Today is day two of bathroom renovations, and it’s going to be another long day. In between the slamming and banging of construction, I’ve been doing some reading on the history of Templar conspiracies, and I was surprised to see how many of them trace their origins back to the occultist Eliphas Levi, the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), who wasn’t even the originator of the underlying claims. Already in Constant’s day the Freemasons were widely (if erroneously) associated with the Knights Templar, and the Freemasons also claimed to be the possessors of a tradition of ancient wisdom stretching back to Biblical times. Levi simply enhanced these preexisting claims and popularized the Templars as an occult force.
But while this is the most visible of Levi’s contributions, his more insidious one was to inject occult conspiracies into Templar history. In his 1860 book The History of Magic, Levi asserts that the Templars and the Freemasons are one and the same, and that the Templars hid behind a mask of Catholicism a doctrine of Gnosticism that venerated John the Baptist. He said that the Templars knew what they said was the truth about Jesus, that he was the product of a rape by a man named Pandira and that a rabbi named Joseph took him to Egypt to be initiated into the cult of Osiris, and that Jesus was the true Horus-King. (You will of course recognize these claims as essentially those of Ralph Ellis today.) He claimed that the Templars were founded to oppose the Pope and Roman Church, but due to what Levi termed the “stupidity” and “ignorance” of the later generations of Templars, the esoteric truths were lost to an overwhelming avarice for lands and money.
Levi claimed that after the fall of the Order, its mystically inclined members became Rosicrucian, and thus passed on ancient Eastern wisdom to that group, along with the truth about the real history of Jesus, whom Levi claims they saw as a man whose actions were cloaked in allegory—the starting point for Jesus-Templar conspiracies! “The Successors of the Ancient Adepts Rose-Croix, abandoning by degrees the austere and hierarchial Science of their Ancestors in initiation, became a Mystic Sect, united with many of the Templars, the dogmas of the two intermingling, and believed themselves to be the sole depositaries of the secrets of the Gospel of St. John, seeing in its recitals an allegorical series of rites proper to complete the initiation.”
These claims might well have passed without notice except that they began popping up in English-language works that formed the foundation for modern conspiracy texts. Albert Pike based much of his 1871 work on Freemasonry, Morals and Dogma, on the History of Magic, and he quotes Levi extensively on the Templars and their occult secrets. (The above quotation is from Pike’s translation in Morals.) Because Pike’s occult-influenced Morals and Dogma became a foundational text for anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists, especially after its copyright lapsed, this let Levi’s views of the Templars color the way conspiracy theorists view the Templars and their alleged connections to the Masons. (Weirdly enough, Pike makes plain that Masonic Templars are not related to the old Templars, but conspiracy theorists ignore that part!) The same claims found their way into other books on Masonry, as well as Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, likely drawing on the same sources. From there, Rudolph Steiner bought into it.
What’s especially odd is that Levi didn’t invent many of the claims either. He was, like the other writers, merely a copyist, but a particularly influential one who brought together several different strands. Levi was copying many of his claims from ex-Freemason Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat in Recherches historiques sur les Templiers et sur leurs croyances religieuses (1835). This fellow, in turn, fancied himself a neo-Templar and founded his own Templar order that he turned into a Johannite church. Here’s where it gets weird. Well, weirder. Fabré-Palaprat published a heretical version of the Gospel of John in 1831, one which denied the Resurrection and claimed Jesus was an initiate of the Mysteries of Isis, to which was added a supposed commentary by an Athenian monk that gives an alleged line of transmission from Jesus to the Knights Templar. Fabré-Palaprat alleged that he found this valuable document in a secondhand bookstore. Fabré-Palaprat also promoted the forgery known as the Larmenius Charter which showed alleged Templar grand masters down to 1804, conveniently ending with Fabré-Palaprat himself. Fabré-Palaprat was not the forger, though, merely appending his name to a forgery from the 1700s, from an earlier Templar revival order. (It does not take much to see in these revised Templar orders a French Enlightenment-era embrace of a historically powerful force that could be imagined as opposing the abuses of both Church and State.)
But even this isn’t the origins of the story. As Levi himself noted, the basic story given in Gospel published by Fabré-Palaprat is very close to the parody Gospel early medieval Jews circulated in many contradictory versions under the name Sefer Toledot Yeshu, in which Jesus is said to be the bastard son of Pandera (or Pantera), a rapist, and to have been an Egyptian (or Babylonian)-trained magician who fornicated promiscuously, died shamefully while nailed to a cabbage stalk, and was not resurrected. It is quite clearly the model for Fabré-Palaprat’s text, which might have started life as a version of the Toledot (or influenced by it or its sources) before being rewritten or revised against the text of the Gospel of John for other purposes. However, there is a perhaps more plausible option.
The Toledot, in turn, isn’t the origin of its own claims. The parody draws on the Talmud, the heretical Late Antique Gospels, and now-lost anti-Christian texts. For example, the claim that Pandera was Jesus’ father comes from the Greek philosopher Celsus, an anti-Christian, whose claim is preserved in Origen’s Contra Celsus 1.32, where Origin tells us that Celsus claimed of Mary that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.” Similarly, Celsus claimed Jesus was really a sorcerer who learned his magic in Egypt (1.38). Perhaps a fabricator drew directly on such accounts to give a sense of historical authenticity to the revised Gospel. If so, it was Celsus’ own interest in ancient Egyptian mystery religions that infused them into conspiracy theories about Jesus!
The only reason that the modern conspiracy theories about Templars, Holy Bloodlines, and Freemasons have even superficial plausibility is because, frankly, most people have no idea about where the claims originated. By tracing them back to their sources, we can see how each new level—Celsus, Toledot, Fabré-Palaprat, Levi, Pike, Blavatsky, etc.—all added just a little bit more to the conspiracy theory, until finally we have the elaborately Gothic narrative of the Holy Bloodline Templar Freemason Oreo Cookie conspiracy as presented in modern fringe history.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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