Grail Trail

C.H. Roberts

  • The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
    Cape, 445 pp, £8.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 224 01735 7
  • The Foreigner: A Search for the First-Century Jesus by Desmond Stewart
    Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 241 10686 9
  • Satan: The Early Christian Tradition by Jeffrey Burton Russell
    Cornell, 258 pp, £14.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 8014 1267 6

In 1891, Bérenger Sauniere, curé of Rennesle-Château, a remote village in the Cevennes, discovered hidden in the structure of his church four parchments, two of them written in the 18th century and partly in code, two earlier and containing genealogies (still not published). There were references to Dagobert II, the Merovingian king, to Sion, and to treasure said to be Merovingian. The consequences of the discovery were odd. Saunière was sent to Paris with the two documents, and came into contact with some leading figures in the literary and artistic world, all of whom were interested in the occult. He became suddenly very wealthy: shortly before his death he was visited by a Hapsburg Archduke who transferred to him a large sum of money. Accused of simony by his bishop, he was exonerated by the Vatican; on his death-bed he was refused extreme unction. In the 13th century this part of the Cevennes had been the centre of the Cathar or Albigensian movement, and the Cathar fortress of Montségur with its reputed treasure – in some accounts said to have included the Grail – was not far away; a neo-Cathar movement had sprung up in neighbouring Carcassonne and Saunière was in touch with it. It was clear that more than treasure was involved. There was a mystery of interest to a number of different people, and it looked as if Saunière was an agent for some group.

This story, the subject of a paperback in France by Gérard de Sède and of a Chronicle film for BBC Television by Henry Lincoln, is the starting-point of the present book. In their investigation of the problems posed by the story, Lincoln and his co-authors begin with the Cathars, and the Cathars lead to the Templars (already the subject of another Chronicle film by him). From there the trail leads on to René d’Anjou, to the Hermetists and Rosicrucians of the Renaissance, to the Freemasons, and, beyond, to an existing secret society in France. The book is not just a loosely-connected assemblage of historical enigmas and occultist movements: each stage of the argument is closely linked with what precedes. The writers are as a rule at pains to distinguish between facts, tradition or gossip, and speculation, of which there is a very great deal; there is a sizable bibliography and references are given in the notes to many of their sources, so that the reader often has the opportunity of checking both their facts and their hypotheses. They have read widely and sometimes critically, and they even assure us that they have reached some of their more sensational conclusions with reluctance. The field they cover is vast, and there is one drawback of a work of historical detection on this scale from which they are not exempt. A fresh and inquisitive eye may on occasion observe something which those more familiar with a subject have missed, but where a highly complex topic, such as the history of the Knights Templar or of Christian origins, is got up for a specific purpose, with the research carried out, as it largely must be, at second hand, it is none too easy to get its feel and setting, and the risk of making major blunders increases with the anxiety to find quick answers to questions that arise. In respect of the only corner of the field with which I can claim familiarity, the book falls into both traps.

One of their sources, central to their whole undertaking, calls for comment. In recent years there has been a spate of papers and tracts, some privately published, most pseudonymous, together with one or two books, relating to Rennes-le-Château and the problems associated with it, and to some of these writings (which the authors call collectively the Prieuré Documents) it appears that the Bibliothèque Nationale is unaccountably reluctant to give access. The most important element in this collection of writings is the Dossiers Secrets, dated 1956, the content of which appears to vary from time to time, some papers being removed, others added. The Dossiers contain, inter alia, historical material in the form of lists and genealogies which is not, it would seem, available elsewhere and the sources for which are not stated. It includes a list of the Grand Masters of the Temple: for reasons they give, the authors are convinced that this list is fuller and more accurate than any hitherto known.

Because they had found this list convincing, the authors turned their attention to another list which at first they had regarded with total scepticism – a list of the Grand Masters of the Prieuré de Sion. They had found grounds for thinking that some other institution lay behind the foundation both of the Templars and the Cistercians, and this they tentatively identified with the Prieuré de Sion, an order whose headquarters was the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Mont Sion in the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 13th century. That there was such a body in the Middle Ages seems certain; it is certain, too, that a body exists under that name in France today. That the Prieuré existed in the intervening centuries, though not always under that name, seems probable enough: heterodoxy is a constant element in it, and hostility, at times implicit, at times explicit, to the hegemony of Rome.

