The greatest story ever Told hardly begins to describe it. Jesus Christ is the most important figure in Western history; given the West’s impact on the rest of the world, possibly in all human history. His story, as detailed in the four Gospels— which depict his transformation from Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ—is sunk deep in the cultural DNA of the West. Traditionalist Christians embrace it as the literal truth, while millions of others view it as a mixture of fact and metaphor, but even atheists and followers of other faiths know it. For almost 2,000 years, the New Testament has inspired enormous works of love, from martyrdom to the abolition of slavery; it has also set armies marching and lit the fires of the Inquisition. Its impact has been so powerful and so attractive that those its guardians have persecuted or excluded—heretics, gay people and, often, women, still want in. For that reason there has always been a hunger for other versions of Christ’s story.
During the last 200 years, scholars in a steadily more secular West have tried to get behind the Jesus of faith—the divine incarnation who walked on water and raised the dead— to find the Jesus of history, a Jewish preacher with a radical new call to love our neighbours. Often derisively known, especially in the U.S., as the Jesus Wars, the historical quest has proved astonishingly fruitful for context, yielding historians a clearer understanding of Jesus’s essential Jewishness and the social and political upheavals of first-century Israel.
But still nothing on Jesus the man, no mundane document of the sort historians yearn for, a tax receipt, say, made out to Jesus of Nazareth for purchase of a plot of land. Outside the ruthlessly pruned and selective books of theMuch of that has come from the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, which record the organization, beliefs and spiritual yearnings of a community of ascetic Jews. And the 1945 Nag Hammadi find in Egypt of a trove of Gnostic Christian texts, rejected by orthodox believers 1,600 years before, has shed new light on the tangled history of early Christianity. Even traditionalist Christians, who have had to face challenges based on those documents, have been cheered by some archaeological finds, particularly the 1968 unearthing of the skeletal remains of a crucified man, complete with an iron nail driven through his heel bone. It’s been an effective rebuttal to Gospel opponents who claim the Romans never nailed (as opposed to tied) a victim to his cross.
New Testament—John’s Gospel ends with a tantalizing “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”—there is little else for historians to mine. Even the extra-canonical books such as those turned up at Nag Hammadi, the so-called apocrypha that were not allowed into the New Testament when it was finally hammered out in the fourth and fifth centuries, are still within the faith tradition, concerned with the divine Christ, not the human Jesus. There is sufficient third-party evidence—brief references by Roman observers—to convince the most secular historian that Jesus lived, preached, outraged the authorities and was crucified, but that’s all.
It’s clearly not enough for a vast contemporary audience. And so the door is wide open for fiction writers like Dan Brown, whose Da Vinci Code hasn’t dominated bestseller lists for three years on its thriller element alone. Brown’s backstory of a misogynist Church, cruelly suppressing all knowledge of Christ’s marriage to Mary Magdalene and, with it, any trace of the honour primitive Christianity offered “the sacred feminine” principle, has resonated with millions of women (and men). And now Michael Baigent, the dean of alternative-Jesus historians, has called the Crucifixion an elaborate hoax—cutting out not only the heart of traditional Christianity, but the very essence of secular historians’ pitifully brief list of sure things.
Jesus was sentenced to the cross by Pontius Pilate all right, argues Baigent in The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History (HarperCollins), but that’s where his version diverges, to put it mildly, from that of the Gospels. Pilate didn’t want him dead (Baigent’s Jesus is a prominent Jew friendly to Rome), but didn’t dare face down a mob of anti-Roman Jews demanding his execution. So Pilate had Jesus hung on the cross, but he also had him taken down alive and smuggled to safety in Egypt.
