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The Last Templar - Another Opportunity

The novel 'The Last Templar' written by Raymond Khoury, represents another opportunity to share your faith. It was also made into a mini-series by NBC.

First here is a summary of the book (spoilers ahead):


In 1291 A.D a small party of the Knights Templar are forced to leave Jerusalem and the Holy Land on account of losing their fight against the Saracens. They leave with a small secret chest on a ship which is damaged in a storm at sea and sinks. Some of the Knights survive and make their way back to Europe. The chest is lost at sea, but an encoded letter is delivered. A few years later the King of France disbands and destroys the order.

Fast forward to the present day. A violent raid in public - with four people dressed as Templars on horseback - in New York's Museum of Art results in the theft of a strange encoding device. A number of leads are followed, resulting in what amounts to a treasure hunt with three competing parties: an archaeologist with an FBI agent, a violent antagonist who wants to bring down the Catholic Church, and a representative of the Vatican who is also violent and is seeking to stop the hunt.

A number of confrontations ensue. In the first another letter is found stating that the secret chest was hidden in the ships figurehead. This leads to the next confrontation in the Mediterranean Sea after the figurehead is located. This second confrontations takes place in a storm and the boats of all parties sink. It's during this confrontation that the violent Vatican representative is killed. We next find the archaeologist and the FBI agent washed up on a small island being taken care of by locals. As it happens the figurehead was also washed up and the chest is found, opened and the contents seen. Ancient paper with Aramaic writing - the supposed diary of Jesus where he explains he's just an ordinary man. This leads to a final confrontation with the violent antagonist who although escapes with the ancient diary, falls off a cliff and the pages of the diary are scattered with the ink washing away in the sea.

Along the way and independently both the violent antagonist and the Vatican representative try to persuade both the archeologist and the FBI agent that there is no basis to the Christian faith and that the gospels are exaggerations of the truth.

A friend of mine read the book and asked me for my opinion. This is what I sent to him:

You asked for my opinion so here it is: please not another "riding in the 'da Vinci code' coat tails" book. This is a "Dan Brown meets Clive Cussler with a surprisingly violent monsignor touting an automatic and who has no qualms shooting 23m incendiary shells" book. Ok it's a fun read but that's all. Let me better outline the problems as I see them:

1a) Theory: the idea of a Holy Grail/Graal bloodline as a result of Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene, and the idea of a Priory of Sion with the Knights Templar - the focus of this book - as its military arm and financial branch, the idea that the Catholic Church is out to destroy all remnants of both the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar because of a secret they possess that would undermine the church.
1b) Facts (summarized from Wikipedia on a critique of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, written by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, where many of these ideas originate) :

  • In 2005, Tony Robinson narrated a critical evaluation of the main arguments of Dan Brown and those of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, "The Real Da Vinci Code", shown on Channel 4 [and also in the USA where I watched this]. The program featured lengthy interviews with many of the main protagonists. Arnaud de Sède, son of Gérard de Sède, stated categorically that his father and Plantard had made up the existence of a 1000-years-old Priory of Sion, and described the story as “piffle.” The program concluded that, in the opinion of the presenter and researchers, the claims of Holy Blood were based on little more than a series of guesses. (The Real Da Vinci Code, Channel Four Television, presented by Tony Robinson, transmitted on 3 February 2005.)
  • The Priory of Sion myth was exhaustively debunked by journalists and scholars as one the great hoaxes of the 20th century (The Secret of the Priory of Sion, CBS News '60 Minutes' (CBS Worldwide Inc.), 30 April 2006, Presented by CBS Correspondent Ed Bradley, Produced By Jeanne Langley)
  • Quoting Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer newspaper, about The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail: There is something called historical evidence - there is something called the historical method - and if you look around the shelves of bookshops there is a lot of history being published, and people mistake this type of history for the real thing. These kinds of books do appeal to an enormous audience who believe them to be 'history', but actually they aren't history, they are a kind of parody of history. Alas, though, I think that one has to say that this is the direction that history is going today. (The History of a Mystery, BBC 2, Transmitted on 17 September 1996.)
  • Quoting British historian Richard Barber: The Templar-Grail myth... is at the heart of the most notorious of all the Grail pseudo-histories, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, which is a classic example of the conspiracy theory of history... It is essentially a text which proceeds by innuendo, not by refutable scholarly debate... Essentially, the whole argument is an ingeniously constructed series of suppositions combined with forced readings of such tangible facts as are offered. (Richard Barber, The Holy Grail, The History of a Legend (Penguin Books Ltd; 2004).

