After the heady intellectualism of Schweitzer and Robinson, it is almost a relief to review something as plainly absurd as Barbara Thiering's Jesus the Man.
While most of us lack the code and hence are forced to read the gospels only at the surface level, Theiring has it and is not afraid to use it. Hence from her rather vague description of the pesher idea itself, she proceeds to an extraordinarily vivid and detailed retelling of Jesus' life.
In this version, most of the Gospel events take place in the Qumran community, with sites conveniently renamed after places in the larger world of Palestine so that uninitiated readers would believe they actually took place in Galilee or Jerusalem. The various miracles are encoded stories of conflicts between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness (identified in this interpretation with John the Baptist, and also disguised as other characters in the story). The parables also have a hidden meaning related to this conflict. Jesus' crucifixion is real enough and in fact supervised by the real Pontius Pilate, although also taking place at Qumran. However, Jesus doesn't die - after a stipulated time on the cross, drugged to make him unconscious, he is cut down and placed in a cave (Thiering is even able to identify which one) in which he is treated and revived.
Of course if Jesus didn't die at that point, he must have still been alive during subsequent events. Indeed she believes that all the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written in his lifetime, John's Gospel first in around 37 AD, Acts the last sometime around 60. Jesus continued to guide his followers during this time, as well as marrying and having a son with Mary Magdelene, but for various reasons stayed in seclusion, "behind the scenes" of the movement which bore his name.
In such a brief review it's difficult to convey the vividness and completeness of Thiering's retelling. Every detail is covered, in a bewildering array of historical connections, interpretations of code words, speculation and sheer fantasy. Its imaginative breadth, its astonishing creativity, marks it as a work of genius. Yet as a work of history it is simply odd, taking a few slender and debatable items of evidence, drawing connections between them that defy evidence, and sewing on this fragile framework a tapestry of the finest artifice.
Despite her claims to revealing a previously hidden truth, most of Thiering's ideas can already be seen in the works reviewed by Schweitzer almost a century before. Schweitzer's own favourite of the genre, Venturini's Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth, describes Jesus as the agent of a group of Essene Jews and explains his various actions in terms of the political agenda of the Essenes. Schweitzer's own comment is that Venturini's work "may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day, for all the fictitious 'Lives' go back directly or indirectly to the type which he created." Thiering is no exception.
Like other books of this type, her work also has a close affinity with the various "rationalist" Lives described by Schweitzer. A characteristic of this approach is that miracles are given a "rational" or "natural" explanation and Thiering adopts a cornerstone of this approach - the idea of Jesus' resurrection as a revival from unconsciousness. However, what she adds for herself is the idea that Jesus' closest followers were neither dupes nor ignorant bumpkins. They knew very well that Jesus had not died and the story of his death and resurrection was a cleverly encoded message to the inner circle as well as a way of putting his enemies off the scent.
For all its fascinating detail, this account has little to recommend it as truth. It is built on the flimsiest of foundations, and rejected summarily by serious scholars both devout and iconoclastic. However, it has its own powerful place in popular culture. Michael Biagent, co-author of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, relies heavily on Thiering's account as the launching pad for his pseudo-history of the descendents of Jesus, the inspiration for Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code. Thiering appeals to our love of a conspiracy, our desire to find hidden secrets behind the world as we know it. In its own perverse way, it satisfies our longing for something more, for a hidden meaning behind our otherwise dull and pointless lives.
At the same time, though, the challenge of Jesus is neutralised. Once we are past our fascination with these hidden secrets we are left empty. Jesus is removed from our present, from relevance to our daily lives, and turned instead into a mere oddity of history.