Thursday, May 01, 2008

Another Busy Post-Modern Easter Season

The period from Easter to St George's Day in late April is a sort of “silly season” for press stories covering our subject area. Silly season is what the press call it when “serious” (meaning political) news is lacking, so they look to “offbeat” stories that tie in with the Easter period. In the past I’ve wrongly suspected some were April Fool jokes, but they are all contrived by book publishers or newspaper editors, and behind them are some serious issues.
As usual, we got a “Church-of-England-bans-singing-of-‘Jerusalem’ ” story. This is an annual event where a Church Of England authority bans the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ as insufficiently religious /pious/ orthodox, and/or too nationalistic/ militaristic. This is then followed by national press coverage about “out of touch” CoE officials, with comments like “no wonder nobody goes to church anymore”, “The Church of England should be renamed the Church against England,” and so on. This year it was the turn of Southwark Cathedral in London, the Dean saying the lyrics (a Blake poem) fail to sufficiently glorify God. (Southwark is where the Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims set out from, and is near where Blake lived – one theory is that the poem’s “dark satanic mills” were here.) This year ‘Jerusalem’ was named as the Prime Minister’s favourite hymn, and made it into the top-20 list of Britain's favourite hymns selected by viewers on BBC's Songs Of Praise. CoE officials have also banned another song on this list, I Vow To Thee My Country (set to a melody from Holst’s “Jupiter”), as a "dangerous example of rising English nationalism" (like flying the Cross of St George, patron saint of England, whose day April 23rd brings out more such stories. (For example, that St George wasn’t really English, but Turkish or Palestinian, his legend brought back by Crusaders for its symbolism.)
Predictably, Easter also brought the usual batch of publicity claims for upcoming books and documentaries. To be newsworthy these must be in some way revisionist, and the standard approach now with ‘biblical’ works is to return to original manuscript sources and start afresh with a humanist interpretation. This is the approach of two new biographies of Jesus (reviewed by one paper under the headline, “It's Easter, Time To Rev Up The Revisionism”). How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson and The Jesus Sayings by Rex Weyler go back to newly translated versions of the gospels and apocrypha, distinguishing their original Jewish Messianic message from the “Christianity” of the later Church of Rome founder St Paul. This revisionist argument is that it was not so much Judas who betrayed Jesus as the later Pauline Church (a motif echoed in The Da Vinci Code), whose doctrines, in a grim irony, paved the way for Christian anti-Semitism.
A counter-development here is the attack on this ‘historical Jesus’ school which has attempted to reconcile the traditional opposing viewpoints of Gospel literalism and more modern scepticism by reinterpreting the ancient manuscripts. Such “historical Jesus” books were the specialty of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Prof. Geza Vermes. On the occasion of the Penguin paperback issue in March of Vermes’s The Resurrection, the whole approach was attacked by critic A.N. Wilson in the Telegraph. Wilson said he was now ashamed of his own Jesus: A Biography, written under Vermes’s influence, claiming the quest for the historical Jesus, into which so much effort has been placed in recent years, was “a wild goose chase.” “I was seduced by his book Jesus The Jew (1973) and by the charm of Vermes himself, but now I am ashamed of the book about Jesus which I wrote when under the influence…. Vermes’ Jesus The Jew came out only a few years before Monty Python's Life Of Brian, to which it bears a strong resemblance.”
Also in the news over plans for a revisionist-humanist biography of Jesus was Dutch film-maker Paul Verhoeven, who last year claimed Judas had been framed [see earlier blog item]. Now he is publishing a biography of Jesus in which he claims “that far from being the son of God, Christ was probably fathered by a Roman soldier who raped Mary during an uprising in Galilee,” the book being to help finance Verhoeven’s life-long ambition of a similar revisionist film biopic.
Channel 4, Britain’s “independent” TV channel, can always be counted on for a revisionist Easter-time documentary. This year it was The Secrets Of The Twelve Disciples, summarised by the press headline “St Peter Was Not The First Pope And Never Went To Rome, Claims Channel 4”.
BBC’s Easter documentary concerned new tests on the Shroud of Turin. The Oxford lab who carbon-dated it 20 years ago as mediaeval (and thus a fake) has conceded, due to testing a contaminated border area sewn on later, the test result may be wrong by up to 15 centuries.
The BBC also announced a series of 6 one-hour ‘big-budget Biblical dramas’ using a mix of live action and CGI FX for broadcast next year.
The Shroud of course was supposedly brought back by Crusaders, perhaps Templars. On the Templar front, I’ve been receiving a series of lengthy, cryptic news-release emails from Classic Media Group, headed “The Quest Continues” and promising more revelations about the English Templars and places like Royston Cave as their secret hideaways. These are to be found in a series of high-tech DVDs being released monthly, with further info on their website.
NBC announced production of a 4-hour miniseries called The Last Templar, which sounded interesting (we had a blog feature with a similar title) until I read the synopsis. (I won’t bore you with it - think Time Bandits meets The Da Vinci Code.)
