Wednesday, December 27, 2006

“The story, which has proved
implacably resistant to verification...”

The Jesus Papers, by Michael Baigent, Read by The Author, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006

Every so often a book comes along that is so demanding of commentary that the notes fill page after page without effort. There are also books so good I get too carried away to do more than jot down a few scraps of stray ideas. The Jesus Papers, a solo work from one half of the brain trust that brought us Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the seed that would grow into the beach read blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, is the former kind.

I’d often wondered why Holy Blood never received the kind of out-sized hoopla attendant upon Dan Brown’s output. Not any more. While you can at least be childishly entertained by and laugh with Brown and his pageantry of implausibilities, Baigent’s book is more to be laughed at. For The Jesus Papers is that rare piece of “non-fiction” writing whose elemental logical errors, supposition of non-evident “facts,” and flights of wishful thinking make the writings of Erik von Däniken, Bill O’Reilly, and Deepak Chopra look like scientific abstracts.

Having attended Ohio University and seen the sideshow that was Brother Bob, a kind of itinerant religious clown who dragged his wife and multitudes of children about preaching to the wicked sinners at liberal colleges; being a frequent listener to short-wave radio; and having watched The Power Team rip license plates in half, I thought I’d heard nearly every possible ludicrous claim to be made for Jesus. He’s a floorwax; he’s a desert topping; he takes weights off hips, bust, thighs, chin, midriff; he’s your best friend.

Religious believers have a tendency to make wonderful claims about the saving love and grace and happiness Jesus brings and so forth, yet even these Biblical arguers seem sensible by comparison to Baigent. Perhaps this is because such vast quantities of time and research hours went into crafting byzantine arguments for Jesus’ divinity and existence that the sum of the whole has reached a kind of cultural edifice of truthiness that almost seems reasonable, while Baigent is freestyling. Perhaps it’s that Baigent will at times admit that he’s really not standing on cold hard facts that makes his presentation all the more ludicrous. The religious minded at least can claim, “I have no proof, but I have faith,” a leap they think grounds their beliefs in some kind of “Get Out of Logic Free Card.” Baigent poses as though he were an academician and makes no especial illogical excuses, he just believes what he wants all by himself.

For instance, the supposed documents that give his book its title. What are they? Where are they? What do they say? Well, there are two sets. One is a document Baigent has never seen that he is merely speculating on, supposedly an official Roman report dated 45 CE, kind of like a deed, regarding a plot of land in southern France owned by some Jesus fellow, the other two are papyrus documents dated 34 CE supposedly written by Jesus in Aramaic to the Sanhedrin denying that he ever said he was god.

The letters written by Jesus Baigent claims are owned by a wealthy Israeli businessman, whose name he won’t reveal, whose location he won’t reveal, but he says he’s seen them. What has he seen? According to his own account, two old looking papyrus pages written in a language he can’t read, the contents of which were told to him by the supposed owner.

So, a dude shows him a letter written in a language he can’t read, tells him what they say, and he just believes him like that. Then he writes and publishes an entire book based on that kind of “evidence.” Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Surely, now, you’re thinking, he must have more than that. Well, he claims he does, but this “evidence” is no more compelling than what I’ve just quoted to you. Interpretations are given to such things as a painting of the fourteenth station of the cross wherein in the background is the tomb, in the foreground is Jesus being carried by three figures. It is night and the full moon is in the sky. This means, according to the author, Sabbath had started, and since no Jew would touch a dead body on the Sabbath, the body is merely the unconscious Jesus being carried out of the tomb. Therefore the painting is a clue to the mystery of Jesus’ faked death. It does not, for instance, mean that the painter was a simple Christian unversed in Jewish dogma who thought the full moon looked nice in the picture.

Elsewhere, he hinges part of his thesis on a single word choice in one gospel or another. Joseph of Arimethea in the Greek version uses “soma,” a word meaning “body,” to ask Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. Pilate, on the other hand uses “ptoma,” a word specifically for corpse. Aha, Baigent pounces, a hint exists that Jesus wasn’t dead when taken down from the cross, merely drugged. The sinister plots thicken when the Latin Vulgate uses the same word “corpus” for both speakers, a word specifically meaning “dead body” (though not according to my dictionary). Thus the cover up.

Baigent is prepared to see sinister motivation and argue from that merely on his belief that it must be there because, well, because it must. Wherever Occam’s razor could be employed to great effect, Baigent tosses it cavalierly aside, insisting instead upon formulations such as “there can only be one interpretation” or “it is without doubt” or some such construction.

Not content merely to make the more complicated, non-evidentiary claim where a simpler guess would do, Baigent also demonstrates his fantastical powers of mind reading, ascribing motivation to the historian Josephus he couldn’t possibly ever hope to support, suggesting he was in on the cover up because the historian had no strong affection for the Zealots.

Which is where Baigent’s theory grows even more ludicrous. Arguing based on items such as one of the Apostles was called Simon the Zealot and that Judas Iscariot’s last name resembles the Latin sicarius or dagger-men, Jesus was not only himself a Zealot, but the leader of the Zealots, who saw in his family lineage the coming king of Israel. He weaves into this his belief, contrary to all evidence, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were from a Zealot community, a side note entirely pointless to his argument which does little more than up the book’s page count.

