National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Margaret Starbird
Will the Magdalene go mainstream?

Controversial as scholarship, author Margaret Starbird's interpretation of Mary Magdalene is gaining popular influence


After years of advocating a theological reappraisal of the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, Margaret Starbird has helped ignite something of a literary and cultural firestorm.

In 1993, her book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar reexamined the gospels and the Grail legends to find what she considers strong evidence of a hidden marriage between Jesus and Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister -- later given the epithet “the Magdalene.”

That book and Starbird’s spiritual autobiography, The Goddess in the Gospels, served to inspire novelist Dan Brown to write his phenomenally popular thriller, The Da Vinci Code.

Having stayed at or near the top of The New York Times Fiction Best-Seller list throughout the summer and into the fall, The Da Vinci Code has intrigued thousands of readers and led them to inquire into the mysterious lore of the “Priory of Sion,” allegedly a hermetic secret society dating from the 11th century dedicated to keeping the secret of Jesus and Mary’s sacred union -- and the royal blood line (sang real) that sprang from them.

Massive public response to The Da Vinci Code has prompted ABC News to commission a documentary report to examine the social reasons for its success and to ask hard questions concerning the historical validity of the Priory of Sion and its tenets.

Starbird, who holds an M.A. in German and comparative literature from the University of Maryland and continued her studies at both Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, and Vanderbilt Divinity School, will appear as an “expert witness” in the documentary, “Jesus, Mary and da Vinci,” to be televised Nov. 3 on ABC affiliates nationwide.

From the quiet of her home on Washington state’s Puget Sound, where she lives with her husband of 35 years, Margaret Starbird is intrigued but largely unaffected by the new attention she has been getting.

Mary Magdalene in a detail from Perugino's "The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene"
-- CNS/Courtesy of National Gallery of Art

“Dan Brown wrote me an e-mail, thanking me for my books, saying they’d been an inspiration to him,” she said in a recent interview. “He asked me to call him, because many of the media people who’d been talking with him also wanted to get in touch with me.

“So I called him back that night and chatted with him and his wife. She’s an art historian, and it turned out she had given him a copy of my book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.

And what does Starbird think now of The Da Vinci Code?

“I will say, when I read his book, he made a lot of quantum leaps that most scholars would not agree with, but that’s OK. He’s doing fiction,” she said.

Brown said in a brief interview, “When I discovered Margaret Starbird’s work, I felt a kinship with her because, like me, she began her journey as a skeptic, and later became a believer.

“I first encountered this ‘new’ history of Mary Magdalene while I was studying art history at the University of Seville in Spain,” Brown said. “When I began this quest for knowledge, I fully expected the evidence would support the more traditional biblical view of this woman’s life, but the further I progressed, the more convinced I became that indeed there was far more to Mary Magdalene than I had initially been taught in church.”

To Starbird, one of the keys to unlocking the “new history” of Mary Magdalene and understanding her significance in the world of the early church is gematria, an ancient system used by the writers of both the Old and New Testaments in Hebrew and Greek for establishing symbolic meaning among words of the same numerical value. It now forms one of the two pillars of Starbird’s work.

At that pillar’s base lies the historical fact that each letter in the Hebrew and Greek alphabets also served as a numeral. In her latest work, Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and Sacred Union in Christianity, Starbird describes the “sacred canon of number” that the authors of the New Testament used to give special meaning to phrases attributed to Jesus.

More significantly, though, Starbird has made what appears to be an original contribution by uncovering the symbolic meaning of the gematria associated with the epithet given to Mary, “the Magdalene,” meaning “the tower.”

Utilizing the Greek spelling of “the Magdalene,” Starbird found its value to be 153 -- which is the number identified in sacred geometry with the vesica piscis, the origin of the “fish” symbol long utilized by Christians to identify themselves to one another.

Formed by the intersection of two circles of equal radii with centers lying on each others’ circumference, the vesica piscis (the “fish’s bladder”) may also be seen as a graphic description of the concept of “sacred union” that forms the other pillar of Starbird’s work.

Starbird asserts that what we see in the “anointing-torture-death-resurrection-reunion sequence” in the gospel stories of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a reworking of the ancients myths of the Sacred Bride and Bridegroom, pointing to a “partnership paradigm” both in our image of God, and human relationships.

Examples of that story date from as far back as the story of Isis and Osiris to the contemporary film, “Ladyhawke,” Starbird said.

For Margaret Starbird, who began her life’s pilgrimage as an “orthodox daughter of the church” and is the mother of five children, the journey it took to uncover these pillars of her current faith shook her to the foundations of her personality.

