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The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – part five: First-century Palestine.   Leave a comment

Jerusalem and its Temple in the time of Christ:

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Until it was destroyed by Romans in AD 70, the temple at Jerusalem was the official centre of Jewish worship, a great place of pilgrimage and an immensely powerful symbol. Although Jewish theology had increasingly stressed the transcendence and otherness of God, the temple was still regarded as being in a special way a divine dwelling place: the scenes reported by Josephus immediately before its fall suggest a confidence, even then, that God would not allow it to be harmed. The temple in the first century was, in fact, the third to be built, following Solomon’s temple destroyed in 587 BC and the one that replaced it after the return from Babylon. Herod the Great began work in 20/19 BC on the same site but according to a different ground plan, in the prevailing Roman-Hellenistic style of architecture. Construction went on for a long time, certainly until AD 64, and it may have been the case that the temple was still unfinished at its destruction. Nothing remains of the temple proper today, apart from the great platform now surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the substructure of the massive surrounding walls. However, it can be reconstructed in the mind’s eye through the contemporary descriptions of Josephus and others.

The site of the temple was on a hill in the south-eastern part of the present Old City. A great paved court was laid on the temple platform, surrounded by magnificent collonades against the outside walls. This court was accessible to people of any race or faith, Gentiles included and was by no means reserved for purely religious activities. In common with other ancient temples, the Jerusalem temple was used as a safe-deposit for valuables and other quasi-commercial transactions were carried on there. Within the court was an enclosure surrounded by an embankment, with steps going up to a wall with nine gates. Inscriptions, the Greek text of one of which has been found, warned Gentiles against going further:

No foreigner may enter inside the barrier and embankment. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.

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At the heart of the temple lay the Holy Place, elevated by twelve steps. Within was a vestibule which gave on to the main doorway of the sanctuary.  Here were the sacred objects in gold, the seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, the table for the shew-bread and the altar of incense.> a curtain screened the Holy of Holies, containing no furniture whatsoever, which only the high priest might enter, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Thus the elevation of the temple and its holiness increased progressively towards the centre, as did the elaborateness of its ornamentation. Built of great blocks of gleaming white stone and decorated with all possible splendour, it must have been a breath-taking sight. Josephus’ praise is lavish; he remarks that the outside of the building was covered with so much gold that the onlooker could scarcely look directly at it in bright sunlight. He adds that after the sack of Jerusalem the market of gold for the whole province of Syria was completely flooded so that the standard of gold was depreciated to half its value.

The foundation of the worship offered at the temple was the daily sacrifice, offered morning and evening on behalf of the people. It was never interrupted once during the rebuilding of the temple. A positive understanding of the joy taken in the ritual sacrifice of animals and the significance attached to it is perhaps the hardest thing for modern western Christians to understand, but there is abundant evidence of that joy and of the belief that sacrifice could bring forgiveness. This system was at its height in the last days of the temple, when more care and money was lavished on it than at any other time. Public sacrifice was accompanied by lengthy ceremonial and was followed by private sacrifices, both sin-offerings and votive offerings. The whole of Palestine was divided into twenty-four divisions, each of which was ‘on duty’ in turn for one week (Luke 1. 8f.). Priests and Levites from the course on duty were responsible for offering the sacrifices, and lay representatives were deputised to be witnesses on behalf of the whole people. A yearling lamb was killed and then followed a service of prayer: incense was offered and the lamb solemnly burnt; the priests pronounced a benediction and the choir of Levites sang the appointed psalm, the ceremony being accompanied by the blowing of trumpets.

More numerous sacrifices were offered on the Sabbath and on major festivals. The more important of these were the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) following the Day of Atonement, and the Feast Of Passover. The feasts were of great antiquity, having accumulated many overtones of meaning. The Feast of Weeks was a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, but also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; the Feast of Tabernacles, or ‘booths’, recalled the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and lived in tents, but also contained an ancient prayer-ceremony for rain: the Passover, Pesach, while commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, was also associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which originally also had an agricultural significance. Pilgrims came to all these festivals, often covering vast distances to be present. Passover was the annual peak; one estimate gives the total number of pilgrims likely at that time as about 125,000 compared with the approximately 55,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem. The Passover meal was eaten in domestic surroundings, in table-fellowships of between ten and twenty; pilgrims had by law to stay that night within the limits of Jerusalem itself, as they were ritually interpreted. Despite the flexibility of this interpretation, the crush must have been immense. The ritual was carried out by twenty-four courses of priests and the same number of Levites, who were not in permanent residence. It has been estimated that there were some 7,200 priests involved, and a rather larger number of Levites, who functioned as singers, musicians, servants and guards.

 

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The temple and its priesthood may have been the most striking symbol of Jerusalem, but had they been its exclusive centre, Judaism would never have survived their fall. The way in which it adjusted to the situation after AD 70 shows that there were other strengths; these had as their common basis the Law, and to a considerable degree the history of the different parties within Judaism is the history of different interpretations of the Law. Even while the temple still stood, even within Judaea itself, there seems to have been an increasing preoccupation with the scriptures and their implications, and this focus will have been even more characteristic of the Jews of the Diaspora. A movement like that found at Qumran would have been unthinkable without the scribal tradition of ‘the book’ in Rabbinic Judaism. The beginnings of this trend are to be found in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period. During this period the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, took final form and was accorded its place of honour as the Torah, the Law; the Prophets had taken a place beside it by the beginning of the second century BC and the scriptures were recognised during the first century AD.

‘Law’ is an inadequate translation to give a clear idea of the written basis of Judaism; the Hebrew word Torah means rather ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law’, since the Pentateuch is far more than a ‘dry’ book of laws, of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’. Nevertheless, that is what it became as it was subjected to more and more intensive study. It is essential to try to see the positive elements which such detailed methods of study were believed to bring out, despite Jesus’ criticisms of some of the more life-denying aspects of the process. The Sadducees’ interpretation of Scripture was literal in contrast to that of the Pharisees, whose oral tradition they rejected. From this basic position stemmed their well-known denials of resurrection, future rewards and punishments, angels and spirits, and Providence. The Sadducees were more interested in their control of land and material resources than in spirituality; they seem to have been more concerned with politics of the Sanhedrin than theology.

The supreme Jewish council was known as the Sanhedrin, a Graeco-Aramaic term for an assembly. It consisted of seventy-one members. The sources differ over its composition and nature: Josephus and the writers of the Gospels and Acts present it primarily as a political institution, whereas Rabbinic literature presents a more religious aspect. The latter sources were probably reading back into it features which it took on after the fall of the temple, but the very nature of Judaism meant that political and religious questions were inextricably intertwined. The Pharisees were a broader, lay movement, which set out to embrace the whole of the Jewish people and had developed out of the earlier movement of Hasidism. Many Pharisees were Scribes by occupation, but they were more preoccupied with ritual matters than with theological concerns. Being a ‘separated one’ meant striving to be separated from impurity of all kinds. At the same time, the Law and the understanding of it were the means of avoiding impurity, so that the basic work of the scribe was indispensable. The leaders among the Pharisees were, therefore ‘middle-class’ scribes, whereas the Sadducees, although having their own scribes, had a leadership which was dominated by noble families.  By 70 BC the Pharisees had gained access to the Sanhedrin and from then onwards they never altogether lost power, while the Sadducees declined in importance, especially following the fall of the temple.  It was the Pharisaic/ Rabbinic development which shaped the future of Judaism.; the heightened prominence of the Law after the fall of the temple was accompanied by an institution which had been increasing in importance for some time before AD 70, the synagogue and its worship.

The Jewish Dispersion of the First Century:

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During the first century, as ever since has been the case, there were more Jews living outside Palestine than within it. Estimates vary, but a rough guess would be that there were rather more than two million Jews in Judaea and about four million elsewhere. The diaspora had taken place in different stages and for a number of reasons; there were, of course, the forced deportations to Babylon, where about a million Jews lived, but trade had also taken Jews all around the Mediterranean well before that time. There were particularly close connections with Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community, but there were also Jews in North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. These Jews had to preserve their identity in a culture which was predominantly Greek. They therefore organised themselves into communities, living in distinct quarters in cities, with considerable autonomy. Both the Greek states and the Roman government allowed a great deal of freedom to religious minorities, but the privileges of the Jews went far beyond this. In return for the favours of the state, however, they had to suffer the constant antagonism of their neighbours, which on occasion damaged official relations. Although the language of the Dispersion was Greek, these Jews still looked to the temple while it stood, and paid a great deal of money to support it. The synagogue, however, had become a far more regular influence in their day-to-day life. While Pharisaic Judaism culminated in the Rabbinic tradition, Hellenistic Judaism gave way to Christianity. It had no future in the context of Judaism, just as Jewish Christianity had no future in the context of the church. A modern Jewish comment is apt:

