Harper San Francisco
updated 3/27/2006 4:19:20 PM ET 2006-03-27T21:19:20

What if everything you think you know about Jesus is wrong? In The Jesus Papers, Michael Baigent reveals "the truth" about Jesus’s life and crucifixion.

Previously, Baigent has captured readers' imaginations with his provocative non-fiction work "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," in which he claimed Jesus was married.  Now, while in the middle of a highly-publicized lawsuit with the publishers of "The Da Vinci Code" for copyright infringement, Baigent has an even more controversial premise that challenges much of what we know about Jesus: What if Jesus survived the crucifixion?

Read an excerpt of Baigent's new book, below.

Chapter one: Hidden documents
My telephone rang. It was about 10:00 a.m. I remember the sun dappling the wall before me. It sparkled. It was the perfect day to be in English country village.

“Can you get the next train to London? Don’t ask why.”

I groaned silently: wall-to-wall cars. Scarce taxis. Noise, pollution, crowded subways. A day spent either inside rooms or traveling between them, the sun a distant memory.

“Sure,” I replied, knowing that my friend would never have made such a request unless it was important.

“And can you bring a camera with you?”

“Sure,” I replied again, vaguely bemused.

“And can you hide the camera?”

Suddenly, he had my attention. What was up? My friend was a member of a small and discreet group of international dealers, middlemen, and purchasers of high-value antiquities – not all of which carried the required paperwork permitting them to be traded on the open market.

I put a camera and some lenses in a standard-looking briefcase, threw in plenty of film, and jumped in my car for the drive to the station.

I met my friend outside a restaurant in a famous London street. He was an American, and with him were two Palestinians, a Jordanian, a Saudi, and an English expert from a major auction house.

They were all expecting me, and after brief introductions, the expert from the auction house departed, apparently not wishing to be involved in what was to happen. The rest of us walked to a nearby bank, where we were quickly led through the banking hall, along a short corridor, and into a small private room with frosted windows.

As we all stood around a table placed in the middle of the room, making desultory small talk, the bank officials carried in two wooden trunks and laid them down before us. Each trunk bore three padlocks. As the second was carried in, one of the officials said pointedly, as if “for the record”: “We don’t know what is in these trunks. We don’t want to know what is in them.”

They then brought a telephone into the room and departed, locking the door behind them.

The Jordanian made a telephone call to Amman. From the little conversation that ensued (which was in Arabic), I gathered that permission had been requested an obtained. The Jordanian then produced a set of keys and unlocked the trunks.

They were stuffed full of exact-fitting sheets of cardboard. And on each sheet, I was horrified to note, there were hundreds of pieces of papyrus text roughly fixed to the cardboard by small strips of clear adhesive tape. The texts were written in Aramaic or Hebrew. Accompanying them were Egyptian mummy wrappings inscribed in demotic – the written form of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

I knew that it was common for such wrappings to bear sacred texts, and so the owners of this hoard must have unwrapped at least a mummy or two. The Aramaic or Hebrew texts looked, at first sight, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I had seen before, although they were written mostly on parchment. This collection was a treasure trove of ancient documents. I was very intrigued and increasingly desperate to let some scholar know about their existence, perhaps to secure access for them.

As the cardboard sheets were removed from the trunks, I was told that the owners were trying to sell the documents to an unspecified European government. The price asked was 3 million (approximately $5.6 million). Those present wanted me to take a representative selection of photographs that could be shown to the prospective buyer in order to move the sale one stage further toward a successful conclusion. I then realized which government was the most likely to be interested. But I kept the thoughts to myself.

But I was becoming increasingly anxious that these documents might simply vanish into limbo from which they had emerged. That they might be bought by some purchaser who would sit on them for many years, as had happened with the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or worse, I feared that without a purchaser, they might simply disappear back into the deepest, darkest recesses of the bank, joining the many other valuable documents known to be locked away in safe-deposit boxes and trunks around the world.

