"The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown and his courtroom nemesis, Michael Baigent, now have a new rivalry - on the best-seller lists.
Brown's novel goes on sale in paperback Tuesday with an advance printing of 5 million copies, the same day that HarperSanFrancisco is issuing "The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History" by Baigent, with an initial hardcover print run of a much more modest 150,000.
Baigent and his former co-author Richard Leigh are awaiting the verdict in a British lawsuit that charges Brown lifted much of his "Da Vinci" plot from their 1982 book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" which - like "Jesus Papers" - was marketed as nonfiction.
In religious terms, Brown and Baigent are allies. Like the fictional scholars in Brown's novel, Baigent contends that Jesus wasn't thought to be divine until long after his era and the New Testament story is pretty much one big fraud.
Brown has one character, a British royal historian, say that "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."
Baigent's book publicity asks: "What if everything we have been told about the origins of Christianity is a lie?"
If Baigent's earlier writings are a guide, "Jesus Papers" will find a ready audience among religious skeptics, conspiracy theorists and Vatican-haters but seems likely to be rejected by major historians who specialize in Christianity's early centuries.
As with "Holy Blood," Baigent supposes that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a child, though he concedes "we are short of evidence - all that we have is circumstantial." Critics have said even circumstantial evidence is lacking.
From there, "Jesus Papers" proceeds to speculate that Jesus didn't die on the cross. Rather than supposing that somehow someone substituted for Jesus, Baigent follows another older theory, that Jesus remained alive and was spirited away to recuperate, which is why his tomb was empty on Easter morning.
"Unfortunately, in this case, there are no facts," Baigent says.
His new twists have Jewish Zealots who resisted Roman occupation seeking Jesus' execution as a traitor to their movement while Pontius Pilate "took steps to ensure that Jesus would survive." After recuperating, Jesus and wife supposedly traveled to upper Egypt and taught mystical lore that inspired ancient Gnostic wisdom. Maybe they made it to France, Baigent posits.
Baigent relies on reports about a text saying Jesus was alive in A.D. 45, which Anglican Canon Alfred Lilley of Hereford, who died in 1948, told the Rev. Douglas Bartlett he'd seen. Long afterward, Bartlett mentioned this to Baigent.
The actual text is lacking, as with several other documents Baigent reports trying to track down.