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The Goddess in the Gospel. The Goddess in the Gospel, Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine. by Margaret Starbird. A review by Theresia Saers

The Goddess in the Gospel

The Goddess in the Gospel, Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine. by Margaret Starbird.1998, Bear & Company Publishing, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A review by Theresia Saers

(Visit our "honour" page to see a tribute to Theresia Saers.)

After reading Starbird’s book twice in the course of one week, I want first to remark that the author was destined to spend a great many years in search of a home for her soul. The sad loss of respect for the feminine in an almost totally male-oriented Church, and its tragic result for the faithful as well as for the wider world are at the centre of the book. Born and bred in a soldier’s family she had married into one whose members had also served in the U.S. Army, and she needed to offset the predominance of this male environment by a specifically feminine shelter. A deep devotion to the Holy Spirit or Paraclete, her ‘Travelling Companion’ led her eventually to Mary Magdalene.

This is the second book by Starbird to deal with Magdalene. It provides us with an account of the stages in the journey which led to her final conclusion.

In the first chapter, Pilgrim in Provence, we find ourselves in Vézelay in 1996, and the author is approaching the famous cathedral which was built in the Middle Ages in honour of Mary Magdalene. It is a place full of echoes of the past, and Starbird, through her studies, is well equipped to note details that might have escaped less well-informed pilgrims such as myself. She recognises a relief in the sandstone, showing Moses taking off his sandals. Instantly she is aware that "this is holy ground." (Exo. 3:5) In the tympanum over the main entrance she notes that the left hand of Christ is missing. It seems prophetic to her that in this basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene – of all the hundreds of churches in France! - Christ should be maimed in this particular way, as if to show irrevocably that he is just not whole without her! The Magdalene of the statue holds a chalice, not the traditional alabaster jar but the Holy Grail, cradled against her body, in a pose evocative of a mother cherishing her unborn child. These details set the tone for the concatenation of coincidences that result in the strong conviction that Jesus and Magdalene were bound together in a sacred marriage, and that the Magdalene brought Christ’s as yet unborn child to safety in the South of France.

Starbird intends to find who was really the ‘first lady’ among the early Christians and to prove that the perceived misogyny of Christianity was not indigenous to the Church in its infancy and was never the teaching of Jesus, but that a sacred partnership was once at the very heart of the Christian message.

She travels to Montsegur and Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and to Saint Victor’s abbey in Marseilles, the site of a sixth-century abbey that housed a community of both male and female clergy. She notes how many of the oldest churches in France do not have traditional steeples, but look more like fortresses than churches. It reminds her of the meaning of the epithet ‘Magdala’, namely ‘watchtower’ or ‘stronghold’. In the abbey church she finds Notre Dame de la Confessione, ‘Our Lady of the Witness’, one of the famous black madonnas in France. Starbird is surprised to see her wear a large silver brooch in the shape of the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Merovingian kings, rumoured to have been descended from the union of Christ and the Magdalene. In the crypt she finds a relief tableau of Christ on the cross with Mary kneeling , distraught, her arms clasping a large rock. It had the effect of a woman nine months pregnant. Eloquent stones?

This is only the beginning of a large chain of earlier coincidences on that particular pilgrimage, which Starbird makes us share in the course of the book. She holds that the present Pope has been instrumental to a revival of esteem of femininity by his enthusiastic worship of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. (In a later chapter she is to add a wish for him to proceed on that route, because otherwise the Church will be in danger of collapse.) The Black Madonna echoes the neolithic ‘Triple Goddess’, the sacred feminine. Numerous goddesses were rendered black: Isis, Cybele, Artemis, who modelled the sister-bride.

Starbird makes us linger at places where the Cathars have lived and suffered and comments on the gnostics. She is convinced that at the same time that Gospel-oriented versions of Christianity were eradicated, the strong worship for Mary, Jesus’ mother, arose. From those days on, according to her, stonemasons built into their churches the belief they were no longer allowed to practise openly namely that for the earliest Christians it had been Mary Magdalene, the sister-bride of the Song of Songs who was the goddess in the gospels. The Magdalene, whose epithet meant ‘elevated’ or ‘watchtower’.

