“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
I had long ago come to believe that it was impossible for me to be surprised any more by how vacuous, ill-informed and misleading some of the features on the BBC news site are, but after reading this briefest of studies dealing with the supposed myth that Jesus once visited Britain, I realise I was mistaken and that all things are indeed possible.
There exists a strong desire for England to have its own national anthem, in keeping with Wales and Scotland, so while the final choice is yet to be decided, it seems likely that it will be the song we now know as Jerusalem, whose words are taken from William Blake’s sublime poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time?”
The first verse of Blake’s astonishing creation is the most famous expression of the many legends that Jesus visited Britain at some point during that long period when the Bible is inexplicably silent concerning his whereabouts; this song has once more come to prominence – not that it’s ever been far from the nation’s psyche – and as it alludes to Jesus visiting Britain, the BBC article I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post is an inevitable consequence.
I must declare a personal interest in this matter, because I had a book published in 2009 that examined in unprecedented detail William Blake’s suggestion that Jesus once visited Britain. I wrote about this out of nothing more than curiosity, because it made and still makes absolutely no difference to me whether or not William Blake was correct, but from the moment I started looking into this subject, I was struck by the evasiveness and hostility of some of the Christian clerics I spoke with when they were invited to give their views on the subject of Jesus in Britain. I’ve written about this in great but not exhaustive detail elsewhere, so for now, I’ll return to the feature that prompted this post.
Brief though Gareth Rubin’s article is, at around 540 words, it’s difficult to know where to start, but the very brevity of what he’s written is as good a place as any. Bear in mind that Jesus is arguably the most famous person ever to have lived and that he is of course the central figure in the world’s largest religion. He lived for around 33 years, but he’s unaccounted-for for 18 of those years, a period of over half his recorded lifetime, so simple logic suggests that the whereabouts of this particular person during this particular time constitute one of the greatest mysteries that we’re aware of. Contrary to what’s stated in the article, there’s a great deal of evidence that Blake was right, as far as I’ve been able to tell, yet the whole thing is done, dusted and dismissed in just 540 words on the BBC.
So much for the theme of this feature; let us examine a few particulars. At the beginning of the piece, I was taken aback to read “But Blake, a Romantic whose poetry and paintings often tended towards the bonkers end of “visionary”, wasn’t merely musing on the holy influence in England.” What on Earth is the ‘bonkers end of visionary?’ What is its opposite? Who gets to decide such a thing, for any visionary, and on precisely what grounds? If someone’s going to sneer at Blake for seeing angels in a tree in Peckham, for example, then they’ll immediately find themselves on a sticky wicket when they come to consider the statements of a myriad other visionaries, Christian and otherwise.
For a start, you could kiss goodbye to a considerable chunk of the Old Testament and to the Book of Revelations, a work that’s mesmerised Christians and non-Christians alike since it first appeared. Then you’d have to summarily dismiss the works of Nostradamus and all those innumerable souls who have spoken of sightings of the Madonna, as well as Joan of Arc, Carl Jung, Nikola Tesla, David Bowie and a host of others, not to mention the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, who famously had a fantastic dream or vision that he would one day live in a nation where his four little children would be judged on the content of their character, not by the colour of their skin. On principle, I’m inclined to dismiss out of hand anyone who describes someone with the enormous cultural standing of William Blake as being in any way ‘bonkers’, but I feel that the contents of this feature are worth pursuing, painful thought this process might be.
“He was specifically thinking about a legend that as a boy, Jesus of Nazareth visited England with his great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a sailor and trader.” I don’t claim to know what William Blake was specifically thinking at any given moment during his life, but I can be sure that was not thinking of a legend, or just the one, because when I wrote my book dealing with this subject, I learned of as many as twenty engrossing legends originating in Britain and the Middle East, while I was reliably informed of still more after my book had been published in 2009.
I was impressed by how detailed and straightforward most of them were, while they were concentrated for the greater part in the modern counties of Cornwall and Somerset. There are specific tales concerning Jesus as a baby, as a child and as a young man; as someone who was said to have worked in mines in Cornwall and Somerset, and to have built the world’s ‘first church’ in honour of his mother in Glastonbury, while he sometimes appears alone, sometimes with his mother Mary, sometimes with his purported uncle Joseph of Arimathea and sometimes with both.
If anyone takes the time and trouble – as I did – to delve into these supposed myths, then there’s a cornucopia of tantalising evidence that suggests to me that these stories are true. However, rather than address the details of these intriguing legends of Jesus himself, Gareth Rubin spends most of his feature writing about Joseph of Arimathea in a way that serves to detract from the title of his piece, “The strange myth in the song Jerusalem”, the myth being specifically about Jesus, not Joseph of Arimathea.
