On June 22, 2013, the New York Times noted the passing of writer Michael Baigent at age 65. For the Times, he was notable because he and his partner Richard Leigh had sued Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code (80 million copies sold) for copyright infringement, claiming that Brown had stolen his ideas from a book of theirs. At the trial, Brown admitted to having read the Baigent and Leigh book, but the British High Court of Justice ruled that the similarities between the two books were insufficient to constitute copyright infringement. Baigent and Leigh were ordered to pay millions of dollars in legal fees; in Britain the loser is required to pay the legal fees of the winner.
Baigent’s obituary brought back other memories for me. He and Leigh had written a best-selling book on the Dead Sea Scrolls when the scrolls were still being held incommunicado by a small publication team of mostly Catholic priests.1 The Baigent and Leigh book gained traction largely because it accused the Vatican of being behind the publication lag, supposedly fearing that the scrolls would undermine vital Christian doctrine.
Baigent and Leigh described Jerusalem’s École Biblique, the institution with whom several members of the publication team were affiliated, as “an adjunct of the [Pontifical Biblical] Commission’s propaganda machine— an instrument for promulgating Catholic doctrine under the guise of historical and archaeological research.” The official head of this institute is the Pope, Baigent and Leigh pointed out. They quoted the view of one priest who was a member of the publication team as saying that “anything that can’t be subordinated or accommodated to existing Church doctrine must, of necessity, be suppressed.”
“Some of the Qumran material,” Baigent and Leigh stated, was clearly deemed capable of doing precisely that.”
Baigent and Leigh even implied that the publication team was not above destroying some of the scrolls in order to save embarrassment to Church doctrine. And that is why the publication team dated the scrolls to pre-Christian times—so that they would be “disarmed of any possible challenge to New Testament teaching and tradition.”
In a lengthy review in BAR, we described Baigent and Leigh’s entire argument as “hogwash … Their central thesis is so badly flawed as to be ludicrous.”*
We pointed out that Catholic scholars are today in the forefront of modern critical Biblical scholarship.” Neither Protestants nor Jews have a publication devoted to Biblical scholarship as sophisticated and scholarly as the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. And in no way do the scrolls undermine Christianity or Catholic doctrine.
The Baigent and Leigh book was defused, but it continues to exert its nefarious influence to this day.
1. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1991).
* Hershel Shanks, “Dead Sea Scrolls Update: Is the Vatican Suppressing the Dead Sea Scrolls?” BAR, November/ December 1991.