Spectres Meeting in a Cemetery. Part Two.

David Sivier
Magonia 96, October 2007.

The impetus for this attack on the historicity of the Incarnation – the central tenet of mainstream Christianity – came largely from the German philosopher Lessing, who argued that no rational basis could be found for such developments, which were completely unreasonable. As a result, writers such as Ernest Renan could construct a life of Jesus, which portrayed Him as a mere human being with a case of megalomania. [1]

Other Victorian intellectuals, such as J.A. Froude, Matthew Arnold and F.W. Newman lost their faith through repugnance at theological doctrines such as original sin, predestination and substitutionary atonement. [2] As a result, the holy God and man of the Gospels was reimagined as nothing more than a moral teacher. [3]

The result of this disaffection with institutional Christianity was not only the growth of scepticism and atheism, but also the appearance of a number of modernist rewritings of the Gospels presented as the rediscovery of an authentic Christianity. These included such works as Gideon Jasper Ouseley’s The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, 1900; Nicholas Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, 1894; Dr. Levi H. Dowling’s 1911 The Aquarian Gospel; The Crucifixion of Jesus, by an Eye-Witness, 1919; Rev. W.D. Mahan’s A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court, 1879; B. Shehadi’s The Confession of Pontius Pilate, 1893; Ernst Edler van der Planitz’s The Letter of Benaia, 1910; T.G. Cole’s The Twenty-Ninth Chapter of Acts, 1871; and Moccia’s The Letter of Jesus Christ, of 1917.
These false Gospels are a heterogeneous mix, reflecting their authors’ diverse motives and viewpoints. The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, written by Gideon Jasper Ouseley [left], a clergyman in the Catholic Apostolic Church, seems to have been written to promulgate Ouseley’s own pantheist, vegetarian and teetotal views, including the androgynous nature of God, styled by Ouseley as ‘our parent in heaven’. Ouseley was strongly influenced by the doctrines of the Theosophists Edward Maitland and Anna Kingsford. Despite purporting to be the reconstruction of an original Aramaic gospel narrative, Ouseley stated that he received it ‘in dreams and visions of the night’. [4]

Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, pretended to be a translation of a Tibetan life of Christ, stating how Christ travelled to India to learn the ways of the Buddhas. While it’s one of the major sources for various fringe religious theories attempting to link Christ with India and Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, students of oriental literatures and religions in the nineteenth century were not hesitant in declaring it to be a forgery, especially after interviews with the monks at Himis, where Notovitch claimed to have seen the Life, revealed that they had no such document and had never even seen Notovitch. [5]

Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel was similarly influenced by Theosophy and contemporary interest in oriental spirituality, as well as Christian Science. Dowling was a believer in the Akashic records, and, like Ouseley, wrote it under the influence of astral communications received during the night. In it, Christ not only studies with the great rabbi Hillel, but also meets Brahmins and Buddhists in India, Mencius in China, and Persian magi, while travelling through India, Tibet, Assyria, Babylonia, Athens, and Italy before settling in Egypt where he joins and achieves all seven degrees of initiation into the sacred brotherhood at Heliopolis. [6]

The Crucifixion of Jesus, by an Eye-Witness, is an account of Christ’s life as an Essene monk, in which John the Baptist, the angel of the annunciation, Nicodemus and the angel at the tomb are Essenes, and it is the Essenes who arrange the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and carry him away to be revived after the Crucifixion. Christ, in this false gospel, is indeed attracted to Mary Magdalene, but does not marry her because of His monastic vows. Despite purporting to be a translation of yet another ancient document, the text itself was completely anachronistic, and the fact that neither the manuscript, or even photographs or details of its provenance were presented made it clear that it was a forgery.

