After The Da Vinci Code topped the best-seller list, author Dan Brown picked up the phone and called Margaret Starbird. He wanted to acknowledge the primary concept he had gleaned from her work: the idea that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene. Starbird’s books, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and The Goddess in the Gospels had given him ample research to back the material in his page-turning thriller. Starbird, in turn, got her food for thought from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the premise of which is that not only was Christ married, but that his wife and bloodline had survived in Western Europe—something she, a practicing Roman Catholic and Vanderbilt Divinity scholar, found disturbing. She couldn’t bring herself to buy the book, but borrowed it from the library.
Reading the back cover, she was appalled: “I almost threw it down, almost fled from the building,” she says of her first encounter with a hypothesis she knew would challenge her beliefs to the core. “I was not merely shocked by the idea, I was shattered.” But open-mindedness and a desire to know the truth guided her and, as she pondered, she had to admit the theory was provocative and that the compilation of evidence strongly suggested that the orthodox Catholic hierarchy and the Inquisition had ruthlessly suppressed the truth.
With the support of her prayer group, she began what would become a seven-year journey to debunk what she still considered blasphemy, investigating it through a study of history, symbolism, medieval art, Freemasonry, mythology, psychology and the Bible. The result was a radical restructuring of her faith and the birth of her first book. “It was a labor both long and difficult,” she recounts. “At times, I thought it would turn me inside out. Doctrines I had believed on faith had to be uprooted… the entire framework of my childhood had to be dismantled to uncover the dangerous fault in the foundation and the belief system carefully rebuilt when the fissure had been sealed.”
But even as a former Fulbright Fellow at Christian Albrecht’s University in Kiel, Germany with an M.A. in comparative literature (University of Maryland), Starbird never intended to write a book—“I was just researching this because I was passionate to know Christ better.” And, without industry contacts, she didn’t expect the book to be published, but queried a single publisher anyway. She was advised to send the full manuscript with enough postage for return after rejection, but two months later, received a letter stating that hers would be one of the 12 out of 7,000 manuscripts received to be published that year. She was astonished to read, “Yours is a book we’ve been looking for all over the world!” The Woman with the Alabaster Jar is now available in twelve languages and has become a quiet bestseller in its own genre.
Starbird’s theory stands on two “pillars”—the ancient science of gematria (ancient Greek and Hebrew numbers were contained within the letters of the alphabet), and myths dating back to Neolithic matriarchal cultures. In particular, she cites the myth of the “Bridegroom/King,” who is first anointed by the highest representative of the Goddess, joined to her in marriage, then tortured, killed and “planted” to ensure that the crops would flourish and the people would prosper. (This was a physical rite in some places, while in others, the King was symbolically sacrificed.)
She notes that this ritual was part of the cultures of Sumer, Babylon and Canaan, among others. In many versions of the story, the couple is reunited in a garden. In Greek mythology, this rite is known as the heiros gamos or Sacred Marriage. Since Israel was under Greek influence for nearly three hundred years following the conquests of Alexander the Great, it’s logical that the Hebrews were aware of such a rite.
“Its mythological content would have been understood by the Hellenized community of Christians who heard the Gospel preached in the cities of the Roman Empire, where the cults of the love goddesses were not completely extinguished until the end of the fifth century A.D.,” writes Starbird, who thinks there is abundant evidence that it was Mary Magdalene who anointed Jesus with spikenard as a marriage ritual and that it was recognized as such by those in attendance.
For starters “It should have been scandalous for a woman—any woman—to touch a Jewish man in public, but there’s barely a hint that Jesus’ friends were scandalized by her action.” She points out that the Old Testament’s Song of Songs, widely popular in Palestine during the time of Christ, was the wedding song of the Shepherd/King and his Bride, and that identical lines are found in a liturgical poem from the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
Starbird provides further parallels, stating that the frequent allusions to Jesus as the Bridegroom of the fertility myth, “could be the creation of the Hellenized authors of the Gospels”—none of whom actually knew Christ—but she thinks it is far more likely that they originated with Jesus himself. In the Hebrew tradition, prophets had proclaimed Yahweh as the heavenly Bridegroom of the community and the King of Israel as his faithful son, the anointed Messiah, terms also found in the Sumerian and Canaanite mythologies.
Which leads to the question: Was Jesus a real person, or a mythological being? “I personally think that somebody named Jesus, or Yeshua, lived in the first century and actually embodied the myth,” states Starbird. People noticed that, and recognized him as the Messiah. I think Christ came to embody that myth, but I think it was the myth of sacred partnership that He and Magdalene embodied together.” This is the crux of her message, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were representatives of a unified masculine and feminine principle as old as the cosmos itself.
She explains the “fire” (pyramidal apex on top) and “water” (apex pointing downward) triangles as symbols of these principles, noting that the hexagram formed when joining them is the “star of partnership.” Interestingly, it has been a universal symbol for union throughout the ages, seen in pre-historic cultures, in the East Indian tradition of Shiva and Shakti embracing, in Plato’s harmonic fusion of opposites, in the Seal of Solomon, inside the Ark of the Covenant, in the Great Seal of the United States, placed by the founding fathers in the mandala of the thirteen stars that represent the first colonies.
Starbird is the first to admit that her theory isn’t provable (“what I have is a huge case of circumstantial evidence”), but feels frustrated with Christian fundamentalist writers who dismiss her theory because she doesn’t have a Ph.D. after her name. For a quiet-spoken, rational woman—she does, after all, feel that although “Roman Catholic Fundamentalist Christian clergy apologists for the church are trying to mainstream everybody,” they’re only following the tradition they’ve learned and are holding one another up the best they know how—the words she uses are mighty strong.
