The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History
by Michael Baigent- A book review
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006, 321 pages including extensive bibliography, end notes, and index.
Michael Baigent received his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand and his Master of Arts degree in mysticism and religious experience from the University of Kent in England.
It is, presumably, the latter degree which led him to author and co-author a number of books in the area of religious history, including the bestsellers, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy (with Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh). He is described in Wikipedia as a “speculative historian who co-wrote (with Richard Leigh) a number of books that question mainstream perceptions of history and many commonly-held versions of the "Historical life of Jesus…" He has been editor of Freemasonry Today since April 2001….”
“Speculative historian” certainly describes the author of this particular book. Sometimes it is difficult to discern which parts are speculation and which are history. That Baigent is intent on exposing and excoriating the Roman Catholic Church is evident early on by his detailed descriptions of that church’s sins of the past. But since Catholic history and Christian history is the same history for the first fifteen or so centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus, Baigent’s expose’ strikes at the heart of all Christendom. But is it true?
Much of what Baigent has to say has already been said very forcefully by respected historians and Christian theologians, and, to his credit, he has been reasonably careful to give them credit. His speculation comes to the fore when he picks up where the history leaves off and he imagines what a particular historical figures “would have” been thinking had we still had their writings to confirm it. Baigent musings on Eunapius, a pagan philosopher of the 4th century is a case in point (p. 88).
Baigent’s initial premise that there are, or were, papers that proved that Jesus was alive and well some years after his reported crucifixion is another case in point. His description of his unsuccessful efforts to actually see first-hand these papers reads more like a pulp fiction mystery than it does scholarly historical research, and it does nothing to inspire confidence in his primary thesis that the Church engaged in a major cover-up of Jesus’ survival of the cross.
On the other side of the truth-speculation question, is the fact that there is considerable extant evidence from the first and second centuries that not all that the church fathers did and said would pass for truth. There is more than enough evidence from their own writing to convict many of them of a greed for power that treated truth as dispensable in the interest of ambition and conquest of theological opponents. Baigent does cite some of these sources which have also been cited by legitimate scholars.
It is unfortunate that Baigent’s apparent need to sensationalize his thesis with his own speculations tends to overshadow the truth he wishes to expose. His case would be much stronger had he stuck with the historical facts based on the evidence contemporaneous with Jesus. The historical evidence he does cite is quite sufficient to raise the question of what is the truth about Jesus. That the Jesus we have from the Church fathers is not the Jesus of history is apparent. So who is Jesus really? Baigent’s testimony is ambiguous. At one point he asks “Can we be sure that Jesus really existed? Is there any proof of his reality beyond the New Testament?...how do we know that the whole concept of Jesus Christ is not just an ancient myth given a new spin? Perhaps it was some rewriting of the Adonis myth or the Osiris myth or the Mithras myth: all three were born of a virgin and raised from the dead—a familiar story to Christians.” (p. 74)
Yet, in spite of these reservations, Baigent, in other chapters, bases much of his speculation on the assumption that Jesus was a real person, perhaps a Zealot, who was the source of much controversy and not a little consternation on the part of just about everybody—Romans, Pharisees, and even Zealots. He asserts that “Instead of history, our New Testament gives us a sanitized, censored, and often inverted view of the times….Jesus was born and spent his formative years in the era of the early Zealot movement. When he began his ministry, around the age of thirty, some of his closest followers were known to be members of this messianic movement, a movement in which Jesus was born to play an important role.” (p. 63)
Baigent refers to “the star prophecy,” a Jewish prophecy that the messiah would be both high priest and king. As messiah “Jesus would have been expected to lead the Zealots to victory… he had a religious and a political role to perform.” (p.39) He played this part by entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, as prophesized by Zechariah. “The point was not lost on the crowds who greeted his arrival” and who recognized him “as the king of the Line of David…” (p. 39) Baigent also makes much of the genealogies of Jesus which show him to be heir to both the priesthood and the kingship of Israel, of both the Line of David and the Line of Aaron.
Baigent continues his “historical speculations” in chapters in which he asserts that Jesus was initiated into the Egyptian mysteries through which he acquired his teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven, and that he survived the crucifixion. These ideas are not original with Baigent. They are to be found in a variety of 1st and 2nd century writings that were not included in the New Testament. They are findings which have been reported by other historians and theologians, particularly over the last two decades, as a result of the availability of Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Baigent concludes with this appeal: “Our modern world is dominated by the ‘religions of the book’ – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We can see that to base truth on the written word makes it vulnerable to all the problems of interpretation and translation, to say nothing of religious distortion. The danger is that is that books foster a dependence upon belief rather than knowledge; if there has been one underlying theme in our journey, it has been that we need to travel the road for ourselves and experience its hardships, pleasures, and insights directly rather than secondhand or vicariously.” (p.286)
For all it faults, The Jesus Papers is still worth reading, but only with a keen awareness that it falls prone to some of the tendencies to distortion that Baigent ascribes to the biblical texts.Jim Foster, reviewer