"National Treasure" has been the top-grossing movie in America for the last two weekends, even though it was largely panned by reviewers. But movie-goers are apparently drawn to the plot line, which goes like this: An order of European Knights, called the Knights Templar, amassed a huge amount of treasure originating in the Temple of Solomon. Their treasure is rumored to contain artifacts of spiritual significance retrieved by the order during the Crusades, including the genealogies of David and Jesus and documents that trace their descendants to French royalty.

According to the movie, Freemasons--the descendants of the Templars--brought that treasure to colonial America, then concealed it in a super-secret location in New York City to protect it from the British, leaving clues about its location on the back of the Declaration of Independence and other places in the original colonies.

We looked into some of the claims of the movie in an attempt to separate fact from fiction.

Is there really lost Templar treasure out there somewhere?

When the Order of Knights Templar was officially destroyed in 1307 by King Philip the Fair of France, it possessed wealth and political power. It is true that none of the treasure the Templars allegedly amassed has ever been found. Some independent scholars believe the Sinclair clan of Scotland were among the members of the royal bloodline-and that they transported the wealth of the Templars to a remote island off the shores of present-day Nova Scotia.

These independent scholars also believe the Sinclairs possessed secret knowledge-that they were direct descendants of Jesus--whose real teachings they guarded and passed on through their children.

The Sinclairs, these scholars say, passed on Masonic teachings which were eventually brought to the United States by the Founding Fathers--several of whom were Masons--and written into the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

Most mainstream historians pooh-pooh these legends as utter fantasy. Yet the public is constantly curious, as evidenced by the popularity of "National Treasure," as well as the famously successful DaVinci Code novel.

Who were the Knights Templar?

The Knights Templar were a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade with the mandate of protecting Christian pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. The Templars fought alongside King Richard I (Richard The Lion Hearted) and other Crusaders in the battles for the Holy Lands.

Though the order began in poverty, relying on alms from the traveling pilgrims, the Order went on to gain the backing of the Pope and the European monarchies. Within two centuries they had become powerful enough to defy all but the Pope. They were destroyed, probably because of this wealth or fear of their power. By 1314, "The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon" ceased to exist, at least officially.

Today, a Knights Templar order does exist-but it is not the same as the original Knights.

'National Treasure' suggests the Knights Templar gave birth to Freemasonry. Is that true?

The Masons say they are not descended from the Knights Templar, but that notion is a popular myth that goes back more than two centuries. The first time the myth was floated was in 1737 in France when a Scotsman (Chevalier Michael Ramsay) supposedly presented a lecture making this claim. The idea caught on and still circulates today.

What is Freemasonry?

Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization active today. Its members are joined together by shared moral and metaphysical ideals and, in most of its branches, by a common belief in a Supreme Being. Certain aspects of Freemasonry remain secret to all except its members. Masons give numerous reasons for this, one of which is that because Freemasonry uses an initiatory system of degrees to explore ethical and philosophical issues, the system is less effective if the member knows beforehand what will happen. It often calls itself "a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." There are more than two million Freemasons in North America.

When did Freemasonry get started?

Most scholars believe Masonry arose from the guilds of stonemasons who built the castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Although there is one lodge in Scotland with records back to 1599 and some vague references to various manuscripts which mention `masons' going back to the 1300s, the organization in its present form dates from the creation of a Grand Lodge in London in 1717. Masonry moved quickly to the European continent - especially France - and immediately thereafter to the North American colonies. The Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, for example, dates its founding from 1733. In Canada the first Lodge was established in 1738.

Do the Masons have any connection to the Temple of Solomon?

The Masons have no connection to Egypt, the Pharoahs, or the Temple of Solomon--except that the building of King Solomon's Temple is used as part of the allegorical presentation of Freemasonry's teachings on "being true to one's word." Early Masonic writers regularly made claims about the antiquity of `the Craft' (as it is sometimes called). In the 1700s, people commonly cited a lengthy "heritage" for their club or society in order to gain acceptance. But no evidence is currently available to support those claims.

Was Freemasonry involved with the American Revolution?

No. But many of the individuals involved were Freemasons. These Masonic founders brought ideas taught in Freemasonry (tolerance, particularly) to the newly forming country. George Washington was a Mason, Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.

Is the Great Seal of the United States a Masonic symbol?

No. The creation of a seal was first commissioned by the Continental Congress immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. A committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin (a Mason), John Adams (not a Mason), and Thomas Jefferson (not a Mason although sometimes erroneously identified as one) submitted a design that was deemed unacceptable, as were designs submitted by two succeeding committees. In 1782, all these designs were submitted to Charles Thomson, Secretary to the Continental Congress (and not a Mason), who prepared a final design adopted by the Congress on June 20, 1782.

What's with the eye in the pyramid, then?

Conspiracy theorists like to point to the "Eye in the Pyramid" in the Great Seal of the United States and on the dollar bill as being evidence of a Masonic conspiracy. But the eye in the pyramid has never been a Masonic symbol.

The "Eye of Providence," sometimes referred to in Masonic ritual as the "All-Seeing Eye" (of Deity) is found in Masonic rituals, reminding a Mason that his words and deeds are being judged by the Supreme Architect of the Universe. The pyramid appears in the ritual of some Masonic jurisdictions and represents the great builders of the past. However, their combined usage is essentially non-existent among Masons. There is no official Masonic combination of the eye and a pyramid.

On the United States' Great Seal, the pyramid signifies strength and duration, while the eye over it (as well as the motto) allude to the idea that Providence had favored the American cause in the Revolutionary War. The eye on the Great Seal represents a concept of active intervention of Deity in the world, while the Masonic symbol of the eye stands for a passive awareness by the Deity of human activities.

The eye of Providence was common in cultural art of the 17th and 18th centuries. When placed in a triangle, the eye went beyond a general representation of God to a Trinitarian statement. During this period Masonic ritual and symbolism evolved, so it's not surprising that symbols common to society made their way into Masonic ceremonies.

Is there a giant stash of treasure under Trinity Church Wall Street?

Nope, but wouldn't that be cool?

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