The thesis that Christ was an Essene was first propounded by Carl Bahrdt, circa 1784-92, and popularised by C.H. Venturini circa 1800-02, while it took the idea of Christ being resuscitated after Crucifixion from Paulus, and Hose’s History of Jesus of 1876. The book as a whole was probably inspired by the manuscript discoveries of the German orientalist Tischendorf in Egypt and the Levant, including the Codex Sinaiticus, in 1859, as well as various novels and stories set in Egypt in the 1860s and 70s. [7]

Rev. W.D. Mahan’s A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court has Pilate attempting to save Christ from the Jewish authorities as they execute Him during an insurrection against Rome. Although fraudulent, the book enjoyed immense success, and Mahan followed it up with a succession of similarly spurious religious documents, one of which plagiarised Ben-Hur. As a result, Mahan was found guilty of falsehood by the Presbyterian church and suspended from the ministry for one year. It appears Mahan was strongly influenced by the Alexander Walker’s editions of the Apocryphal Acts of Pilate in volume XVI of the 1873 Edinburgh edition of the Ante-Nicene library. Mahan’s motive in writing his own version may well have been to defend the historicity of the Biblical account from attacks from the sceptic and Republican politician Robert G. Ingersoll in the 1870s through the invention of documents that Mahan himself felt genuinely existed. [8]

The Confession of Pontius Pilate similarly presents Pilate’s viewpoint, presenting a narrative of his final years as an exile in Vienne, staying with his friend Fabicius Albinos, before finally, overcome with remorse, he commits suicide. Pilate here is also presented as attempting to rescue Christ, though unsuccessfully, and in reprisal commits terrible atrocities on the Jews before being recalled to Rome after complaints and accusations to Tiberius by Vitellius and Mary Magdalene. The book was originally written as an avowedly modern work by the Greek Orthodox bishop of Zahlah, Gerasimus Yarid, following similar fictional accounts of the Passion, such as that published about the same time in France by Anatole France. Its spurious antiquity was merely a creation of Shehadi. [9]

The Letter of Benan is supposedly an account by the Egyptian priest and doctor, Benan, of Christ’s life and training amongst the rabbis and Egyptian doctors, including the Therapeutae, and of Benan’s subsequent journeys to Gaul, Britain and Roman Italy. Its publisher, Ernst Edler von der Planitz, wasn’t an Egyptologist or religious scholar, but a novelist with a penchant for conspiracy theories, publishing such works as ‘The Lie of Mayerling’. Again, the books seems influenced by Ebers’ novels of ancient Egypt, such as An Egyptian Princess of 1864 and Uarda of 1877, as well as Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. [10]

The Twenty-Ninth Chapter of Acts, on the other hand, has Paul travelling to Spain and Britain, where he preaches on the site of the future St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mount Lud, before travelling on through Gaul, Belgium, Switzerland, the Julian Alps, Illyria, Macedonia and Asia. In it, the Druids reveal to Paul that they are descended from the Jews who escaped from bondage in Egypt, and it appears to have been written to support the British-Israelite movement of the 1860s and 70s. [11]

Moccia’s spurious gospel was a lost thirty-three page Greek version. This was really a publicity stunt by Moccia for his forthcoming novel, but he abandoned it after he saw how seriously it was being taken. [12] If only Brown had shown similar discretion.

Other works included the forged The Gospel of the Childhood of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Peter, by the French Decadent writer Catulle Mendes; W.P. Crozier’s Letters of Pontius Pilate, which purported to be Pilate’s correspondence with the Roman philosopher Seneca; Catherine van Dyke’s Letters from Pontius Pilate’s Wife; the Epistle of Kallikrates, purporting to come from one of Paul’s converts; the Letter of Jesus Christ, exhorting attendance at church and keeping the Sabbath, copies of which were pasted in houses as it promised protection for women in child-birth. This latter had a contemporary version in Greek, published by Michael Salvers, and supposedly discovered in the fragments of a meteorite smashed by Patriarch Joannicius of Jerusalem. [15]

These nineteenth and early twentieth century apocrypha are the precursors to many of today’s works of religious pseudohistory, presenting Christ as an Essene, or a friend of Pilate, or an initiate into secret Egyptian or Indian teachings. And like the documents Michael Baigent claims to have seen to support his view of Christ in The Jesus Papers, the ancient documents on which these texts were based similarly did not appear, and no supporting evidence was provided. [15]

Not only were these new, apocryphal gospels a response to contemporary questioning of the authenticity of the canonical gospels, but they were also a response to the emergence and circulation of genuinely ancient, non-canonical Jewish and Christian texts, such as the Book of Enoch, found in a fragmentary Slavonic version and in its complete form preserved in the canon of the Ethiopian Coptic Church. The Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the fourth or fifth centuries AD, was copied in eleventh century England, and was still circulating in chapbook editions in the eighteenth century. [16] The 1876 Tischendorf edition of the early Greek and Latin versions may well have been the versions which inspired the spurious 19th century gospels. The Egerton Gospel, a fragmentary non-canonical gospel, was discovered in 1935. [17]