A glance at the list makes the authors’ initial scepticism intelligible enough. The first name is Jean de Gisons (1188-1220), the last Jean Cocteau; those listed are either aristocrats of the House of Lorraine (among whose ancestors are numbered Godfroi de Bouillon, the conqueror of Jerusalem, and the Merovingian kings) or men, often famous, whose interest in heterodoxy or the occult is well-known. A few belong to both categories; those in the second include Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo; others, however, are nonentities. The temptation to dismiss the list out of hand is, as the authors agree, almost irresistible. They have, however, succeeded in establishing to their satisfaction that, apart from the common interest in the esoteric, there was with one exception contact between each Grand Master after 1400, direct or indirect (e.g. through mutual friends), and his predecessor and successor; and that there was a connection with the families who appear on the genealogical tables in the Prieuré Documents as well as with Rennes-le-Château and other sites that repeatedly occur in their investigations. All this is analysed with care, as is the involvement of many of those named in episodes, often puzzling, in French history.

Their study of the Prieuré in the 20th century, reinforced by interviews with some of its agents or representatives, reveals it as a body with connections in influential quarters: the names mentioned include de Gaulle, André Malraux and Archbishop Lefebvre, while Claude Debussy was one of the Grand Masters. According to one of the documents recently released, the declared objective of the Prieuré is the restoration of the Merovingian dynasty to the thrones of Europe; allowance should be made for some deliberate mystification, but a claimant to the throne of France has been identified and interviewed by one of the authors. One claim which the authors make most surely be discounted: that Pope John XXIII may have had connections with the Prieuré. While admitting that the claim is incapable of proof, they point, among other insubstantial considerations, to his lifting of the ban on Freemasonry. They assert that his Apostolic Letter of 1960 (the text of which they do not quote) by implication exempted the faithful from belief in Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection. Strange that so momentous a change received so little attention!

Having followed the windings of the underground stream to which all the esoteric sources contribute – the Arcadian cult, Hermetists, Rosicrucians, Freemasons – the authors turn their attention to the Merovingian dynasty, whose importance is so often emphasised in the Prieuré Documents and whose blood flows in the House of Lorraine and the Hapsburgs. Here myth replaces the semblance of history. The Dossiers Secrets trace the origin of the dynasty back to the Old Testament, to the exiled members of the tribe of Benjamin mentioned in the Book of Judges. These are then said to have migrated to Arcadia, intermingling with the Arcadian royal line, and then centuries later to have moved up the Danube, where they fused with some Teutonic tribes and so became the ancestors of the Merovingians: consequently, the conqueror of Jerusalem in 1099 was merely returning to his patrimony. It is hardly to the authors’credit as historians that they find this fantasy ‘a not implausible hypothesis’ and see some support for it in an alleged racial link between Spartans – the overlords of Arcadia – and Jews.

Firmer ground for an association between Merovingians and Jews may perhaps be seen in their fascinating account of a small principality on the Franco-Spanish frontier, an area that included Rennes-le-Château. Its ruler towards the end of the eighth century was Guillem de Gellone, one of Charlemagne’s peers, a famous figure in epic and of Merovingian royal descent. His principality of Septimania (which according to the Prieuré Documents included the Grail castle) had a large Jewish population, and Guillem himself was a Jew, perhaps a practising one, of the house of David. (Other versions not quoted here treat him as a Christian hero who ended his days as a monk.)

Attempting to explain what they see as the quite extraordinary importance attached to Merovingian descent, the connections between the Merovingians and the Grail story (Sangrail, they suggest, really means sang real), the cult of Mary Magdalene in southern France and the role of the principality of Septimania, the authors come up with a hypothesis that struck them initially as preposterous – that the Magdalene was Jesus’s wife, that there was a child or children, that after the Crucifixion they were smuggled to France where the sang real perpetuated itself. A few caveats may be entered. Is Merovingian descent of such importance, or are the authors identifying with their subject? The cult of the Magdalene was centred at Vézelay in Burgundy, which claimed her relics. The interpretation of the Sangrail, ‘the holy vessel’ (from Latin craterus,) as sang real appears to be an ingenious invention of the authors and has no backing: but it becomes a vital link in their hypothesis. And do not Glastonbury and the Arthurian legends have as strong a claim to any basis there may be for the Grail stories as the South of France? And if, as they claim, the ‘momentous and explosive’ secret was known to Rome in the fifth century, and again in the seventh, and then to the Carolingians, is it credible that the first public statement of it should be made in 1982?

The authors then proceed to discover what support can be mustered for their hypothesis in the authorities for Christian origins. It can briefly be said that for the migration of Jesus’s family to France the evidence is about as strong or as weak as it is for the journey of Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury; the most that can be said for Jesus’s marriage is that it is never explicitly stated that he was not married; and it can be said of the view (a later addition to the hypothesis) that there was no crucifixion, not at least of Jesus, that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have. Nonetheless, with great ingenuity, they make out a case for their theory by drastically reinterpreting and adding to the Biblical record. It is here that, for one reviewer, confidence in their methods collapses, partly because, in the excitement of pursuing their quarry their objectivity falters, partly because there are serious errors (not just slips) in their account.

