Will the Magdalene Go Mainstream? Controversial as Scholarship, Author Margaret Starbird's Interpretation of Mary Magdalene Is Gaining Popular Influence

Article excerpt

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.

"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. …