“One of the things I’m really irritated about in the wake of the Da Vinci Code is that so many people are trying to debunk it, and they don’t go back and look at my stuff. It’s infuriating, because I had my Ph.D. except for the dissertation. I was working in Maryland and my husband was transferred to North Carolina. [Her husband is the man who gave her the ‘new-age’ last name of Starbird is a retired Army engineer.] I married and raised five college graduates. I sacrificed my last degree for my family and now I’m written off—they won’t even look at the evidence I bring. I can’t prove that the tenets of the “Grail heresy” are true. I can’t even prove that Mary Magdalene was the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus at Bethany. But I can verify that these are tenets of a heresy widely believed in the Middle Ages, that fossils of it can be found in numerous works of art and literature, that it was vehemently attacked by the hierarchy of the established Church of Rome, and that it survived in spite of relentless persecution.”
This so-called heresy has a number of variations, from the Gnostics, to the Cathars, to the Rosicrucians, but its central tenet, that Mary Magdalene (Starbird stresses the importance of the final “e” in her name, following the original Greek gematria and distancing her from a town called Magdala) wasn’t a prostitute, but the Bride of Christ, and the embodiment of the Holy Grail, has incurred the wrath of Catholic Orthodoxy for centuries.
She can’t resist a comparison: “I just watched The Godfather again, and I think the Mafia is built on the same model as the Vatican: ‘Protect each other at all costs and get rid of anyone who is against you.’ We’ll never prove anything against the Vatican, because they won’t let anyone into their archives. They’ll protect their power… that’s what the masculine principle does—like the Enron people. When will we see them in jail? We’ve got Martha Stewart in jail, but not those guys.”
She says these things without anger—she simply sees evidence of the “lost feminine” everywhere. “It’s playing out in the desert right now the unbalanced masculine principle warps the whole psychology of Western civilization. Because we have so much power we’re trying to impose it on the whole world.” Starbird feels the only way to heal the planet is to get the feminine principle back. “We can’t hear the voices of wives and children anymore, because we’ve written them out of our story.”
Wryly, she sums up the family model provided by the orthodox church: a patriarchal father divorced from the virgin mother of a perpetual bachelor. She’s surprised that, with all the questioning of whether “the Code” is fact or fiction, the focus isn’t on, in her case, the child Magdalene is said to have borne: a daughter known as Sara Kali. “Of all the things in my book, she’s the most speculative, and she’s never questioned,” laughs Starbird. “There’s no proof of the bloodline and I don’t think God wanted that to be the issue. People in the Middle Ages latched on to these promises of the Davidic bloodline, but geneologies don’t hold up through the Dark Ages; they just don’t have the documentation.”
Besides, she and Brown agree, the message is Sacred Marriage, not royal blood elitists running around saying, “I’m it.” She also wonders if “chasing historical facts” is a waste of time when the real issue is how we live our lives. “The idea was to learn to love the essence of the Gospels in service to others.”
Starbird, it would seem, is the perfect vessel for voicing what many feminist forces have been saying for centuries. “If someone as conservative as I am can buy this, anyone can,” she quips. Her views support the “and/both” paradigm of the feminine principle rather than the “either/or” of the masculine: she remembers expressing her support of the Equal Rights Amendment at Vanderbilt University and the surprise she generated when that support didn’t extend to abortion rights.
She’s a bridge, an example of someone who practices the love Christ taught, not judging people and issues. Gay marriage, for example, doesn’t rankle her, “I always ask myself, ‘what would Jesus and Mary do? I think they would embrace the gay community.” Many married priests support her work; in fact, she states that her own priest and most people in her parish agree with her—quietly.
“I’m a Roman Catholic, but I don’t go,” she says, sighing. Partly it’s her travel schedule. Starbird leads retreats and gives lectures and keynote speeches that keep her from attending the Mass, but it’s also an ethical issue. “I put my money where my mouth is… I don’t really feel comfortable supporting a church that has so many problems it won’t address.”
She hasn’t seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and doesn’t plan to. She says, Ben Hur works for me and I think Gibson’s a little off with this.” She’s disappointed that, once again, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute or an adulteress. “That’s fifty years too old; now we know better than that. She’s appreciative of female clergy, historians and academics who are willing to see Magdalene raised as an apostle equal to Peter, but thinks they’re still missing the mark: “This does not ‘heal the desert’,” she states firmly.
“All it does is restore a model for power in the church that’s equal to Peter (the ‘rock’ of Christ’s church), but it’s not like the yin/yang symbiosis of Christ and Magdalene together—they model the spirit manifest in the flesh.
Thank God Dan Brown caught on to this!” Starbird considers Brown’s book an answer to her prayer about getting her work to a wider audience. “Yes, the book is fiction, but the story behind it isn’t—there’s a 99% chance that Christ was married.”
After nearly two thousand years, writes Starbird, “it’s time to set the record straight, to revise and complete the Gospel story of Jesus to include his wife. Our ravaged environment, our abused children, our maimed veterans, our self-destructing families and abandoned spouses are all crying for the restoration of the Bride of Christ.” She points out that the scriptures never said Jesus wasn’t married; they only omitted specific mention of his wife—and the danger to her life seems to have been reason enough to have blotted it from the written record.”
Amazed at the rapid and growing interest in this subject, Starbird is waiting to see what the Catholic establishment will do. It is possible that the Vatican will continue to deny that Jesus was married. But it is also possible, when faced with the evidence, that the Fathers will decide it is time to receive the Bride… perhaps they will allow the church bells to ring out across the land to announce her safe return and welcome her home.”
To learn more about Gematria, particularly as it applies to the Book of Revelation and the Apocalypse, see Starbird’s latest book, Magdalene’s Lost Legacy or visit http://www.telisphere.com/~starbird.