A kind, unassuming military wife may be partly responsible for the premise behind the blockbuster novel. And her findings go far beyond the search for the Holy Grail.
November 1, 2006 (Rev 11/2008, 8/2011)
BY ROSEMARY REGELLO
Not long after releasing The DaVinci Code, author Dan Brown began to field a lot of questions about a subject in which he was no expert. Press outlets the world over wanted to hear all the intriguing particulars concerning one Mary Magdalene, the female apostle closest to Jesus. She may have been so close, it turns out, that she's alleged to have bore his child and perpetuated a royal bloodline.
In the novel, of course, Brown’s protagonists have to flesh out this incredible theory themselves. He has stated publicly that his own influences for The DaVinci Code were a well-known nonfiction tomé on the subject, Holy Blood, Holy Grail - for which he would later be sued for copyright violation - as well as two books written by a woman from Washington State.
Which brings us to Margaret Starbird. It was back in the thick of the media spotlight that this mild-mannered theologian received a phone call one evening from Brown, soliciting her expertise. She is the author of Woman with the Alabaster Jar, published in 1993, and The Goddess in the Gospels, in 1998. Starbird stopped in the Bay Area recently to lecture at Dominican University in San Rafael and the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.
Now, most people hear this woman's name and immediately picture some sort of new age flower child wandering about with a wreath on her head. Yet they couldn't be more off-base. Starbird is the wife of a West Point graduate named Starbird. And her own father retired from the army a major general, while her grandfather taught history at West Point for more than 20 years. Not exactly tamborine-pounding material.
In 1942, with World War II welll underway, Margaret Starbird was baptized within a stone’s throw of New York’s bastion of warfare studies. Three decades later, her husband completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, then returned to West Point to teach nuclear engineering. There the Starbirds raised two kids who went on to make their own mark on the world. Both Stanford graduates, Kate Starbird is an all-time leading scorer of the women’s basketball team. Michael Starbird works for Microsoft in Mountain View.
And of all unlikely places, it was at West Point during the seventies that Starbird first began to unravel the great Catholic conspiracy that later took the world by storm in Dan Brown’s provocative bestseller. “I think the denial of the bride is the very first heresy,” she says. It’s a charge that might have earned her a death sentence in the Middle Ages, but she's by no means cynical about the church. “There are some wonderful things that aren’t wrong. It’s just that at the very heart is what I now call the design flaw. It’s that they lost the bride.”
According to Starbird’s inquiry into the past, Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem after the crucifixion to Alexandria, considered to be the cosmopolitan center of the ancient world in the first century A.D. She was pregnant at the time. About 12 years later, she moved to Provence, France, bringing with her a 12-year-old girl named Sarah. It's no secret, if you're looking for evidence of Magdalene's legacy, southern France is the place to find it. Churches, cathedrals, schools, even streets are named after her, while legends about the child Sarah are rife.
Today, scholars generally concur that Mary Magdalene actually played a much larger role in the development of Christianity than she is given credit. The story of her being a prostitute was fabricated by a pope in 591 A.D. In the 1960’s, the Vatican admitted as much and quietly rescinded the hooker designation (without really informing individual parishes). Still, few theologians accept the proposition that Magdalene was married to the man whom the Romans crucified in about 33 A.D, let alone the notion of a child resulting from their tryst. By most accounts, the DaVinci Code premise that the Holy Grail is a living bloodline rather than a chalice is pure, unadulterated fiction.
A long, strange trip
But Starbird makes a pretty compelling case to the contrary. The story of how she stumbled upon her mind-boggling discoveries is almost as engaging as the biblical bombshell itself. It began in the 1970’s, when she was invited to join a Catholic prayer group at West Point called the Emmanuel Community. This circle of worshippers initially formed in response to an otherworldly event that took place several years before Starbird arrived on scene.
It seems a visiting priest had come to town to deliver a “Life in the Spirit” seminar at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, where Starbird had been baptized. On the last morning of the five-day gathering, West Point and the surrounding communities were hit by a power outage. Given the exigencies of the situation, only a few people came to hear the homily, lighting candles to substitute for electricity inside the church.
As Starbird describes it, reaching the end of his talk that day, the priest asked the tiny congregation “if they were ready to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And they bowed their heads and he held out his hands and said, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ And all the lights came on.”
That Twilight Zone moment would prove prophetic in the years to come. When Starbird joined the Emmanuel Community, the group had by then adopted the habit of asking God what he’d like to share with them each time they met. To get an answer, they would open the Bible randomly to a page and read it. Sometimes called scriptural roulette, or the “oracular” method of imbibing the word of God, according to Starbird, “One of the readings we kept getting over and over was from Maccabees - the assassination of the high priest and the plundering of the temple.”
