West Country Jesus

Before we start, let’s read a poem:

And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green:/And was the holy lamb of God,/On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine,/Shine forth upon our clouded hills?/And was Jerusalem builded here,/Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:/Bring me my arrows of desire:/Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!/Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:/Till we have built Jerusalem,/In England’s green and pleasant land.

If I learnt one thing from typing that, it is that WordPress isn’t really designed for making poetry look good. That knowledge is completely irrelevant to this post. Nevertheless, I’m going to let it hang there…

Most people will have heard that poem in some form. It was originally penned by William Blake in about 1804, though didn’t become widely known until during the First World War, when it was put to music as a hymn by Sir Hubert Parry. The original poem was reputedly inspired by a peculiar piece of British folklore in which Jesus, that well-known protagonist of ‘The Bible – Part Two’, came to England with his rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who was looking for tin (?). Supposedly, Jesus built a chapel while he was here, visited places in the West Country such as the Roseland peninsula and Glastonbury, and got into a fight in a pub. That last one isn’t true.

It’s an old myth. There is a record of St Augustine visiting England in 597AD and hearing about Jesus having built a chapel in Glastonbury, prompting him to write to the pope about it. The myth’s been knocking about for a while. It also has no factual basis for any of it. Still, this hasn’t stopped somebody making a documentary about it.

‘And Did Those Feet’ is a 45-minute documentary directed and produced by a man called Ted Harrison, and featuring the ‘investigations’ of Dr Gordon Strachan (yes, like the football guy… *rolls eyes*), a Church of Scotland minister who lectures on the history of architecture at Edinburgh University. I haven’t seen the film. It was launched last week at the British Film Institute, and I have tried to find some information on distribution but found nothing. So this blog will be looking mainly at what people involved with the film say about it themselves. Hopefully, I’ll get to see it at some point, and I can write a catch-up blog.

The idea of the film is to explore the story behind the legend of Jesus’ British-themed gap year. Unfortunately, the evidence we have is, well, non-existent. I can’t imagine there is much else they can bring to the table without it having made the national news first. Real evidence on something like this would be an important find. Going back to the chapel supposedly built by Jesus that I mentioned earlier: it no longer exists, having had the medieval Glastonbury Abbey built on top of it. Dr Strachan himself has said:

“There is nothing specific by way of archeological finds; Jesus’ shoe has not turned up.”

So it’s all speculation, then?

One of the main ideas of the film seems to be that Jesus would have come to England in order to learn. Dr Strachan:

“It is plausible Jesus may have visited Britain to further his learning.”

And? It’s irrelevant whether it’s plausible. Anyone with limbs and an understanding of what a boat is could ‘plausibly’ travel anywhere. It doesn’t mean he did, and it certainly does not mean that it was likely. A poor carpenter living under the thumb of Roman flunkies in the ancient Middle East would have a hard time making that kind of trip. Let’s not forget the sheer distance. Strachan has that covered however. In an interview with Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’, he says:

“Coming this far wasn’t in fact that far in the olden days. The Romans came here at the same time and they found it quite easy.”

They also had far more resources than your average desert carpenter, you noop. You know: like ships, armies and education. The argument here seems to be that if other people visited Britain, then Jesus did too, which falls down on so many levels it would make Jeremy Kyle’s conscience blush.

It still doesn’t matter. Again, I reiterate: there is no evidence. (Which to be fair, they do admit.)

So what about Jesus’ proposed reason to come here? Why would he come to England to learn? Harrison:

“If somebody was wanting to learn about the spirituality and thinking not just of the Jews but also of the classical and Greek world he would have come to Britain, which was the centre of learning at the time.”

Woah there, when did we decide that Britain was the centre of learning 2000 years ago? Where was I when that memo was handed out? I think I need to brush up on my history! Wait a minute. Maybe I’ve misunderstood. Here’s Strachan again:

“He needed to go around to learn bits and pieces about ancient wisdom, and the druids in Britain went back hundreds if not thousands of years. He probably came here to meet the druids, to share his wisdom and gain theirs.”

