A 15th-century European map of the known world includes this notation regarding Asia: Hic etiam homines magna cornua habentes longitudine quatuor pedum, et sunt etiam serpentes tante magnitudinis, ut unum bovem comedant integrum (Here also are huge men having horns four feet long, and there are serpents also of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole.)
In the intervening 600 years, of course, we’ve filled significant gaps in our knowledge of geography, human (even foreign human) anatomy and zoology. But another void — the historical territory where verifiable fact and religious belief come together in an upheaval of Himalayan proportions — might still just as well be labeled “Here there be dragons.” The view is obscure from across the span of ages. Source documents are rare and subject to varied interpretation. Physical artifacts still lie undiscovered beneath the dirt of the millennia. While speculation is ever-changing and debatable, dogma is established, entrenched, and protected by authorities, religious and political.
It’s therefore not surprising that the mainstream response to Michael Baigent’s The Jesus Papers has consisted of equal parts incredulity and outright dismissal. To offer up the hypothesis that Jesus did not die on the cross doesn’t threaten the foundations of Christianity so much as it teases and bemuses a western world quite comfortable with 1,500 years of virtually unchallenged belief to the contrary. Baigent’s critics don’t rage, at least for the most part. Instead, they snicker, confident that Baigent is no David to their Goliath.
There are, of course, those who take the opposite tack and credulously accept the hypothesis as proven fact. Baigent himself is not among the pop-cultists, best represented by hopped-up devotees of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. Throughout The Jesus Papers (and the previous books he’s authored and co-authored), he takes great care to separate speculation from known fact. Even as he leads the reader down a road of hypothesis, stopping periodically at signposts of verifiable truth, he cautions them: Think expansively, apply the reasonable to the known – but don’t pretend to have the answers.
The title of The Jesus Papers refers, ultimately, to two documents purporting to be letters from Jesus to the Sanhedrin (the council controlling Jewish temple worship in first-century Jerusalem), defending himself against charges of claiming his own divinity. Baigent offers no proof for their existence, because he can’t – he claims only to have seen them once, in the possession of a collector.
Obviously, this militates against simply accepting either the fact of their existence, or the accuracy of his description of their content. Baigent’s problem, of course, is that not only are documents of that age and kind valuable commodities traded in what is in effect an underground “black market,” but that considerable weath and power (such as that disposed of by, say, the Vatican) could (and has) been mobilized to keep potentially controversial finds of the type from public view. (See Baigent’s own The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, written with frequent collaborator Richard Leigh, on the 40-year effort to suppress the contents of that trove.)
If “the Jesus papers” were the sum and substance of The Jesus Papers, it would be an unimportant book – little more than a tall tale told as non-fiction. Fortunately for the reader, Baigent puts a feast of fascinating food on the table before serving up the light, not as yet especially substantial, dessert. The sensationalism of the book’s marketing is not absent, but it is muted in deference to substance.
As in past works on the subject of Jesus (Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy, written with Leigh and Henry Lincoln), he delves deeply into the historical context, looking for real evidence of the man’s existence, acts, and impact. From the pre-Christian mystery cults of Egypt — and an authentic Jewish temple conceivably in operation during the period of Jesus’ biblical sojourn there — to the writings of Jewish-rebel-turned-Roman-historian Flavius Josephus, to the doctrinal conflicts which sundered early Christianity, he weaves his reasonable speculation on a loom of the provable. The result is a colorful tapestry bearing a picture which may or may not be accurate, but which is at least as colorful and fascinating — and, for that matter, believable — as those woven on the loom of received religious wisdom.
Should we accept Baigent’s various speculations in The Jesus Papers and other works — the notion that Jesus was married, fathered children, survived the cross and through his bloodline founded an early French dynasty, and that his ministry represented a combination of existing doctrines rather than a new, separate religion — as fact? Even he does not ask us to do so. Baigent’s greatest contribution is not his speculation. It is his honest proposition that, if we can rouse ourselves to pierce the fog of two thousand years of dogma, we will likely find more than mythical dragons awaiting discovery.