A similar piece of a vanished gospel, Gospel Oxyrhincus 1224 was found circa 1890. [64] Gospel Oxyrhincus 1224 was discovered in 1903 and published in 1914. [18] Furthermore, apart from the spurious late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century gospels, other noncanonical versions of the lives of the great figures of the Bible were circulating. Three hundred years before the publication of the Gospel of Judas in May 2006, for example, an account of the treacherous apostle’s life was also circulating in the cheap, chapbook literature. [19]


The most profound challenge to the authenticity of the Biblical
scriptures came from the discovery of the Gnostic library of
Chenoboskion and Nag Hammadi in Egypt,

The most profound challenge to the authenticity of the Biblical scriptures came from the discovery of the Gnostic library of Chenoboskion and Nag Hammadi in Egypt, in 1945/6 and the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran in 1947. [20] With the discovery of these texts, more apocryphal and pseudepigraphal Jewish and Christian tests were gradually researched and published. The result was a flood of new translations of heterodox Judaeo-Christian texts, which had previously been lost or suppressed. These included the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945; The Secret Book of James, 1945; The Dialogue of the Saviour; The Gospel of Mary, 1955; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas; The Infancy Gospel of James; The Gospel of Peter, parts of which had already been discovered in 1886 and a version published in 1972; and The Secret Gospel of Mark, discovered in 1958 and published in 1973. [21]

References to a ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ and a’Wicked Priest’ in the Dead Sea Scrolls have similarly provided material for radical speculation, with scholars such as J.M. Allegro, Barbara Thiering, and Robert Eisenmann identifying them as Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, and Christ’s brother James. [22] In the view of at least one major scholar “these theories fail the basic credibility test – they do not spring from, but are foisted on the texts”, with the more likely candidate for the ‘wicked priest’ being Jonathan Maccabeus who accepted the pontifical vestments for the Temple at Jerusalem from the Seleucid usurper Alexander Bolas, or Alexander Jannaeus. [23]

However, academic restrictions placed on research and publication by the director of the research programme into the scrolls, Father de Vaux, and the inability of a small group of seven scholars to complete such an enormous task, along with political difficulties with the Israeli authorities, meant that relatively little was published until the reorganisation of the project with a team of sixty scholars by Emanuel Tov in 1990, and the breach of the previous academic ‘closed shop’ around the manuscripts by the Biblical Archaeology Society and the Huntingdon Library in California. [24]

Unfortunately, the academic wrangling that had hindered proper publication and research into the scrolls appeared to lend credence to rumours that the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ and ‘Wicked Priest’ were indeed Christ and the other major Christian figures, and so gave rise to rumours that the Scrolls were being deliberately suppressed because they contained materials that would undermine and discredit Christianity completely. It is as a part of this atmosphere of religious anxiety, speculation and conspiracy theorising that Holy Blood, Holy Grail found such fertile soil amongst the public, and the Da Vinci Code sprang up.

This conspiracist view of the Roman Catholic Church has been compounded because of the very real problems the Vatican has experienced in coming to terms with modernity. With the advance of secularisation in the nineteenth century, many of the traditional ecclesiastical roles of providing education, giving moral advice and presiding over marriages and funerals were lost to the state or private secular institutions, and the traditional seat of the papacy, Rome, was occupied and incorporated into the new Italy during the 1861-70 campaigns of unification. [25]

The result of this was the official promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, considered by some to be a ‘magna carta of ecclesiastical absolutism’, and the Syllabus of Errors, contained in the papal encyclical Quanta Cura of 1864. [26]

The papal decree Lamentabili and encyclical Pascendi Dominica Gregis of 1907 outlawed modernist thought in Roman Catholicism prohibiting the philosophies of Kant, Fichte and Hegel, and the application of secular historical techniques to criticise the authenticity of the Bible. Instead of Roman Catholic doctrine evolving through a historically conditioned process of debate, elaboration, adaptation and development, Roman Catholic doctrine was established as immutable and eternally true. [27]

