Month: November 2009

The Shifting Shadow of the Galilean*

This week, the Daily Mail (online version) touted an upcoming documentary on Jesus visiting Glastonbury (England) at some point in his life.  (See here for the article: Was Jesus taught by the Druids of Glastonbury).  The documentary presents a ‘new’ theory about Jesus’ life where the New Testament fails to give any insight; and that theory is (in case you opted not to read the article): Jesus was taught by the Druids either before he was 12 years old or some time between being 12 and starting his Galilean ministry–when he was around 35.**

I must admit that I laughed hysterically at first, but then I found myself sighing sorrowfully because it turned out to be serious.  My sorrow relates to the fact that the individuals making this documentary are absolutely serious about what is otherwise absolutely hysterical, simply because it’s just bad history and no one would entertain such ahistorical theories as representing reality; however, that is precisely what these individuals have done. In true Sweatman fashion, I want to examine in detail the claims being made in this article, which are synopses of what is to be expected in the documentary.

First, there is the claim that, ‘As a book of record the New Testament doesn’t do well on the early life of Jesus Christ.’  Fair enough; but when did it become necessary for it to do so?  Saying that it ‘did not do well’ implies a failure of intent; however, that assumes that the Gospel writers intentionally set out to compose comprehensive biographies of Jesus’ life.  To assume that ancient biographies had to be comprehensive is to be presumptuous and anachronistic.

Second, there is the implication that the (‘new’) Glastonbury theory has its roots in a poem by William Blake.  If this is indeed the impetus behind the documentary, then it ranks alongside the theory that St Paul was really a Roman spy–a theory whose genesis came from a typo.  Blake’s poem is certainly moving and it carries a spiritual resonance to which I’m sure we can all relate (on various levels).  However, I have my doubts that Blake intended his poem to be taken as a historical possibility–let alone a historical reality.

Third, the theorists involved with the documentary make the rather bold claim that

it’s perfectly plausible [that] the Messiah made an educational trip to Glastonbury . . . [and] that Jesus accompanied his supposed uncle, Joseph of Arimathaea, on a business trip to the mines of the South-West.  Whilst there, it is claimed that he took the opportunity to further his maths by studying under druids.

(This is where I began laughing hysterically).  Part of my concern with this sort of claim is the fact that they have touted it to be ‘perfectly plausible.’  Had they said, ‘possible’, I don’t think I would have laughed as hard.  In very general terms, if something is ‘possible’, then it carries with it a level of reasonable doubt.  If something is ‘plausible’, then there are no good reasons to doubt its possibility.  That the theorists of the documentary have tagged on the sacred adverbial-adjective ‘perfectly’ to their claim of plausibility, this suggests that there are absolutely no good reasons to doubt their claims.  Oh, but there are.

Related to this is the claim made by one of the theorists, Dr Gordon Strachen:

it is plausible Jesus came to further his education.  The country [i.e. England] is thought to have been at the forefront of learning 2,000 years ago, with mathematics particularly strong.

To wit the other theorist, Ted Harrison, adds:

If someone was wanting to learn about the spirituality and thinking not just of the Jews but also the classical and Greek world he would have come to Britain, which was the centre of learning at the time.  Jesus was a young man curious to find out about all sorts of things.  We know there is a huge gap in the life of Jesus between when he was born and when his ministry started.  He would have come [when he was a boy] to learn what was being taught about astronomy and geometry which was being taught at ‘universities’ run by druids at the time.

With regard to Strachen’s comments: again, had he said ‘possible’, it would not have been as funny.  However, the plausibility that Jesus travelled to England to further his education is rife with historical, theological, and practical problems–all of which make such a historic trip unlikely (i.e. implausible).  Let’s assume for the moment that both Strachen and Harrison affirm the basic historicity of the Gospel story and that what is noted about Jesus’ early life carries a degree of reliability.  If that is the case, then we can agree basically on the following details:

  1. Jesus was born c. 6 BCE
  2. visited by the Magi c. 5 BCE
  3. taken to Egypt by his parents shortly thereafter and remained in Egypt till c. 3 BCE
  4. returned to Palestine (namely, Nazareth) c. 2 BCE where the text suggests that the holy family established residence (see Mt 2.23)

