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Baigent's book fits the style and focus of the trend in New Age rewriting of history. Baigent, though maligned by many who call him belligerent and uncooperative, seems to be a competent and honest scholar, and is more moderate and self-reflective than many.
He has a bold but measured style of writing, and spends more time building logical connections that some others who write in the margins of esoteria just outside the accepted pale of standard scholarship. His roguish search for the overlooked, forgotten or suppressed attracts me. He is articulate and expressive in his writing. I like his independent thinking and his commitment to follow the clues wherever they seem to lead.
An Alternative Jesus
Baigent follows a trend that has become more popular and vocal in recent decades, to place the earliest Christian literature beside that of centuries later to portray alternative contemporary streams of thought and literature in the earliest period of the Christian era. He probes some of these sources and portrays this alternative view of Jesus and early Christian teachings.
Baigent discusses some of their historical possibilities – what these clues might mean for the life of Jesus. He joins others who weave a new version of Christian and Roman history and faith into an intriguing imaginative mystery, joining a raft of new wave literature that postposes Gnostic myth and disconnected legends back to the first century. Baigent references some interesting historical information and cites Roman authors to present an alternative account of Jesus. In the process, he creates a mosaic of conspiracy to suppress these recently-discovered sources.
One of the sources Baigent refers to is the Book of Enoch (also referred to by some as 1st Enoch). Baigent provides a good summary of the structure and contents of this book, which he says presents the basic mystery content of ancient Egyptian mystical literature about the Future Life after death. This is a piece of contemporary apocalyptic literature that was quite popular in the time of Jesus. Many are uanware that this book is actualy quoted by the book of Jude, which Baigent takes to mean that Jude considered it inspired.
He also cites Church Fathers who seem to consider it inspired. (It seems quite possible, however, that any Christian writer could have referred to various popular ideas and concepts without considering the writing to be "scripture" in the sense of divine inspiration, just as pastors today quote from popular literature and current events and cite television series for examples in their sermons.) I have read the Book of Enoch in two translations, one from the 19th century and one from the late 20th century. The role of this book, which circulated in Jewish circles for about 200 years before Jesus, should be taken seriously in attempts to understand the active thought-context of the early Christian era.
This volume is stimulating and exciting in some ways, encouraging the reader to look at some possible alternatives to the picture of standard Catholic dogma about Jesus and the early church. Some Protestants will be sympathetic to Baigent's exposure of the Roman Catholic need to control archaeological findings, and suppress old texts. I was glad to learn some details of the Vatican's defensive and suppressive handling of some ancient texts that they were afraid would undercut the traditional view of Jesus and the role of the church.
Baigent provides helpful details and a reasoned explanation one does not find in more strident and hysterical conspiracy theories railing against the Roman Catholic Church. One limitation I do find in this book is the simplistic reduction of traditional Christian faith and dogma to the western Roman form of church order and dogma. Westerners have a generally blindered idea that Rome and its Germanic Reformed children make up the sum total of the alternatives for “Christianity.” This common limited western perspective overlooks the ancient Oriental Churches and the huge Eastern Orthodox family of faiths.
As far as the Gnostic texts and some of their implications go, the Orthodox and Oriental Church communities might also have some concerns similar to those of Rome about the historical Council statements. But the thrust of Baigent's arguments are against the Roman Catholic attempts to keep certain texts and findings from being published. This repressive effort of the Catholic Church was evident in the initial handling of the Qumran texts, which were 40 years in coming to public attention in such a way that worldwide scholars had access and could objectively study them. Baigent and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Robert Eisenmann charge that the Catholic-dominated editorial committee of the Dead Sea Scrolls actively resisted access to the scrolls and attempted to control interpretation.
Baigent presents some good information about the Essenes, with some helpful perspectives on more reasonable views of the character of the Qumran community and possible relationships with other Jewish movements of the first centuries CE and BCE. The main weakness of the new picture Baigent wants to draw is the high level of supposition required to link all the pieces of his argument.
An example of this power of assumption is his conclusion in the example above of the Book of Enoch, assuming that quoting from a book means you think it is divinely inspired! Though this possiblity needs to be taken seriously, and brings into question simplistic fundamentalist literalist concepts of inspiration, it is no foregone conclusion that a quote from any source in a writing that later became canonical automatically means the quoted source was also considered canonical.
Baigent ties the perspective and role of Jesus and his concept of the Kingdom of God to the ancient Egyptian mysteries about life after death, placing the training period in Egypt.
Baigent draws upon some wisps of information and possibility to propose that Jesus' parents fled Judea after his birth, as suggested in Matthew's Gospel. Baigent's profile places the Holy Family in Egypt until Jesus is grown. He proposes that Jesus was associated with the Jewish Temple in the Delta, which had been established for Jews in Exile, intended to serve until the priestly line of Zadok was restored in the Jerusalem Temple.
This places them in longterm opposition to the priestly line declared illegitimate by many voices, including the Qumran reformers. The esoteric mysteries of Egypt were supposedly absorbed by this legitimate Egyptian priestly line and incorporated into their version of Judaism. Baigent seems to take the Egyptian mystical Judaism as normative over the version managed by the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the successors of the Hasmonean priest-kings who preceded the Romans.
Jews in Egypt
The existence of this important Egyptian Jewish community and the Temple is not news in itself. And the older Jewish Temple at Elephantine, near Thebes has been documented and discussed extensively. That temple was destroyed about 400 BCE.
As Baigent recalls, a large number of Judeans lived in Egypt from the 600s BCE, before the Babylonian Exile. Judean soldiers (Baigent calls them Jewish, though this term is not used historically as an ethnic designation until after the Babylonian Exile) were active in the service of the Pharaohs. The Temple on Elephantine Island was established to primarily a Judean military colony. These Judean soldiers were active in expeditions to Nubia for the Egyptian pharaoh.
