Britain endured the shelling of London during World War II, but it may have a harder time surviving a literary bomb that exploded this week: a book claiming Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child by her, staged and survived his own crucifixion and has living descendants among the European nobility.
"Academically absurd," said the Right Rev. Hugh W. Montefiore, Anglican bishop of Birmingham. "Absolutely obnoxious," said the duke of Devonshire, who, according to the book, is one of Jesus' descendants.
But while the clergy and nobility had bees in their bowlers over "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail," Londoners snapped up every controversial copy of the $17 tome by Monday afternoon, the first day of publication. The first two printings sold out, with a third run of more than 10,000 copies on order.
Marilyn Edwards, spokeswoman for publishers Jonathan Cape Ltd., called the sales "really phenomenal." The book will be published in America next month by Delacorte Press.
"It is a sign of the degeneracy of our times," said the Rev. Montefiore, official spokesman for the Anglican Church on matters of biblical research. The Sunday Times responded with a cartoon of an angel saying, "If Jesus marries, I hope it's a nice Jewish girl."
Henry Lincoln, coauthor of the book, said the tempest in the country's collective teapot was inevitable. "We've been expecting it," he said.
The 51-year-old British writer and filmmaker spent more than 10 years researching the book with coauthors Richard Leigh, a 39-year-old American novelist, and Michael Baigent, a 34-year-old New Zealand psychologist.
Their work began with Lincoln's preparation of a 1972 British Broadcasting Corp. documentary on a 19th-century French priest, Berenger Sauniere. The cleric reputedly amassed great wealth after discovering and deciphering four parchments hidden in a hollow pillar of his church at Rennes-le-Chateau, a hilltop village in the south of France.
The authors say they have found those parchments, or facsimiles, still exist; they say they disclose the existence of a secret society, "the Prieure' de Sion," founded in the 11th century to guard the Holy Grail, the cup said to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The authors claim that the words "Holy Grail" are a mistranslation of early French words for "royal blood" and that the real purpose of the society was to protect royal descendants of Jesus and to prepare the way for their accession to world power.
The society remains active, according to the book, withIsaac Newton, Andre Malraux, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy and Charles de Gaulle among its followers.
Aside from the "hypothesis" that Jesus married and fathered a child and survived the Crucifixion with the help of his disciples and Roman co-conspirators, the authors contend that he literally had a claim to the title "King of the Jews" because he was descended from the royal house of Israelite King David, that he lived to a ripe age somewhere outside the Holy Land and that Mary Magdalene and their child fled to southern France, then Roman-ruled Gaul. There, Jesus' bloodline mixed with that of the Franks and started the Merovingian dynasty of the early Middle Ages. The line extends to modern European nobility.
"The thesis is incredible in the most literal sense," said the Rev. John Crowley, private secretary to Roman Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume. British novelist Anthony Burgess however, reviewing the book in The London Observer, wrote, "It will seem to some a crackpot enterprise, but these young men are no fools: They have learning, energy, enthusiasm tempered by skepticism."
Says author Lincoln, "Is it more plausible that a man should be married and have children, or that he should be born of a virgin, attended by choirs of angels, walk on water and rise from the grave?"
"Let them write a second book," grumbled one Anglican bishop, "suggesting that Caesar married Boadicea and that the offspring is Ian Paisley."