It would not be until 1985 that Starbird and other members of the circle were able to decipher the meaning of this passage. That’s when journalist David Yallow published In God’s Name, a book which alleges that Pope John-Paul I was murdered to cover up a Vatican bank money laundering scandal. The pontiff served for only 33 days in 1978, and died shortly after agreeing to allow Italian investigators comb through Vatican accounts. Evidently the government was searching for illicit transfers between organized crime and the Holy See. The Vatican announced that the pope had died of heart disease. His body was cremated, and for all intense purposes that ended the criminal investigation.
Even before In God’s Name was published, Starbird knew something was up with the Catholic Church. In 1980, a member of her prayer circle had asked everyone to do a novena simultaneously with her visit to the remains of Herod’s Temple, in Jersualem.
As it happened, the last day of the Novena fell on Mary Madelene’s feast day. The next day, Starbird says a photo on the front page of the newspaper showed Mt. Saint Helens blowing up back in her home state of Washington.
“Oh my God, this is a theophony,” she recounted the story during one of her San Francisco appearances. “This is God telling us there’s something wrong with the church. It’s imploding here.”
Saint Helen, Starbird points out, is the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. It was Constantine who stopped the persecution of Christians and elevated the papacy to its authorative role as God’s official embassy on earth. Moreover, in 325 A.D., the emperor convened the legendary Council of Nicaea to resolve the conflict between competing sects within the church. That’s when the four canonical gospels were selected, for instance, and the gnostic gospels were banned. In addition, Constantine’s mother appears to have conducted a grail quest of her own, searching for the cross on which Jesus had been crucified. She never found it.
In the mid 1980’s, after her husband was transferred to Nashville and her kids were grown, Starbird enrolled in the masters theology program at Vanderbilt University. Required to write a 15-page paper in one of her first classes, she asked God to choose a passage for her. That’s when she landed on a page in the gospel of Mark that describes the woman who anoints Jesus by cracking open an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume. (See our September, 2006 article, Mary Magdalene and her Neolithic Predecessors, for more about the alabaster story.)
Starbird goes into some detail about this interesting event when she speaks, noting that of only four or five incidents communicated in all four canonical gospels, this is one of them. She says the ritual of anointing dates back to the Egyptian legend of Isis and Osiris. Even that tale is a rehash of myths that preceded it, including the story of Inana and Dumuzu, Ishtar and Talmud, and so on all the way back to 7000 B.C.
The historic precedents and highlighting of the alabaster jar incident in the gospels eventually led Starbird to the realization that Jesus and Magdalene may have been married. While there is no clear indication that this was the case, Starbird cites Hebrew laws and taboos of the time and the fact that there was no word for bachelor. She also cites St. Paul’s letters, written in the fifties or sixties A.D., before any of the gospels, where he states that all the male apostles were sent out by Jesus in the company of their “sister-wives”. While the term is translated in the St. James English version of the bible as “Christian sisters”, Starbird notes there’s no ambivalence in the the original Greek. The correct term is literally sister-wives.
She adds that in the neolithic traditions that preceded Judaism and Christianity, all the goddesses were referred to as sister-wives of the gods. In particular, the Song of Songs (in the Bible) is an adaptation of the older mythologies. In fact, the anointment ritual in the New Testament comes straight out of ancient history. Interestingly, Jesus orders all the male apostles to remember the alabaster incident in the name of the woman who has anointed him. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Peter is said to have a mother-in-law.
Starbird believes all the apostles married and shared preaching duties with their wives, as St. Paul indicated in his letters. Furthermore, the model for this dual missionary relationship must have been Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In several gnostic gospels, there’s even a tension between Peter and Magdalene over which of them is second in command. And several accounts suggest it was Magdalene who brought the apostles back together after the crucifixion.
“Christianity is always trying to tell you that [this religion] is something that sprang full-blown from the head of Yahweh,” Starbird explains. “But actually it’s a continuum of all the enlightenment and revelations over centuries. The old wine is being poured into new wine skins for the new age to make it relevant again. The vessel in the first century was to have been a partnership model and we lost it by accident.”
Asked if she bears any animosity towards Dan Brown for the ten-figure income he has generated using her research and that of other scholars, Starbird shakes her head. If not for Dan Brown’s marketing genius, she contends, the secrets of the past might still be confined to the somber laps of a small group of Catholic theologians like herself. Besides, her own book royalties are up, and she says she more than breaks even on her travels and lectures. As for her other costs, she quips, “I let my husband support me.”
For more info on the author and her books, visit margaretstarbird.net.
Copyright 2006-2010 TheCityEdition.com
See also, Apocalypse 2012.