On the one hand, they write that nothing is known about the author of the Fourth Gospel, and that there is no reason to think that his name was John; on the other, that, according to tradition and ‘certain early Christian writers’, the Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea were taken to Marseilles. There is strong support for John as the author of the Fourth Gospel in the second century; of the other story there is no mention earlier than the ninth. They assign a relatively late date to the Gospels, thinking that they were revised after AD 70 to give them a pro-Roman and anti-Jewish bias: it is the more surprising that practically no reference is made to what are incontestably the earliest surviving Christian writings, the Epistles of St Paul – these would give no support to any of their theses. The authors are even wider of the mark when they write: ‘Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the fourth century. The New Testament, as it exists today, is essentially a product of fourth-century editors and writers – custodians of orthodoxy, “adherents of the message”, with vested interests to protect.’ This entirely ignores the discoveries made in Egypt in the last century: we now possess much of Luke, almost all of John in manuscripts written before the middle of the third century, not to mention small fragments of the First and Fourth Gospels from the second century. In none of these can support be found for the rewriting and censoring which they assume to have taken place under Constantine. They then compare the Gospels to their disadvantage with the Nag Hammadi codices, works of quite a different genre: they are mostly mystical treatises and revelations, not biographies; they were composed later than the Gospels and generally assume their existence. To some of these the authors attribute a ‘unique veracity’ because, composed for an Egyptian, not a Roman audience, they escaped censorship and revision in the interests of orthodoxy. But Egypt, with its capital Alexandria, was as much a part of the Roman Empire as other provinces were: the codices were originally written in Greek for a Greek or Greco-Roman audience, and what we possess are translations into Coptic.

Jesus is presented as the ‘priest king who never reigned’, the heir to the throne by virtue of his descent from David (were there no other descendants of David?), whose attempt to seize the throne ended in his condemnation to death, if not his execution, for treason by the Romans. In their account of the trial and ‘crucifixion’ speculation runs riot. The story of Barabbas they describe as a clumsy fabrication and his release as being unprecedented: in fact, there is an excellent parallel to it in an account of a trial held before the Prefect of Egypt in AD 85. And in discussing the account of how Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, they state that soma was a word ‘only applied to a living body’. It is also regularly used of a corpse throughout Greek literature, from Homer onwards.

They do not regard their hypothesis as proven, only as extremely probable, but they add that they have abundant evidence that the Prieuré de Sion can provide conclusive proof. Perhaps the publication of this book will lead the Prieuré to disclose their hand. Meanwhile two questions need to be answered. On their version of what happened in Jerusalem, why should the descendants of an unsuccessful petty usurper be of interest to Jews (to whom Jesus would be one of several failed Messiahs), to pagans to whom a disturbance in a remote province would be a matter of little consequence, or indeed to Christians? They would have no reason to regard the offspring of a prophet with awe and reverence if the offspring’s very existence threatened the basis of their faith. And if the intimates of Jesus all fled the country, either with him or leaving him dead, where in the face of total failure was the motive power for the creation and growth of the Church, detested by the Jews and intermittently persecuted by the Romans?

The authors must, however, be given credit for the skill with which they have constructed an apparently coherent whole out of very intricate and varied material and for producing a very readable book. The hypothesis remains preposterous.

Lives of Jesus fall into two classes: the first, academic studies which reflect contemporary scholarship and in default of new evidence pose new questions to the existing material; the second, works of personal exploration with a quota of scholarship and more than a dash of fiction or imaginative reconstruction. The late Desmond Stewart’s book (which Alan Neame, who introduces it, neatly describes as an ‘intuitive biography’) belongs to the second class. Though it draws on scholarship, it is not a book for scholars; his reading, though wide, was patchy (nothing written in German appears in his bibliography) and his grasp of the historical and linguistic background is at times uncertain.

His approach is that of a man part-rationalist, part-mystic. He tells the story more or less in sequence; fiction and critical analysis are inextricably mixed up. Thus, while regarding the nativity stories as folklore, he seizes on Matthew’s mention of the flight to Egypt as historical, but then at once transforms it into a business trip by Jesus’s parents before his birth. Jesus is born in Heliopolis and is brought up in the shadow of the Osiris cult and the great temples of the Delta, an experience which has a profound effect on him. Stewart admits that there is not a shred of documentary evidence for this: nonetheless it colours his picture throughout – fantasy is in danger of becoming fact. He sees the influence of the Sun cult everywhere and absurdly even finds in ‘I am the light of the world’ a reminiscence of the Pharos of Alexandria. And the raising of Lazarus is seen as a necromantic rite of simulated death on an Egyptian pattern.