From this Zealot argument, Baigent weaves a little story about the Zealots being pissed because Jesus said, in his famous “Render unto God, what is God’s; render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” formulation that the Israelites should pay the Empire’s taxes. The Zealots, feeling betrayed, hand Jesus over to the Romans on trumped up charges, then later Jesus’ friends drug him with an opium and hashish soaked sponge crammed into his face while he was on the cross. This made Jesus pass out, his body was buried, then later his friends got him out, spirited him away, and a year later he wrote to the Sanhedrin to say nyah nyah nyah I never said I was god — duh! And Pontius Pilate is in on this because he was glad Jesus said to pay your taxes like a good citizen.

This argument comes in bits and pieces with little side tours into history to make some illusive backing up of the central thesis. Baigent pads out the middle of his book with a fairly short history of early Christianity and the establishment of the Vatican. Partly this is done to retread the same arguments as made in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and partly this is so Baigent can discuss the councils that decided upon which gospels, epistles, and so forth would make up the Bible. Rightfully exposing the process as political maneuvering by dominant sectarians amidst early Christianity, Baigent first does this to cast aspersions on the source material of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then to pump up the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere on to equal footing. But he doesn’t stop there.

No, again, Baigent avoids the easiest interpretation, that lots of oral stories about Jesus arose in various places and at various times because of the specific needs that might arise in Palestine as opposed to those in Rome or Sicily, that the variant gospels provided answers to theological questions important in those areas, and that the four canonical gospels were chosen because of the leaders of the councils were most familiar with them. It’s not even a stretch to add to this argument that the four chosen gospels reflected their own beliefs about Jesus and backed up their philosophies of power and ecclesiastical exercises of it.

But, rather than go with the commonsensical argument, Baigent creates a world in which the four gospels were chosen solely because the council and the Church were hiding Great Truths about Jesus only revealed in these other documents. Never mind that the four chosen differ widely on crucial points and contradict each other dramatically and could be just as easily bent to support whatever rigmarole you wish — just as Baigent does when necessary. It’d be simpler to say that none of the stories are literally true, just legends and oral histories (such as Beowulf), and the councils picked ones they agreed with, but that’d be no fun, nor would it sell many books.

Likewise, the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus fulfilling the prophecies from the Old Testament about the Messiah aren’t seen as fabricating facts to fit an agenda, but as shrewd choices by Jesus in part of some public relations gambit for his Zealot cause. While it is pretty easy to believe that a later document was written and facts were jimmied so as to comport neatly with older traditions, isn’t it more fun to bullshit possible whys and wherefores? My particular atheistical interpretation has, of course, the weight of textual analysis and the historical fact that the earliest gospel documents were composed decades after Jesus’ death behind it, while Baigent’s has good old fashioned speculation.

Speaking of prophecies, any similarity between belief systems relatively close in geographical proximity is given immense weight. That Jesus spouted mystical sound bites is taken as proof, when you add the unimpeachable source of the Gospel account of Joseph and Mary fleeing into Egypt with baby Jesus, that Jesus studied all kinds of mystical stuff there. In the midst of making his case for this by far the best moment of the book occurs when Baigent, discussing various texts and symbols found in various archeological digs, includes this strange, strange passage:

It seems they [the Pyramid Texts] have been well translated, but badly understood. It’s not surprising that misunderstandings have occurred because it is about now that archeologists begin inching their way out of the room. They feel uncomfortable. They know that things are about to start becoming distinctly weird, but no one ever said that they wouldn’t. In truth, it was just a matter of time.

WTF? What can one make of this kind of nudging jokey tone from the author? It’s just a bizarre lapse into self-reflection. And dude, let me be straight with you: the archeologists slipped out of the room a long time ago. Even Templar fanatics have been shifting in their seats by this stage. And I’m sorry “about to start becoming distinctly weird”? Baigent, you had that nailed down at page one.

For further weirdness Baigent suggests that what Plato and Socrates did was just a bit of intellectual doodling and mental masturbation. Paramenides, however, who claimed to get his knowledge from travelling to the underworld, now he was on to something. Okey-dokey, buddy. “We can not avoid it,” Baigent writes when he notes a similarity between Greek cult funerary poetry and the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Pyramid Texts from 2000 years earlier, “we are forced to take seriously the idea of initiation and underground chambers and of initiates sharing with the dead secret rites and knowledge.”

At such points, the mask slips. Baigent stands revealed for what he is. Behind all the appeals to scholarship, behind the historical effluvia, behind all the suggestions that he is too a real scholar, is too, is too, uh huh, is too — behind all of this what we see is a kook. A real live Jim Dandy. It is simply not credible, not today, not tomorrow, to suggest that the best reason there is for similarity between the past and the present is voices from beyond the grave. Nor would any credible historian stake his name and reputation on that argument.

I could go on (I still have four more pages of notes), but there isn’t much point. Baigent is clearly a talented marketer of his kind of baloney, but even Oscar Mayer, the top-seller, doesn’t sell anything that different from all the other brands. All the catchy jingles in the world can’t obscure that fact. You can sprinkle in as much Templar nonsense as you like, but at day’s end, it’s still nonsense, just like you can find anywhere at all.

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