A review of
The Jesus Papers,
Exposing the Greatest Cover-up
by Michael Baigent
(HarperSanfrancisco, San Francisco, 2006)
Reading Baigent’s treatise reminded me at many steps of my reading Annie Besant’s Esoteric Christianity many decades ago. [reference: Esoteric Christianity or The Lesser Mysteries, by Annie Besant, (Third Impression), The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai (Madras), India, Reprinted 1914, online at http://www.theosophical.ca/EsotericChristianity.htm#historical]
Besant, like Baigent, also has Jesus sort of affiliated with, but ultimately rising above the Essenes and going to Egypt for the training that prepared him for and led to his three-year life-mission. Baigent has Jesus skipping the Essene community experience and going directly to learn from a small mystical Jewish community outside Alexandria. I found his description of that community, and its initiation and rebirth ritual, downright fascinating.
Baigent’s intimation that the raising of Lazarus was a garbled account of just such an initiation that resulted in Lazarus visiting the dead (whether literally or symbolically I don’t know, Baigent leans to a ‘real’ spiritual visitation of the world of the dead, who are alive, I lean to seeing it as a symbolic experience) and returning, seems downright plausible, more so than the straightforward interpretation.
Baigent’s accusation that Paul was no stranger to the mysteries (p. 240) is an echo of what Besant discusses on her pages 53 and 54 where she indicates, staying with the theme of death-to-life transitions, that Paul instructed Timothy to seek to “attain” the resurrection, which flies in the face of the usual Christian idea that the resurrection is guaranteed by Christ’s death for either all humans or all believers. She suggests he is speaking in this instance of experiencing a new life in Christ of a mystical nature, hinting at a higher mystery. She also cites him warning Timothy not to be loose lipped about what he has learned, but only to share it among those capable of holding these truths close and teaching others who are ready.
Even when I read Besant, long ago, I found the idea of Jesus, a peasant child, traveling to Egypt for his spiritual education, to be far-fetched. Here is Besant’s description of this part of Jesus’ life:
Chapter 4, page 111-114
The child whose Jewish name has been turned into that of Jesus was born in Palestine B.C. 105 [? Sic], during the consulate of Publius Rutilius Rufus and Gnaeus Mallius Maximus. His parents were well-born though poor, and he was educated in a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. His fervent devotion and a gravity beyond his years led his parents to dedicate him to the religious and ascetic life, and soon after a visit to Jerusalem, in which the extraordinary intelligence and eagerness for knowledge of the youth were shown [Page 112] in his seeking of the doctors in the Temple, he was sent to be trained in an Essene community in the southern Judaean desert. When he had reached the age of nineteen he went on to the Essene monastery near Mount Serbal, a monastery which was much visited by learned men travelling from Persia and India to Egypt, and where a magnificent library of occult works — many of them Indian of the Trans-Himalayan regions — had been established. From this seat of mystic learning he proceeded later to Egypt. He had been fully instructed in the secret teachings which were the real fount of life among the Essenes, and was initiated in Egypt as a disciple of that one sublime Lodge from which every great religion has its Founder. For Egypt has remained one of the world-centres of the true Mysteries, whereof all semi-public Mysteries are the faint and far-off reflections. The Mysteries spoken of in history as Egyptian were the shadows of the true things "in the Mount", and there the young Hebrew received the solemn consecration which prepared him for the Royal Priesthood he was later to attain. So superhumanly pure and so full of devotion was he, that in his gracious manhood he stood out pre-eminently from the severe and somewhat fanatical ascetics among whom [Page 113] he had been trained, shedding on the stern Jews around him the fragrance of a gentle and tender wisdom, as a rose-tree strangely planted in a desert would shed its sweetness on the barrenness around. The fair and stately grace of his white purity was round him as a radiant moonlit halo, and his words, though few, were ever sweet and loving, winning even the most harsh to a temporary gentleness, and the most rigid to a passing softness. Thus he lived through nine-and-twenty years of mortal life, growing from grace to grace.
