Michael Baigent’s tortured thesis in "The Jesus Papers" is anything but simple. According to the book, Jesus was a descendent of the Davidic dynasty, groomed by the Zealot party to oppose Roman rule. To the Zealots' surprise, he renounces violence. He survives the crucifixion thanks to an intricate plot by Pilate, escapes to Egypt with his wife Mary Magdalene a.k.a. the grail, and then teaches an esoteric form of Hermetic wisdom until his death. Jesus’ initial political aspirations were later gutted and replaced, in the New Testament, with the image of a spiritual, divine, but a-political Christ. Such a Christ image was more malleable to Roman political control and misogynist Catholicism. Any evidence of the real story has been systematically eradicated by the Catholic Church, whose minions know it yet have doggedly pursued and persecuted truth-seekers ever since the emergence of the papacy of Rome.
We've all been duped. Who knew?
What evidence does Baigent offer for this historical reconstruction? He claims his thesis is supported by the Jesus papers, a set of ancient texts he saw and photographed, but they slipped through his hands and into the Vatican’s--where they were surely destroyed. Darn.
Let me expose just a few of this book's problems--ones that have to do with ancient history. Problems of logic, medieval history, and theology I’ll leave to others. The problems with first-century history are serious enough.
First, let's tackle Baigent's hypothesis that the Zealot party groomed Jesus to become a political leader. The scholarly consensus today is that there never was a Zealot party during Jesus' life. True, the term zealot existed even in the gospels, but it meant no more than to be excessively enthusiastic for any given religious or politics position. The “Zealots” as an organized party with well-defined political goals did not exist until the decade leading up to the first Jewish revolt which began in 66 CE. Can I prove that there were no Zealots at the time of Jesus? No, but all serious scholars deem it implausible.
Second, let's discuss whether Jesus survived the crucifixion. The idea that crucified victims die of asphyxiation has been bandied about for some time. In Baigent’s book, Jesus simply passes out and is later revived.
But in reality, breathing while hanging on a cross was not a problem at all; asphyxiation was not the cause of death. Instead, the combination of beating, nailing (the Romans drove nine-inch nails through the victim's hands and ankles), and exposure resulted in what medical pathologists call death through hypovolemic shock. In layman’s terms, this means death through extreme pain, excessive bleeding, severe trauma, and exhaustion.
Can I prove that Jesus died? No, but his surviving the crucifixion is so improbable that not one scholar takes the possibility seriously.
There are other problematic details in "The Jesus Papers," usually minor ones that are more annoying than substantial. But one is fatal. The most important Jesus papers, it turns out, are two now-lost letters from Jesus to the Sanhedrin in which he denies his divinity. Baigent claims that a now-disappeared antiquities dealer showed these letters to him in Jerusalem.
The eighteen-by-nine inch papyrus fragments were allegedly excavated under a businessman’s home in the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1960s. But papyrus is too frail to survive the relatively damp climate of Jerusalem. No other papyri have survived 2000 years in Jerusalem! Papyrus is only preserved in the extremely arid conditions around the Dead Sea or in the sands of Egypt, not Jerusalem. Baigent is either lying or was duped. Take your pick, but don’t be duped by this book.
The curious thing is that this book, like Baigent's earlier "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," will sell. This has more to do with the contemporary American scene than the plausibility of Baigent’s historical reconstruction. True, it is at times well written and large swaths of the book provide good descriptions of the first or fourth centuries. But that’s not enough. Like "The Da Vinci Code," "The Jesus Papers" taps into widespread suspicions that the institutional Church is not telling us the whole story; that it patronizes its adherents, resists women’s leadership roles, and condemns modern expressions of sexuality. That suspicion is compounded by the inability by real scholars to articulate publicly the significance of their historical research on Christian origins, and to make it relevant.
There is, of course, merit in discussing whether the church has misunderstood Jesus and his message. But "The Jesus Papers," or "The Da Vinci Code" for that matter, contribute little to the discussion, short of getting it going. A critical reading of the four canonical gospels is a better place to start. A comparative reading of these gospels reveals how certain gospels mute Jesus’ political implications, others distance him from Judaism, and all accentuate his dealings with male followers at the expense of female followers.
But there is nothing to merit Baigent’s sensationalist claims. In fact, in spite of all the theological layers added onto Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, his message is nevertheless remarkably clear. In God’s kingdom the poor are blessed, the humble exalted, and people are called to love their neighbors as themselves. Not too sensational, yet still profound and pretty demanding.