Jewish Christianity withered since it lacked survival power; Hellenistic Judaism withered since it lacked survival value.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans:

When Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, the new emperor, Caligula, made his friend Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, king of Philip’s former tetrarchy. He accused Herod Antipas of being in league with the Parthians. Antipas was duly banished, and his tetrarchy and revenues were given to Agrippa. Although Judaea had been a Roman province for thirty-three years, it was in a thoroughly unsettled condition. The Jews felt themselves to be a unique people, and though the basis of this claim was religious, under conditions of foreign occupation its manifestations were bound to be political. Each of the main religious sects thus had its own political ‘line’, most obviously expressed in the extreme nationalism of the Zealots. The disturbed situation of the province, with these insurgents active in the countryside and with continual sectarian conflict among the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, resulting in frequent changes in the high priests now appointed by the governor, needs to be remembered as the background to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

Agrippa had used his friendship with Caligula to persuade the latter to abandon his orders for the erection of a large statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem in AD 41. In the same year, Caligula was assassinated, and Agrippa was largely instrumental in securing the succession of Claudius. The new emperor rewarded him by abolishing the province of Judaea and adding it to his territories, thus reconstituting the kingdom of Herod the Great. Agrippa reigned for only three years, but during that time he demonstrated considerable ability. He made Jerusalem his official residence once more, signifying that Judaea was once more Jewish, and he became popular with his subjects. He had James, son of Zebedee, executed, and arrested Peter, two of the leaders of the growing and widely unpopular Christian community (Acts 12. 1-18). On his death, Claudius wished to appoint his son, Herod Agrippa II, to the throne of Judaea, but the boy was only seventeen, and Claudius was persuaded to make the area a province once more, though this time it included the whole of his father’s kingdom. The first two Roman governors, according to Josephus, left native customs alone and kept the nation at peace, but with the third, Cumanus, troubles began again, his government being marked by disturbances and further disasters to the Jews. These continued under the fourth and fifth governors, and on the death of the fifth, the Sanhedrin again took the law into its own hands, executing James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

According to Tacitus, the endurance of the Jews lasted until Gessius Florus was governor, of whom Josephus claimed that it was he who compelled us to take up arms against the Romans, thinking that it was better to be destroyed at once than by degrees. Florus became governor in AD 64, and the Jewish War began in AD 66. Its short-term causes were a clash in Caesaria between Jews and Greeks, in which Florus supported the latter. Shortly afterwards, he provoked further antagonism in Jerusalem by demanding a large sum of money from the temple treasury on the grounds that it was required by the emperor. In the demonstrations which followed, Florus allowed his troops to loot, and many innocents were killed, including Jews with Roman citizenship. At this stage, Agrippa II sought to intervene, but his attempt to calm his citizens ended with them stoning him, forcing him to leave Jerusalem. Within a month the rebels had taken control of Jerusalem and the greater part of Judaea and had captured the fortress of Masada with its huge arsenal. The disturbances then spread to the predominantly Greek cities of the Decapolis and the coast, and even to Alexandria. In all of them, there were violent clashes between Greeks and Jews, until the governor of Syria, was compelled to intervene and marched south with an army of thirty thousand. Despite early successes, he failed to control the uprising.

Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian, an experienced general, to the command of Judaea. In AD 67 he reconquered Galilee, where the young Josephus was in command, and the next year pressed on into Samaria and Transjordan. Meanwhile, factional struggles in Jerusalem, amounting to a civil war, seriously weakened the ability of the inhabitants to resist the Roman advance. In AD 70, Titus, Vespasian’s son, who had been left in command of the army when his father returned to Rome to become emperor, laid siege to the city. The story is graphically told by Josephus. An attack was only possible from the north or north-west, where the assailants would have to breach three walls in turn. ; even then, there remained the temple itself and the upper city, both of which could serve as well-defended inner citadels. The siege began in May, with the Romans deploying all their resources in siege warfare, building huge ramps and towers, attempting to mine the walls or battering them with huge boulders thrown by their artillery. They eventually constructed a wall of five miles in length running right around the city.  Nevertheless, it was not until the end of September that the whole city was in Roman hands. City and temple were razed to the ground.