2a) Theory: the idea the Jesus wrote his own Gospel
2b) Fact: There is no documented evidence that Jesus wrote anything down. Clearly no evidence for this and I suspect invented for this story as an alternative 'secret' to the Holy Grail/Graal bloodline.

3a) Theory: the idea that the four Gospels are extrapolations of actual events written long after the events (over 40 years), that they were specially selected, that the so called 'Gnostic Gospels' written about the same time were suppressed and contain the truth.
3b) Facts:

  • The New Testament consists of 4 gospels and 23 letters. The letters of the New Testament are generally thought to have been written before the gospels. The earliest - James - was considered written 12 years after the Easter story. I find it interesting that there is an abundance of attacks against the gospels but little to none against the letters.
  • The letters back up the key claims in the gospels. Pauls letters to the early churches explain what Jesus mission was. In fact a proper attack on the Christian faith requires not just an attack on the Gospel claims of Jesus' resurrection, but also on Paul - how did this man, a devout Jew who persecuted Christians, suddenly become the strongest defender of the faith?
    • "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days." Galatians 1:13-18.
  • The last verses in the book of Acts reads: "For two whole years Paul stayed there [Rome] in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.". It does not mention the death of Paul nor what happed to Christians under Nero. In fact no letter does. Given that the persecution of Christians started in Rome in 64AD, this strongly indicates the latest date for the book of Acts. Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke (see Acts 1). Luke is considered to derive much of its text from Mark. Thus we have strong indication that one letter and two gospels were written within 30 years of Jesus ministry. Further many of Pauls letters were written while he was in prison, during the events described in Acts. Therefore many new testament letters can also be attributed to this period. In fact most think all but one of the letters (Revelation) was written in the period 45-65AD. 30-33AD the common estimate for the period of Jesus' ministry.
  • The earliest books in the New Testament are considered to be James and 1 Thessalonians.
    • "We believe that Jesus died and rose again". 1 Thessalonians 4:14
  • Here are other quotes from the letters regarding the central claims of the gospels - the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first is considered the earliest creed, circulating and in use well before it was written down:
    • "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born." 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
    • "But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. " 1 Corinthians 15:12-17
    • "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" 1 Corinthians 15:20
    • "But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." Acts 2:24
    • "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact." Acts 2:32
    • "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. "Acts 3:15
    • "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen." Acts 10:39-40
    • "But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people." Acts 13:30-31
    • "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 1:1-4
    • "Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" Galatians 1:1
    • "For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. " Romans 6:9
    • "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Romans 3:21-24
    • "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:6-8
    • "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." Romans 8:11
    • "Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." Romans 8:34
    • "For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. " Romans 14:9
    • "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
    • "because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence." 2 Corinthians 4:14
    • "That power is like the working of his [Gods] mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms" Ephesians 1:20
    • "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal." 2 Timothy 2:8-9
    • "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God." 1 Peter 1:18-21
  • The book mentioned Gnostic gospels or the "Nag Hammadi library". They were not written at the same time as the other gospels. These documents were dated to the 4th century, and are thought to be copies of 3rd or even 2nd century writings. Even being generous, these texts have been dated to over 100 years after the ministry of Jesus. Is it really conspiracy that they weren't included in the New Testament?
  • A word on reliability. There seem to be around 50 manuscripts associated with the Gnostic gospels. Compare this to about 650 known copies of Homers Illiad, the greatest number of any book from antiquity second only to the New Testament - which has over 25,000 known ancient copies of New Testament manuscripts. (Evidence for Christianity - Josh McDowell)
  • Another perspective: if Jesus did not rise again from the dead, then why did so many people go out of their way to spread a lie and be martyred for it? Do you know what happened to Jesus disciples and early evangelists? According to the bible, and Hippolytus (~200AD) and Eusebius (~300AD) + other online research:
    • Stephen:
      • As recorded in Acts, Stephen was one of the first men to suffered early Christian persecution.
    • James:
      • In Acts (ch12) James, the elder brother of John the Apostle, was beheaded in A.D. 44. [this is 11 years after Easter. So James' letter in the New Testament is clearly one of the earliest.]
      • "And he killed James the brother of John with the sword." Acts 12:2.
      • "James, his brother, when preaching in Judea, was cut off with the sword by Herod the tetrarch, and was buried there." Hippolytus.
      • "First Stephen was stoned to death by them, and after him James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, was beheaded" Eusebius
    • Philip
      • Philip, who served in Upper Asia was scourged in Phrygia, thrown into prison and later crucified (A.D. 54).
      • "Philip preached in Phrygia, and was crucified in Hierapolis with his head downward in the time of Domitian, and was buried there." Hippolytus
    • Matthew:
      • Matthew the tax collector served the Lord in Parthia and Ethiopia where he was slain with a halberd (a shafted weapon with an axe-like cutting blade and a speared end) in the city of Nadabah, A.D. 60.
    • James:
      • And James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem, was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple. Hippolytus
    • Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded.
    • Andrew:
      • "Andrew preached to the Scythians [modern day Georgia] and Thracians [modern day Bulgaria], and was crucified, suspended on an olive tree, at Patrae, a town of Achaia [Greece]; and there too he was buried." Hippolytus
    • Mark was converted to Christianity by Peter and served as amanuensis (he wrote for Peter). He was dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria.
    • Peter:
      • Peter, the apostle, was sought by Nero to be put to death. Jerome wrote that Peter was crucified with his head down and his feet up, because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same form and manner as the Lord.
      • "Peter preached the Gospel in Pontus, and Galatia, and Cappadocia, and Betania, and Italy, and Asia, and was afterwards crucified by Nero in Rome with his head downward, as he had himself desired to suffer in that manner." Hippolytus
      • "It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day." Eusebius
    • Paul was really persecuted several times. He was scourged, stoned, and finally, Nero had him beheaded by a sword.
    • Jude, the brother of James, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in A.D. 72.
    • Bartholomew: Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia [modern day southern Georgia].
    • Thomas,
      • doubting Thomas, preached the Gospel in Parthia and India. He excited the rage of the pagan priests and was martyred by being thrust through with a spear.
      • "And Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with a pine spear at Calamene, the city of India, and was buried there." Hippolytus
    • Luke the author of Luke and Acts traveled with Paul through various countries and was suppose to have been hanged on and olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece.
    • Simon the Zealot preached the Gospel in Mauritania, Africa, and even Britain where he was crucified in A.D. 74.
  • Related to this: Christians could easily escape persecution by denying the faith. Why didn't they? Consider this exchange of letters. Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus and Bithynia from 111-113 CE. He wrote to the Emperor Trajan
    • Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