This fits with his picture of Jesus as always a stranger in his own country, and, more profoundly, a stranger to his ancestral religion. So in Stewart’s view he refuses the role of Messiah: he does not even reinterpret it, but rejects it. This is hard to square with the evidence and Stewart does not improve his case by arguing that so far from Christos (Messiah) being his title, his name was really Chrestos, the Greek for ‘gentle’ or ‘good’, the transformation from one to the other being one of the perversions of the true gospel effected by the early Church (Chrestianos for Christianos appears in a few places in one out of a multitude of manuscripts, and in a single sentence of Suetonius there is a reference to Jewish rioting in Rome in AD 49 led by one Chrestos – which may or may not be relevant). Stewart’s view of the early Church as exercising powers of censorship and control is anachronistic: as an illicit private society it was in no position to do so, however much it may have wished to – witness the extraordinary variety of Christian manuscripts, orthodox, apocryphal, Gnostic, found in the rubbish heaps of Egypt.

In Stewart’s view there are two things about Jesus that explain both the extraordinary impact he made and his career: the overwhelming force of his personality (displayed, for example, when he drove the money-changers from the Temple), accompanied by paranormal powers, and secondly his teaching. In rejecting the title of Messiah he rejects the Law and the God who gave it: instead, he proclaims the universal father and offers to all men an ‘alternative kingdom’ in place of the world of space and time. Its symbol is the shared meal; the passport to it is freedom through self-knowledge. Some of this private teaching is to be found in the Fourth Gospel, more perhaps in the Gnostic tradition. (A Gnostic despair of the created world is heard more than once in Stewart’s book.)

The last section of the book deals with the events of Maundy Thursday and the following three days. Here Stewart’s skills as a novelist combine with his intimate knowledge of the Middle East (see, for example, his account of the darkness at the time of the crucifixion) to bring out and accentuate the inherent drama; his Pilate is particularly convincing. Then follows the crucifixion and burial and after that – what? Finding a parallel in Indian mystics, Stewart thinks the force of Jesus’s personality to be such that even after death it projects itself into the minds of his disciples: the apparition is genuine.

Those for whom this account leaves out too much and introduces too much that is extraneous and who find the author’s attitude to his sources too cavalier for comfort may still find the book challenging. To a deep knowledge of the terrain Stewart brings a passionate admiration for his subject. In a personal prologue he describes how with his biographies of Theodor Herzl and T.E. Lawrence – both messianic characters – he found in each case a key that unlocked the mysteries of their characters and careers. With this biography the reader is left with the feeling that the author has been desperately searching for a key but has not found it.

Stewart sees Jesus’s repulse of the Tempter as his rejection of the God of the Old Testament – a rejection implying a dualist answer to the problem of evil. This approach was equally alien to Judaism and to Christianity, some Christian Gnostics apart, but on any other interpretation the mystery of evil was intensified by orthodox Christian belief. How the theologians of the early Church wrestled with the problem is the subject of J.B. Russell’s new book. His earlier volume, The Devil, was a historical study of the personification of the principle of evil in Antiquity down to and including primitive Christianity, and rightly stressed that the concept of an evil power, the prince of this world, was central to early, or indeed to almost any, Christianity. Satan continues the study through the first four centuries.

If this world was neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but a mixture of the two, how was the mixture to be explained? This was the question with which the Fathers and apologists struggled. Following Augustine, the Church settled for a strictly qualified dualism, a theodicy that acknowledged both the reality of evil and the ultimate limitations imposed on it. (‘Diabology’ is not the happiest of neologisms: perhaps, with characteristic false modesty, the Devil prefers to take cover under theology.) Russell’s book is the result of very wide reading, has an excellent bibliography, is lucidly written in a lively style and draws on visual as well as on literary sources. It is also well named, since the discussion with which he is concerned focused on the origin, history and final fate of Lucifer and his associates. Weird and fantastic as some of the speculations seem to us, Russell’s running critique never lets us forget that the underlying problems are the same that obsessed Dostoevsky and Camus. What might have been an arid essay in historical theology is given an added dimension by the author’s belief in the existence of evil, ‘a purposeful hatred of the good’. At one point he defines the Devil as ‘the tradition of what he has been thought to be’: but this only pushes the problem one stage back.