The parallel account in Luke supports not only an established residency in Nazareth but also a continual presence in Palestine (see Lk 2.39-41).  The potential loophole in this account is that Lk 2.41 does not explicitly mention Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem every year.  (That he did has to be assumed/implied).  Thus, the theorists of the documentary insert the possibility that Joseph of Arimathaea, being an uncle, took Jesus to England for further education.  However, the Gospels never refer to Joseph of Arimathaea as being related to the holy family in any way.  All it says is that Joseph was a ‘rich man’ and ‘disciple of Jesus’ (see Mt 27.57; cf. Lk 23.50-52; Jn 19.38).  Therefore, to conjecture that Joseph of Arimathaea was the uncle of Jesus and did take him to England for further education is to ignore or distort the data on hand for the sake of establishing a theory.

However, in case this conjecture doesn’t work, they have a backup hypothesis: Jesus ‘may have made the visit when in his teens or 20s and used his earnings as a carpenter to fund it.’  While I grant that the biblical account of Jesus’ life during this period is extremely vague (okay: dead silent), this sort of hypothesis betrays the anachronistic way in which Strachen and Harrison are going about their investigation.  Jesus was not like the teens and 20s of modern day Britain who do save their earnings in order to blow it at Glastonbury.  Equally, while carpentry was a reputable business in the ancient world–primarily because of its practicality–it would not have been lucrative enough to allow Jesus to save money in order to fund a trip to England, let alone sustain living costs for the duration of his stay.

With regard to Harrison’s comments: first, there is an assumption that educational centres in England were superior to those found elsewhere in the Roman Empire–especially in the fields of spirituality, astronomy, geometry, etc.  What is more, the assumption maintains that England would have been the likely candidate for Jesus to learn about Jewish spirituality.  This is problematic for a number of reasons.  One, there is no evidence of a Jewish settlement in England before or during Jesus’ life (nor slightly afterwards, as far as I can tell).  Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE–c. 50 CE) lists many affluent Jewish settlements in the Empire; England is not on that list.

Second, assuming that the Druids of England knew about Jewish spirituality in some form; it would be second-hand at best.  Third, and most important, the Druids were staunch pagans and their religious/theological views would have repulsed devout Jews.  Therefore, what would be the attractive cause for Jesus, a Jew, to travel thousands of miles to learn second-hand Jewish spirituality from a group of pagans?  Answer: none.  Rejoinder: Jesus went to study astronomy and geometry to enhance his carpentry skills?  Surrejoinder: why would Jesus travel thousands of miles to learn carpentry techniques from the Druids when he could learn immediately from his (step-)father?  More to the point, why preface that claim with the idea that learning spirituality by the Druids is a worthy endeavour?

The claims of Strachen and Harrison that England was ‘at the forefront of learning’ and ‘the centre of learning at that time’ become burdened under the sheer weight of historical evidence.  The Greek historian, Strabo (c. 63 BCE–23 CE) makes reference to both the land of Britain and the Druids.  Specifically, he notes that they are a strange lot, similar to the Celts but more simplistic and barbarous.  He also opines that they do not possess basic knowledge of cheese-making, horticulture and husbandry.   What is immediately striking about Strabo’s account of is that nothing is ever said about Britain being a known place of learning.  This is curious in light of the fact that he does mention other renown schools in the Empire: one in the city of the Megarians (Geography, 9.1.8), one in Rhodes (14.1.48); and ones in Tarsus, Athens, and Alexandria (14.5.13).

P. Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–117 CE) only refers to the Druids as being overly religious and superstitious.  In fact, his comments are rather critical and mocking (see Annals 14.30; Histories 4.54).  Similar to Strabo, nothing is said about either Britain or the Druids being sources of renown learning.  G. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69–c. 150 CE) makes a passing reference to the Druids, although what he says is overtly negative–i.e. that the Emperor Claudius despised the ritual practices of the Druids and banished them (Live of Claudius, 25).  Again, nothing about educational achievements.  On the more blunted end, Diogenes Laertius (c. 3rd cent. CE) criticises those who believe that philosophy originally came from the Druids (Lives, 1.1).  While this criticism does not say anything about British or Druidic learning centres, it does reveal sentiments about the potential quality of such centres.

