January 4th, 2009


A slightly frustrating read ...

I eagerly plowed into Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History as an exciting start to a new year's worth of reading (yes, I have 10 other books that I haven't reviewed yet sitting here, but I felt like jumping into this one). I've been a fan of Baigent's work (individually and with collaborators such as Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh) since the seminal Holy Blood, Holy Grail launched a whole "industry" of putting Christianity under various historical and mystical magnifying glasses.

Unfortunately, Baigent takes the reader on a bit of a "wild goose chase" in this book ... it does have a "payoff" that fits the title and general theme, but in a frustrating at-3rd-hand manner. Frankly, the book follows a pretty solid "story arc" for the first half, starting with stories of how difficult it often is to get access to obscure documents, and how they have (even after having been seen and photographed) a bad habit of disappearing behind "stonewalling" sources. The narrative then moves to the predictable South of France with the Cathars and the much-written-of Rennes le Château, discussing the brutal suppression of the former and the mysterious wealth and influence of the latter. There is (as detailed in his earlier books) a tradition that Mary Magdalene (Mrs. Jesus) at least had re-located there sometime in the mid first century, with the implication being that "hidden knowledge" persisted there about the "non-canonical" truth of Jesus, knowledge that the Catholic Church especially would go to extreme lengths to eliminate.

At this point the focus shifts to Israel, and looks at the context of the Biblical narrative. Baigent puts an interesting "spin" on things here that I don't recall previously seeing ... that Jesus, while being promoted by the Zealots as having royal/priestly bloodlines, was not particularly "in their camp", using for evidence his allowing women into his inner circle, and the whole "render unto Caesar" tax thing. There is a suggestion that the Judean Jesus was "willing to play ball" with Rome, much as the "historian" Josephus managed to do later (in switching sides from being a Zealot commander to a Roman ally). Baigent then looks around at where Jesus might have been over the "missing" 20 or so years of his life and settles on Egypt, where there had been a thriving Jewish community (and various schools) at the time. Much of the teachings of Jesus could come from assorted Egyptian cults, and was certainly not in lock-step with the Temple-centric orientation of his brother James and other close associates.

It's here, though, that things get "spotty". Baigent jumps from place to place and tradition to tradition to illustrate possible sources/influences on the teachings of Jesus, but without much real linkage. He even spends a very interesting chapter dealing with a subterranean complex in Baiae, near Naples in Italy. While this does sound very much like an ancient initiatory temple, and possibly the origin of the "River Styx" mythologies, it has nothing really to do with the Jesus story, except to nudgingly suggest that it might because of there having been an ancient Jewish community nearby.

Perhaps it's my personal familiarity with this sort of thing, but it seems odd to me that Baigent would spend a good third of the book just trying to establish that there were initiatory cults in the ancient Mediterranean! It seems a long way to go to be able to suggest that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are in close relation to what has been preserved of these cults. Yes, the references that could be made to Lazarus and Mary are fascinating, but are ultimately only suggestive.

Of course, the Vatican is the big baddie in this, being the spawn of the "Greek" tradition of Paul rather than the "Jewish" tradition of James, etc. ... for the Catholic orthodoxy to have any leg to stand on, Jesus has to be a unique God-man whose brief tenure on Earth is the singular defining point in human history (let alone moronic modern American "evangelical" movements which need Jeeeezus to be GOD, complicating doctrines like trinitarianism be damned). To have solid proof that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and went on to "cause trouble" in other parts of the Roman Empire would be a Very Bad Thing for The Church of Ratzinger (and the book is recent enough to note his elevation from being the head of The Inquisition to the current Pope), the clear reason that Rome has constantly endeavored to keep things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library, and similar writings from the public consciousness. The Islamicists also feature in the "villain" column, as the insane attempts to assert that the Jews were not in Palestine for millennia have frequently led to summary destruction of any ancient buildings or document caches which offer proof of a thriving, wide-spread Jewish presence all over the middle east.

This point leads Baigent back into the "text trade", the shadowy underground of pilfered ancient scrolls and fragments, in which he resumes his search for "The Jesus Papers". While he is unable to back-track through his initial sources (interestingly, Catholic historians and theologians) who claim to have encountered documentation that "proves Jesus was alive in 45ce", he does, after a twisting, shrouded, and vague-on-details search get to hold in his hands a letter from 1st Century Sanhedrin court records of a bani meshisha ("Messiah of the Children of Israel") formally responding to accusations that he claimed to be the "Son of God", in which it's explained that he means, filled with the spirit of God, and not in anyway divine. Baigent gets to see (but not photograph) this in stabilized-atmosphere glass mountings in a room-sized safe in a European city in the presence of their owner. Needless to say, that sort of thing could change history.

Anyway, with the caveats expressed above, I highly recommend Baigent's The Jesus Papers to anybody with an interest in looking behind the veil of lies which is Christianity ... it's not the book that I would have hoped for, but it has a whole lot of material to recommend it! The Amazon new/used guys have "like new" copies of this hardcover edition for under a buck (plus shipping), and there are "good" copies of the paperback going for as little as 1¢ ... I'm glad to have it in my library, and there were a good half dozen books referenced in it that I'm going to have to check out!

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A quick one ...

I am rather desperately behind on writing about the stuff I've been reading ... with a current back-log of 10 books. Since I seem to have hit a brick wall in chronological order, I'm going to "cherry pick" what seems to appeal to me to write about until I make it through this stack!

