In 1984, I stumbled on this fascinating detective story, when traveling in Europe to research my historical novel One Is the Sun. One of its story threads is about European ruling families that publicly supported the Church but secretly adhered to a tradition of knowledge and wisdom that Rome had declared to be "heresy."
I wanted to know more about these families who lived so dangerously.
Interview in Vienna
My European informants told me that the noted New Age philosopher, Willy Keyserling, was a must-interview. She was living in Vienna at the time. Born Princess Wilhelmine von Auersperg in 1921, Willy was a Hapsburg descendant. The Hapsburgs' power as a ruling dynasty came to an end in 1918 when Austria became a republic.
So one of my informants arranged an interview, and we drove to Vienna. The three of us took tea in her apartment crammed with books and sacred art. Willy came across as intense, witty, knowledgeable, wise. She confirmed that an esoteric tradition had existed for centuries in her own family. Then she dropped a bomb -- talking about something she called "the bloodline of Jesus."
I had never heard of it. "The bloodline of Jesus?" I repeated, feeling pretty stupid. "You mean...uh...Jesus had children?"
Willy smiled at my shock. "Oh, my dear," she said, "it's the best-kept secret in European history! Jesus was a human being, not a God. He was king of Judaea, with a wife and children. His descendants fled to Europe, and married into European royalty. The Church has suppressed this fact ever since. But you can't understand European history unless you look at all the hate and war around the bloodline."
I was open-mouthed as she kept talking. The real meaning of European symbols, for example. There's the lion that we interpret today as a generic symbol of royalty, which was really the ancient "Lion of Judah," denoting families that were latter-day branches from the House of David.
"A book about it was published last year," she said, "the first time in many centuries that anyone has talked about it in public. The Church is having a fit about the book, of course."
Willy phoned across town to her favorite bookshop, and had them deliver a copy of the controversial bestseller -- Holy Blood, Holy Grail -- to my hotel. I read it with my hair standing on end.
Over the years, I've continued to follow the battles of Biblical scholarship, and pore over this amazing detective story. Here's my thumbnail sketch of how the "bloodline" story impinges on LGBT hopes that Jesus can be added to the "out celebrities" list.
The Three Children of Jesus
The story starts with the fact that there was a kingdom of Judaea. It had a royal bloodline that Jewish tradition traced back to King David. As in every monarchy, the new heir to the throne had a duty to continue the family line.
So during the Roman occupation of Judaea, with Pontius Pilate serving as governor, the Jewish people were thirsting to revolt and re-establish their independence. Many deemed the current uncrowned heir of David's throne to be Jesus, scion of a prominent Nazarene family. So it would have been Jesus's duty to have children, in case Roman rule ever collapsed and a King of the Jews could be openly crowned. His children would ensure a future for the House of David. The spouse he chose was evidently Mary Magdalene, daughter of another prominent family -- evidently a charismatic and spiritual person in her own right.
Nonconformist scholars have puzzled out that the couple had three children. First came a daughter, Tamar. Since only a man could rule, they had to keep trying. The result was two boys, with the first being the heir apparent, named Jesus Justus. The second was named Joseph.
The underground tradition that Jesus had three children remained so strong that, in the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci painted a portrait of them with their mother. In this version of "Madonna of the Rocks," which hangs in the Louvre, mom and kids lack haloes -- a hint that they are "human." The older girl, Tamar, hovers over her brothers in a babysitter mode, supporting Joseph with one hand. With the other, she points at the other baby, a hint that he's "the one" -- the new heir, Jesus Justus. At this baby's feet is a clump of iris in bloom. Hint, hint -- the iris flower, or fleur de lis, was a symbol of the House of David.
Why in the world did Da Vinci decide to position the little family group in a magnificent rocky grotto? The setting suggests the cave in the Provencal mountains where Magdalene is said to have spent her last years as a hermit. More about that later.
Da Vinci must have gotten some heat about this painting. In the next version of this work, which he did some years later, haloes and other orthodox attributes have obediently been added, and the clump of iris taken out, turning it into a conventional portrait of Mary Mother of Jesus, with baby Jesus and John the Baptist. Big problem: how to get rid of Tamar? Feathered wings were added to her back, transforming her into an angel.
This version is in London's National Gallery.
"Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely"
Why did the early Church decide to obliterate the fact that Jesus had a wife and kids? In my opinion, the reason was a thirst for absolute power.
As Christianity's early development shifted from the Middle East to Rome, church leaders realized that the way to have the most power over people's minds and lives was to adapt the old Roman imperial MO. Rome had come to rule half the world because of a state religion whose rulers represented the will of the great god Jupiter. Rome governed by what they claimed was divine right. Early Christians wanted to apostolize the whole world. Evidently they saw Roman government as an alluring model for the new Church.