Her account of that journey in The Goddess in the Gospels may strike a chord in many readers concerned for the future of the church.

Perugino's "The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene"
-- CNS/Courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Integral to that story is her membership in the Emmanuel community, a grass-roots group of men and women consecrated to pray for the healing and purification of the Roman Catholic church and its priesthood. The group was formed in West Point, N.Y., and Starbird was invited to join as its seventh member in 1977.

It was her involvement in this group, she said, that changed her faith through what she believes was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“In our charismatic group, we would open the Bible, and wherever we were we would start reading,” she said. “In an early meeting I attended, one of my friends opened to Ezekiel 34. It talks about how the shepherds had been shepherding themselves instead of the sheep. I was horrified at the time and thought ‘What is she talking about?’ But now, years later, we know exactly what that meant.”

It was in the crucible of the Emmanuel community that Starbird received the inspiration and support that eventually resulted in her first book, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, published by Bear and Company in 1993.

Starbird’s views are far from being orthodox theology. Even a progressive Catholic theologian such as Fr. Virgil Elizondo, author of a major re-evaluation of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation), adds a note of caution about a possible marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

“There is no doubt that Mary Magdalene plays a key role in the story of Jesus,” Elizondo said from his office at Notre Dame University, where he is a visiting scholar. “She is there at the Crucifixion and at the Resurrection. Beyond that, however, I don’t see any hints in the gospel texts to indicate that she and Jesus were married. Obviously, that Mary Magdalene played a special role is correct, and that there are things we have not appreciated about her is correct, but all the rest must be speculation. The concept of her having been married to Jesus is certainly not in the traditional teachings of the church.”

Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University’s divinity school and an Orthodox Jew, said her scholarship does not support the view that Jesus and Mary were married.

“I have no biblical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdalene,” she said. “On the contrary, I believe he was celibate. Further, I believe that his message had great appeal to those who were single: Joanna, Susanna, the mother of James and John, the Twelve, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, are all shown apart from a spouse.”

Levine added that the statements attributed to Jesus in scripture do not depict someone who regarded the married state as the summum bonum.

“He encourages husbands to leave their wives,” Levine said. “He refers to himself as a bridegroom, but there is no bride. He speaks of the end times as coming soon and notes that in the resurrection people will be like the angels, who neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Levine also questions the assertion that Jesus had to be married because he was a rabbi.

“Not all rabbis in antiquity were married, and we have examples of celibate Jews in antiquity, attested by the Dead Sea community and the group in Egypt mentioned by Philo -- the Therapeutae,” she said. “To assume that Jesus would conform to social norms in all matters is not consistent with the Jesus we know.”

Yet Levine is sympathetic to feminist interpretations of Mary Magdalene.

“There is nothing in scripture to indicate that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute,” she said. “This role was ascribed to her by Pope Gregory the Great. There are actually various feminist perspectives on Mary Magdalene. On the one hand, feminists recognize that her reputation has been tarred. On the other hand, I consider myself a feminist, and I recognize how important the image of the reformed prostitute is to women who have to sell their bodies. Mary becomes for them a symbol that there is a way out. I would not want to take that away from them or from Mary Magdalene.”

The supposed marriage between Jesus and the Magdalene is not the only reason for the resurgence of interest in Mary Magdalene. The figure of the Magdalene is also being interpreted in a gnostic dimension, both by Starbird and other feminist theologians as well as by grass-roots groups such as the Emmanuel community.

Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest now president of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif., sees a special role today for the figure of Mary Magdalene.

“I am very interested in this Magdalene movement, what Jean Schaberg has called the ‘resurrection’ of the Magdalene that is happening throughout our world, and believe very strongly that she represents a new model for the church in this third millennium,” Fox said in an interview from his office in Oakland.

“For the past 2,000 years the Christian world has had the Pauline model, which is Protestant, and the Petrine model, which is Catholic, but the two of them are now running out of steam. I think that Magdalene, as the archetype of Sophia or wisdom, is what the church needs to embody now,” said Fox, author of such popular revisions of traditional Catholic teachings as Original Blessing and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ.

Starbird, like Fox, sees Mary Magdalene as an inspiration for contemporary spiritual life. Cognizant of the mainstream of Catholic teaching and New Testament scholarship, she maintains that it is not the Magdalene alone who represents this new model.

“She and Jesus modeled the sacred union that was to be our birthright,” Starbird said, “but that was hijacked for 2,000 years by men who could not accept the feminine in the church. Now, it is time to restore our stolen birthright.”

Ed Conroy is a Texas journalist and author of Report on Communion, Morrow 1989.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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