A few weeks ago on America Unearthed Scott Wolter claimed to have discovered a “Templar” coin that featured Jesus emerging from the Talpiot Tomb, a sepulcher in Jerusalem where the Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici claimed in 2007 that he had found evidence (disputed by experts) that Jesus had been buried alongside his wife, Mary Magdalene. I am neither a medieval scholar nor a numismatist, so I had little to say about the coin the day after the episode aired. But when I learned Simcha Jacobovici (summarized, with additional details, by James Tabor, who is more cautious) declared this television revelation to be the “smoking gun” proving that the Talpiot Tomb was known to the Templars, I knew something must be wrong.
Regular readers will recall that Wolter told me that he hoped his show would encourage “conversation” and “follow-up.” Since Wolter has raised no objection to fellow alternative historians following up on his coin claim, I thought I’d throw in my two cents, figuratively speaking.
Take a look at the coin (at left). It shows a bearded man wearing a helmet-like headdress, but Scott Wolter and Simcha Jacobovici all claim that this is in fact the pediment of the Talpiot Tomb (at right) because it features a triangle (the pediment) with an inscribed circle. Tabor is more cautious but suggests it represents a temple facade of some sort. Note the absence of additional circles seen at the corners of the triangle on the coin.
A big problem is that Scott Wolter did not talk to numismatists and simply asserted that this coin was minted by the Knights Templar. Well, I did consult with the numismatic literature, and I learned some things. The first thing that I discovered is that the Knights Templar were not recognized as sovereign and therefore did not have the power to mint coins.
The specific coin that Wolter identifies as Templar is actually clearly labeled “JOHANNES REX” (King John) and was minted by John of Brienne during the Frankish occupation of Damietta in 1219. John had been titular King of Jerusalem by marriage since 1210, but actual control of the city had been permanently lost to the Muslims by the treaty signed with Saladin in 1192. He would never have seen the alleged Jesus tomb when this coin was struck.
James Tabor claims that John’s headgear can’t be a crown because a later thirteenth century engraving shows him wearing an open crown. Even though this painting was done almost a century after the fact, Tabor calls it a “contemporary” illustration. But the image it depicts is entirely conventional; the image was not meant as realistic but rather as idealized. Medieval art does not depict things literally. That said, no observer recorded the actual look and shape of the crown of the Crusader state of Jerusalem.
The first Latin king of Jerusalem in fact wore no crown because he considered it inappropriate to wear a golden tiara where Jesus had worn but thorns. His successors, however, were under no such compunction. The headgear we see John (or Jesus in his stead, following Byzantine coin conventions) wearing on the coin is almost certainly a Byzantine-style crown, which featured a conical or round gold helmet with long golden chains dripping down both sides, dangling over the ears. Such helmet-style crowns were common in the East, but differed from the open-style crowns of the West, the kind a Western-trained artist would have painted. As the former sponsors of the Crusader state, the Byzantines would have provided royal insignia to the Crusader kings, just as they did to their client kings throughout the East.
The Byzantines themselves were in exile at Nicaea, and the Crusaders in charge of Constantinople, but a comparison of John’s headgear to that of the contemporary Greek emperor at Nicaea, Theodore I Komnenos Laskaris, finds an almost perfect duplication of John’s tiara, complete with the prominent round center jewel and jeweled gold tassels dangling on either side of his bearded face. In fact, this crown had been depicted on Byzantine coins and murals for nearly five hundred years and was familiar to the Crusaders. The only difference is that the Byzantine imperial crown was rounder than John’s, possibly due to the heavy artistic stylization on John’s coin. It is perhaps no surprise that within a few years King John would become emperor-regent at Constantinople.
Since this image of Theodore was made after our period, I am including also a picture of Alexius I Komnenos made by the Byzantines themselves in Middle Ages that shows the same crown. Alexius helped pave the way for the First Crusade, and his crown was probably the model used for any royal insignia provided to the new Crusader state.
The only connection between the John of Brienne and the Knights Templar is that the Templars (along with the Hospitallers) served under him during his 1210 trip to Acre. But even this was not his doing. Pope Innocent III paid for their services on the recommendation of King Philip Augustus of France and arranged for them to support the then-Count John of Brienne so he could go to Acre and marry the seventeen-year-old Queen Mary of Jerusalem—which is how he got to be King John in the first place. Dedicated to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and to ridding the Holy Land of Muslims, the Templars fought under King John to reclaim the Kingdom of Jerusalem. When King Philip Augustus’s French forces returned home from Acre, King John had no one left but the Templars and the Hospitallers, which prompted him eventually to return to Europe to seek more soldiers. Sadly, the queen died, prompting a succession crisis when John continued to call himself king while the Holy Roman Emperor insisted that the claim passed to him. What followed is beyond our scope except to say there was no room for a conspiracy here since the alleged conspirators were at each other’s throats. Eventually, the Habsburgs would inherit the claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and thus the Templar-Tomb secret, but if they were in the on the conspiracy, they had a funny way of showing it: As Catholic sovereigns, they promoted anti-Masonic conspiracy theories.
Bonus: Wolter also claimed in the same episode that Christopher Columbus “married into” the Sinclair family and thus the Holy Bloodline of Jesus. I wondered where that came from, too, so I checked and it’s all over the Holy Bloodline literature. I even saw one book that claimed Columbus’s father-in-law was a Sinclair! Well, as it happens, this is a lie, too. I looked into it, and this is the “connection” between Columbus and the Sinclairs:
Columbus’s wife, Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, had a brother who married the aunt of Tistao vaz Teixeira, the first husband of Catarina vas de Lordelo, whose second husband was the grandson of Henry Sinclair. Even Maury Povich and Jerry Springer wouldn’t see a close family connection there, especially not with the “connection” formed by assuming continuity after a terminated marriage. Caratrina’s choice of a second husband doesn’t retroactively Sinclair-ize her late first husband’s family, no longer her legal relatives, much less their relatives by marriage. Sorry, but this bird just doesn’t fly.
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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