Below is a list of the texts I consulted in shaping Magdala, along with some notes on each. (This represents the best of what I read, and certainly not every journal article the angels of the Dorot Room at the New York Public Library brought me like manna.)

THE LIST, in the order they sit on my bookshelf:

The Jews in their Land
Conceived and edited by Ben Gurion
why I love this book
The Nag Hammadi Library
General Editor: James M. Robinson
why I love this book

When God Was a Woman
by Merlin Stone
First published in 1976 and still in print, this carefully researched book was the first to trace all the references to women and priestesses in the Bible and make sense of them in the context of the non-biblical cultures that preceded and surrounded them.The perfect first book to read on this topic.
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The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
by Barbara Walker
I first got this book when I was 19 years old, and you could say my journey to Magdala began here. Walker did meticulous research, taking 25 years to write this incredible compendium of information about all manner of deities, symbols and rituals, chronicling their evolution, from sacred rites to forbidden practices, from antiquity to today. This book is where I first met Lillith, Adam’s first feisty wife (before Eve) and for this and more I am forever grateful to Ms. Walker.
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The Woman with the Alabaster Jar
Margaret Starbird
I’ve had the joy and honor of meeting Margaret Starbird, and she is just as engaging in person as she is on the PBS series you may have been lucky enough to catch. Starbird has devoted her life to bringing an understanding of the Sacred Union and the power of the Queen of Heaven back to Christian thought.
Starbird goes into careful detail to explain how we know that Jesus may have indeed participated in a Sacred Marriage with Mary Magdalene. More than this, she demonstrates how essential it is to the Church to accept this full sexual feminine presence as holy, to see the earth as sacred.
For those of you who don’t know: The title refers to the woman in the New Testament Gospels who anoints Jesus.Yes, it’s our dear Mary Magdalene, and yes, anointing sounds like the euphemism it is. Read this book.
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Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Bart Ehrman
Ehrman started his quest for the ‘inerrant word of God’ as a fervent Evangelical.Becoming a Bible scholar, he studied Hebrew, Latin and Greek in order to find for himself the original word of the New Testament, not satisfied with mortals’ translations.
The resulting book – and conclusion that the “inerrant word of God” is not available in print – reminded me how little we know about the intentions of the original writers of the New Testament. Each generation has taken such liberty, intended and not, with editing and translation.This was one of the books that helped me feel I was not at all blaspheming in my novel; to the contrary, perhaps I have even upheld a sacred tradition.
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Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teachings of the Early Christians
Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy
Often as I wrote Magdala, I questioned what I was doing – did I have a right to make Jesus and Mary characters in a novel, especially one that does not represent them as perfect holy people? Intellectually I knew I had this right, but I struggled often to feel a sense of deep internal permission. This book best explained for me the multiplicity of Gospels in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Each writer was telling a story of initiation, no one was trying to nail down facts. They changed the story freely to fit their audience. This was not journalism. This was mysticism. Speaking to a New York audience, I may refer to the feeling of that first sip of coffee in the morning. Speaking to an English group, I may change it to tea. Making sense of the stories of the gospels to my self and my generation of women as best I could was not heresy – it was following in ancient sacred footsteps.
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The Song of Songs: A New Translation
by Ariel Bloch & Chana Bloch
This delicious study differs greatly from my own understanding of the Song of Songs, in that the authors don’t believe it was a liturgy for the sacred marriage. But the careful research and annotations significantly helped me find my own way, not in the least by introducing me to the wonderful Rabbi Akiba whom we have to thank for the text’s continued inclusion in the canon after the 2nd century.
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The Jews in their Land
Conceived and edited by Ben Gurion
Gurion, as you may know, was the first prime minister of modern Israel. This enormous coffee-table book was my mother’s. How she came by it I don’t know, but I can tell you it was immensely useful in understanding the history of ancient Israel/Judah/Canaan, especially as to how the books of the Bible relate to the unfolding history of the people.