Baigent's focus on the next life so prominent in the Egyptian mysteries and similar Persian and Greek after-life mystery religions becomes part and parcel of Baigent's understanding of the Gospel of Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
But to develop this scenario of the Egyptian mysteries connection, Baigent articulately details amazing and complex sequences of supposition, probably, could-it-be, what-if, perhaps, and similar strings of wispy logical connections. With the connections Baigent suggests, the new picture sounds reasonable. The explanations he develops are indeed intriguing, even challenging – certainly thought-provoking. One feels, however, the pressure of proof that is missing in this tenuous proposal.
In the final analysis, I found myself greatly unconvinced of the logical validity of much of his argument. I felt the negligée worn by this scenario was embarrassingly thin for a visitor to feel comfortable staring at it for long. This is in a way unfortunate, because I found myself grateful for Baigent's advocacy for the ancient texts and archaeological findings. We should have access to these texts and discoveries and their interpretations – no matter how threatening to any entrenched power base.
It is fundamentally wrong to suppress such knowledge for selfish reasons of dogmatic power. This is why I state above that many Protestants will welcome Baigent's call for Rome to open up and get real, allowing honest investigation of texts that might be interpreted to undermine Rome's powerful hold on so much of the world. But we also need to acknowledge how much change has occurred in the Roman Catholic Church and also act reasonably in our expectations.
I'm not comfortable demonizing any organized institutional structure, though I feel it somewhat my moral duty to be suspicious and wary of governments – “secular” or “religious.” I advocate life based on faith, not institutional religion or dogma.
I appreciate the personal reportage Baigent includes, since he has personally visited many of the sites, monasteries, authorities and geographical regions important to this study. But I found that Baigent is willing to fills in a lot of details others are hesitant to color into the limited picture solid history seems to leave us.
The line between history, legend and science fiction is blurred in this work. I found his development of the Egyptian tie-in with Jesus rather far-fetched even for my quite tolerant attempts to follow the possibilities in to murky and muddy territory.
One primary concern I have arises out of his proposal that Jesus' of view of the Kingdom of God was focused on esoteric mystical experience. This in itself is not so strange and sounds initially very similar to the standard Protestant (especially evangelical) focus on personal spiritual experience with God through faith in Jesus. This is understood to be a life-changing experience, changing practical lives and life perspectives, providing New Life in a redefinition of mind, life and community.
However, Baigent pulls it further out of the realities of daily life and into the esoteric occult world of afterlife, with a taste today in mystical experiences. Mystics in the history of Christianity have often been seen as a threat to standard intellectual approaches to the faith, focusing on mental “beliefs,” doctrines seen as more definitive and more important that spiritual experience.
Ironically, this again is not too different from some of the American “evangelical” forms of Christian faith, which focuses more on intellectual correctness than on spiritual or moral correctness (though if directly thus challenged, some would likely deny this).
Thus we can expect that fundamentalist Protestants will join the Catholics they otherwise oppose, in defending the traditional dogmas, which they share with the Catholic establishment, to reject outright the findings and proposals of Baigent. Let's hide an watch the hysteria build in 2010 as they become aware of this proposal.
But even more important is one final item, which Baigent puts last in his book, but from which he draws the title: The Jesus Papers. Baigent tells us that another scholar has found two ancient letters that have been certified by authorities as “genuine and authentic,” which they claim to be written by Jesus himself. These two letters are said to be a defense by Jesus of his teachings about the Kingdom of God, the use of the term “Son of God” for himself based on traditional Jewish usage current at the time.
I wondered what reference point was used to determine that these were “genuine?” Genuine in what sense? What do we have to determine these are written by Jesus? Or maybe he meant only that the documents are from that era?
I am very interested in seeing these documents, but Baigent laments that the Israeli authorities in charge of these, since they came to be under the care of the Israeli government through a series of events, have agreed to a request from Pope John XXIII to suppress these. Even after the agreed 25-year period passed, however, Baigent reports that the Israeli official involved has refused Baigent's personal request to release the documents. You should read the book to learn the details and evaluate the situation.
I felt after suggesting the lines of supposition and uncertain links Baigent then concluded these to be fact, and referred to them as such. He built each new level of supposition, innuendo and speculation on the previous conclusions, now referred as definite fact. Still, this matter of the documents written by someone fitting the description of Jesus should be investigated further.
I am appalled that Israeli government officials in charge of reclaiming and documenting the past of the region would collude with the Pope or anyone else to hide information that should be considered the heritage of the whole human race.
Oh, and one more thing – important to this scenario is the contention Baigent ingeniously “proves,” that Jesus was still alive in AD 45, citing another reliable recovered ancient document. Thus, the recovered Jesus (who only appeared to die on the cross) fled the Roman pogroms of the 1st century. Baigent recounts possibilities that tie Jesus to the Magdalene legends and similar “suppressed” lines of thought.
This book will be a challenge for many, a thrilling insight for others and a matter of only mild interest for others.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Cultural Drama in Christian Beginnings
Dead Sea Insights and Alternatives
Delay, Deception and Delivery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Fantasies and Fictions: Mary Magdalene as the Gallic Christian Goddess
Jewish Analysis of Christian Beginnings with Paul
A New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
More Fantasies and Fictions: Mary Magdalene and an Epic of Scholarly Sleight-of-Hand
Maturing Dead Sea Scrolls Scholarship
Thessalonica, Qumran and the Cult of the Emperor
Yeshua - The Jewish Character of the Early Church and Jesus' Teachings
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First written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 12 December 2009
Reviewed on Amazon 12 January 2010
Reviewed on Barnes and Noble 12 January 2010
Last edited 28 February 2022
Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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