Now I must confess that after reading Baigent, this step in Jesus’ preparation for his ministry seems more plausible than it did before. Baigent describes Judaism in Egypt, including its working temple and the differences between its Zealots and the Jerusalem Zealots in a way that makes very good sense and explains a few things about who was writing history with what biases and why. Baigent also, as already mentioned, describes a mystical Jewish community, the Therapeutae, outside Alexandria and relates their teachings to some of the really enigmatic stories in Jesus’ life in the New Testament in a very convincing way. These stories include the raising of Lazarus, Jesus’ anointing to Christ-status by a woman that was his most capable disciple and likely his wife, and his encounter with a young man dressed only in a linen robe in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Baigent sheds light on this latter incident by telling the story of Professor Morton Smith who found the ancient letter referring to a “Secret Gospel of Mark” [reference: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Harvard University Press, 1973] to which he dedicated the remainder of much of his professional life. I own and have read Smith’s 1973 book on the Secret Gospel of Mark in which he goes to great lengths to suggest that the initiatory rite involved was baptism, that Jesus was baptizing the young man in question.
The most compelling citations from the Secret Gospel are available on the Wikipedia website at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_Gospel_of_Mark. Of course it is important to note that the author of this (still controversial and contested) letter is Clement of Alexandria, writing to a missionary who is confused by Carpocrations claiming to know of a secret gospel by Mark which indicates that Jesus was engaged in homosexual activities, and therefore the whole concept of sin was a farce. Clement responds that there is such a gospel, but it is meant for those initiated into the higher mysteries and it says no such thing. It has two pieces of text that should be inserted into the New Testament Mark in this way (according to Clement, as reflected in the Wikipedia article), I will cite the text insert important to this discussion here because it supports making several observations:
The first excerpt Clement quotes is to be inserted, according to him, between what are verses 34 and 35 of Chapter 10:
And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.
I find it curious that Baigent sheds much light on this find by Smith, on his pages 228-235, but never cites the above text. He asks on his page 233 whether this text sheds light on the raising of Lazarus as an initiation, rather than as what it seems, and if the raising of Lazarus and this description of an initiation into the mysteries of the kingdom (that took a whole night) were not the same thing? I find the suggestion plausible enough, but it would require an admission that when this letter was supposedly written by Clement, in 195 A.D. (Baigent’s page 67), Clement’s version of this secret gospel was either already confused about these events, or they were not to be taken literally.
Smith’s translation of the whole letter is available on the internet, and one section that is particularly illuminating is this one [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/secretmark.html]:
As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in [1, verso] Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.
So, perhaps Baigent did not cite the key section from the letter because he feared that this Clementine hint at deeper meanings would likely be lost to most readers. Instead they would take the section cited above from the Secret Gospel at face value and feel it was less supportive of his theme suggesting a secret layer of knowledge obtained through secret rituals not presently known in Christianity. Its words say Jesus raised a young dead man back to life, simple. There was a strong bond of love between the two (natural, given a return to a healthy state from the dead, when death was no doubt achieved through illness or injury). And after some badgering by the youth Jesus initiated him into great mysteries at night, ergo he was baptized and made a Christian believer. Night? Hey, there was a persecution in full swing that would kill Jesus shortly. That would be a very straightforward reading, but not an “interpretation [that] would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils.”
My enthusiasm over the Secret Gospel of Mark when his book was first released stemmed from my at that time very deep belief in the teachings of my Mormon faith. Already, even without the Secret Gospel, Mormons had known that the youth in the garden was dressed as persons are dressed for a certain ritual initiation ritual inside Mormon temples. That initiation, in temples, is followed by a lengthy ‘endowment’ ritual in which, now fully dressed in symbolic garb, using symbolic words and actions, the initiate is brought into the higher mysteries, teaching him or her what is necessary to eventually secure entry into the presence of the gods. So at that time Smith’s Secret Gospel confirmed my beliefs.
It is quite astounding to me, still, even after losing my faith, how Mormonism, using symbolism and practices borrowed from Masonry and elsewhere, mixed with undeniable ingenuity and even inspiration, managed to create a temple with a purpose that matches so nicely what Baigent says the purposes of temples were in the ancient world, especially Egypt (see his chapter 9). The Mormon temple ritual, when seen as a symbolic experience, also hints at what Baigent says is the purpose of the initiation ritual of this small Jewish mystical sect, the Therapeutae, a group he describes (pp. 153-157) as the more probable source of Jesus’ mystical teachings and his enlightened attitude toward women (p. 224, p. 154). The Essene community was looking for a more physical messianic intervention, and knew God wanted women kept in their place.
