In 2009, I watched a mediocre Canadian mini-series based on Raymond Khoury’s novel The Last Templar, mostly because it starred Scott Foley[1]. I had read the novel which for years I mis-remembered as being a Dan Brown novel because it’s so similar in theme to one he would have written. The thrust of the novel is that the Templars were founded to protect the most secret artifact of all Christianity: the Gospel of Jesus. This gospel is basically the hand-written journal by Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter, and the gist of it is something like this:

Dear Diary,

I’m not divine. Just a carpenter.

xoxo, Jesus

My paraphrase of the big reveal in this novel.

The novel was what I would call a beach book, not really a super serious take on religion or archaeology or the Templars, and as for the movie, the big “sex scene” was missionary position which I guess passes for sexy in Canada. So it was disappointment all around.

When I read the book, I immediately thought of the Salamander letter and the Hofmann forgeries, the subject of the new Netflix documentary. In contemplating the novel’s idea of “incontrovertible” proof that Christianity was based on a lie, I couldn’t help but, well, doubt my doubts. How could anyone know what was authentic? They might be able to carbon date the so-called journal of Jesus, but it could have been written by someone else (nobody has a handwriting sample of Jesus, and he didn’t exactly include his secret ATM PIN for authentication). Was Jesus, a humble carpenter, even literate? Why would Jesus write a journal? Was he a teenage girl? If he were going to write a journal, why would he write that? Wouldn’t there be more about what he had for dinner and whether it was good?

Likewise, the Hofmann forgeries brought this idea of authentification under scrutiny, exposing it as inadequate, wishful thinking, and motivated by things other than scientific enquiry. As in the Hofmann story, there were people who were fooled, and there were fanatics trying to protect either the Church from the truth (in the novel, it was Catholicism, obviously) or the truth from being quashed by the Church (the Templars filled this role). Many of those in the novel who were “protecting” didn’t actually know what the thing was that they were protecting. Their role was simply to protect it, whatever it was, under the heroic mandate of their group of guardians. These roles are psychologically appealing, and easy to fall into, regardless the truth of the matter.

Unlike the novel, the Hofmann forgeries exposed the fraudulence of the authentication process. Hofmann successfully scientifically aged documents in very clever ways that were difficult to detect, but less difficult to detect once he came under suspicion. Humans are wired to believe others. We aren’t wired to assume we are being cheated. To a person who wishes to defraud others, it’s easy; we are wired to be duped and fooled. The community of historians interviewed in the Hofmann documentary were a close-knit group, mostly fooled by him. The Church also seemed ready to be fooled. When I first heard about the Salamander letter, it sounded extremely plausible–folk magic was definitely a part of the culture Joseph Smith grew up in. Even Hofmann’s wife, who comes across as enormously likable and sympathetic, was easily fooled as are the spouses of most fraudsters and serial killers.

In the case of Hofmann, I wondered how much his strict orthodox upbringing influenced his lack of affect. He had no remorse for his actions, and he was indiscriminate in whom he killed. He could have just as easily killed any of the others in the Mormon history circle, those interviewed in the documentary. Even contemplating suicide, Hofmann was ambivalent. He didn’t care about leaving his family behind or the impacts to his faithful wife. He intentionally toyed with the Church, amusing himself in the process, because he resented having to pretend to be a believer when he wasn’t. He grew up knowing love was conditional on being a faithful Church member. On the other hand, I often think that serial killers (he was technically more a garden-variety multiple murderer than a serial) aren’t necessarily a product of nurture. We just don’t know what happens. Anyone has the capacity to kill in the right circumstances. We want to believe they are hopelessly broken and different from us, but we really don’t know this.

Religions and their adherents have always been vulnerable to being defrauded and always will be because they are subjective, but rely on a framework of plausible myth. If holes are poked into that myth enough, the threat becomes a problem. Some believers do seek for a sign that their faith is an accurate worldview, but signs can be manufactured in either direction, proof or disproof. Reputational harm can cause a faith irreparable damage in the marketplace of religious ideas.

  • Do you find yourself rooting for proof and evidence that the Church is true or false or do you not care about so-called evidence?
  • Do you think evidence for religious things is valuable or too unreliable to be of value?
  • What influence do you think Hofmann’s upbringing had, if any, on his temperament?


[1] I’m not Team Noel, but he’s still got that boy next door vibe you have to love.