So by the 4th century, Jesus was being officially re-positioned as divine, a member of something called the Holy Trinity. According to the evolving doctrine, God was born of a virgin in human form, rose from the dead, and gave to apostle Peter the authority to rule and teach in His name -- to "bind and unbind." As the first Pope and Jesus's alleged vicar on earth, Peter passed his power to the next Pope, and so on.
To put it another way, the new Romanized church institution couldn't get the same leverage on the world by teaching about a simple human king with a family. So they made the wife and kids of Jesus disappear from the radar screen.
Thus, conventional Christianity built itself on that claim that its "authority to teach comes from God." And if it taught by God's authority, then everything it taught had to be utterly true -- hence the Pope's claim of infallibility. With Roman Catholics, the alleged divine authority came down through the vertical line of Popes -- and also moved horizontally, as Popes consecrate bishops, and bishops ordain priests.
Despite this claim, however, many Europeans of the early centuries still believed that Jesus was not divine. They saw him as just a great man, 100 percent human, with a powerful message. After all, the descendants of Jesus's family were alive and well and sprinkled across Europe by then. So, starting with the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the Church declared that everyone had to believe Jesus was God -- the penalty being death if they didn't. Eventually the Church even claimed that its mandate from God gave it the right to crown emperors and kings, and to tell civil government what to do.
So believing in Jesus's humanity became the first "great heresy." The Church needed some centuries to get the gory job done, but gradually it killed off most of the European "heretics" in wars or persecutions, or at least drove them underground. And they gradually overpowered the royal and noble families that were said to carry this genetic heritage and tradition, and compelled them to submit -- at least publicly.
Without "Jesus = God = divine authority granted to the Church," Catholicism didn't have a leg to stand on. If ever there was a vivid example of English historian Lord Acton's maxim, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," this was it.
The Protestant Version
Meanwhile the Church was tinkering with the Scriptures to make sure they were politically correct.
But sometimes they left a few thread-ends dangling. Example: In the gospels of Luke and Matthew, we find the intriguing statement that it was Joseph, not Jesus's mother Mary, who was the descendant of King David. Matthew's genealogy traces the line from David down to Joseph, not to Mary. It suggests that Joseph was the real father of Jesus, not God as the Bible claims.
In 1517, when the Protestant Reformation broke out, the Protestants wanted to get out from under the authority of the Popes. But they realized that they had to create their own spin on the "authority to teach." Otherwise nobody would listen to them.
So Protestant theology kept hold of the handy old notion that Jesus was God. But reformist ministers thundered that their own authority to teach, and their own perceived right to dictate to civil governments, came directly from Scripture itself -- from the New and Old Testament. This is why many Protestants are so fixed on the idea that "the Bible is the living, direct and infallible word of God." It also explains why early Protestants were so anxious to get the Bible translated from Latin into living languages, so that people could be in direct personal contact with that "authority."
Today Protestants even spend billions on archeology in Israel to prove that the Bible is "historically true" as well. Because without the Bible's "divine authority," they don't have a leg to stand on. (A few Protestant sects, like the Unitarians, rejected the idea that Jesus was God, and were horribly persecuted for it.)
In the U.S. today, every time the conservative Protestant clergy inveighs against LGBT people, they are brandishing that "authority from God" that they believe they get from a passage in the Old Testament, or a letter written by Paul, that thunders against homosexuality. Whereas the Catholics who don't like us are still thundering at us from the throne of Peter, the first Pope.
But a number of nonconformist Biblical scholars -- Barbara Thiering, Laurence Gardener, and others -- have gnawed at this question of who "Jesus the human man" and "Mary Magdalene his human wife" really were. Some fascinating details come out of their investigations.
Where Did They Go?
Nonconformist scholars have to deal with the crucifixion. According to Thiering, Jesus's followers had enough political juice with Pontius Pilate to rescue their leader from the cross before he died. Usually it took a person some days to die on the cross. Jesus survived because he spent just a few hours there, and was nursed back to health again.
Since Judaea had gotten too hot for Jesus, where did he go?
According to Thiering, Jesus wound up in Rome. Living in hiding, he participated with Peter and Paul in the ongoing struggles over the new religion's development, as it became less "Essene" and more "Roman." In his final years, Jesus may have realized that restoration of the House of David was not going to happen anytime soon. Thiering estimates that Jesus died quietly in Rome around 72 CE. If so, the location of his Roman tomb is yet unknown to archeologists.
Other scholars think that Jesus journeyed to India, looking to preach to a population of exiled Jews that wound up in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Muslims designate Jesus as one of their own prophets, and a Muslim tradition reverently identifies him as the prophet Yus Asaf, who was buried in a tomb that is still visible in the city of Kanyar, in Kashmir.
Some Buddhist scholars agree on Jesus's arrival in India, and point out the clear influence of early Christianity on the early history of Buddhist thought and temple art.