On her way the author makes us share her insight in the meaning of tarot cards, a catechism for one of the forbidden religious systems. More interestingly she explains the working of gematria, a system of coding texts which was often used in antiquity. She is convinced that in the Greek text of the New Testament the authors have made use of gematria to point out hidden truths to those that have eyes to see. The epithet ‘η Μαγδαληνη’ for the Magdalene in Greek e.g. bears the same number as ‘the fishes in the net’, namely 153 (John 21:11), which leads Starbird to remark that they accordingly represent the community of believers, the ekklesia, the communal ‘Bride’. The number 153 in gematria was specifically identified with the Vescia Piscis, the ‘almond’ shape, known as the ‘vessel’ or ‘measure’ of the fish. And of all numbers of in the ancient canon, the number 153 represented the Sacred Feminine – the Goddess in the Gospels. At one time the author approached a Bible scholar who had taken part in a seminar to find which of the so-called Jesus words were really spoken by him. She asked him whether they had consulted gematria. The answer was that the scholars had known of its existence but had not bothered to check. For those interested in Starbird’s argument I shall ask her permission to print the whole chapter that deals with this subject, because she has more to say about the sacred union of Jesus and the Magdalene.

Starbird’s final conclusion is as follows:

‘In light of the traditions of Judaism and the concrete evidence encoded by gematria in the Gospels themselves, I am certain that Jesus was married and that the woman called Magdalene was his partner, his Beloved, and his wife. These are her trump cards:

  1. In Jewish tradition it was a normal thing for people to marry, so why would Jesus not have been married? Why would Mary Magdalene have chosen to remain single?
  2. For people versed in gematria, the sacred system of geometry, used by the ancients to make alphabet letters carry symbolical meaning, the truth of the sacred marriage of Jesus and the Magdalene is there to see with their own eyes.

Starbird cannot have been aware that in the very same years that she was on her quest another scholar, John Wijngaards, was also trying to find and destroy the roots of the misogyny in the Catholic Church that she hoped to attack. He travelled another, yet not altogether dissimilar way. He also checked countless documents and artefacts, many of them referring to Mary Magdalene. In his view, too, she must have held a key position in the early Church. I must confess, however, that I find his arguments about what caused that awkward misogyny over the centuries more convincing than hers. They have more ‘body’ than the circumstantial evidence provided by Starbird’s coincidences.

I feel that the gematria argument affirms the position Wijngaards takes on the Magdalene, that she was an extremely important witness of faith and a great example for present-day women, but I do not take the ultimate leap towards the existence of a sacred marriage. Why?

  1. The new tenet in Jesus’ teaching was the fact that some people refrain from marriage for the sake of the kingdom. (Matthew 19:12)
  2. I accept the gematria interpretation of ‘Bride’ in the sense that she stands for the community of believers, in the same way as Jesus is the ‘Bridegroom’ of his Church.
  3. Nowhere have I found any real evidence in Starbird’s book for the offspring of this ‘sacred marriage’. The brooch the black madonna is wearing in the abbey church of Saint Victor’s is not enough to convince me.

Anyhow, it does not make any difference to me whether Jesus was married or not. He was human, wasn’t he? Most of the apostles must have been, most of the women with Jesus also. The many coincidences that Starbird finds, pointing to the importance of Mary Magdalene, are interesting enough without a marriage. For me too, the Mary Magdalene that I find in the gospels, canonical and apocryphal, must have been of paramount importance in the early days of Christianity. Even the little bits that a close study of the gospels yield, make people around the world very much aware of the sad loss of feminine values in the Church, of the resulting damage to the latter’s evangelising role and to the well-being of the world in general, a society that has taken so many of its standards from (a very misunderstood) Christianity. I share Starbird’s anxieties about the Church. I am like her looking forward to happier times.

Her book has provided an answer for my burning question of the past quarter century what the evangelist really had in mind when he remarked about this courageous woman that she was ‘also called the Magdalene’. Somehow it does not feel like just positioning her in some town or village He pointed her out as a fortress or watchtower. It was gematria he used for those with eyes to see. The word with the mystical meaning of the number 153: the whole community of the Church, the ‘Bride’?

The Goddess in the Gospels is a very interesting book and well worth reading. However, I find Wijngaard’s latest study On the Ordination of Women, a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, more convincing. It is based on a search of ancient documents, official formulas for the ordination of women deaconesses, tomb stones bearing names of deaconesses and priests, numerous paintings and sculptures and the testimony of a great many Bible scholars. For those who have become interested in the matter: the route Wijngaards travelled is fully documented in his website www.womenpriests.org .

Barendrecht, 1 december 2001

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