      It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

      Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

      Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

      They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

      I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

    • Trajan to Pliny the Younger

      You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

4a) Theory: Many senior clerics in the Vatican think the story of Jesus is a myth
4b) Fact: it's not just the Vatican. There are many church leaders who think this. They believe in a form of 'liberal' theology - that is there is a positive benefit to faith even if it's not real. On the other hand there are many church leaders who consider the stories real. So here's the question: if God exists, is He playing an active role in the world or not? There's clearly a difference of opinion on this.

  • One effect of this is the politics of religion. Many people in the past have sought power through religion, and taken advantage of people. These are the folks who give religion a bad name, and who the atheists write about as reasons why religion is bad for society.
  • One the other side is that religion is deeply personal. People claim to have a relationship with God, to talk to Him, to hear Him, and claim how their lives have changed because of Him. This is the part that atheists miss and don't understand. So in spite of all their attacks, their convictions that churches will be empty in a generation - they are ignored. Simply because people feel God working in their lives.
  • So are people happily deluded or is it real? How do you tell? Of all the nonsense out there on this topic, these are the most meaningful to me
    • The Old Testament was completed about 400 years BC. Yet there are over 100 specific prophecies about Jesus.
    • If you think the New Testament is made up, then you need to deal with all the above.
    • If God is real, active and working then anything goes, and the Gospel is actually easier to believe than any other theory.
    • Jesus is a historical figure. There are secular references to Jesus and early Christians. Examples:
      • Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 – 117AD) Book 15 of the Annals: "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired."
      • Lucian (a Greek Satirist): "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws." (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13 in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, translated by H. W. Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949) vol. 4)
      • A reference to Thallus on the crucifixion: "On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in his third book of History, calls (as appears to me without reason) an eclipse of the sun" (Julius Africanus, Extant Writings XVIII in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973) vol. VI, p. 130)
      • Mara bar Sarapion, believed to be the provider of one of the earliest non-Jewish, non-Christian references to Jesus: "What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king [i.e. Jesus]? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given"
      • The Babylonian Talmud includes a few rare references to Jesus. "It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that "[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him." But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover. Ulla said: Would one think that we should look for exonerating evidence for him? He was an enticer and G-d said (Deuteronomy 13:9) "Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him." Yeshu was different because he was close to the government"

So in short - I suppose I have a fairly strong and personal faith in the person of Jesus, and I certainly believe it's all real. I guess it'll take more than pulp fiction to cause me to seriously re-examine what I believe.

John Bell
June 2009

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