It seemed likely that since I had taken a lot of photographs, and since no one would be counting, I would be able to hide at least one of the rolls of film so that there might be at least some proof that this collection even existed. I successfully slipped one into a pocket.

When the photography was finished and the cardboard sheets were being placed back into the trunks, I gave a handful of exposed film rolls to one of the owners. He looked down at them.

“Where is the other film?” he said immediately. He had been counting.

“Other film?” I said lamely, trying to present an image of abstracted innocence while ostentatiously patting my pockets.

“Oh. You’re right. Here it is.” I produced the film I was hoping to keep. I was irritated and rather depressed. I really wanted to have some proof of what I had seen.

At that point my friend realized what I was up to and, in an inspired move, came to the rescue.

“Where are you getting these films developed?” he asked innocently.

“At a photographic shop,” replied the man holding my film.

“That’s not very secure,” said my friend. “Look, Michael was a professional photographer, and he could do all the developing and printing you off as many sets as you need. That way there is no risk.”

“Good idea,” the man said and handed back the films.

Naturally I printed a full set of photographs for myself. Later I arranged to meet the Jordanian – who seemed to be in charge – for lunch, where I was to give him the prints and negatives. During lunch I argued that if some scholars could look at the texts and identify what they saw, then perhaps their insight would be helpful in raising the value of the collection. I asked the Jordanian if he would give me permission to speak to a few experts on the matter – very discreetly, of course. After some thought, he agreed that this was probably a good idea, but he made it very clear that neither I nor the experts could talk about this collection to anyone else.

Several days later I went to the Western Asiatic Department of the British Museum with a full set of prints. I had dealt with the department before during the course of researching one of my books, From the Omens of Babylon, and I trusted the scholars there not only to give me an honest opinion but to maintain confidentiality as well.

The expert I had dealt with before was not there, and one of his colleagues came into the small anteroom and spoke with me instead. I briefly told him the story about the trunks of documents and about my photographs. I stressed that this was a commercial exercise for the owners and that I would be grateful for his discretion, since large sums of money sometimes cause equally large problems. I requested that he find someone competent in the field to take a look at these photos to see if they were of any importance. If so, I would do my best to get the interested scholar access to the entire collection. I then passed over my set of prints.

Weeks passed. I heard nothing from the British Museum. I became concerned. Finally, after a month, I returned to the museum and made my way up to the Western Asiatic Department. I met with another expert there.

“I brought a set of photographs in a month ago, which I had taken of a large number of papyrus texts. I have not heard anything back from you. I wonder if anyone has had a chance to take a look at them?”

The expert stared at me blankly.

“What photographs?”

I went through the story again for his benefit. He seemed distracted, unconcerned. He had not heard of any such photographs being brought into the department; in any case, it wasn’t his field. They were most likely given to another specialist who was working there for a time and who had now left.

“Where has he gone?” I asked.

“I don’t know” was the reply. “I think to Paris. I am sorry about your photographs.”

I never heard any more about them. Without a written receipt for them, there was nothing I could do. Luckily I had a few reject prints still at home so I could prove that the collection did in fact exist, but not nearly enough to give anyone an idea of the range of subjects that might have been in it. An expert, looking at my few remaining prints, identified most of the texts as records of commercial transactions.

Ten or twelve years later I was walking down a street lined with expensive shops in a large Western city when I saw one of the Palestinians who had been present in the bank that day. I went up to him and asked if he remembered me.

“Of course,” he replied. “You were the colleague of…” and he gave the name of my friend.

“You know,” I began, “I have always wondered what happened to those ancient texts I photographed that day in the bank. Were they ever sold?”

“I haven’t heard anything about them,” he quickly replied, unconvincingly, and then, giving a good impression of being rather busy, he elegantly and politely excused himself and walked off.

I cannot say that I was surprised, for I have spent many years living in a world where potentially crucial keys to the mysteries of our past are simultaneously available and elusive. As we will see, these trunks of documents are not the only such examples of important evidence remaining, tantalizingly, just out of reach.

Copyright ©2006 by Michael Baigent. Reprinted by permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

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