Monday, April 13, 2009

Jesus Christ, Stonehenge Star?

Missing Years Of Jesus coverLast time we reviewed Easter 09's tie-in crop of book and film-TV releases and related press announcements. As we were fully occupied last post with 'cannibal' druids, new Templar secrets to do with the Shroud, and so on, I said I'd devote a separate follow-up over Easter weekend to the most promising-looking of the new books. This was The Missing Years Of Jesus by Dennis Price, for which I put in a pre-publication order so I could review it at Easter. It's been getting positive early reviews - perhaps from those encountering the subject matter for the first time.
For this is the first modern full-length book study of this subject, the old West Country folktale known as the Holy Legend, famously referenced by Blake's poem Prelude To Milton, which became the lyric for England's so-called alternate anthem, "Jerusalem" that we've discussed before (see various earlier blog items, passim). The last study (perhaps the only other modern one), out last spring from Clairview Books, Glyn S Lewis's Did Jesus Come To Britain? : An Investigation Into The Traditions That Christ Visited Cornwall And Somerset, was only 78 pp, focussing on local folklore from those two counties. Despite its broader title, this new 252pp hardback also focuses on England's Holy Legend.
The legend takes the traditional form of snippets of local folklore across the West Country that Jesus himself was brought to England as a boy by his uncle Joseph of Arimatheia on one of his (alleged) trips to acquire Cornish tin. These folklore snippets were collected in several early 20th-C. books by Church of England clerics. In 1989, a 21-page essay by AW Smith in the Journal Of The Folklore Society surveyed the various collected folk sayings, songs etc, arguing none of these were provably pre-1804, i.e. before Blake's famous allusion to it. This the big problem with the legend's cred, the difficulty in finding pre-Blakean references. The Journal's conclusion was the legend was just propaganda from the early-20th-C British-Israelite movement (though typically no evidence was offered to support this convenient it-was-all-just-special-interest-propaganda argument).
But here, the author dismisses [p139] Blake's famous allusion to it as negative evidence calculated to make people disbelieve the idea Jesus came here, so Blake's involvement gets short shrift. And even though he's trying to locate JC in England, he explores only a few items from this local folklore roundup. This is counterproductive as the Folklore Journal volume is not well-known, and has a lot more to it in the way of topical references which could lead to firmer evidence (I have the 21-page original). At the very least, a lot of snippets of folklore can create the idea that where there's smoke, there must've been fire, if you see what I mean. It's certainly a tried and tested approach in the speculative book genre.
He does mention the so-called tunic crosses found around the West Country which show Jesus as a boy, but doesn't pursue the matter as to dating or any associated folklore. Price's real interest is in Stonehenge and nearby monuments like Silbury, in whose archaeology he's been involved for several decades. Thus the main rival theory that JC went east during his missing years to India etc., he dismisses in a few words as merely the result of someone claiming psychic powers c1900. As we saw last time, there's a whole lot more to the “Eastern school” than that, with a trail of scholarly books following up on several old manuscripts, going back centuries. Rather than try to amass a weight of counter-evidence for the West Country thesis, he soon shifts to writing about his own favourite site, Stonehenge, which has no associated legends.
Did Jesus Come To Britain coverThis is where the book begins to undermine its own thesis, for in doing so he slights evidence associated with the many rival local legends, which exist from the New Forest right around the whole southwest coast. Priddy in Somerset, which he visited, is the only other site to get a favourable mention. Even Glastonbury doesn't get much prominence, though the Holy Legend is so associated with it it's often referred to as the Glastonbury Legend. But he says he has ignored all the legends about Joseph of Arimatheia returning to Glastonbury post-Crucifixion as irrelevant.
Nothing is known about Stonehenge in the 1st C. AD . The association of Druids with the site has long been ridiculed by archaeo-historians as it's thought to have been in ruins for over a thousand years by that point. But the book keeps trying to tie the legend in with it, as his own personal-interest area, where he worked on various archaeological digs over a period of years. He was the person who flagged up the idea that the 'city' and nearby sacred 'precinct' in a famous early description of the Hyperboreans (Far-Northerners) could well be Stonehenge and Vespasian's Camp hillfort outside Amesbury (see my earlier post on "The Lost City Of Apollo"). But he doesn't pursue this angle here, though it would help his argument as it implies such sites were not abandoned but still in use in the late Iron Age. Instead we get: Did Jesus visit Stonehenge, perhaps to exorcise a "resident demon"? (He argues Stonehenge was a labyrinth like the Cretan one with the Minotaur at its centre.) And did deeply religious archaeologists guess this connection, and interfere with the site and conceal evidence because they were unnerved and thought the place evil? (We also get local ghost stories.)
Because of this Stonehenge-centred approach, the author can't come up with any real evidence, so the book turns into one of those overly-speculative and under-evidenced books you get in this subject area, where the thread of some sensational argument is built around the phrases "might have", "could have," "no reason why not" and so on. Here the thesis is that Jesus didn't just visit as a boy, but lived here for his whole 'missing years' period, ages 12 to 30. This would imply there should be more evidence than previously published. Originally, I thought as Jesus is not named as such in any known British sources (or we'd have heard about it), we'll get the he-was-living-under-another-name approach that we get with sought-after but still-elusive figures like Arthur. (In fact the other rival recent book mentioned last time, Ralph Ellis's King Jesus, argues Jesus was exiled here and became the original inspiration for Arthur.)
We do get the proposal that JC may be commemorated as the Celtic deity Esus, portrayed as a wood-cutter, as Christ was a carpenter. Esus or AEsus is not British however, being known from inscriptions from Gaul and NW Africa, a pagan 'woodsman' deity thought to be centuries older than JC. He also argues this was also the 'Esiu' whose name is inscribed on British Iron Age coins depicting a horse, together with a reminder that Christ rode a sort of horse (an ass). In fact, British coins from the 1st C. BC often depict stylised horses (thought by some to be the Celtic horse goddess Epona); and there are various others of uncertain antiquity depicted on chalk hillsides. (The root AEs- can also be related back etymologically to a pair of Indo-European horse-brother deities, and is also the likely I-E root of ass, i.e. donkey.) We get the translation of the “Phoenician” Bal-deity Beelzebub as “Lord Of High Places” (it's usually given as lord of flying things, i.e. carrion flies), with the suggestion this inspired Blake to write of “England's mountains green” when England doesn't have any real mountains.
No ancient codex manuscripts are cited in support. (The citations in the Folklore Journal article are of course to undateable oral traditions.) Nor is there is any correlative attempt to claim Jesus's teachings paralleled those of Druidism (as those proposing the “Eastern Thesis” have done with Buddhist influence), only vague insinuations that JC could easily been interested in meeting Druids, and vice versa. Little is known of Druidic belief, as it was maintained through oral tradition rather than holy books, but there is a school of thought the author is evidently unaware of, that there was a continuity between the Roman-persecuted Druids and the first generation British Church.
Reconciling pagan and Christian traditions has a broad appeal these days, and some early reviewers are clearly excited about the idea that you-know-who-was-here. It adds buzz to the mystique of a whole New Age Christianity-rediscovered subculture which dates back to the early 70s era of the influential filmed musical Jesus Christ, Superstar. But this 'Jesus Christ, Stonehenge star' approach will only convince the more critical that the entire legend has no basis beyond wishful thinking.
I had higher hopes of this work, partly as the author runs an iconoclastic blog about Wessex archaeo-history, called Eternal Idol, one of whose posts gave the book its punning subtitle The Greatest Story Never Told. However if there is indeed a factual background story, it remains untold. The book is so padded out it reads like a companion to one of those cable-channel historical documentaries where speculative claims keep getting repeated and questions raised which are never answered.
I think (having scripted a few documentaries myself) if one were making such a TV documentary to which this appears to be an advance companion, exploring other avenues into the legend would be far more productive. As I've made clear in earlier posts, I feel there's an underlying story there worth pursuing even if the legend can't be taken literally, at face value. Various ancient codex accounts support Britain's long-standing claim it had a Christian church before Rome, i.e. at Glastonbury, which is of general interest in itself. As is the way the so-called Holy Legend persisted over the centuries underground, through allusions in texts like Blake's "Jerusalem" - what we would call nowadays a literary "code." Perhaps it would help if we gave it a name .... The 'Jerusalem' Code?