Thursday, July 20


The Jesus Papers and Other Superstitions

I've said before on The Shrine that we are living today in a gnostic age--our fixation with funny esoteric cults, our cleaving of body and soul, our peculiar brand of aerobic asceticisms and oddball diets. This is all old hat: kabbalah, Marcionism, Montanism and Manichaean melon-worship in a new wrapper. In view of this, that the new faith should begin to start developing its own set of idiosyncratic scriptures comes as no surprise. There's The Da Vinci Code; Holy Blood, Holy Grail; and now Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers. I could go on ad infinitum about the over-elaborate plots--which strike me as almost Rube Goldberg-esque in their roccoco preposterousness--that populate such works, but I'd like to take just a look at one of the would-be best-seller riding the wave, Baigent's Jesus Papers. The funny thing is now, by the time I finished writing this, it's actually rather old news, and has been lost under a flood of Judas gospels and all other manner of esoteric clutter.

(Incidentally, these papers never actually show up in the book, Baigent gets some sort of vibe he saw them, somewhere, or something, but never got a chance to read them. I'm a bit hazy on the details, as it seems to me as evidence very thin indeed.)

First, I think the biggest problem with the genre of the "Jesus Conspiracy" book or novel is that it overestimates the desire of just about anyone involved to cover things up. St. Paul or the apostles or disciples frankly probably could have cared less about hijacking pagan myths to flesh out Christ's teachings. They were all Jews of one sort or another, and they'd been given enough to chew on from Christ's own mouth. Anyway, most of the allegedly stolen ideas don't crop up in pagan sources until well into the second or third centuries--Mithraic baptisms, for one--or are so universal in character than just about every religion has them. Every religion, or nearly every one, has tales of divine theophanies, voices speaking out of the whirlwind, unusual headgear, liturgies, and miracles.

Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, let's see what Baigent is claiming. From this article:
...because his clues point to a radical conclusion: that Jesus did not die on the cross.

Baigent: I don’t think Jesus died at the crucifixion. I think he survived. [...]

What do we really know about what happened on that fateful day 2,000 years ago? The exact details of the crucifixion have always been steeped in mystery. What we do have are pieces of evidence from four different and sometimes contradictory gospels written at least 30 years after Jesus died.
I imagine Baigent has put a new twist on it, but I think people have been trying to claim Christ didn't die on the Cross since day 1. The Gnostics had a particularly kooky and rather disturbing story about Christ magically switching places with Simon of Cyrene and then standing around afterwards, invisible, pointing and laughing as they got the wrong guy.

Baigent, it seems to me, is appealing to tenets of a more modern mythology by substituting governmental cover-ups and anaesthetic for Gnostic mojo:
He says Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus’s death, actually made a secret deal to save his life.

Baigent: It was rigged. It was a fraud. I think the crucifixion was set up precisely to remove a particular political problem which both Pilate and Jesus found themselves within.

Pilate, Baigent argues, he needed to appease the crowd which was calling for Jesus’s death. But because Jesus had urged his followers to pay their taxes to Rome, Baigent argues Pilate also had an incentive to let Jesus live.

Baigent: It’s my hypothesis that he rigged the crucifixion such that Jesus would survive but very quickly removed Jesus from the scene.

According to Baigent, Jesus and his supporters were also in on this plot. Baigent acknowledges there no proof of his theory, but it was possible to survive crucifixion. There is at least one example in early historical records. The Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about finding three of his friends nailed to the cross.

Baigent: He pleaded with Roman authorities and got them brought down. Two of them died. One survived. If the crucifixion was arranged to allow a survival, it could be done.
Let's just sit down and think about this for five seconds. First of all, Pilate was a crummy ruler. He was stuck out in the sticks (or Styx) for ten years when most procurators did only two. That he'd be stupid enough to start cutting baroque deals with a minor Galilaean prophet is beyond even his normal range of idiocy. What was in it for Pilate? Oh, I guess there's the "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," but I doubt even Pilate needed a Jewish rabbi to back up his tax-collecting policies. Not to mention the crowd calling for Christ's crucifixion he was trying to appease had just declared "We have no king but Caesar."

Secondly, we're talking about crucifixion. This is not a nose job, my friends. Punching holes in people's hands and feet and lifting you up on a pole to be drowned in your own fluids. You can't rig a crucifixion, or if you did something so mind-numbingly risky I'd imagine 99 times out of 100 the guy would die anyway. Was the Ecce Homo faked too? Do we have to imagine the stripes He received were just movie makeup? What sort of psycho would think 'rigging' a crucifixion would be a good idea? Or one that would even have the remote possibility of success? Josephus may have found, by coincidence, a few of his pals still up on the cross, but anyone accepting a wacked-out deal like this would be writing his own death warrant. Even today, despite all our special effects and technochocolate, I somehow doubt that we'd be able to pull off a stunt of this magnitude. If Pilate had wanted to compromise, or set Our Lord free, all he needed to do is say the word. He already tried a few compromises in his own wimpy way, such as resorting to the cruel (and unusual, even in those times) punishment of having a crucifixion victim flogged in the hopes it would placate the crowd, and then there was the whole Barabbas business.

If Pilate was in straights this bad that he would talk turkey with an obscure Galilaen rabbi, and risk bringing the whole Sanhedrin down on his head, he would have been shipped off to a posting even more singularly awful than Palestine, like being the night Maytag repairman on Hadrian's Wall, or the equivalent thereof since Hadrian (and the spin cycle) come a bit later in history. People have this strange idea that the Church in those days was some sort of gigantic power base with plenty to lose if "the truth" leaked out, rather than a mysterious teacher and twelve rather klutzy apostles.

Ah--but we're forgetting the sponge soaked in gall:
Baigent: I think it’s more likely that they raised the sponge with some kind of anesthetic, which knocked Jesus out, which would reduce the trauma and make it easier for him to survive.

James: What do you think those drugs might have been?

Baigent: Well, they used hashish, opium, belladonna. There was a mixture of drugs.
Oh yeah, like natural medicine is going to ease the pain when you're getting railroad spikes driven through your feet and hands. A little common sense here. It amazes me that a modern man thinks someone might be more likely to go through drug-addled torture rather than martyrdom, but that's the spirit of the age, and I wasn't consulted in the matter. The more I read these wild and raging theories sprouted by our occult friends, it seems to prove the truth of the statement that those who stop believing in God start believing in everything else. Agnostics often say that Christians ought to read a bit more science--and there's no harm in that, properly understood--but it seems to me that Michael Baigent and his cohorts ought to read a bit more history. Or, better yet, just get some common sense.

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