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Friday, July 18, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Templar Legacy

I’ve written about the Templars before in this blog; they’re a very useful multipurpose set of characters. Need a villainNeed mystery?  Need treasure and secretsThrow in some Templars.  They’ve got all that.  

And as in Ivanhoe, and The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon appear in Steve Berry’s book The Templar Legacy[i].   It is the first of his Cotton Malone series of international thrillers. (side note – throughout the whole novel I continued to misread his name as Cotton Mather  which made the whole thing more amusing, to me...)

The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.” – Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum

The Templar Legacy is a lot like the more popular Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  It has ancient secrets, pursuit across international lines, puzzles and cryptograms, and potentially earth shattering revelations that must be kept secret (or must be brought to light, depending on who you’re rooting for…)  I won’t say anything about those revelations in this book until the end of this review, in case you’re one who doesn’t like spoilers.  Though – it shouldn’t be difficult to figure them out well before the half way point of the novel.  It’s not a particularly new or shocking revelation.

Like The Da Vinci Code Berry’s Templar Legacy also has a number of things to say about the New Testament and early Church history.  Most of it bogus. 

When one of his characters describes the process by which the New Testament gospels were developed she says this concerning the Gospel of Mark:   “It contains six hundred sixty-five verses, yet only eight are devoted to the resurrection.  This most remarkable of events only rated a brief mention.  Why?  The answer is simple.  When Mark’s Gospel was written, the story of the resurrection had yet to develop… (Berry, 337)

First the number of verses:  It’s difficult to say how many verses the gospel of Mark has because the answer depends on which translation you’re using, and whether or not you stop at the short (original?) ending at 16:8 or if you go on to one of the longer endings at 16: 9- 20.  And the usual short answer says that the count is six hundred and sixty six verses.  Berry is inaccurate. 

And then the more substantial snafu:  The story of the resurrection had yet to develop before the writing of Mark’s gospel?  What historical crack is Berry smoking?  He puts the writing of Mark at around AD 70 (Berry, 337) but the story of the resurrection was around long before that. Even if one is critical and suspicious of the early Christians and believes the story of the resurrection of Jesus to be a deliberately contrived fiction – one cannot get around the fact that the story was spreading much earlier than the written gospels.  Paul was writing about it in his letters in the 50s.  Berry is very inaccurate. 

“Elevating Christ to deity status was simply a way of elevating the importance of the message,’ Thorvaldsen said. ‘After organized religion took over in the third and fourth centuries so much was added to the tale that it’s impossible any longer to know its core. (Berry, 344)” 

Wow. So few words, so much wrong – but I’ll leave it alone except to say that Bart D. Ehrman (an historian critical of the Christian story) was somewhat surprised by his research, discovering that the elevation of Jesus to divine status happened much earlier than he was willing to admit. Certainly long before the third century.  See his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. 

“Unfortunately for you, there exists not one mention of Jesus Christ in any secular Greek, Roman, or Jewish historical account.  Not one reference in any piece of surviving literature.  Just the New Testament.  That’s the whole sum of his existence. (Berry, 405)”

Uh. ... Berry has certainly overstated his case here.  It is true that there is precious little about Jesus outside of the New Testament but Berry goes too far.  The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus wrote about Jesus and his followers.  There is also a reference to him in the writing of Tacitus, the Roman historian.  And there are other, more debated, references to Jesus or his followers in Pliny the Elder, Lucian, Suetonius and etc…  Berry is very, very inaccurate.

I know that you don’t read international thriller novels about the Knights Templar and ancient secrets for accurate information; you read them for the whiz-bang golly gee!  Still, I would like them to be more accurate than this. 

And for that super-secret revelation that must be revealed to the world / kept hidden from prying eyes… (stop here if you don't want spoilers...) the shocking secret is that the Templar treasure is nothing less than the bones of Jesus and a letter from Simon Peter (yes, that Simon Peter) describing how he, along with James and John, collected Jesus’ remains and kept them.  The bones were later discovered by the Knights Templar in the caverns beneath the remains of the temple (how the remains got there is not explained).  The Templars recovered the bones and kept them as their powerful secret to manipulate the Catholic Church and gain a vast fortune of gold and estates across Europe.  -  But - how is it both a secret and a powerful way to manipulate the Church?  You can't have it both ways, Berry.

And, in the end, it’s hard to see why Berry thinks this a secret powerful enough to propel his story. The characters of the novel are untroubled by this supposed revelation.  They accept that one can still have faith and hope and do good for the world even if the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical-physical event.  There are many Christians who believe this.  Indeed, in the ‘Writer’s Note’ at the conclusion of the novel, Berry credits John Shelby Spong for the inspiration.  You’re going to have to do better than that, Berry.

Even if (and that's a big IF) Berry's scenario were to be played out - convincing the world that bones found in a cave in southern France, are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth would be problematic.

[i] Berry, Steve The Templar Legacy, Ballantine Books, New York, 2006 

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