“Some try to justify the legend on the grounds that Joseph might have come to buy tin from Cornish mines, but if there is any hard evidence at all, it has yet to come to light.” If by way of hard evidence, we’re looking for some kind of signed confession chiselled into stone by one of the most enigmatic characters in the New Testament, then we’re going to be disappointed. All the same, one of the many facts I recorded in my book was the conviction, held by Cornish miners in the 19th century who often discovered ancient tools beneath ground, that these were artefacts belonging to Phoenicians, the ancient mariners who were in a position to have transported a youthful Jesus and anyone else from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean to the West of Britain in antiquity.
As for Joseph of Arimathea, I found it amazing that people in mediaeval Britain should have created a ‘myth’ around such a relatively obscure Biblical character, claiming that he visited Britain and that furthermore, he was a trader in tin or a tin miner. It seemed wildly unlikely until once again, I took the time and trouble to go over the meager Biblical accounts in the original Greek and I eventually realised that he was described as miner in the Gospel of Matthew, which uses the verb elatomesen to specify that he cut, quarried or mined the rock from which the new tomb where he would bury Jesus was hewn.
I could continue for hours in this vein, but to do so, I’d by necessity have to repeat great swathes of my book, which was around 90,000 words long. It is by no means perfect, but if it possesses just two virtues, it’s easy to read and it contains a huge amount of evidence of various kinds that all cumulatively points towards the conclusion that William Blake was right, when he suggested that the Holy Lamb of God was seen in what is now England.
Of course, there will be those who disagree that the evidence I’ve presented is admissible or even relevant, while there will also be those who disagree that any of it constitutes remotely compelling evidence, but I doubt that anyone would argue that it contains less food for thought than the vanishingly small amount of this infinitely precious commodity that appears in the aforementioned BBC article.
The 18 missing or lost years in the life of the central figure of the world’s largest religion are a matter of intense and understandable fascination for millions of those people who are consciously aware of this initially mystifying lacuna. I long ago realised that I was regarded with intense suspicion by some clerics for looking into this matter, although it has to be said that I’m equally suspicious about those who don’t follow the words of Marcus Aurelius, when he wrote, “If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”
The best example I can think of that illustrates the Orwellian ‘doublethink’ concerning the veracity or otherwise of the first verse of Blake’s poem is the life of William Shakespeare, a man whose colossal standing I need not attempt to describe. As Bill Bryson makes clear in his superb book on the Bard, our knowledge of any meaningful details of Shakespeare’s life is absolutely minimal, despite the fact that he lived so close to our own time and that he was such a renowned figure in his own. There exists no record of where he was during the 8 years after he left his wife and children and became a noted figure, we don’t know if he ever left Britain and despite the fact that he died at the age of 52, “On only a handful of days in his life can we say with absolute certainty where he was.”
The study of Shakespeare’s life is deemed to be respectable and praiseworthy by Establishment figures, but the same rule doesn’t apply to investigations into the missing or lost years of Jesus, a term and a period that that Gareth Rubin’s post mysteriously neglects to mention, because it fails to supply any meaningful context for the legends about Jesus visiting Britain. Worse still, the feature contains this observation “It was the time of the Industrial Revolution, when factories – the dark Satanic Mills he [Blake] wrote of — seemed to swallow people up and spit them out broken and mangled.”
The verse in question begins by speaking about ‘ancient time’, or a period roughly 2,000 years ago when Jesus was alive, then it continues by speaking of the Holy Lamb of God and the Countenance Divine, which are both references to Jesus. Blake then asks if Jerusalem were “builded here among these dark Satanic Mills” i.e. at the same time in the past as the other events he speaks of, so as I’m not aware that there were factories in Britain two millennia ago, then it follows that Blake was referring to a structure or structures that were standing in the early years of the first century and which were still standing in Blake’s time, around 1,800 years later.
At this point, I find myself losing the will to live, so I’ll leave the last word – as related by Gareth Rubin – to Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at the University of Oxford and a man who was knighted in 2012 for his services to scholarship. He describes the legend of Jesus visiting Britain as “totally implausible….It obviously didn’t happen. Why should a carpenter’s son from the eastern Mediterranean even think of coming here. It’s just silly English self-promotion. Nothing more to it than that.”
A carpenter’s son?
“Why is it that every time I think I know the answers, someone goes and changes the questions?”