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Modern Novelists Spread Unorthodox Christian Ideas – Part 5

The Last Templar

 

Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman
Modern Novelists Spread Unorthodox Christian Ideas
Part 4 – The Last Templar

 
The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury (2005) opens in Acre, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, in 1291. As the city burns, a Templar knight, Martin of Carmaux, and his mentor, Aimard of Villiers, board a galley with a mysterious Templar chest. The ship vanishes without a trace.
 
Then the book fast forwards to present day Manhattan where four masked horsemen, dressed as Templar knights, storm the Metropolitan Museum during the gala opening of an exhibition of Vatican treasures. The leader of the horsemen utters a few cryptic words in Latin as he steals an unusual geared device. Then the horsemen depart and disappear into the city.
 
The FBI’s investigative team is led by Sean Reilly, an anti-terrorist specialist. Tess Chaykin, an archaeologist, who was a witness to the crime, joins Reilly as they get drawn into the shadowy, mysterious history of the last Templar’s fateful journey from Acre.

Most of what is quoted below was spoken by Professor Bill Vance, who is the principal antagonist, to Sean Reilly. It was Vance’s men who raided the museum. He intends to prove that Christianity’s beliefs are false, and therefore, put an end to religion.
 
Vance claims “that the early days of Christianity are just one big scholarly black spot, when it comes to verifiable, documented facts.” We don’t know much about what happened in the Holy Land almost two thousand years ago, but we do know that none of the four gospels of the New Testament was written by contemporaries of Jesus.
 
He tells Reilly and Chaykin that we don’t even really know who wrote Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four. It was common practice at that time to attribute written works to famous people. Experts tells us that it was “written at least forty years after Jesus’ death. That’s forty years without CNN, without videotaped interviews, without a Google search turning up scores of eyewitness reports from those who actually knew him.” So at best, these are stories that were passed on by word of mouth, over forty years, without any written record. “How accurate would you consider such evidence, after forty years of primitive, uneducated, superstitious people telling stories around their campfires?”
 
Even more troubling is how these particular gospels were included in the New Testament. Over the next two hundred years following the writing of the Mark’s gospel, many other gospels were written, with varying accounts of Jesus’ life. As early Christianity spread, stories about Jesus’ life took on local flavors that were influenced by the particular circumstances of each community. Dozens of gospels were written, which were often at odds with each another.
 
In December 1945, while some Arab peasants were digging for fertilizer in the Jabal al-Tarif mountains of Upper Egypt, close to the town of Hag Hammadi, they discovered an almost six-feet high earthen-ware jar, which contained thirteen papyrus books, bound in tooled gazelle leather. They didn’t realize what they had found, so some of the books and the loose papyrus sheets were burned for warmth. Other pages were lost. What survived were fifty-two texts that are “sayings and beliefs of Jesus that are at odds with those of the New Testament.”
 
One of the texts found at Nag Hammadi was the Gospel of Thomas, which opens with the line: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” Jesus had a twin? Another of the papyrus books, the Gospel of Philip, talks about Jesus’ intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. In Mary Magdalene’s gospel, she is a disciple and a leader of The Way, the early Christian Church. Others include the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the secret book of John. There’s also the Gospel of Truth, which has Buddhist undertones.
 
Apart from attributing actions and words to Jesus that are different from those in the canonical gospels, a common thread is that “they considered common Christian beliefs, like the virgin birth and the Resurrection, to be naïve delusions.” These writings are also Gnostic, because their message is “that to know oneself, at the deepest level, was also to know God – that is, by looking within oneself to find the sources of joy, sorrow, love, and hate, one would find God.”
 
The early Christian movement needed to have some kind of theological structure if it was going to survive and grow. The proliferation of conflicting gospels risked fragmentation. By the end of the second century, a power structure started to take shape. A three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons emerged who claimed they were the guardians of the only true faith. They were most likely afraid “that without a set of widely accepted, rigid rules and rituals, the whole movement would wither away and die.”
 
This establishment of order continued until, around the year 180 and under the leadership of Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, a single, unified view was finally established. “There could be only one Church with one set of beliefs and rituals.” All other viewpoints became heresy. Their doctrine was: “there could be no salvation outside the true Church; and the Church should be orthodox, which meant ‘straight thinking;’ and the Church should be catholic, which meant ‘universal.’ …Irenaeus decided that there should be four gospels;” he curiously argued that since there were four corners to the universe and four principal winds, there should be four gospels. “He wrote five volumes, entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge, in which he denounced most of the existing works as blasphemous, settling on the four gospels we know today as the definitive record of God’s word – inerrant, infallible, and more than sufficient for the needs of the religion’s adherents.”
 
Curiously, none of the Gnostic Gospels spoke about Jesus’ death on the cross and about his resurrection, but the four gospels Irenaeus selected did. And he linked the story to the ritual of the Eucharist, the Last Supper. However, the first gospel to be written, Mark’s, doesn’t mention the virgin birth and does not have the Resurrection in it. It ends with Jesus’ empty tomb, where a mysterious young man tells a group of women who came to the tomb that Jesus is “going ahead of you to Galilee.” The women are terrified and run off and don’t tell anyone about their experience – “which makes you wonder how Mark or whoever wrote that gospel would have ever heard about it in the first place. But that’s how Mark originally ended his gospel. It’s only in Matthew – fifty years later – and then in Luke, ten years after that, that elaborate post-Resurrection appearances were added to Mark’s original ending, which is itself then rewritten.”
 
It wasn’t until the year 367 that the “twenty-seven texts that comprise what we know as the New Testament to be finally agreed upon. By the end of that century, Christianity had become the officially approved religion, and possession of any of the texts considered heretical was… a criminal offense. All known copies of the alternate gospels were burned and destroyed,” except the ones hidden in the caves of Nag Hammadi, “which don’t show Jesus to be supernatural in any way. They were banned because the Jesus of these texts was just a roving wise man who preaches a life of possession-less wandering and of wholehearted acceptance of fellow human beings. He’s not here to save us from sin and from eternal damnation. He’s here to guide us to… spiritual understanding.” Once a disciple reaches enlightenment the priest and the Church are no longer needed. “The student and the teacher become equals.” The four canonical gospels paint “Jesus as our Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God. Orthodox Christians – and Orthodox Jews, for that matter – insist that an unbridgeable chasm separates man from his creator.” The Nag Hammadi gospels contradict this: “for them, self-knowledge is the knowledge of God;” the self and the divine can become one. By describing Jesus as a teacher, they consider him a man, someone to emulate, “and that wouldn’t do for Irenaeus and his lot.” Jesus had to be much more than a man; “he had to be the Son of God. He had to be unique, because by his being unique, the Church becomes unique, the only path to salvation. By painting him in that light, the early Church could claim that if you weren’t with them, following their rules, living the way they wanted you to, you were doomed to damnation.”
 
Everything Christians believe today, and have believed since the fourth century, was not part of what the early followers of Jesus believed in. “It was all made up. It was all tagged on much later – rituals and supernatural beliefs, which in many cases were imported from other religions, from the Resurrection to Christmas. But the Church’s founders did a great job. It’s been a runaway bestseller for almost two thousand years,” but it got out of hand and people got killed if they chose to believe in something different.
 
The following quotes were spoken by Cardinal Mauro Brugnone to Sean Reilly.
 
The Templars found “a journal. A very detailed and personal journal, a gospel of sorts. The writings of a carpenter named Jeshua of Nazareth. The writings of a man. According to this gospel, Jeshua of Nazareth “was not the Son of God.”
 
The Church was created with the most noble of intentions. “For almost two thousand years, we’ve been entrusted with these beliefs that were so important to the men who began the Church, and which we continue to believe in. Anything that could have undermined these beliefs had to be suppressed. There was no other choice, because we could not abandon our people, not before and certainly not now. Today it would be even more catastrophic to say to them that it is all…” He struggled with the words, unable to complete the sentence.
 
“What is faith, after all, but a belief in something for which there doesn’t need to be any proof, a belief in an ideal. And it’s been a very worthy ideal for people to believe in. We need to believe in something. We all need faith… Above all, man needs his faith, now more than ever… and what we have is far better than having no faith at all.”
 
“Faith in a resurrection that never happened?” Reilly fired back. “Faith in a heaven that doesn’t exist?”
 
“Many decent men have struggled with this over the years, and all came to the same conclusion: that it must be preserved. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.”
 