The “mystery of the Copper Scroll” has also been in the news, though it’s not yet clear whether this is just an Easter rerun of the story, or paving the way for fresh revelations, or at least a new book or documentary. (Joel Rosenberg’s novel The Copper Scroll became a bestseller last April, and earlier nonfiction studies by Robert Feather have now been reprinted, arguing the Scroll is “the Essene record of the Treasure of Akhenaten.”) The Copper Scroll is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1952, made of copper to last longer, describing the location of Jewish Temple treasure hidden all around Israel from the invading Romans in 70 AD. The Coliseum was built with the parts of the treasure that were found, but not the “Key Scroll” which may point to the location of an older treasure - the lost Ark of the Covenant. (The Copper Scroll is written in a Hebrew 8 centuries older.)
The legal dispute over the “James Ossuary,” the limestone box allegedly holding the bones of Jesus's brother, is still rumbling on over 5 years later. It has an inscription saying "James son of Joseph, brother of Yehoshuah [Jesus]," but some scholars say the latter phrase looks added later.
A pair of Italian authors claimed Vatican pressure prevented a reprint of their 2002 revisionist history novel Imprimatur after when the first edition sold out. They said this was because they had discovered “secret documents that suggest that Pope Innocent XI had funded William of Orange, a Protestant hero” in his opposing the Catholic occupation of Holland and then his invasion to depose England’s new pro-Catholic king James in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. Authors Francesco Sorti and Rita Monaldi Sorti said this was an embarrassment to the Vatican in 2002 as it was then arranging for Innocent XI to be declared a saint. Mondadori, who published The Da Vinci Code in Italian, denied this, and the Vatican said they ought to be happy their novel sold 15,000 copies. The husband and wife team moved to Vienna following threats.
On the Da Vinci Code front, the season came and went without further news of the long-awaited Da Vinci Code sequel novel The Solomon Key, author Dan Brown having missed his deadlines. In the meantime, Mr Justice Peter Smith, the judge who threw out the 2 Holy Blood Holy Grail co-authors’ claim against The Da Vinci Code [see earlier blog items] while inserting his own “Smithy Code” in his published judgement has been reprimanded for displaying a partisan approach in another case.
British painter turned formalist filmmaker Peter Greenaway has created a 'Cinerama' style multimedia light-show presentation of Christ’s life and work around Da Vinci's The Last Supper, in situ in its Milan church, to deconstruct and demonstrate the artistic process. Greenaway is planning on “animating” other paintings in situ thus, including (to the horror of some) Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
Concepts Of Arthur coverRe Leonardo Da Vinci himself, it was claimed he was part-Arab and his mother was a slave girl brought from the Middle East, this being a followup to a forensic study last year of his fingerprint, whose pattern suggested Arab descent.
Getting back more directly to reconsidering Celtic manuscript sources, Arthurian studies saw a major new work, Concepts Of Arthur: Early Arthurian Tradition And The Origins of the Legend [Tempus] by Thomas Green, a post-grad researcher at Oxford’s Exeter College, who suggests the historic legendary Arthur grew in the shadow of an older mythic figure. (It’s a weighty study costing £15 – as I found out when I picked it up in Bookends.)
A new Arthurian TV drama was announced by the BBC. Merlin is to be a 13-part fantasy drama series for the autumn, a prequel featuring a young Merlin and a young Arthur in competition for hearts and minds.
London’s Tate Gallery has also unveiled a mammoth Arthurian oil painting never before exhibited. The 21-foot wide “Sleep Of King Arthur In Avalon” took the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Edward Burne-Jones 17 years. The PRB group were preoccupied with Arthurian-Grail tableaux, and in fact EBJ died still working on it in 1898, it being an allegorical tribute to his late friend and colleague, PRB renaissance man William Morris. A new biography of EBJ by Fiona MacCarthy says the painting was also “a lamentation for a nation he found increasingly jingoistic.” This is contrary to the usual view of such late Victorian works as patriotic and imperialistic. (If you ever do the tour of the Palace of Westminster, alias London’s Parliament Buildings, you can see similar giant paintings of Arthurian and Biblical scenes in the Queen’s ceremonial Robing Room.)
BBC4 presenter Michael Wood at GlastonburyThroughout April and May, BBC’s digital channel BBC4 has been running a massive “Mediaeval Season.” As well as reruns of feature films like Becket, this consists of documentaries presented by Michael Wood and others - In Search Of Medieval Britain, Sacred Music, Inside The Medieval Mind, etc. Besides offering documentary glimpses of various mediaeval manuscripts, for antique map lovers, one programme followed the 14th-century Gough Map. This hand-coloured large-scale map is the oldest “proper” map of Britain, its info dating back to around 1280, and is the subject of several books, most recently The Gough Map: The Earliest Road Map of Britain?, published by Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
And anyone wanting to view what a 16th Century Welsh chronicle looked like can see it online, in the form of a history of England and Wales left by Tudor soldier turned civil servant Elis Gruffudd, ‘The soldier of Calais’. The National Library of Wales has put most of the manuscript’s 688 folios, bound in leather-covered oak boards, on display on their website.
There was also a self-proclaimed “breakthrough” dig at Stonehenge, the first excavation for forty years, which may evidence an ancient description. But the relevance of this is too difficult to summarise briefly here, the same being true of two reconstruction voyages using replica Phoenician galleys, and a claim about the first circumnavigation of Britain based on the lost codex of Pytheas. We’ll cover these in detail as soon as circumstances permit.