JESUS WARS: Michael Baigent leaves court in London, where he is suing Dan Brown
Baigent, 58, is currently in the news for suing Brown for plagiarism in a London court, but that’s not his first appearance in headlines. Twenty-four years ago, with co-authors Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, Baigent published Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a convoluted story claiming that Jesus married and fathered a bloodline that still has living descendants. (They haven’t been too prominent recently, but once they were kings of France.) That bloodline, and not the cup Christ used at the Last Supper, is the real Holy Grail. This incendiary truth, Baigent wrote, guarded for hundreds of years by a secret society, is anathema to organized Christianity, particularly the papacy, which has always been devoted to suppressing evidence—often violently—about the real Jesus.
Holy Blood caused a sensation at the time, and has sold steadily ever since. In 2002, when the then-obscure Brown picked up on many of those ideas and ran with them (and how: 40 million copies sold), the novelist paid homage to his pioneering predecessors by naming a major character after two of them. Sir Leigh Teabing (an anagram of Baigent) also walks with a limp, just like Henry Lincoln, but Brown testified in court that the physical disability was just an embarrassing coincidence. In any event, far from being mollified by Brown’s homage, Leigh and Baigent called their solicitors.
It was the last thing he wanted to do, said Baigent in an interview with Maclean’s: “It’s a terrible thing for a writer to sue another writer, and it’s made me angry I was driven to it.” But authors own nothing except their intellectual property, he continued. “You want to use it, you acknowledge your source—and not by some cute anagram; you want to use a lot of it, you pay for it, just like a filmmaker who wants to make a movie of your book.” Still, Baigent acknowledges that Holy Blood was scarcely the first source to mention some of its ideas. Even Martin Luther mused about such matters during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation; in modern times, so did Charles Davis, an English ex-priest and professor at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in 1971. Nor does Brown use all of Holy Blood’s concepts. Most notably, as a self-described Christian, he shied away from any suggestion the Crucifixion never occurred. But more to the point, no matter how much Baigent’s work may have aided Brown’s, Baigent is quick to agree the novel has already done The Jesus Papers a lot of good. “The Code opened all these questions about Christ and Christianity to a vast public, and opened publishers’ eyes to the fact religious discussion is no niche market— a lot of people are very interested.” It’s clear that the world is ripe for radical re-evaluations of Jesus. Scholars may be appalled at Brown and Baigent both, but the public is certainly with the former—and quite possibly ready for the latter.
DAN BROWN'S THRILLER The Da Vinci Code has dominated bestseller lists for three years
With testimony finished and his publicity tour yet to begin, Baigent is simply waiting now, for the judge’s decision and for what he he expects to be a furious counterattack on his new book. Others have written works dismissing Christ’s existence entirely, including John Allegro’s notorious 1970 volume The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which said Jesus was the mythical front for a magic mushroom cult. More seriously, two years ago, Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, which shares many key themes with The Jesus Papers, declared that orthodox Christianity was based on a foolishly literalized version of a mythic cycle that had been around for millennia before Jesus—who never lived at all—was supposedly born. And Harpur was greeted with a polite hearing. But that’s the problem, Baigent agrees; somehow complete dismissal is a more respectable position than, well, something that sounds like a carnival trick.
But Baigent can’t follow Harpur down that road: “The no-Christ position is impossible to maintain, if only because of Tacitus—a highly placed Roman historian with good access to contemporary documents—saying that Pontius Pilate crucified him.” Nor is there anything particularly new with the notion that, while Jesus was crucified, he did not die on the cross. In fact, it’s almost 2,000 years old.
Scholars postulate that Jesus’s violent death left behind a small band of followers faced with working out the meaning of the most shattering moment in their lives. From earliest Christian times, there were suggestions that the inconceivable had not really happened, that Jesus had somehow escaped his cup of suffering. Sometimes he did so spiritually (some Christian Gnostics taught that the divine Christ fled the human husk, Jesus, before death); sometimes literally, either by someone taking his place on the actual cross (usually Simon the Cyrene, whom the Gospels portray as helping Christ carry his cross), or by what’s commonly known as the “swoon theory.” Jesus fell into a comatose state, natural or drug-induced, and was mistakenly judged dead by his executioners.