Baigent suggests Jesus and Mary (after his surviving the crucifixion) took refuge with the Jews and Zadokite priests that maintained the Egyptian Jewish temple at Onias. They would be comfortable in this community because the people were, devout but not Zealots (p. 265) [I will return to this crucifixion-survival claim later.]
Note that Besant, somewhat similarly, has Jesus learning among an eclectic branch of Essenes with heavy Egyptian influence, and then completing his education in Egypt. Baigent suggests Jesus broke with the Essene Zealots for good when he said that Jews ought to pay Roman taxes, which would not have bothered the Therapeutae at all but infuriated the Essene Zealots (pp. 117-119) and may have caused them to seek his death. Pretty similar reconstructions, actually.
Baigent makes the interesting point, based on recent scholarly work by others, that the Essenes and Zealots were one and the same and were very widespread, not localized (pp. 36-39). The Dead Sea Scrolls were probably from Jerusalem, and only hidden near Qumran, thus reflecting a larger movement and not reflecting some isolated community hidden away in the desert (p. 258). This is important since it sheds light on the religious environment in Jerusalem and goes a long way to explain Jesus’ being recognized as the messiah by so many upon his entry into the city riding on an ass: it was the Jerusalem Essene community in full celebration of seeing their expectations coming into fulfillment (pp. 38-40). Until, of course, he was shown that coin (see Baigent's p. 118) and said to "render unto Ceasar."
The portion of the book highlighted by its subtitle of 'the greatest coverup in history,' refers to Jesus’ alleged survival of the crucifixion. I find the arguments made to be totally unconvincing. It is based on alleged statements and alleged documents, some strange artifact in one work of art. It imagines a great conspiracy among unlikely co-conspirators and some sophisticated pharmacolgy. It seems an incredible stretch to me. I don’t buy it.
How does Ms. Besant address this same issue? In a much more interesting way, to me. Did Besant believe Jesus died on the cross? Yes, but not as a sacrifice to extinguish the wrath of God kindled by human sin.
It was a self-sacrifice to set in motion another phase in humanity’s spiritual evolution, according to my interpretation of Besant. Her discussion of this is in her Chapter 7 where she explains that the “Law of Sacrifice” is what allows life to exist in the first place and to progress even now, and Jesus being aware of this and having achieved a high degree of perfection voluntarily sacrificed himself to benefit all of humanity, not just his followers, and not in any way to ransom us from the wrath of a God who cannot look upon imperfection or sin with any degree of allowance. Sacrifice is a continual fact of life, literally, in the universe. We all partake of it and benefit from it daily (we exist as products of the 'sacrifices' of mineral, plant and animal worlds). But only those who have achieved a very high degree of perfection are capable of using this law to benefit all humanity through self-sacrifice, an act of supreme love.
Besant would not have seen the point of torturing inconclusive bits of artistic or historical material to take this act of love away from a true ‘Hierophant’ of the higher “Christian Mysteries.”
Besant makes it clear that there were such higher mysteries in the earliest Chrisitianity, very convincingly citing Clement of Alexandria (also one of Baigent's favorites), in her introductory statements and Foreword:
In proceeding to the contemplation of the mysteries of knowledge, we shall adhere to the celebrated and venerable rule of tradition, commencing from the origin of the universe, setting forth those points of physical contemplation which are necessary to be premised, and removing whatever can be an obstacle on the way; so that the ear may be prepared for the reception of the tradition of the Gnosis, the ground being cleared of weeds and fitted for the planting of the vineyard; for there is a conflict before the conflict, and mysteries before the mysteries.— S.Clement of Alexandria.
Let the specimen suffice to those who have ears. For it is not required to unfold the mystery, but only to indicate what is sufficient.— S. Clement of Alexandria.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.— S. Matthew.
