But Bock, a conservative scholar, says there is an even simpler reason the books were axed. "It's a later collection of material, probably belonging to a splinter group of Christians, and therefore isn't very trustworthy," he says.

He also says the theory of Mary Magdalene as a major church leader doesn't hold up. "Anyone who argues that there were women who had a full-orbed ministerial role in the time of Jesus that's equal to the Twelve Apostles is arguing beyond speculation. There's really no basis for it at all. There certainly were women who participated in the earliest church and who were faithful. But the only office women held was deaconess in the early church period. And there is no trace of a ministry of Mary Magdalene in any of the biblical materials."

Still, this much is known: In the 5th Century, not long after the Council of Nicea, Pope Gregory the Great delivered an Easter sermon in which he associated Mary Magdalene with sinfulness. He said that the adulterous woman in John 8 was Mary Magdalene, even though that woman is never named. And he said that the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7: 36-50 also was Mary Magdalene-but she, too, is not actually named in the Gospel."They turned Mary Magdalene into a paradigmatic female sinner," King says. Meanwhile, the church began describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin. In the process, says King, "they molded the ideology of femininity in Christianity."

Now, it seems, that ideology is being examined-and in some liberal quarters-debated, even within Christianity. Many of these liberal scholars say they wouldn't mind if someone proved Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. If it could be proved, all kinds of questions about Christian women's roles would be forced into the open. But at this point, the facts aren't there.

"History for historians is more fun than fiction," says Crossan. "Fiction for me is like playing tennis without a net. But history means you have to go with the facts you have."

Nevertheless, popular culture continues to grab at bits of biblical text to answer perplexing questions. How will the world end? Left Behind takes a piece of I Thessalonians to answer. Those who are "left" alive on earth when the Lord "comes down from heaven" will be "caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." The word rapture doesn't even appear in the text.

And now, the ancient legend of Jesus' marriage and the divine feminine reemerges. The question remains if it will become-like Left Behind--popular theology, as well as popular fiction.