And as a reaction to the revolutionary turmoil of nineteenth century Europe, French Roman Catholic theoreticians like Joseph de Maistre and Francois Rene Chateubriand articulated an extreme conservative ideology in which “thrones and altars were to be seen as safeguards, as buffers against a return to the tragedies of the Terror. Christianity was to be privileged above philosophy; powerful popes were preferable to overconfident national churches; kings and established churches were better than elected assemblies and liberal constitutions; tradition was a safer bet than innovation.” [28]

As a result, liberal Catholic views and agendas were denounced in the encyclicals Mirari Vos of 1832, and Singulars Nos of 1834. The fascination with alleged secret royalist bloodlines from Christ through the Merovingian kings in The Holy Blood, and the Holy Grail, and its successors, like The Da Vinci Code, can be seen as a deliberate mythologisation of this type of ‘throne and altar’ Catholicism.

Although Christian Democrat parties had successfully emerged to defend Roman Catholicism against hostile Protestant and secular authorities in Bismarck’s Germany and Belgium, papal disgust at nationalist appropriation of pontifical territories had led to a refusal to recognise the Italian state. Italian Roman Catholics were not even allowed to vote until 1919. [29] A rapprochement with the Italian state, which formally regulated the relations between Church and state in Italy and which granted the sovereign independence of the See of Rome and compensated the Vatican for the loss of its territories, was only established with the Lateran Pacts with Fascist Italy of 1928. [30]

The emergence of extreme Right-wing clerical Fascist movements
such as the collaborationist regime of Monsignor Tiso (above)
in Slovakia seemed to bear out the image of the Roman Catholic Church
as a brutal, totalitarian, oppressive institution

The drawback to this treaty was that the papacy often seemed more allied to totalitarian Fascism than to democracy as the two movements headed towards a collision course in the 1930s. With the emergence of democracy in Italy after World War II and the new openness in the Church brought about by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, a concordat based on privileges and tied historically to Fascism became an embarrassing liability. [28]

Worse, the emergence of extreme Right-wing clerical Fascist movements, such as the Rexists in Belgium, the collaborationist regime of Monsignor Tiso in Slovakia and the juntas of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain further seemed to bear out the image of the Roman Catholic Church as a brutal, totalitarian, oppressive institution. The problem remains acute with continuing arguments over the papacy’s knowledge of the Holocaust and inability or refusal to prevent it.

The rise of feminism has also presented the Church with serious criticism as a patriarchal institution oppressing women through its prohibition of contraception and abortion, unequal employment opportunities which disbar women from ordination in the clergy, and, like other Christian denominations, with the worship of a solely male deity. Apart from the general trends in feminist theology common to most forms of Western Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church has experienced demands for the hyperlatreia – the extraordinary, superior veneration extended by Roman Catholics to Our Lady – to establish her as co-saviour with Christ. This was formally investigated by Pope John Paul II, who was broadly favourable, but rejected as contrary to Catholic dogma and tradition by the cardinals charged with examining it.

It is as part of this continuing debate – over the changing role of women in the Church and society, and attempts to reclaim a suppressed feminine aspect to Christian spirituality, that The Da Vinci Code and its literary antecedents’ elevation of Mary Magdalene is located.

However, the specific historical circumstances, which have given rise to this image of a Fascistic, patriarchal, oppressive Church, staffed by an Order of secret assassins, is largely obscured by the mythological distortions, which surround them. The mythology of the Priory of Sion may well be a Surrealist spoof of ‘throne and altar’ Right-Wing Catholicism, but it’s part of the general fascination with secret societies and pseudo-chivalric orders which were extremely common in the nineteenth century. During that century there was a plethora of pseudo-Masonic societies and orders, which, despite their elaborate hierarchies and rhetoric of bizarre mysticism, were largely fraternal benefit societies. Most of these became insurance companies and friendly societies in the twentieth century. [29] And while many of them championed and supported the poor in the new, mass, democratic society of the nineteenth century, they often did so under a feudal, chivalric guise, like the nineteenthcentury American socialist organisation, the Knights of Labor. [30]

As for the supposedly oppressive character of the Roman Catholic Church, this can be countered with the rise within it of leftwing, Marxist Liberation theology and more traditionally theologically orthodox critiques of exploitation and oppression, and the very many Roman Catholic clergy and laypeople martyred and murdered by brutal regimes across the world, including, naturally, Jesuits. Moreover, the rationalist critique of Christianity and the Resurrection can similarly appear just as flawed, dogmatic and credulous, involving massive leaps of logic and nonsequiturs, as the orthodox Christian account, and the view of the Essenes and the ancient Gnostics and medieval Cathars are quite at variance with what these religious groups actually believed and were like.