The object of this book is to suggest certain lines of thought as to the deep truths underlying Christianity, truths generally overlooked, and only too often denied. The generous wish to share with all what is precious, to spread broadcast priceless truths, to shut out none from the illumination of true knowledge, has resulted in a zeal without discretion that has vulgarised Christianity, and has presented its teachings in a form that often repels the heart and alienates the intellect. The command to "preach the Gospel to every creature" [ S.Mark, xvi, 15] - though admittedly of doubtful authenticity - has been interpreted as forbidding the teaching of the Gnosis to a few, and has apparently erased the less popular saying of the same Great Teacher: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine". [S. Matt., vii,6]
This spurious sentimentality — which refuses to recognise the obvious inequalities of intelligence and morality, and thereby reduces the teaching of the highly developed to the level attainable by the least evolved, sacrificing the higher to the lower in a way that injures both — had no place in the virile common sense of the early Christians. S. Clement of Alexandria says quite bluntly, after alluding to the Mysteries: "Even now I fear, as it is said, 'to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them underfoot, and turn and rend us'. For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true Light to swinish and untrained hearers". [Clarke's Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol. IV. Clement of Alexandria. Stromata, bk. I, ch. xii. ]
If true knowledge, the Gnosis, is again to form a part of Christian teachings, it can only be under the old restrictions, and the idea of levelling down to the capacities of the least developed must be definitely surrendered. Only by teaching above the grasp of the little evolved can the way be opened up for a restoration of arcane knowledge, and the study of the Lesser Mysteries must precede that of the Greater. The Greater will never be published through the printing-press; they can only be given by Teacher to pupil, "from mouth to ear". But the Lesser Mysteries the partial unveiling of deep truths, can even now be restored, and such a volume as the present is intended to outline these, and to show the nature of the teachings which have to be mastered. "Where only hints are given, quiet meditation on the truths hinted at will cause their outlines to become visible, and the clearer light obtained by continued meditation will gradually show them more fully. For meditation quiets the lower mind, ever engaged in thinking about external objects, and when the lower mind is tranquil then only can it be illuminated by the Spirit. Knowledge of spiritual truths must be thus obtained, from within and not from without, from the divine Spirit whose temple we are [I. Cor., iii., 16. ] and not from an external Teacher. These things are "spiritually discerned" by that divine indwelling Spirit, that "mind of Christ", whereof speaks the great Apostle [Ibid., ii., 14, 16. ] and that inner light is shed upon the lower mind.
This is the way of the Divine Wisdom, the true THEOSOPHY. It is not, as some think, a diluted version of Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Taoism, or of any special religion. It is Esoteric Christianity as truly as it is Esoteric Buddhism, and belongs equally to all religions, exclusively to none. This is the source of the suggestions made in this little volume, for the helping of those who seek the Light — that "true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world", [ S.John, 1,9] though most have not yet opened their eyes to it.
Both Baigent and Besant see great value in the life lived by Jesus. I like the way Besant characterizes this value to individuals, contrasting this to what institutions have wrought through, as she explains above, watering everything down to be understandable by the lowest intellects among us. I think I detected some similar sentiments in Baigent. [And there is a curious passage in the Book of Mormon that makes an observation similar to Besant's by noting that though all religions are wrong, all also have some true Christians.]
Besant describes Jesus in these words (her page 122):
He was the Hierophant in the Christian Mysteries, the direct Teacher of the Initiates. His the inspiration that kept alight the Gnosis in the Church, until the superincumbent mass of ignorance became so great that even His breath could not fan the flame sufficiently to prevent its extinguishment.
But Besant makes it clear that ignorance overran the institutions of Christianity, but not those individual believers who acted on their longing and reached out to Christ:
His the patient labour which strengthened soul after soul to endure through the darkness, and cherish within itself the spark of mystic longing, the thirst to find the Hidden God. His the steady inpouring of truth into every brain ready to receive it, so that hand stretched out to hand across the centuries and passed on the torch of knowledge, which thus was never extinguished.
Baigent addresses his respect for what he perceives to be Christ’s teachings in several places, but best on his last two pages where he suggests that the value of these teachings lies not in structuring religions but in assuring us all that we are meant to learn spitiual realities from spiritual experience and not from books (meaning in particlar the current trend of literalistically reading of scripture). On Baigent’s final page he quotes my personal favorite, Rumi, and suggests in so many words that it is our birthright to ourselves drink directly from the fount of spiritual knowing. That, by implication, is what he learns from the example set by Jesus’ life.
