On Templars, Gnostic Gospels and Conspiracy Theories

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I was asked to read Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy because the person who read it really enjoyed it but it provoked a lot of questions for them. Steve Berry’s book took me a while to get through because I never felt engaged in the storyline, partially because I probably do have enough historical background to laugh at some of the claims the story makes and because he wasn’t as good of a story teller as Dan Brown who writes in the same genre (Devils and Angels and The DaVinci Code among others). We love that which is secretive, we enjoy a good conspiracy theory and too often we have encountered our lives in a sense that either one point of view is true or another is so a discrepancy in a source, for example, is enough to discredit everything about a view (which is simply not true) but let’s get into the heart of the controversies of the book:

The Knights Templar: occasionally the heroes, but more frequently the nemesis in these stories a secret shadowy organization with roots back to the crusades and at least The Templar Legacy gets the time period of their dissolution right with the conflict with Philip IV and Clement V. This is a complicated part of history where that is commonly referred to as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church or the Avignon Papacy where the French King basically controlled the Clement V who never visited Rome during his 9 years as pope. The templars, a military order of the church, did go through what many consider a shameful set trials which were indeed motivated by power and wealth and their pope never interceded for them but rather allowed them to be tortured and then dissolved. Many people want the story to pick up again, to reincarnate the Templars in the Free Masons or many other modern organization or to make them a shadowy society still existing in practice and wealth 700 years later. It makes for a good story and plot, but it stretches the limits of credibility to the breaking point to think of a medieval organization suited for the crusades continuing to exist and flourish in modern society.

Contradictions in the Gospel Stories: Are there contradictions in the accounts in the four gospels that are a part of the Christian cannon? Absolutely! That is one of the many reasons that biblical fundamentalism doesn’t work, but was not a significant source of conflict for the church. The Christian church never felt compelled to create a harmonized gospel, but rather to let the gospels we label Matthew, Mark, Luke and John stand as authorized windows to seeing what Jesus is like. They are different-Mark is probably the oldest and reflects the characteristics of oral storytelling by its structure. It is designed to be memorized by its structure and so events are probably not in strictly the order they happened but arranged in a way that help memory (remember that at the time of its composition most people couldn’t read-but their ability to listen and remember was probably far superior to today). Mark probably recorded the stories in the time around 70 CE, a time when some of the original witnesses to the stories were beginning to die or be executed so there would be a written memory that the community could go back to. Mark has no birth or resurrection stories, it simply tries to narrate predominantly the actions of what Jesus did. Matthew and Luke both follow Mark’s pattern and then add some material (predominantly teachings) that they both shared in common as well as individual stories which are specific to each gospel. Mark, Matthew and Luke are often called the synoptic gospels because they share a similar pattern and although each has its own points of emphases, they share a lot in common. John was probably the last of the gospels written which is less concerned with what Jesus does and much more with who Jesus is and what Jesus means. John tends to go into long dialogues where Jesus will say things like, “I am the bread of life, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth and the life” and many more almost philosophical sounding monologues. One minor note that I got a kick out of in the story was that it got it backwards saying that John has no time period and the synoptic narrate a three year pattern of ministry which is exactly the opposite. John with its patterns of Jesus appearing a different festivals is where we get the standard three year time period of Jesus ministry.  One of the great gifts was that the early church never felt the need to iron out all the differences but was willing to live with the tensions that are present as a part of the mystery of the faith.

The Gnostic Gospels: As Christianity spread throughout the ancient world and encountered more and more cultures and people and it got farther away from its Jewish roots people began to understand Jesus in light of their own expectations and previous experiences creating an identity crisis (I write about this in the Place of Authority 2-3: The Early Church’s Identity Problem). The Gnostic gospels are frequently brought up as another great conspiracy theory of the church pushing out the authentic view of who Jesus was in favor of a Jesus that favored the formation of the church the way it became-honestly I wish the people who write things like this would actually bother to read the Gnostic gospels which are readily available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. But let me spend a little time with the Gnostic gospels and maybe demystify them a little bit. Many ‘Gnostic gospels’ were discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and they are not all part of some unified group. The Gospel of Thomas gets a lot of attention and has been made out in movies (like Stigmata) and books (like The DaVinci Code) to reflect the true words of Jesus. Now where this comes from is actually some scholarly work that is not near as controversial as it sounds: I mentioned above that Matthew and Luke share a lot of material in common, a lot of Jesus’ sayings and there has been a long running hypothesis that there was some common written source for these materials that both Matthew and Luke had access to, and the predominantly German scholars working on this called this common source Quelle which is the German word for common. And because we are often lazy Quelle became shortened to Q and so this is the mysterious Gospel of Q you will sometimes see referred to in culture (I remember an X Files episode where they walk into this church and they are flipping through these additional gospels and one of the ones is Q-not so controversial when you know what it is).

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Some scholars think The Gospel of Thomas is old because it is more of a wise sayings of Jesus without any stories and it does share a lot of material in common with Matthew and Luke, other scholars think Thomas takes the material from Matthew and Luke. Regardless when you read Thomas there just isn’t a lot there that is new to get excited about and frequently little snippets are quoted out of contexts to make Jesus sound like he is anti-institutional to which I respond read Mark, Matthew and Luke and see how many problems Jesus had with the organized religion of his own day and his own protest against it which is far more radical than anything in Thomas. Sometimes authors will try to bring in some of the other Gnostic Gospels, for example Dan Brown makes use of a particular snippets from the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary which help his story, but like prooftexting often does, do not coincide with the general portrayal of even these gospels. When you read some of these gospels you quickly realize that this sounds little like the Jesus in the earlier gospels and sounds a lot like something that comes out of the Greek Culture. I know I’m a geek that I actually have read these sources and can retain a lot of this, but it also keeps me from getting too uptight about a lot of these things.

Is Christianity dependent upon the resurrection?: Yes it is and I think we need to be OK with that. We may never be able to prove historically the resurrection, but if Jesus was just a wise person who could tell a good story and utter wise sayings then we place him up with people like Plato, Aristotle and many other great orators and philosophers-but at the heart of the Christian story is that in Jesus we say, “this is what God is like” as controversial and strange as that is. Now I’m not saying that if a person cannot accept the resurrection that there is nothing to be learned from Christianity, I am convinced that as a way of life it does have a lot to offer, but Paul in 1 Corinthians says it well in his extended argument about the resurrection (the early church struggled with this too) when he argues if Christ wasn’t raised then our hope in resurrection is false and:

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  1 Corinthians 15: 19

Granted many people do not make a lot of sacrifices for their faith, but for those who do it is living in light of a hope for something greater-that God is indeed active in the midst of the world and they are a part of what God is doing in the midst of that.

Conspiracy Theories: They can be fun and make for a good story, and It is OK to question the broadly received story, but conspiracy theories often have little relation to anything recognizable as reality and the thrive in ignorance. I enjoy the stories as much as anyone else, but I also hope that more churches would be places where we can ask difficult questions and pastors would feel adequate to engage them or to ask others who may be able to help them engage these questions. Ultimately questions like this should be fun and not threatening because they give us an opportunity to ask some of the challenging questions of what we believe.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

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