On the slightly more sympathetic side is Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE) who recognises the Druids as men of learning, mostly in the areas of religious knowledge and basic legal practices–albeit in a religious context (Gallic Wars, 6.13).  He also praises them for their abilities to memorise large amounts of information as well as write in Greek when necessary (6.14).  The majority of Caesar’s observations describe the basic theological beliefs of the Druids and their high respect for nature (see 6.14); however, nothing is said about places of learning either in Britain or amongst the Druids.  With a similar emphasis, Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) speaks about the Druids’ superstitious practices and beliefs and that such things were known throughout portions of the Empire (see Natural History, 24.62; 30.4; cf. 16.95).  However, Pliny notes that it was a good thing that the Druids were relegated to the boundaries of the Empire–ostensibly because of the contemptible nature of their superstitions (see 30.4).  Also, Pliny says nothing about renowned educational opportunities coming from England.  His comments tend toward the aesthetic appeal of the island (see 4.30).

Finally, Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325–c. 390 CE) notes the esteem attributed to the Druids as ‘being loftier than the rest in intellect’ (Rerum Gestarum, 15.9.8).  However, this is virtually everything Marcellinus has to say about the Druids–aside from a passing comment about their rejection of all things human (i.e. they are not materialists, per se) and their belief in the immortality of the soul.***  Nothing in Marcellinus points to the Druids having universities or Britain being a ‘centre of learning’, as Harrison believes.  In fact, all of the above references to Britain in general and the Druids in particular seem to point in the other direction.  The plausibility of this portion of Strachen and Harrison’s theory is want for historical support; thus, it cannot be seen as plausible.

In what appears to be a ‘last-ditch’ attempt to prove their case, Strachen and Harrison appeal to a recognised legend that Jesus presumably built a chapel in Glastonbury, which is supposedly known by St Augustine.  They point out that Augustine allegedly wrote to the Pope of the time ‘to tell him about it’–ostensibly to have it noted as a sacred site needing the verification and protection of the Church.  However, two problems emerge with this claim.  First, which St. Augustine is in mind, because historically there are two?  There is the famed Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), who is generally the more recognised one when his name is given without qualification (as in the article).  Then there is Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604 CE), who was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to south England in order to evangelise the pagans of the area.  It must be this latter Augustine simply because nothing in the writings of the former say anything about knowledge of a Jesus-built chapel in Glastonbury.  However, this brings us to the next problem.

Second, as a fellow, more astute blogger has noted, the attribution of Augustine knowing about this alleged chapel and reporting it to the Pope can only be traced to the 12th century CE–and that is something recognised by people who claim that Jesus did visit Glastonbury.  Thus, the historicity not only of the letter but also the claim itself are certainly suspect.  Once again, the plausibility of Strachen and Harrion’s theory becomes more unlikely in view of the historical evidence, which is precisely what is needed if one is going to claim something as ‘plausible.’

The article concludes with a striking admission (and a painful qualifier): ‘Mr Harrison said there were “no archaeological finds” to back up the myth, but “by exploring the legend, we are opening up a fascinating new insight into early Christianity”.’  First, a key reason for the lack of archaeological evidence is the simple fact that the story is (admitted to be) a myth.  This would be tantamount to historians seeking out tangible clues for the epic battle at Minas Tirith.  Nothing is going to be found because it did not happen in real history.  Second, while it is true that legends do reveal interesting insight into what a particular group of people believe, legends often emerge several generations after the historical events upon which the legends are based.  Moreover, it would be wrong to assert that the legends accurately reflect the historical events in question.  To do so would negate the meaning of the term ‘legend’ as well as distort the meaning of this historical events.

Thirdly, and I’m done after this one: Strachen and Harrison are not opening up ‘a fascinating new insight into early Christianity.’  They are reopening up a spurious (and rather boring) legend promulgated during a period of Christian history far removed from the historical events which claims to nuance such events.  This methodology was tried once before and it failed miserably.  It was called, The Da Vinci Code.  To say that this legend of Jesus visiting England in order to further his education and build a chapel in Glastonbury has relevance for early Christianity is to reveal an anachronistic approach to history as well as a painful misunderstanding of what early Christianity is.

* For those paying attention, yes I have adapted the title of G. Theissen’s wonderful historical novel.
** I am sure this age will bother some people because it goes against the traditional theories, which suggest 30 years old (because Jesus presumably died when he was 33).  However, based on historical clues and calendrical data, the 35(ish) suggestion is more likely.  We can discuss this in more detail if you like.
*** The Druids maintain the belief in the transmigration of the soul (see Caesar, Gallic Wars, 6.14)