No mainstream scholar accepts the cross survival tales as anything more than dogmatic spin, pious hope or simple folklore, like the old legend that Jesus visited Britain as a teenager with his great-uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a sojourn immortalized in William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem”: And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green? (Or perhaps to explain the original “empty tomb” ending of Mark’s Gospel—the conclusion that mentions the Risen Lord was added centuries later. For Baigent, a revived and already spirited-away Jesus explains that circumstance better than rising from the dead.)
For secular historians, the Crucifixion is the incontrovertible truth about Jesus—some virtually deduce his life from the fact of his death. (Pilate is also the sole figure from Jesus’s trial to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely accepted capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”) For religious historians and Christians in general—at least since the bounds of orthodoxy were set in the early centuries—the equation has always been stark: no crucifixion means no resurrection, no once and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity, no salvation, no faith.
Gnostic Christians, who are credited with a secret, individual and dogma-free enlightenment—and, perhaps crucially, a belief in equality for women—have had good press in modem times. They lost the battle with those Christians who were coalescing around a centralized, required belief system and nascent Church hierarchy. Baigent’s affection for them runs deep. “The Gnostics didn’t stress faith, but individual experience, and I agree it’s better to know than to believe. Even the canonical Gospels make it clear Christ had a kind of initiatory system: parables for those first coming to hear him preach and secret teachings about the Kingdom of God for the disciples. So I think the Gnostics were more in tune with that than the more dogmaand faith-bound Christians. I did my master’s in religious studies on the Renaissance concept that if you get the symbolism right, it will resonate in the human mind and cause physical and spiritual effects, give understanding by experience. I believe that too. I’d rather meditate in an old temple than read about its history.”
Given his conviction that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were utterly separate beings, his high regard for the Gnostics (the prime source for escaping-the-cross stories), and his belief in Tacitus’s evidence, Baigent was practically bound to start combing the New Testament for hints of a fake crucifixion. And that raises the single largest problem in modern versions of an alternative Jesus, the same one that causes mainline historians to throw up their hands. Once you come to accept that the Gospels were heavily edited, how do you judge which parts to trust?
Too often, as virtually everyone in New Testament studies says of opposing viewpoints, the sections judged trustworthy are no more than those the writer likes. Fifteen years ago the American Catholic expert John Dominic Crossan counted no fewer than seven distinct varieties of Jesus, ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer, in recent books by academics—evidence, as he thought it, that too many in the field write “theology and call it history.” (He didn’t seem to notice that, from a more secular-minded position, he was just as guilty.) Like any historian, Baigent aims for plausibility—for what makes sense in his own time, while not doing violence to the plain testimony of whatever evidence he can muster. He also applies what scholars call “the criterion of embarrassment.” “The New Testament is basically theology masquerading as history,” he avers, “so anything in it that runs counter to later orthodox belief has a betterthan-average chance of being true. Or that simply sticks out, off-message—I always appreciate anomalous material. Some of it is bound to be fantasy, but some is factual.”
So Baigent accepts most of what has rapidly become standard alternative-Jesus belief. Mary Magdalene was “probably” his wife, certainly his closest confidante—the Gnostic gospels say she had “secret” knowledge from Jesus. In 1982’S Holy Blood, Baigent, like most other males in his field at the time, was rather indifferent to orthodox Christianity’s often vicious misogyny. But the success of The Da Vinci Code’s exploration of the Church-suppressed “sacred feminine” has become one of the most prominent and attractive features in the alternative-Jesus school. In The Jesus Papers Baigent wields the feminine cause as one of his main clubs for bashing the Vatican.
And it is the Vatican he hammers. Again, like most others who see a Church-led conspiracy to hide the truth, Baigent hasn’t a word to say about Greek Orthodoxy or even fundamentalist Protestantism. “The Vatican is spin central,” he insists. “It’s the heir to that Roman centralizing group that screwed this religion down 1,600 years ago, that kicked out the feminine element that Jesus fostered, and then turned him into God.”
Less commonly, Baigent also believes that Christ was nurtured by the Zealot faction—militant, occasionally murderous Jews opposed to Roman rule and committed to restoring a king/high priest over Israel who was both a descendant of David (through Jesus’s father Joseph) and Aaron, the first high priest. (Luke’s Gospel says Mary was of his line.) The most hated symbol of Roman control was its taxes; when, as described in Matthew 22:17, pro-Roman Jews demanded of Jesus: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?” they were asking a loaded question, one that would bring his fundamental alignment into the open. The Zealots, in Baigent’s reading, were furious after he gave a Solomonic response—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”—that essentially meant “Yes.”
Why Christ answered that way is the main argument of The Jesus Papers, one that may be lost in the Crucifixion furor. Like Harpur before him, Baigent sees a Jesus who had become infused with Egyptian mythic belief, a man who had become a seer and moral teacher, no longer interested in the realpolitik future the Zealots had raised him to. Naturally they denounced him to the Roman authorities. “My starting point was realizing Pilate’s dilemma,” Baigent says, meaning
Pilate’s need to avoid executing a prominent Jew who was friendly to Rome, balanced by the risk of public unrest in a notoriously unruly province. So Pilate cut a deal with the Zealots—they could have their sacrificial victim or their martyr (he can’t make up his mind which), but only for show: Jesus had to come down alive, and depart Israel forever (to Egypt, Baigent believes). One of his key points of evidence is that the Greek language distinguishes between the words for “living body” and “corpse,” unlike Latin and English, where “body” can do for either. And when Joseph of Arimathea comes to Pilate, in the Gospel of Mark, to ask for Jesus’s “body,” the word he uses is soma, “the living body.”
It’s not much to support a claim as audacious as Baigent’s. He has arguable cause for some of his big-picture conclusions—there’s plenty of evidence, for one, that Jesus, and the early Church after him, accorded women a higher status than the surrounding pagan or Jewish cultures. Given that, and the role of later Christianity in Western misogyny, Mary Magdalene may well have played a larger role in Christ’s life than the male authors of the New Testament wanted to acknowledge. And it’s equally true that the streams of Christian thought that eventually hardened into orthodoxy were not the sum of early responses to Jesus of Nazareth.
But, to apply his own tests of plausibility and embarrassment: is it more likely that Mark carelessly gave away the secret of the Crucifixion, or that he innocently mixed up two words he may have thought of as synonyms? Is it more likely that Mary’s supposed Aaronic descent—the main thread leading to the Zealot thesis—was left in Luke, because it was too well-known to be removed, or because it was a minor detail? Baigent is aware how slender his reeds are. And, in fact, they are not his sole or even main support. Those, curiously enough, are matters of faith.
Baigent actually begins The Jesus Papers— the title of which does not become meaningful until the end of the book—with a story. Years ago a respected Anglican cleric told Baigent that a long-dead, famous churchman named Canon Alfred Lilley (i860 -1948) had told him that he, Lilley, had seen indisputable evidence about 1892 that Christ was still alive in 45 CE, long after the Crucifixion. Baigent is sure he will never see this proof, but he firmly believes in it. The story is, in effect, a version of Catholicism’s apostolic succession— a true knowledge, passed from one pair of trusted hands to another and to another, over the course of more than a century.
And Baigent ends with another tale, this one drawn from his 25 years of familiarity with the underground trade in Middle Eastern antiquities. “The things I’ve seen and heard about,” he sighs, “will hopefully see the light of day sometime. I do have to tell readers about them, but I can’t base a book on unexamined evidence.” At the heart of his conclusions about Jesus are Aramaic papyri bearing a letter to the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, which Baigent has seen, and actually held in his hands. (Unfortunately he can’t read Aramaic.) The author believes the letter was written by Jesus himself after his supposed death; in it Jesus denies that he had ever called himself the literal, physical son of God.
Even for those who deny his divinity, and yearn for a new version of his story, the truth about Jesus is a story of faith. M
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