First up is Edwin A. Abbot's classic Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions ... something that you might have encountered in one of the better highschools, even though it does "fall between the cracks" between math and lit ... it's the 616th "most popular" book over at LibraryThing, which makes it something along the lines of 1,000 times more likely to have been read by my readers than the typical stuff I flog in this space. This popularity is no doubt due to the venerable nature of the book (so that one's teachers' teachers' teachers might have read it), having first been published in 1884. Abbot was a clergyman, Shakespearean scholar, and school headmaster in Victorian England who had an avocation for mathematical theory. While messing with the concepts of dimensions (such as the 11-dimension worlds of certain types of "string theory") seems mainstream to today's reader, the book was rather revolutionary in its (pre-Einstein) era, and even coupled still-challenging dimensional visualizations with cutting social commentary.

The book is written from the perspective of (and was initially attributed to) a 2D-world entity "A Square" who has an encounter with a 3D-world entity (a sphere) that passes in and out of the 2D plane. In the course of the narration, the Square describes the things of his world, how social standing is determined (the number of sides, making the smooth curve of the circle presented by the sphere seem nearly divine), rules of behavior, and various hazards (the females are straight lines, being both nearly invisible and quite deadly if approached straight on).

The narrating Square has had strange dreams of one dimensional worlds, where he attempts to convince the reigning line segment of his multi-dimensional reality, and even attempts to deal with zero-dimensional point entities. These dreams seem to have been generated by the Sphere in order to give the Square some awareness of the 3D-world, which works for a time ... even too well, as the Square takes the realizations he's had of the Cube, and then begins (by extension) to query the Sphere as to 4D forms, which the Sphere stridently refuses to contemplate. When the Square tries to spread his gospel of higher dimensions, much chaos ensues, and he (and his closer associates) all end up destroyed or in prison.

Needless to say, Abbott puts together some still very challenging "thought experiments" about dimensional realities, framed within social/behavioral contexts on each level. It is, admittedly, as difficult for us to imagine 4-dimensional objects as it was for the Sphere in the story, so this book (even after 125 years) is as "fresh" on that level as the day it was written. Certainly, the "cultural" patterns detailed regarding challenging "authority" and the world-view of the masses have likewise not lost much of their value.

Flatland, I'm sure, is available in numerous editions. The one I have is one of those delightful "Dover Thrift Editions" which has a whopping $2.00 cover price (even though I picked up mine in a used book store for 50¢), so can be effectively used for one of those times when you're almost up to the magical $25 "free shipping" level at Amazon or B&N!

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One more tonight ...

Just in case you're wandering in on this review from LibraryThing specifically for this book and not having the benefit of the chronological unfolding of my main journal, I've gotten a bit behind on my reviews and have opted to "cherry pick" the books from the "to be reviewed" stack to deal with, this being the third I've picked up today.

Before I get into actually dealing with John Forsdyke's Greece Before Homer: Ancient Chronology and Mythology, I need to get one horrible half-joke out of the way ... "Unless you're George Brett, in which case it would be Pine Tar Before Homer!" ... which is a pretty clear example of why I'm not doing stand-up. Anyway ...

This is a fairly old book ... both the copy I have (which is the 1964 Norton re-print), and in general (it first came out in 1931). I found an interesting quote about the author: "Neither a notable scholar nor an easy man to get along with, he is principally known for his war-time saving of the British Museum." ... it is notable that he only seems to have a hand-full of publications to his credit, despite having a rather long life (dying at age 96 in 1979). Although he lived well past Schliemann's excavations, the archaeology almost doesn't come into play here, with the focus being on what survives in the written record.

I was, frankly, amazed at how late it seems that writing came to the Classic world. Living in an ever-more "literate" world (made so much more so by computer communications), it's hard to imagine a culture where the knowledge is passed along by oral memory. However, the era of Homer was the early transition from the spoken to the written word, and happened only about 850bce. As such, much of the "ancient history" of the Greeks is a bit murky, and Forsdyke spends a lot of this book picking apart the various threads present in the Odyssey, Iliad, and related tales.

I suppose that, given the extreme antiquity of Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics (both of which were in use well over 2,000 years before "Classic" Greece), I had just assumed that there had been a written Greek language that had been used for all those Myths that we grow up with. Instead, this book shows, the written word came late, and many of the Myths were filled with names that were "functional" at best (translating to the equivalent of the likes of "Liar", son of "Thief") and often just made up (creating a person by back-formation of the name of a tribe or city). It is interesting to see the author "sorting through" the names to see which characters might have some historical validity among all this other "fill".

Another fascinating point is how "flexible" the Greeks were with identifying deities with those they were familiar with. Of course, coming from a culture based in part on Greco-Roman traditions, it seems natural for us to make the classic "substitutions", Jupiter-Zeus, Neptune-Poseidon, Pluto-Hades, Juno-Hera, Mars-Ares, Venus-Aphrodite, Mercury-Hermes, etc., and even carrying these over to other pantheons (such as the earlier Egyptian and the later Norse deities). However, it appears that if a particular God or Goddess encountered in another setting had even a passing resemblance to a Greek version, the temple, cult, or city associated with that deity would just be referred to by the name of the Greek deity, causing much confusion when trying to figure out where a particular "statue of Hermes" might be, when some very different God was actually being worshiped there. The Greeks also played "fast and loose" with foreign words, taking the name of a ruler, deity, or city and shifting it over to whatever sounded closest in Greek (a habit, I suppose, inherited by the British in their empire).

Forsdyke also spends a chunk of the book trying to sort out who might have written what, and when. This largely went "over my head" but it is supported by an interesting chart of dozens of Greek authors with their supposed dates over a 2,000 year span (from 850bce onward).

Greece Before Homer appears to be out of print, but there are numerous copies of various editions available for as little as $3.99 (plus shipping) from the Amazon new/used vendors. I picked this up at a used book store last year, so there are also copies out there "free floating" if you want to go looking.

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