(After waiting more than a month, my library has finally provided me with a copy of Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers. This is part two of some posts that I intend to write reviewing parts of the book as the mood strikes me. Part I is located here.)
Chapter 2 of Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers finally begins the actual discussion of the Jesus Papers by repeating a tale that is apparently part of both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code -- the tale of the sudden wealth of Abbe Beranger Sauniere. According to the story, Abbe Sauniere, while doing some renovation work at his church in the village of Rennes de Chateau around 1890, came across some documents that contained "incontrovertible evidence" that Jesus was still alive in 45 A.D.
Taking a step back, the rumors about Abbe Sauniere were not that he had found such a document, but rather he had found a "treasure." This "treasure" he took to Paris from where he returned to Rennes de Chateau very wealthy -- wealthy enough to improve the roads to the church and the church itself. The tie to the "treasure" being documents comes from a note by Dr. Douglas William Guest Bartlett of the Church of England. Baigent, being a good and diligent investigator, interviews Dr. Bartlett and learns that Dr. Bartlett has no personal knowledge of what Abbe Sauniere found more than 100 years ago, but he knows someone who did -- Canon Alfred Lilley (1860-1848). According to Dr. Bartlett, Canon Lilley was asked by a former student in the 1890s to travel to Paris to help interpret a document. What is interesting is that Baigent's conversation with Bartlett reveals one very interesting omission: he never says what Lilley reportedly said he read.
Think about this for a moment: the purpose of this chapter is to provide support for the idea that Abbe Sauniere had discovered a document that showed that Jesus survived the crucifixion. The documents themselves are no longer available (because the big, bad Vatican had either secreted or destroyed them after obtaining possession of them from Abbe Sauniere and discovering what they really were), and the only eyewitness account of what the documents said (even though it is hearsay because the eyewitness died 58 years ago) is the statements made to Bartlett by Lilley which were themselves made around 40 years after the alleged translation. So, wouldn't one think that it would be important to be clear on what Lilley said he read? Alas, Baigent either never heard clearly what Lilley saw or decided not to bore us with the details. Instead, he says things like, "Lilley said that they [meaning the priests who were working on the translation with him] wouldn't have a long and happy life if certain people knew about it. It was a very delicate matter. Lilley laughed over what was going to happen when the French priests told anyone about it." (Nice attitude for a man of the cloth to have.) He also says that the documents "were extraordinary and upset many of our ideas about the Church. Contact with the material, he said, led to an unorthodoxy." Finally, Baigent records Bartlett saying, "By the end of his life, Lilley had come to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Gospels that one could certain about. He had lost all conviction of truth."
Now, once again being fair to Baigent, he may be assuming that the note itself makes it clear that the documents reported that "a substitution was carried out by extreme zealots on the journey to the place of execution." But one would think that Baigent would have used the interview to provide more details then contained in the note by either clarifying what the documents were or what they said. Unfortunately, the interview apparently succeeded in none of those tasks because Baigent admits that Bartlett couldn't even clarify the number of documents allegedly found (whether that was Bartlett's or Lilley's lack of memory is unclear) let alone the type of documents. Thus, the eyewitness testimony of Lilley seems to be, at minimum, extremely vague and unclear. Oh, and I should mention that Bartlett said that Lilly didn't know where these document(s) had originated, and so there is no necessary connection between Lilley's document(s) and the "treasure" allegedly found by Abbe Sauniere.
I have to admit to being totally unconvinced, thus far.
To add to my skepticism, the entire story of Abbe Sauniere finding the documents also appears to be vague and uncertain. As Baigent notes later in the chapter, "The story -- which has proved implacably resistant to verification -- relates Sauniere's discovery of documents during renovation of the church." (Emphasis added.) In fact, not only is it "resistant to verification", it is an outright fraud. According to "Priory of Sion Parchments and Steven Mizrach",
During the mid-1950s -- after the death of Marie Denarnaud in 1953 -- Noel Corbu, the inheritor of Sauniere's Estate in 1946, decided to open a restaurant in the Villa Bethanie called the 'Hotel de La Tour'. Corbu soon afterwards began spreading a story that Berenger Sauniere had discovered parchments in the hollow Visigothic pillar of his Church when he began renovating it in 1891, leading to a treasure discovery enabling the priest to fully renovate and refurbish the church and to build an ornate Estate. According to Corbu's story, the parchments contained the Seal of Blanche of Castille.