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Adam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity
Elaine Pagels
The Gnostic Gospels
Elaine Pagels
I list these books together because that is how they remain in my mind. Pagels makes sense of a chaotic process – otherwise known as the development of the Catholic Church. Think about this: no one ever called themselves a Gnostic, or a pagan. These labels are how we categorize people into groups that were never nearly so neat. Both books are clear, respectful and challenging explorations of the work of the church fathers and mothers, by an authoritative scholar who never forgets her reader.
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The Nag Hammadi Library
General Editor: James M. Robinson
Discovered in the 20th century, this collection of the ancient texts, now known as the Gnostic Gospels, is a primary source for understanding how some people of the 1st and 2nd centuries actually thought about life and faith. Beautiful writing, life-changing insights. Also available in its totality online.
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Dead Sea Scrolls
Trans. & Commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., & Edward Cook
As you likely know, these texts, found in a desert cave by the Dead Sea in the 20th century, contain many passages from the collection known as the Old Testament as well as other documents pertaining to the life and worship of a group suspected to be the Essenes or the Yahad. As glorious as it is, the book is nothing compared to the fabulous exhibit in the museum in Jerusalem, itself shaped like the lid of the jar in which the scrolls were found. Go.
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The Lost Books of the Bible
(specifically, The Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and the Protoevangelion of James)
Gramercy Books, Crown Publishers, 1979
These texts contain the stories of the Virgin Mary’s conception, birth and childhood, and Jesus’ conception and birth, as well as stories of miracles he performed as a child. While not canonical, these stories are central to much Christian doctrine, specifically that of the Immaculate Conception, which refers not to Jesus’ conception but to his mother’s, whose mother Anne was visited by an angel. These stories have long been a part of Christian lore; Leonardo Da Vinci for one delighted us with many wonderful renditions of St. Anne as St. Mary’s mother and thus Jesus’s grandmother.
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An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols
J.C. Cooper
A gem of inspiration. Read it and find out, for example, who ate fish on Fridays before Christianity, and what the color blue has meant to different cultures throughout time.
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Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land
Ed. Avraham Negev & Shimon Gibson
This and the Atlas described below were wonderful guides to the political geography of the 1st century C.E. I was especially interested in how long cities had existed and what evolution of name and purpose the places experienced.
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Atlas of the Bible Lands
Hammond World Atlas 2002
A large book of only 40+ pages, this atlas offers maps of the geographical Israel, as well as all the changing political boundaries of the country, from the time of the 12 tribes (circa 1500 BCE), through the kingdom of David, onto the Roman Empire that took over that whole coast of the Mediterranean. The history of a nation in maps, filled with wonderful extras such as photos of city ruins and a good chronology of rulers.
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The World Jesus Knew
by Anne Punton
This pocket-sized book provided good charts and broad explanations of the various holidays celebrated at the time, and precious nuggets of information about how day to day life worked – what tools people used, what food was available in what season and such.
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Jesus – A Revolutionary Biography
John Dominic Crossan
As he does in his many wonderful books on the subject, Crossan here takes on a secular Jesus who aimed to overthrow the Roman occupation and return sovereignty to the people of Israel. I best enjoyed his fascinating interpretation of the symbolism of John the Baptist in the river Jordan, and his discussion of symbolism of the various diseases that made a person ‘unclean’ for ritual, and what these and other aspects of New Testamentstories meant to the political body of the time.
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Jewish Magic and Superstition – A Study in Folk Religion
Joshua Trachtenberg
This is about the private, some may say “superstitious”, practices of Jewish people from Antiquity into the Middle Ages. Trachtenberg gives a whole new meaning to the concept of sacred texts. Just think of the tefilin and the mezuzot – sacred or superstitious? What is that line about? If that interests you, you’ll love this book.
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Ancient Christian Magic, Coptic Texts of Ritual Power
Marvin W. Meyer & Richard Smith
Similar to the above book, this one tracks the spells and incantations used by early Christians. Rather than look so much at the historical context however, this book organizes the spells by category: love spells, protection spells etc. I didn’t try to do any of them. If you do, and it works, let me know!
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Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus
Neal Douglas-Klotz
The Peshitta Bible remained in Aramaic (the languagespoken in 1st century Israel/Palestine) for centuries, unlike other bibles which were translated to Greek and Latin by the 4th century.
Based on that text, Douglas-Klotz takes translation to a new level, exploration the many layers of Aramaic which have been collapsed in commonly known versions of the New Testament. This astonishing and refreshing take on what Jesus might have really said continues to serve me well as an excellent meditation guide.
For example, Douglas-Klotz explains how what we know as ‘thy kingdom come’ might have been translated as ‘Come into the bedroom of our hearts, prepare us for the marriage of power and beauty.’ How might our lives be different with that line bouncing around our heads?
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Hebrew Goddess
Raphael Patai
You should see my copy of this book: busted at the seams in several places, held together by multiple rubber bands. Patai, may he rest in merriment and joy, scoured the Old Testament for references to anything feminine at all, and showed us in this modern classic how little proof there is in those texts for belief in a monotheistic society at the time of their writing. The Hebrews in early (and late!) times kept returning to worship a Goddess, no matter how often they were forbidden to do so. As do we all, I think. As do we all.
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Galilee: History, Politics, People
Richard Horsley
It took quite a while for this book to find me, hidden out in the woods as I was at the time I ordered it. In desperation, after weeks of not locating me, the UPS driver finally wrapped it in a plastic bag and tied it to a utility pole about a mile from where I was staying.
I mention this because finding the information in this book has often felt that difficult. Everything we think we know about Galilee, the land where Jesus is said to have spent most of his life, is actually what is known about the south of Israel, the land around Jerusalem known as Judah.
Consider for example that Galilee had been politically, religiously and militarily separate from Judea for around 800 years, and that it was only reunited with Judea in 104 BCE, a hundred years before Jesus’s birth, after a long war. That ‘reunion’ comprised a forced conversion to Judaism of the people of Galilee by the people of Judea. So who were these Galileans? Whom did they worship? Whom did they accept as king?
A very scholarly and simply amazing book for anyone wanting to know more about the assumptions we’ve made about that place in time, and about how little in fact can really be known.
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The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
Rodney Stark
Eminent sociologist Stark applies what we know today about successful new religions such as the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS/Mormon) and sees if it helps make sense of the success of the Christian movement, which may have numbered no more than 1,000 people when Jesus died. (For example, LDS grows at a rate of 43% every ten years. The growth of Christianity indeed follows these numbers, with about 220,000 people in the year 200, which suddenly seemingly miraculously grows to 1,200,000 by year 250, but which is exactly 43% every ten years).
This book offers the best secular look at early Christian life I have ever read, including the exploration of how religions tend to grow along established social networks, and how those networks were upended by Roman urban living. I learned more about Roman cities than I ever expected, including this one juicy detail I can never forget: the living quarters for the working class (75% of population) of some Roman cities were occupied more densely than Manhattan is today, only on five stories (not 20+), plus livestock living with them, minus any running water. I can smell it from here!
I can barely begin to describe how much I learned about the different value systems of the time, some of which we take for granted today. For example: Romans did not consider that all infants were valuable, since they died so easily. It was not uncommon for someone to expose an unwanted child to the elements and let them die. Think of Romus and Remulus. But Christians said all life is valuable, even a tiny baby’s, that is anyone’s tiny baby, not just a Christian’s or a Jew’s or a Roman senator’s. Today it is unthinkable (or at least horrific) for us to imagine someone hurting or neglecting any baby. At the time, such values were revolutionary.
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The Sacred Marriage
by Samuel Noah Kramer
This and the following are central to understanding the cult of the Goddess in Antiquity in general and the Sacred Marriage in particular. Kramer, whom I’ve linked here because he is (was) a force unto himself, devoted his lifework to analyzing and explaining the beginnings of our civilizations. Once the material in these two books is absorbed, the reader will hear everywhere, in every culture, the echo of the symbols and rituals described therein.