Baigent, in his next to last chapter drops a real bomb that got my attention. Apparently there may exist a letter written (or dictated? Baigent does not mention that possibility) by Jesus. I will not steal the bang from this disclosure in terms of its content here, but will only observe that the letter, if genuine, is very exciting indeed. But to me it says nothing really new, it restates something already in the Bible in a few more words. Baigent’s interpretation is a bit hyped, probably because he is genuinely excited and deservedly so since it is his dogged perseverance that brought its content to light. But its content isn’t really telling us anything new, in my opinion. Although it says nothing new, I basically agree with Baigent’s interpretation, one with which many others will disagree, some vehemently so. Its disclosure was a wonderfully staged high point for the book. Baigent does know how to write.
A P.S. with some minor and more personal observations:
On pages 240-241 Baigent praises Paul’s esoteric insights, and on page 262 he suggests Paul “created Christianity for the non-Jews” (he had already said something to this same effect on page 73). He says that: “Paul, for all his idiosyncracies, gazed upon a more distant horizon. But he seems to have run amok.” Frankly, I see it the same way, Pauline Christianity is a far cry from what is described as The Theology of Jewish Christianity by Jean Danielou (Chicago: The Henry Regnery Company, 1964).
After declaring that the Jesus of faith is not the Jesus of history, and implying that the Jesus of faith began with Paul, Baigent also explains that Paul never knew Jesus but claimed to have been instructed by him in vision. Paul was, in my view, a prototype for the first Mormon prophet, whose writings, like Paul’s, also became scripture. Joseph Smith was also instructed by Jesus in visions that also led to the formation of a new religion. Mormonism successfully takes elements of Pauline Christianity and blends it with elements of the Jewish Christianity of James (hence my love for Danielou’s book in my believing-Mormon years) and throws in a bit of the mystical in terms of emphasis on personal revelation and temple ceremonies that move one back to Baigent’s description of the purpose of the temples of Egypt on page 157:
The profound mysticism that lay at the very heart of the Egyptian experience of reality clearly influenced many of the other faiths that had established themselves there. This Egyptian mysticism, which employed secret readings of myth and private ritual, often played out in secluded underground chambers and temples, professed to connect this world with the next, to connect heaven and earth.
Professor Hugh Nibley, a Mormon scholar, connected the Mormon temple ritual inextricably with the Egyptian temple ritual in much the same words in his book The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975). Although much of Nibley’s translation work in that book has been called into question, his central argument about the similar purposes behind the rituals of these two very different temple building societies is essentially correct, in my view, and is in harmony with what Baigent says about Egyptian temples and mysticism. Nibley suggested that the Mormon and Egyptian temple and its ritual had the same purpose, to connect heaven and earth symbolically in the structure of the edifice itself, symbolized by its below-ground and above-ground portions with their rituals, and to connect heaven and earth in each person experiencing the meaning of (not just the words and symbols) these rituals.
It is interesting to me that Mormon writers have made a big deal of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel (Genesis32:21-30), who turns out to be God, all night long (this ought to ring a bell concerning the meeting between Jesus and the young man in the Secret Gospel of Mark). At the end he earns a blessing and a renaming, he is now Israel. To Mormons, Jacob received the equivalent of his temple endowment that night, directly from God. (There is no wrestling in the temple, of course, but remember, these things, whether in scripture or in ritual, are symbolic indicators of truths, not to be taken at face value).
So if I am so impressed with Mormonism’s mystical side, why no faith? To me, this religion, in spite of its depth, has been overcome, just as original Christianity had been overcome as describes by Besant above, but its desire to grow and to reach the masses. It has seen phenomenal success in that regard, and has become shallow simplistic and literalistic, and now even fundamentalist.
How is this possible when it also encourages individual revelation, that most unruly and disruptive of forces? By doing its best to stuff the individual revelation genie into the small bottle of what is considered orthodox. Revelation is encouraged, but is to be focused strictly on personal issues, never on obtaining new doctrinal insights that have global implications. Only the officially designated and recognized prophets have that charge, and they have, with occasional exceptions, largely become business managers and scripture-citing preachers, in my very personal view.
Besides, for me to again be Mormon I would need to take all of it as symbolic, including the life and role of Christ and the very existence of a personal God. Ms. Besant is close to my views on these issues. But these are my views today. Tomorrow? Who knows? When a person is truly open, the door to change is never closed and the direction of change is never predictable. That is what makes life interesting and exciting, even at my age (~62): all things are still possible!
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