Shortly after my book The Missing Years of Jesus was published in 2009, I embarked on a long round of interviews on radio, television and in the press, as well as personal appearances. During this time, I was asked innumerable questions about what I’d written, a benign form of interrogation that continued on my Eternal Idol site and in the form of private correspondence as well.
I didn’t have all the answers and I never pretended otherwise, so for the most part, my interactions and exchanges with others who were curious about the contents of my book were pleasant, stimulating and gratifying for everyone concerned. Of course, I sometimes had to deal with those teetering on the threshold of complete insanity, by which I mean certain people who thought of themselves as academics and who thereby dismissed any and all value that the many legends of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary in Britain might possess.
These are the same intellectual louts who continue to insist that Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, or Pytheas of Massilia, have nothing whatever to offer as far as a serious study of Stonehenge is concerned, so my eyes used to glaze over when they started their diatribes because it was patently obvious that they were far more interested in trying to promote themselves as exciting, radical thinkers and as Defenders of the Rational Faith rather than as impartial investigators making any halfway serious attempt to solve a mystery.
I was far more interested by those who articulated a visceral disapproval of what I’d written, those who found it unthinkable that Jesus had spent a significant amount of time in Britain; as their reasoning went, if this was indeed the case, then it follows that he lived peaceably among people who worshipped heathen gods and who practised customs significantly different to those in Jesus’s homeland, a scenario so completely at odds with their studies and individual beliefs that they found it impossible to countenance.
It would have been a simple thing for me to mock these detractors for their small-mindedness and inability to embrace what I regarded as perfectly reasonable possibilities, but I suspect that each and every one of us is guilty of such dogmatic thought, a condition brought about by our being culturally conditioned to think along certain lines regarding the lives of other individuals, whether these individuals were public figures or private people.
There are so many examples that it’s difficult to know where to start, while it’s impractical to provide more than the merest glimpse of all the relevant material. Many of our worst criminals have deliberately cultivated personas that were intended to deflect suspicion away from them; I immediately think of the good-neighbourliness of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, and Ted Bundy’s active work for the Samaritans, but there are many others, such as Pablo Escobar’s sister’s inability to grasp the reality of her brother’s chosen lifestyle. It’s surely self-evident that criminals of all kinds, from lone wolves to spies and those involved in organised crime, will take pains to project a pleasing ‘front’, just as our politicians do, but we can be left with a persuasive impression of a person for other reasons.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve learned of many former soldiers who fought in WWI and WWII, who had chosen never to speak of their selfless and varied acts of bravery once the conflicts had ended, with the result that friends, relatives and a wider community were astonished to learn of ‘the secret history’ of the otherwise unremarkable men and women living unrecognised in their midst for so long. I could go on for days and weeks, providing other examples, but my point is that it’s virtually inevitable that we formulate a view of a person based on a general consensus of the known, important aspects of their lives, something that persists until such time as we develop suspicions about the widely-promulgated version of the life of any given person.
The vast majority of people can only envisage Jesus as a lifelong inhabitant of the Middle East, always surrounded by others of his kind, so I’m not surprised that so many find it so difficult to picture him living on an island at the extreme northern fringe of the known world at the time, working in mines in Cornwall and in the Mendips, chewing the fat with Druids and otherwise living a life far different to that portrayed in the Gospels.
The idea of ‘Jesus in Britain’ means that we have to be prepared to accept that Christ displayed some attitudes and engaged in some activities that on the face of it appear to be incompatible with what we know of the rest of his life, although it all seems a perfectly straightforward matter to me. Nonetheless, for those who naturally have reservations about the notion that there could be ‘a different side’ to such a well-known, established figure, I would invite you to consider what we know about Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton admittedly wasn’t a religious figure or leader, but I think it’s reasonable to say that he stood out as far as humanity is concerned, to such a marked degree that his contemporary Edmond Halley wrote of him “Nearer the gods no mortal may approach”, which I imagine is just about the highest accolade that one human being can bestow upon another. The popular conception of Newton is one of an unsurpassed genius in the ‘pure’ field of complex mathematics, but it seems that this is only half the truth about this strange man, as I learned in the first place from Bill Bryson’s wonderful publication of 2002 entitled A Short History of Nearly Everything.
For example, Newton once stuck a bodkin into his eye socket and twirled it around out of curiosity to learn what would happen, but amazingly, no damage was done. He was similarly curious about the effects of staring at the sun, an exercise that resulted in him having to remain in a darkened room for a few days, while he would often remain sat on the side of his bed for hours after he’d awoken, trying to come to terms with and make sense of the thoughts that poured like a deluge into his conscious mind. These quirks aside, it seems that he spent at least half his career investigating alchemy and what Bill Bryson calls “wayward religious pursuits”, but as Bill Bryson makes clear, these activities were not “mere dabblings, but wholehearted devotions”.
Newton was fascinated with the floor plan of the lost Temple of Solomon and taught himself Hebrew so that he could understand the original texts, while he did so because he seems to have believed that the numerical properties of this plan could enable him to calculate the dates of the Second Coming and of the end of the world. He was absorbed with alchemy to such an extent that when a trunk full of his papers was sold at auction in 1936, the bulk of these documents were found to be concerned with the quest to turn base metals into gold, but there are still more examples of the existence of a Newton who would be completely unrecognisable to schoolchildren being taught about this great man for the first time.
We choose to supplant his Philosopher’s Stone with his Principia because Newton’s other life was so strange and so apparently at odds with the genius we revere that there’s apparently no place for it in our conception of this supremely gifted individual, but in the words of William Newman, a professor in the IU Bloomington Department of History and Philosophy of Science, “Newton brought alchemy to a higher level. This was a man totally wedded to the pursuit of knowledge. His devotion to alchemy was genuine, and we should learn to view it as a vital part of his legacy.”
We are complex creatures indeed, full of the potential to surprise others and ourselves.
Photograph at top of post by Kim Traynor.