his friend and urges him to continue on the path he has chosen. The rest of the narrative moves swiftly through the arrest, trials, and crucifixion of Jesus.

Typical commentary on this enigmatic exchange between Jesus and Judas are predictable. The commentator skips over the kiss itself and straight to the supposed meaning of Judas’ actions. In his commentary on Matthew, Carter simply notes that usually a kiss is a gesture of welcome and respect but is here used for evil intentions.[8] This is not exactly a revolutionary insight to the exchange, nor does it fully explain what is happening in the text. Albright & Mann helpfully point to Moses Aberbach, who claims that in ancient near-Eastern cultures it was never permissible for a disciple to initiate a greeting with his teacher, since this would imply equality between the two parties. Aberbach’s conclusion therefore, is that this kiss was a calculated insult, a severing of relationship, and lastly, the obvious sign to the crowd.[9] Aberbach’s contribution comes into interesting contact with The Gospel of Philip.

Assuming that the events and narratives found in The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene are mostly true in their context, we receive a picture of the disciples, Mary among them, traveling through Galilee and outer Jerusalem. As the canonical gospels all confirm on multiple occasions, the project that Jesus was attempting to establish among his disciples was misunderstood by them at nearly every turn (and by disciples, I refer to the male twelve as per the canonical gospel’s request). However, while her male counterparts are misunderstanding Jesus and interpreting his teachings through messianic, nationalistic lenses, Mary begins to understand her teacher and what he is really driving at. She sees, experiences, and lives into the transformation that Jesus talks about, and her spirit joins with his in the ministry. The male disciples are most likely frustrated by her understanding and her intimacy with the Teacher, evidenced by his “kissing her on the mouth.” The disciples can see the same breath (spirit) being shared by Jesus and Mary, and as The Gospel of Mary Magdalene so bluntly puts it, they feel that it is not right for a woman to have such “secret knowledge.”

Meanwhile Judas, who traditionally has been placed in the inner circle of Jesus, one of his closest friends, a witness to the intimacy of Jesus and Mary, must also feel jealousy and longing for such closeness to the Master. In tradition, Judas is often gifted with a misunderstanding mind, and this is not far from the canonical gospel’s picture of the disciples. Judas would also be understanding Jesus through messianic and violently nationalistic lenses. In any case, for whatever reason, Judas decides to force the narrative forward through his betrayal. Of course, he is called the Betrayer by Matthew, an obvious bias, but Judas approaches Jesus, feeling that his actions are in some way correct, or the right thing to do.

As Aberbach states, Judas approaches Jesus as an equal, but maybe not as an insult, but as someone who thinks he finally understands the situation. Perhaps Judas believes that he has finally received the same “secret teaching” that Mary has received. I am not suggesting the same thing that is claimed in The Gospel of Judas, a third century text recently discovered and brought into scholarship, which argues that Judas knowingly betrayed Jesus after receiving secret teachings from him. According to this text, Judas receives a special teaching from Jesus that the physical world is not important, only the spiritual world. Therefore, Judas aids in “freeing” Jesus from the physical realms.[10]

Instead, whatever his motivation, whatever his understanding, Judas feels empowered to approach the Teacher as Mary does, feels emboldened by his spirit, thinking it the same spirit of Jesus, and he kisses him. Right there before the mob, before the other disciples, Judas comingles his spirit with Jesus, breath for breath. To be sure, his kiss is still a sign for the mob to arrest Jesus. However, by choosing for his sign a kiss, it would suggest that Judas believes he has finally understood the ministry of Jesus in the same way that Mary has. And just as Mary first understood and then acted, so Judas has understood and now acted. In his mind then, the kiss is less a betrayal, and more a revelation.

Unfortunately for Judas however, he is still driven by his messianic lenses. The tragedy of his shared kiss with Jesus is that his spirit was not the same as Jesus’. Judas is still looking for a messiah to restore Israel, and his kiss is meant to push Jesus into the assumed role. His kiss, his very breath longs to be with Jesus, but in the end Judas misses the point of Jesus’ ministry, the kiss sours, and as Aberbach says, it ruins his image of Jesus, breaks the relationship, and comes across as the ultimate insult. Surely Judas realized this immediately, as the New Testament authors note that he soon took his own life out of regret. The Judas kiss was meant to signal that he had finally understood, but it landed as another misunderstanding, one that the male disciples would have to contend with as they all begin to abandon Jesus and his vision of a new creation. It is not until three days later, while hiding in an upper room, that Mary Magdalene bursts in with the gospel pronouncement, obviously panting from her long run, and her breath fills the room with new life, the very spirit of Jesus.

[1] Jean-Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004), LOC 1069.

[2] Ibed, LOC 626.

[3] Ibed.

[4] Ibed, LOC 639.

[5] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2010), LOC 2273.

[6] Lynn Bauman, ed., The Gospel of Thomas: The Wisdom of the Twin (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2002), p. 225.

[7] Bourgeault, LOC 2298.

[8] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, UK: T & T Clark International, 2000), 513.

[9] W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971), 329.

[10] Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, & Gregor Wurst, ed., The Gospel of Judas: from Codex Tchacos (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006), 4.

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