Noel Corbu's allegations contain many problems: Sauniere's renovation of the Church began in 1886, not in 1891; the 'Visigothic' pillar that allegedly contained the parchments was not hollow, nor did it in fact originate from Sauniere's church -- the pillar dates from 1891 when Sauniere installed his Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at Rennes-le-Chateau (the pillar was moved into the 'Sauniere Museum' in 1993 and was replaced by a replica provided by the Association Terre de Rhedae, and that version itself was to be later replaced by another replica, done by sculptor Alain Feral in 2000).
There is no historical evidence to suggest that Berenger Sauniere discovered any parchments (or treasure) -- the priest's life is very well documented. French books have been published demonstrating the true story about the priest with accompanying primary sources showing that Corbu's story was indeed just a legend. The details in Corbu's story only dated from the time when he started making the allegations during the mid-1950s -- and it has been rightly observed by many sober-minded researchers that it was a mere publicity gimmick, devised to attract custom[ers] to his restaurant.
There is also a more mundane explanation for Sauniere's sudden wealth than the find of secret documents that would split the church -- Abbe Sauniere was engaging in trafficking in masses. Now, while I am not an expert on Roman Catholicism, it is my understanding that this offense arises from priests essentially selling the sacraments. Selling the holy rites to your congregation would seem to be a way to make some extra money.
But wait, there is apparently evidence that Abbe Sauniere had this secret knowledge of Jesus surviving the crucifixion built into the stained glass windows of his church. According to Baigent (who does provide photos this time), the church has stained-glass windows representing the stations of the cross. While the stained-glass windows are made from a standard plaster-cast, the stained-glass windows at Abbe Sauniere's church, Rennes de Chateau, have been modified to communicate this secret knowledge. (As an aside, why is it that all of these people who know the truth behind conspiracies always hiding their knowledge instead of writing it down on paper to be read plainly after their death? Just wondering . . . .) According to Baigent,
. . . the most curious of all is station 14. This is traditionally the last of the series illustrating Jesus being placed in the tomb prior to the resurrection. At Rennes de Chateau the image shows the tomb and immediately in front of it, three figures carrying the body of Christ. But the painted background reveals the time as night. In the sky beyond the figures, the full moon has risen.
If the full moon has risen, it would mean that the Passover has begun. This is significant because no Jew would have handled a dead body after the beginning of the Passover, as this would have rendered him ritually unclean. This variation in the fourteenth station suggests two important points: that the body the figures are carrying is still alive, and that Jesus -- or his substitute on the cross -- has survived the crucifixion. Moreover, it suggests that the body is not being placed in the tomb, but rather, that it is being carried out, secretly, under the cover of night.
Wow! What a revelation! But I do think a couple of observations are in order. First, there is no question that Jesus was taken off the cross and to the tomb late in the day (his death having come around 3:00 in the afternoon). Now, I don't know about other people, but I have often seen the moon come out before the sun has set. Full moons can also be seen before the sun sets, but they generally only come out very late in the day and very low in the sky. The picture of the moon in the church window is also low in the sky. So, I don't think that Baigent is accurate in his claim that the scene depicts that the body is being carried at night -- it could simply be a depiction of twilight as Joseph of Arimathea seeks to have Jesus taken to his tomb before it became fully night.
But why the moon at all? Well, Passover always occurs on the 14th and 15th days after a new moon (Leviticus 23:5-6), and since the moon's cycle is 28 days, it follows that Passover always occurs on a full moon. So, is it unreasonable to conclude that the moon is positioned in the sky just above the horizon to emphasize that this is the eve of Passover? I don't think so.
So, what we have in Chapter 2 is a vague and incomplete recollection of the words of a dead man (who held heretical views according to the book) about some documents that he didn't even know where they came from; a legend that appears to have been invented in the 1950s about events in the 1890s to attract customers to a restaurant, and a stained-glass window that seems to be equally able to be seen as orthodox. Call me a skeptic, but this is just not very convincing, so far.
Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi.