Sunday, November 29, 2009

And Did These Sandals Walk Upon England’s Mountains Green?

This past week, the news-wire services and newspapers have been carrying a story with headlines like ‘Jesus May Have Visited Britain, Film Suggests.’ This was from the Daily Telegraph, but as there are also Scottish and Westcountry connections, we also get more parochial headlines like ‘Jesus May Have Visited Britain, Says Controversial Scots’ and ‘Did Jesus Visit The Westcountry?’. The controversy-loving Daily Mail, perhaps encouraged by the number of viewer comments to its online edition (v. popular with expats in the US etc), followed up its story ‘Jesus May Have Visited Glastonbury With His Uncle, According To New Film’ the next day with the more challenging ‘Was Jesus Taught By The Druids Of Glastonbury? New Film Claims It Is Possible He Came To England.’ It actually went out on Reuters UK’s newswire flippantly headlined ‘Did Jesus Headline Glastonbury Before Springsteen?’ (The ‘Glastonbury’ Festival is actually held some miles away, in some farmer’s fields at Pilton.) I think it’s fair to say, from Google News results, that the story has gone right around the world.

All this is occasioned by the premiere this weekend, at London’s British Film Institute, of a documentary titled And Did Those Feet? Produced and directed by a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent, Ted Harrison, it features the theories of the Revd. Dr. Gordon Strachan, a lecturer (on the history of architecture) at the U of Edinburgh. Dr Strachan is not really all that familiar a name as an author in this field, though I suspect this will now change. He is in fact already the author of several books in this subject area, going back to Christ And The Cosmos (1985), followed by Jesus The Master Builder: Druid Mysteries And The Dawn Of Christianity (2000), Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space (2003), The Bible's Hidden Cosmology (2005), and The Return Of Merlin: Star Lore And The Patterns of History (2006). He has a particular interest in early ‘cosmic’ mathematical measurements of the sort usually associated with Pythagoras, arguing the Britons were anything but the ignorant barbarians pro-Roman English historians so often make them out to be. Dr. Strachan has a doctorate in theology from U of Edinburgh as well as a history degree from Oxford, is a Church of Scotland minister, and in the 1980s became Director of the Church of Scotland's century-old Sea Of Galilee Centre at Tiberias.

In other words, a centuries-old fringe theory of British church history has suddenly acquired a veneer of respectability.
The film isn’t available yet i.e. on DVD. Given its 45-minute running time, I suspect it’s got a distribution deal with an overseas cable network, probably in the USA for a showing at Xmas or Easter. (The US has more commercials time per hour – British docus usually run 50 or even 52 mins.) However, Dr. Strachan’s 300pp Jesus The Master Builder: Druid Mysteries And The Dawn Of Christianity covers similar ground. (Published in 2000, it’s out of print, and won’t be reprinted till Sep 2010 - it’s by a small Edinburgh publisher - but the interested reader can chase up copies via resellers.) To quote from the publisher’s blurb on Amazon:
The activities of Jesus before the start of his ministry at the age of thirty have been the subject of much speculation. Did he travel beyond the bounds of Palestine in his search for wisdom knowledge? Where did he acquire the great learning which amazed those who heard him preaching and enabled him to cross swords in debate with Scribes and Pharisees? A number of legends suggest that Jesus travelled to the British Isles with Joseph of Arimathea, who worked in the tin trade. With these legends as his starting point, Gordon Strachan uncovers a fascinating network of connections between the Celtic world and Mediterranean culture and philosophy. Taking the biblical image of Wisdom as the 'master craftsman', Strachan explores the deep layers of Mystery knowledge shared between the Judaic-Hellenic world and the northern Druids -- from the secret geometry of masons and builders, which Jesus would have encountered in his work as a craftsman in Palestine, to the Gematria or number coding of the Old and New Testaments.
To return to the film, I took the blog-post title from the film’s title (itself the first line of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ verse querying the so-called “holy legend”), plus the producer’s press-quoted comment ‘there is nothing specific by way of archaeological finds; Jesus's shoe has not turned up'. I suppose they mean a sandal (when sandals suddenly became popular in the late-60s, they were nicknamed ‘Jesus boots’). But this to me (and perhaps anyone else who has seen Monty Python’s Life Of Brian) is just asking for trouble. I’d guess the producer-director, as an experienced BBC religious-affairs correspondent, is offering a disclaimer in anticipation of the predictable backlash. But this metaphor (shoe or sandal for item of hard evidence) is an unfortunate phrase, given the way religious relics representing personal items (usually bones or bits of cloth) accumulate around popular church legends. As far as I know, no British church at present claims to possess Jesus’s sandals in support of the legend, which is probably just as well (cf the ongoing controversy over the Turin Shroud). Over the past century, there have been various books looking for the possible footprint or track of a holy visit, mainly around Glastonbury and Cornwall, listing local legends. Here, I thought we could look at what the real possibilities might be for such ‘sandals’ i.e. items of hard evidence that would be convincing than a shoe or bit of cloth.

For example, Dr Strachan’s Jesus The Master Builder mentions a Scots tiein to the story, Pontius Pilate’s supposed Caledonian mother. This is a legend associated with a very old yew tree in a churchyard at Fortingall in Perthshire. It says Pilate’s father was a Roman legionary or (since the Roman occupation was a century later) an ambassador posted nearby, and Pilate was “born in its shade and played there as a child.” But although the yew tree may well be over 2,000 years old, what does that prove? I don’t know of any codex i.e. ancient manuscript which might document the legend, leaving this as a dead end – by itself it’s not any kind of evidence. Similarly, there is in Glastonbury Abbey grounds a sacred tree, the Holy Thorn, about which I wrote about a year ago [The Thorny Matter Of Glastonbury], as well having a Glastonbury webpage up for several years, so won’t bother with further here.

The main item the press coverage mentions is the legendary ancient church which the producer says lies buried under Glastonbury Abbey. This is indeed mentioned in ancient sources, the earliest accounts of the British church and of how Christianity was established years before Rome even invaded, and centuries before it adopted Christianity itself. Of course it’s not likely Channel 4’s Time Team are going to be allowed in with a JCB backhoe-digger to excavate any part of the Abbey grounds, so we can only consider this evidence of the early accounts. The early [1st-C AD] founding date and/or the Glastonbury site are both mentioned in accounts by ‘respectable’ writers, like St Gildas [fl. c500], and this is summarised in modern books by Geoffrey Ashe and others. But because the Abbey’s own official history, by William of Malmesbury, a 12C monk, doesn’t mention this controversial claim in the surviving [corrupt] 13C text of its first edition, the story is dismissed by sceptical historians as an interpolation by the monks to promote the mediaeval-pilgrimage tourism trade in souvenir relics etc. The film’s producers mention how when St Augustine was sent to southern England to convert the locals c600 AD, he wrote to the Pope [Gregory the Great] about the old church, ‘built by the hand of the Lord himself.’ The version given by William of Malmesbury in his Chronicle Of The Kings Of England, which does not cite Augustine, has several extra words: “…no other hands but those of the disciples of Christ” - which is a bit more realistic. (If you’ve ever tried to build even a simple cabin by yourself, you’ll know you need more than one pair of hands.)

The filmmakers argue that Jesus could have visited to learn from the Druids as they possessed ancient astronomical knowledge. The press articles say the film “looks at the maths involved in structures such as Stonehenge and the standing stones in Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, and relates it to mathematics in the Bible, medieval cathedrals and the modern-day credit card." The producer adds Jesus “would have come to learn what was being taught about astronomy and geometry which was being taught at "universities" run by druids at the time." He evidently didn’t learn the Druid religion however – there is no congruity between reported Druid beliefs (e.g. taking omens from trees, transmigration of souls into animals etc) and his proto-Christian teachings which broke away from the rabbinical upbringing of Jesus’s own society. And as far as megalithic mathematics goes, the Stonehenge builders lived thousands of years before the Druids, whose secret ‘colleges’ took (according to Caesar) up to 20 years to complete – you weren’t allowed to take notes either. (And these secret schools would have scarcely been open to outsiders, like a modern university).

But in this field, when you’ve got a theory to sell, you don’t let details like that stop you. Instead, you take a set of genuine but separate mysteries and package them up into a single grand theory you can sell first to the publisher or film-TV distributors, and then the general reader, as a sort of general simplified theory of everything iconic to do with the country’s past. Then you issue a press release about your product, which today’s’ downsized, and thus always-content-hungry, news organisations are happy to publish almost verbatim (if you compare the news stories, they’re virtually identical).

The producers announce therein, ‘we are opening up a fascinating new insight into early Christianity.' As to when Jesus’s visit might have been, they say it could be as a boy with his uncle, returning at age 12 when he astounded the temple officials with his precocious questions and responses. There are certainly claims JC came here as a lad, brought by his tin-trading uncle. On the other hand if this seems too unlikely (at odds with the account in Luke 2:39-52, where young JC is only missing a day or so before his temple visit), “he may have made the visit when in his teens or 20s and used his earnings as a carpenter to fund it.” The producers are obviously hedging their bets here. But there is a story of Jesus working in southern Britain as an adult, as a carpenter, a story the Church Of England has officially promoted since at least the 12th century, and continues to promote to this day, complete with holy relic on public view. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll review this lesser-known legend next time.