The druids are involved now! I like this myth. Next we’ll have James Bond and the smurfs! To be honest, this sounds like Dr Strachan thinking off-the-cuff. Although he does sound suspiciously like he’s already convinced himself, rather than simply speculating. It would be interesting to see if these elements of his ideas are in the documentary or not. They are startlingly fantastical.

It gets worse.

Building on the idea of Britain being at the forefront of learning, Strachan decides that this includes mathematics. Apparently, the documentary looks at the maths involved in structures such as Stonehenge and the standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, and relates it to mathematics in the bible, medieval cathedrals, and, erm, the modern day credit card. Words cannot begin to describe how my brain is tying itself up in knots at this point!

The worst thing about all this is how the filmmakers seem to have no regard for the nature of myth in the first place, particularly this kind of ‘Jesus as traveller’ story. There are several myths about how Jesus is supposed to have visted certain places, both before and after his death. Places include India, where he is supposed to have trained with Hindu mystics, China to research Buddhist teachings, America (courtesy of the Mormons of course) and others. What they have in common is a desire by the faithful to imagine a direct link between their country and the man they’re supposed to worship as the son of God. A sizeable chunk of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels are about how he speaks for the Jews and has no interest in anyone else. The gospels do also say the opposite, but more often than not, it is someone other than Jesus saying it; when Jesus does say things along the lines of “carry my ministry abroad” it is in sharp tonal contrast to the oblique, enigmatic and often downright sarcastic things he normally says, implying the possibility of propagandist tinkering (which, let’s face it, is most of the Bible). Having a direct link between your country and Jesus would help considerably in dampening those annoying little inconsistencies that readers of the Bible are only all too familiar with.

Another issue they ignore is Joseph of Arimathea. This is Joseph’s only appearance in the Bible (Jesus has recently died on the cross):

“57 When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: 58 He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. 59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean, linen cloth, 60 And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

Never to be seen again… That’s it. This quote comes from the gospel of Matthew. The same event appears in all four gospels, worded slightly differently but basically the same. A complete stranger to the reader, never once before mentioned, suddenly swans into the story as a fully fledged disciple apparently known by everyone, blags Jesus’ body from the authorities, and puts it in his own personalised tomb before disappearing into the night never to be mentioned again. Considering the source material, this takes ‘deus ex machina’ to new heights. He is by far the most important character, yet the least expanded on. It is he who puts Jesus into his tomb, out of sight of the Romans. It is he who designed the tomb. Probably with secret passages so Jesus can sneak off and pretend to have ascended to heaven (hey, if you read the Qur’an, this fits with scripture! Sort of).

He is the perfect template to build a myth around. The true mysterious stranger. Is it any wonder that a wealth of spurious detail has built up around him: he’s Jesus’ uncle, he’s looking for tin in Cornwall, he’s taking his young protege Jesus to visit the druids and lose his virginity in Soho….  Even the Da Vinci Code spins yarns about Joseph of Arimathea.

Using your imagination to fill in the gaps is part of the fun. The Bible includes nothing of Jesus’ life between the age of eight and thirty: it is partly this that leads people to fantasise about what their messiah might have been up to in that time. I suspect he was probably working sixteen hour days making wooden chairs, but I’m perverse like that. You can be as imaginative as you like. Wherever there are gaps, we humans try to fill them. The point is, it’s simply made up. If you want to think Jesus came to England, fine: but if you want to argue for it officially, you would need a solid reason to think it might have actually happened, not just the fact that you like the idea. The poem ‘Jerusalem’ is not a journalistic record, just as local Cornish legends are not reasons to rewrite history.

Did those feet in ancient time, walk upon england’s mountains green?

No, I don’t think they did.

  1. #1 by Michael on December 4, 2009 - 18:52

    Where is ‘the question of the week’ (or weak in Mike’s case)

  2. #2 by Marsh on December 4, 2009 - 19:03

    Ah, bugger, good point! Will post it now…

  3. #3 by anonymousnivek on October 6, 2013 - 22:26

    I know what r’jesus was doing! He was selling lighters (10 for 2quid, not bad if at least two lasted more than a week!) on the high street, near church square! Apparently the competition was to much so he is now seen shuffling round town with odd shoes on, laughing his hat off……oh….and he now answers to the name john

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