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Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth
Samuel Noah Kramer and Diane Wolkstein
Writing was invented in the temples of Inanna, in Sumer some 5,000 years ago.It has been called cuneiform and was used to document the myths and rituals at the time. Not only did Kramer and Wolkstein translate these tiny markings, they give us the context to understand the development of Inanna from a querulous child, to a defiant adolescent, to a woman who asks loudly, “Who will plow my vulva?” to the woman who descends to the Underworld and manages to return.
The analysis of these stories show how our predecessors of 5,000 years differed little from us in their needs and psychological sensibilities. Much wisdom to be found in these tales, as well as a solid understanding of Sumeria, the first culture in the Western world to have written law and written myth.
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Sarah the Priestess – The First Matriarch of Genesis
Savina J. Teubal
Everyone who enjoyed The Red Tent should read this book. By matching up the text of Genesis with the code of Hammurabi (the contemporaneous Sumerian legal code), Teubal’s scholarly work demonstrates clearly how the actions of Sarah of Genesis confirm her as priestess. At every juncture – marrying Abraham, the trip to Egypt, firing Hagar – Sarah behaved exactly in accordance with the laws that concerned someone of her status. Teubal painstakingly examines each of passage and presents an undeniable case, also covering Rebecca’s and Rachel’s stories.
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Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Parts I& II
Theory and Society, Volume 4, No. 1 & 2, Spring and Summer, 1977
James C. Scott
This long, intensely scholarly journal article examines how, in agricultural cultures, those who work the land – the ‘little’ people – continue in their same form of worship no matter what the rulers impose as a new tradition. Scott looks mostly at different Asian cultures, where people live very similarly to their ancestors, and documents how they reacted when told for example to worship Buddha or the new dictator instead of their familial and familiar gods. Essentially, people would substitute the new imposed ‘deity’ but continue with their old rituals. Who would want to anger the river-god when you count on him for next year’s crop?
(How did I find this jewel?Easy – almost everyone I read footnoted him. Whenever possible, I like to go to the source).
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Her Share of the Blessings: Women Religions among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World
Ross Shepard Kraemer
Kraemer writes about the hard evidence we have of all the women who played leadership roles in Jewish and Christian society in late Antiquity. By hard evidence, I mean it: many discussions revolve around ruins and names carved into stone. Her work enabled me to believe even more strongly than I already did in an active tradition of powerful religious women whose roles were being gradually stamped out by politics and greed.
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The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan & Christian Roots of Mariology
Steven Benko
This is the most authoritative, scholarly and exhaustively researched book on the religious studies topic which is at the core of my novel. How indeed did we get from Inanna to Mary, both of them called the Queen of Heaven? Benko not only supports the claim that Mary-worship is an extension of every-other-goddess-worship, he documents it carefully, readably and unequivocally.
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Complete Works of Josephus Flavius
Trans.: William Whiston
Josephus generously provides us with the only available contemporaneous, eye-witness account of life and war in 1st century Palestine/Israel. He starts his historical recap with the known Bible stories – but he gets really interesting when he gets into the periods of Herod the Great and the Roman civil war and ensuing triumphs and havoc. For history buffs, there are some gems in here, like his tale of the women who come down from Galilee to plead against young Herod in the court in Jerusalem. Also, his account of the life of Herod the Great is worthy of a seven-hour movie or ABC mini-series: treachery and sex, tyranny and generosity, madness and cunning. Sometimes Josephus gives us too much detail that is no longer pertinent, but otherwise a great if interminable read.
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Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
by Walter Ong
I discovered this slim volume when I did my Masters in Media Studies. Ong takes us in to the mind set of someone who had never even seen a written word, someone whose understanding of a word is either spoken or concrete. He remove the prejudicial ‘pre-literate’ label and offers another: ‘oral.’ I re-read this book when writing mine to better understand how the world of the 1st century was seen by thepeople who lived in it. Granted, the written word was known, masteredby anywhere from1-5% of the population, but the majority of people still lived in a world where stories were memorized, where a word given was a contract sealed, and where the written word was held as sacred, even magical. Ong explains well the different expectations oral cultures have of stories, and this in turn helped me better understand some of the repetitions and gaps in the stories of the New Testament, which had been spoken and shaped for at least a generation before they were first tied to ink and papyrus.

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