Meanwhile, where did Mary Magdalene go? Thiering finds evidence that Jesus divorced Mary Magdalene and married another woman disciple, Lydia. Divorce was allowed under both Essene and traditional Jewish law. It's possible that Jesus and Mary Magdalene parted because they had some disagreements about ideology.
Scottish scholar Laurence Gardner and others find abundant evidence that Mary Magdalene, with her children and some followers, took refuge in Provence, in today's southern France. There she spent the rest of her life teaching her own version of the new religion, which was more gnostic and inner-directed than the version based in Rome. Many of those years were spent in a cave in the wild rocky mountains, where she studied and prayed. She died around 67 CE. Her tomb, and those of several of her faithful, still exist in those Provencal localities where they lived.
From Provence, a powerful cult of the Magdalene spread across Europe. She became so popular, rivalling the mother of Jesus in the people's affections, that the Church couldn't fight her, so it simply did its best to launder her image of any connections to "the bloodline." Eventually they acknowledged her charisma and wisdom -- often she was represented in medieval church art as a sage, holding a book. The Church even asserted that the ancient crypt in St. Maximin de Provence was definitely that of Mary Magdalene.
Where did the new heir go? Jesus Justus and several other members of the family -- notably Jesus's brother James -- went on to marry into ruling families as far afield as England. Thus began the dynastic ripple that rolled on through the centuries. The descendants (who collectively became known as the Desposyni) also made the effort to stay involved in the Church, but by the 4th century they were being ousted.
Tamar is the most shadowy of the three children. According to Thiering, she married the apostle Paul. It's not known what happened to her after Paul was executed in Rome.
That "Beloved Disciple"
But couldn't Jesus have been gay on the side, along with being a husband and father?
Well, sure....anything is possible. We all know many gay men who manage to marry and have kids. We also know that some members of European ruling families did their dynastic duty by having kids, but were robustly gay or lesbian on the side. Among them are Richard the Lion-Hearted, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and others I could mention.
But in Jesus's case, could we prove it?
The LGBT claim rests mostly on passages in the Gospel of John about the "disciple whom Jesus loved." Today most Biblical scholars (including leading Catholic researcher Raymond E. Brown) admit that John of Zebedee didn't write that gospel at all. They credit authorship to a yet-unidentified close associate of Jesus.
But a few nonconformist scholars, including Ramon K. Jusino and Laurence Gardner, make an impressive case that the real author of the "Gospel of John" was Mary Magdalene herself. Study of this gospel reveals that its author had to be the Beloved Disciple. A trove of hidden gospels rediscovered at Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, describe her over and over again as Jesus's most beloved disciple. Logically, with other apostles writing their gospels, Mary Magdalene would have written one too.
But the Church felt it had to keep Jesus's spouse wiped off the record, so it evidently edited her gospel and changed the author credit.
If Mary Magdalene is the Beloved Disciple, there goes our neighborhood...meaning the main "evidence" that Jesus was gay.
Making Sense of History
That conversation with Willy Keyserling opened my eyes to the extremes to which winners of wars will go when they want to rewrite history.
And yes, a lot of European history makes no sense unless you factor in the old yet still-urgent struggles around the "bloodline." Meaning who married whom, and why -- who went to war with whom, who had the most legitimate claim to a throne or empire, etc. Those old struggles even affect American history, with today's conservative churchmen doggedly defending the old agendas.
In the wake of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Dan Brown's bestselling novels have given the "bloodline story" an even noisier round of new controversy. It's true that Brown has combined fact with Hollywoodish fiction -- like the moment in The Da Vinci Code when hero Tom Hanks gets the idea that Mary Magdalene is buried under the crystal pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. If she's buried anywhere in France, it's in Provence!
But Brown has done humanity a great service by bringing the nagging old questions back to life, and dramatizing the vital detective work being done on this old story. In my opinion, Brown chose to use fiction at moments simply because this technique makes it easier to tell a long and complicated story to a non-scholarly public.
Fiction or no, both Catholic and Protestant leaders are still having a fit. After all, Dan Brown did not invent the "family of Jesus" story. Institutional Christianity has spent 20 centuries trying to stomp the story into oblivion. Yet here it is again, raising its scary head in the new millennium.
This explains why conservatives of both religions are making such violent attacks on Brown's books, and the films based on them. With Angels and Demons just released, they're on the attack again. And well they should. Both Catholics and Protestants have a lot to lose if they can't go on making people believe that Jesus was God and rose from the dead.
Like I said -- it would be nice if we could say that Jesus was gay. But in my opinion, we don't have a solid peg to hang this claim on. The real historical human Jesus might have been gay-friendly and accepting, since he talks so much about love in the suppressed gospels.
But it will take more detective work by heterodox scholars, to figure out what Jesus's real attitude towards same-sex love might have been.