Cons: Conjectures are not necessarily well thought out, weak on main points
The Bottom Line: Like conspiracies, want Jesus to be a man and not a god, read; otherwise, find another book
About halfway through the book The Jesus Papers is this statement: To know is always better than to believe. Taken at a glance, this would seem a logical assertion. The problem is, when it is religion you are discussing, the statement may not be true, may be in fact reversed, or may be conflated so that both verbs ultimately mean the same thing. Because of this, the central notion of the book, that there exist two documents that (among many possible hidden others) that prove Jesus was a man only, and not divine, becomes very difficult to analyze.
There is also something else to consider. I am fairly staunchly anti-conspiracy and believe that the events of November 22, 1963 have given rise to a new religion, already quietly fomenting. This reviews analysis will be done through this filter.
The Jesus Papers can be considered to be written in three parts (like an Aristotelian dialectic). First there is the thesis. One priest learned via word of mouth decades after the initial discovery that another priest had found documentary evidence that Jesus was alive as late as 45 AD. Author Michael Baigent (co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail upon which so much of The DaVinci Code is based) spends the thesis portion explaining two things: the hierarchy of the Holy See at the time of the discovery in an abbey of the documents claiming that Jesus didnt die during the crucifixion, and textual evidence in the canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hamadi in the middle 1940s. The antithesis is a lengthy off road journey of spiritual beliefs in parts of Egypt at the shift from BCE to AD. The Gospels essentially lose Jesus for nearly 20 years. Mr. Baigent claims that, based on circumstantial evidence of similar philosophies circling the area at the time that Jesus, James, Mary, and Joseph all moved to Egypt. Mr. Baigent spends scores of pages explaining the spiritual beliefs of a sect of Judaism (Therapudae) popular in a part of Egypt further up the Nile from modern day Cairo. The synthesis involves putting the textual evidence in the canonical and Gnostic Gospels together with the circumstantial evidence of a tie in with Egypt to create the proper possibility that his main notion is the probable outcome of a close analysis. From Egypt, Mr. Baigent claims that Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene (covered more specifically in Holy Blood, Holy Grail) fled to the south of what would become France to a large Jewish community located just outside Marsailles.
His research is strong, but the conclusions he draws are not necessarily the most likely onesthat is how conspiracy theory works. Since the subtitle of this book is Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History, it is obvious that the thing being exposed is a conspiracy. The way conspiricists do this is using a form of rhetoric that is basically: if we believe this then we must also believe that; or if we accept this idea, then we must determine who benefits by the facts remaining secret. The obvious problem with this is the conditional word if. If we dont accept the idea being put forth, then the theory becomes invalid on its face. Mr. Baigents research is stronger than the typical conspiricist and he even says that his ideas may not hold true; however, he still espouses his idea as more likely than not.
Given this, lets look at one item. Perhaps the only stereotypical religious offshoot that is more common than the so-called self hating Jew is the lapsed Catholic who views the Vatican as holding any number of spiritual and supernatural secrets. When someone publishes a book, what do they have to gain? I have no idea what Mr. Baigents religious beliefs are, but I can say that he spends significant time explaining the secret nature of the workings of the Holy See. The problem with secrets is that, once it is known that secrets exist, they can mean anything. The more secretive something is (Freemasonry for example) the more fantastical the meanings that can be given to any secret. If Freemasons controlled the world, then they are a very sloppy organization. What Mr. Baigent has against the Vatican clouds his arguments enough without the other problems inherent in them.
Lets follow that with something less glib. There is no objective documentary evidence that Jesus existed in the first place. Despite being fantastic record keepers, there is no Roman evidence of Jesus at all. The canonical Gospels are all written decades after the death of Jesus and the letters of Paul were written by a man who never met the man he worshipped. If the Vatican had something completely objective, it would be front and centerthere would be photocopies of it right next to the ghastly crucifixes that are in each Catholic house of worship. Since you cant really prove a negative, all speculation that Jesus didnt exist or that he wasnt divine is easy to produce, but impossible to know.
There are two parts to Mr. Baigents argument that weaken it to the point of the book being nearly a complete waste of time; one is conjectural, the other is sloppy. The conjectural one is that Jesus didnt die on the cross. He sites evidence in the canonical Gospels that can be interpreted to mean that Jesus didnt die. Specifically he points to a conversation between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. In the Greek version of the conversation, Joseph asks for the body of Jesus and Pilate assumes he means corpsethere is a distinction in Greek that doesnt exist in Latin. The second piece of evidence is how quickly death followed Jesus being given vinegar when he said he was thirsty. Mr. Baigent says that vinegar would have revived him, but that an anesthesia in use at the time of opium, belladonna, and hashish would have knocked him out, thus making it appear to the witnesses that he had died.
Therefore, to believe the notion that Jesus was still alive a dozen years after he was supposed to have died, you have to believe in a Greek text written at a time long after the original conversation took place, and in a language that wouldnt have been Greek anyway. Then you would have to accept that the sponge soaked with vinegar was actually an ancient anesthesia. Or that someone else took his placewhich would be so idiotically ironic as to be literally laughable. The more steps in a theory, the more people involved in keeping the secret, the less likely it is that the conspiracy took place. It may be inconvenient to believe that one loner could kill a president, but until there is incontrovertible proof otherwise, we really have no option but to accept it. (By the way, Gerald Posners Case Closed is an excellent deconstruction of the popular conspiracy theories into the first Kennedy assassination).
The sloppy piece of evidence is that Mr. Baigent claims to have held the two Jesus papers in his hands: glass framed 18x9 inch papyri. The problem is that Mr. Baigent cannot read any of the indigenous languages. In his own words: it is like being given a treasure chest without the keys to unlock it. These texts could have been and still could be anything. Since he cannot read what is written on them, he is free to project any meaning on them whatsoever. It seems to me that someone so deeply interested in this topic would have learned to recognize either the word Jesus or the word Christ in any of the ancient languages in that place. At least that way, he wouldnt necessarily think that two papyri that could be about an order of goats not being dowry enough for an Egyptian daughter was actually an account of Jesus buying a ticket on a boat to get from Alexandria to southern France.
I am a neverbeliever. That is the main reason I would be drawn to a book of this sort; but while I dont believe, those who do fascinate me. I am also colorblind and in the same way, people who argue over just how off a shade of off white is fascinate me. This is why I say that the idea that to know is better than to believe isnt necessarily true when taken in a non-academic context. God for three religions and Christ for one of them are comforts to a great many. Would they all benefit by knowing that their belief is no more solid than a childs is in Santa Claus? Ignore the broader possible social consequences and look only to the individual. If you get strength from believing something, only to find that the belief is founded on a fiction, what does this do to a psyche? I cannot remember what my reaction was to finding that the childhood fairies of teeth, Christmas presents, and Easter eggs were figments played by adults. I do know, as a rational adult who sees the play inside childrens minds that there is a magic there to the fantastic.
Since I am a neverbeliever, I have no chips on my shoulder (the church sign essays Ive written are directed at anger over internal and inherent contradictions, not against religion). My question is what sort of chip does Mr. Baigent have?
If you like conspiracy theories and religion, read this book. It is well presented and lacks the usual paranoia that typically infuses this sort of book. If, however, these things are of little interest, your time is better spent elsewhere.
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About the reviewer
Paul Savage (cyclone_march)
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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The best-selling author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail explores explosive new evidence found in hidden records to challenge conventional wisdom and teachings about the life and death of Jesus Christ. (Religion -- Christianity)