“Christianity wasn’t built on the notion of a wise man’s preachings. It was built on something far more resonant – the words of the Son of God. The Resurrection isn’t just a miracle – it’s the very foundation of the Church. Take that away and it all collapses. Think of the words of Saint Paul in First Corinthians: ‘And if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also in vain.’”
 
Reilly asked, “How can we even begin to understand that if we start with a false premise? This lie has warped every single aspect of our lives.”
 
“Maybe it has. Maybe, if it had all started now and not two thousand years ago, things could have been handled differently. But it isn’t starting now. It already exists. It’s been handed down to us and we must preserve it; to do otherwise would destroy us – and, I fear, deal a devastating blow to our fragile world.” Modern science and philosophy don’t exactly encourage faith… Ever since the early Church was effectively hijacked by Constantine and his political acumen, there have been far too many schisms and disputes. Too much doctrinal nitpicking, too many fraudsters and degenerates running around, too much greed. Jesus’ original message has been perverted by egotist and bigots, it’s been undermined by petty internal rivalries and intransigent fundamentalists.” We’re still “avoiding the real issues facing the people out there. Tolerating shameful abuses, horrible acts against the most innocent, even conspiring to cover them up. We’ve been very slow at coming to terms with our rapidly changing world.”
 
“Maybe if we were starting the Church today, with the true story of Jeshua of Nazareth… maybe we could do it differently. Maybe we could avoid all the confusing dogma and just do it simply. Look at Islam. They got away with it, barely seven hundred years after the crucifixion. A man came along and said, “There is no god but God, and I am his prophet.” Not the Messiah, not the Son of God. That was it. And it was enough. The simplicity of his message caught on like wildfire. His followers almost took over the world in less than a hundred years, and it pains me to think that… it’s the world’s fastest-growing religion.” But we have been very slow, slow and arrogant and now we’re paying for it, just when our people need us the most.
 
“Look at the anxiety around you, the anger, the greed, the corruption infecting the world from the very top down. Look at the moral vacuum, the spiritual hunger, the lack of values. The world grows more fatalistic, cynical, more disillusioned every day. Man has become more apathetic, uncaring, and selfish than ever. We steal and kill on an unprecedented scale. Corporate scandals run into billions of dollars. Wars are waged for no reason, millions are killed in genocides. Science may have allowed us to get rid of diseases like smallpox, but it has more than made up for it by devastating our planet and turning us into impatient, isolated, violent creatures. The lucky ones among us may live longer, but are our lives any more fulfilled or peaceful? Is the world really any more civilized than it was two thousand years ago?”
 
Hundreds of years ago, people could barely read and write. Today “what excuse do we have for such abysmal behavior? Man’s mind, his intellect, may have progressed, but I fear his soul has been left behind” or even regressed. “Man has demonstrated time and again that he is a savage beast at heart, and, even with the Church telling us we’re accountable to a greater power, we still manage to behave atrociously. Imagine what it would be like without the Church. But it’s obvious that we’re losing our ability to inspire… We’re spiraling toward a terrifying spiritual crisis.”
 
“Perhaps the Church is dying a slow death… After all, all religions wither away and die at some point, and ours has lasted longer than most… Despite its failings, the Church is still a huge part of people’s lives. Millions out there rely on their faith to get them through their daily existence. It still manages to provide solace, even to its lapsed members in their times of need. And ultimately, faith provides us all with something that’s crucial to our very existence: it helps us overcome our primal fear of death and the dread of what may lie beyond the grave. Without their faith in a risen Christ, millions of souls would simply be cast adrift.”
 
“There are those who believe the story was only ever meant to be taken metaphorically… However, most believers take every word in the Bible as being… the gospel truth. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps we all walk a line between freeing our imaginations to the wonders of the story and allowing our rational minds to doubt its veracity.”
 
These quotes and ideas from The Last Templar are a sermon that I would like to hear from our pulpits. The Church must stop defending its questionable dogmas and become willing to open its closed mindedness. It must be willing to discuss anything and everything with its parishioners. We need a faith based on facts, not on beliefs that don’t make sense. Otherwise, the Church may be destined to die a slow, painful death.

Read Part 1 Here
Read Part 2 Here
Read Part 3 Here
Read Part 4 Here
Read Part 6 Here
Read Part 7 Here

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