Nevertheless the nineteenth century crisis of faith, and the challenge of modernity, liberalism and democracy, as well as the discovery of the ancient, alternative scriptures, has created a climate in which some people feel that traditional Christianity is inadequate, and while not rejecting it completely, have drawn on and reinvented and distorted the ancient and alternative traditions to produce a completely novel view which they feel is more in accord with today’s liberal values, and have read these back into the past as closer to Christ’s true message. It’s been said that legends arise when there is insufficient information to provide people with a genuine explanation. This has been amply barn out by the rise of The Da Vinci Code and its predecessors as genuinely confused people, seeking a modern, liberal Christian spirituality, have been fed novels and pseudo-history masquerading as historical, religious scholarship.

  1. 48. McGrath, Atheism, p. 139.
  2. 49. McGrath, Atheism.p. 131.
  3. 50. McGrath, Atheism, p. 141.
  4. ‘Veggie Tales’ at httpalwww.teklonics.org/Iplouseley0l
  5. ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ in Goodspeed, E., Strange New Gospels (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1931)
  6. ‘The Aquarian Gospel’ in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  7. ‘The Crucifixion of Jesus, by an Eye-Witness’, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  8. ‘The Correct Transcript of Pirate’s Court’, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  9. ‘The Confession of Pontius Pilate’ in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels
  10. ‘The Letter of Benan, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  11. ‘The Twenty Ninth Chapter of Acts’, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  12. ‘The Letter of Jesus Christ’, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels.
  13. ‘The Letter of Jesus Christ’, in Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels
  14. ‘The Family Guy’, Kevin McClure in Fortean Times 210 p. 60, reviewing Baigent, M. The Jesus Papers – Exposing the Greatest Cover-up in History (San Francisco, Harper San Francisco 2006).
  15. Charles, R.H., trans, The Book of Enoch (London, SPCK 1917); ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus’ in Swanton, M., trans., Anglo-Saxon Prose (London, J.M. Dent 1993), p. 207; ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus’ in Ashton, J., Chap-Books of the 18th century with Facsimiles, Notes and Instructions, first published Chatto and Windus, 1882 (London, Skoob Books Publishing, undated), pp. 30-1,
  16. ‘The Egerton Gospel’ in The Complete Gospels – Annotated Scholars Version (Sonoma, Polebridge Press 1992), p. 412.
  17. ‘Gospel Oxyrhincus 840′ in Miller, Complete Gospels, p. 418.
  18. ‘Gospel Oxyrhincus 1224′, in Miller, Complete Gospels, p. 422.
  19. ‘The Unhappy Birth, Wicked Life, and Miserable Death of that Vile Traytor and Apostle Judas Iscariot’, Ashton, Chap-Books, p. 32.
  20. J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (London, Hollis & Carter 1960), p. XII; J. Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls – A Re-Appraisal (London, Penguin. 1964), p. 17.
  21. ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ in Miller, J., Complete Gospels, p. 301;’The Secret Book of James’, in Miller, Complete Gospels, p. 333.’The Gospel of Mary’ in Miller, Complete Gospels, p. 359; ‘The Gospel of Peter’, in Miller, Complete Gospels, p. 399, ‘The Secret Gospel of Mark’, in Miller, Complete Gospels, p.408
  22. Vermes, G.. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London, Penguin 1995), p. XXX.
  23. Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. XXX, 36. J. Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls – A Reappraisal (London, Penguin 1964), pp. 104-9.
  24. Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. XVII – XXI.
  25. Wright, Jesuits, p. 214.
  26. Wright, Jesuits, p. 234, 237.
  27. Wright, Jesuits, pp. 240-1
  28. Wright. Jesuits, p. 239.
  29. Wright, Jesuits, p. 251.
  30. 'Lateran Pacts’, in P.V. Cannistraro, ed., Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport, Greenwood 1982), p. 299. 78.’Lateran Pacts’, Cannistraro, Fascist Italy, p. 300.
  31. See Axelrod, A., The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, (New York, Checkmark Books 1997).
  32. ‘Knights of Labor’ in Evan, LH., Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable – Revised Edition, (London, Cassell 1981), p. 636.