Mopping-up operations continued for a further three years, culminating in the long siege and heroic defence of Masada, the great fortress which towers over the western shore of the Dead Sea. When further resistance proved impossible, the surviving defenders of nearly a thousand set fire to the fortress and killed themselves, with only two women who hid in underground water cisterns living to tell the tale to Josephus. The result of the war brought to an end the Jewish state. The Sanhedrin and the high priesthood were abolished, and worship in the temple was forbidden. There were further Jewish rebellions and revolts in AD 115 and 132, but the final guerrilla war, led, with some initial success, by Simon bar Kochba, was finally defeated in AD 135, following which Emperor Hadrian built a new city for Gentiles, from which the Jews were excluded, and a pagan temple was built on the site of Herod’s temple. Zion was no more.

According to Josephus, it was chiefly the belief in the imminent advent of a Messianic king that launched the Jews upon their suicidal war in 66 AD. Even after the destruction of the temple, Simon bar-Kochba was still greeted as Messiah. But the bloody suppression of that rising and the annihilation of political nationality put an end both to the apocalyptic faith and to the militancy of the Jews.  Although in later centuries a number of self-styled messiahs arose among the dispersed communities, what they offered was merely a reconstitution of the national home, not an eschatological world-empire. Moreover, they very rarely inspired armed risings, and never amongst European Jews. It was no longer Jews but Christians who cherished and elaborated prophecies in the tradition of Daniel’s dream and who continued to be inspired by them.

The Samaritans:

Had it been prophesied around AD 30 that the only movements to survive the next two thousand years would be the successors of the Pharisees, the followers of Jesus and the Samaritans, such a forecast would have been worthy of ridicule by contemporaries. Yet this was precisely what happened.

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A group of the despised Samaritans still lives and worships near Mount Gerizim, despite the long-troubled history of Palestine. Their survival represents a thorn in the side for those Christians and Jews who view Jerusalem as the sole, exclusive and undivided capital of the Jewish people as represented by the modern state of Israel. The Samaritans were the inhabitants of what was once the northern kingdom of Israel. In New Testament times it is clear from both Jewish and Christian sources that there was hatred and hostility between them and the Jews in Judaea and Galilee, so much so that Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan rather than using the Jericho Road which Jesus described in his parable of ‘the Good Samaritan’.

The Samaritans regard themselves as the true Israel, separated from the rest of the people when the latter were tainted by the sin of Eli, a priest at Shiloh in the time of Samuel. Though they were deported at the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BC, they returned fifty-five years later. The Judaeans and Galileans, on the other hand, regard the Samaritans as descendants of gentile colonists who repopulated the northern kingdom after the Assyrian conquest. They therefore regarded Samaritan religious observances as totally tainted. The Samaritan view may not be historically accurate, but the ‘Jewish’ view is also exaggerated in the opposite direction. It is not possible, at the present time, to establish the truth of exactly what happened, but it seems that it was post-exilic concerns which led to the constant rivalry between the ethnic groups. It probably began with the extent of inter-marriage between Samaritan ‘Jews’ and gentiles during the period of the two exiles, accentuated by the different experience of exile encountered by the Judaeans in Babylonia. The conflict reached its climax when the Samaritans built their own temple to replace the earlier one at Bethel. This new temple was erected on Mount Gerizim. The exact date of its construction is unknown, but it was certainly there by the early second century and does not appear to have been totally new then.

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In 129 BC, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple on Gerizim, adding to Samaritan hatred. Herod married a Samaritan woman, suggesting that relations might have been slightly easier during his reign, and it is even possible that the Samaritans had access to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, Josephus reports that a new act of defilement, the scattering by Samaritans of human bones in the temple grounds, once more stirred up tensions. The first century was a bad period for Galileans on pilgrimage when they were set upon and attacked. In the end, Galileans and Judaeans alike regarded the Samaritans as Gentiles. This may be one reason why Mark describes Jesus and his disciples as crossing into Transjordan to teach before his final week in Jerusalem. Earlier references to the Samaritans contain a number of vivid sayings about their impurity; John 4. 9. has an old comment about the practice of Jews and Samaritans not using the same water vessels for this reason. Yet the Samaritans shared the same Torah with the Judaeans, though not the same prophetic and other literature. These were the people whom Jesus chose to illustrate gratitude and love, deliberately choosing to identify the hero of his story by his ethnic origin and ‘label’.  They provide yet another example of how ancient and first century Palestine was a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic region comprising a patchwork of territories under Roman rule, far different in nature from a twenty-first-century nation-state.

(to be continued…) 

Hearts on Fire: The Lost Disciples   2 comments

Just as the disciples hearts were now on fire, ready to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, so too the ruling priesthood of the Sanhedrin were possessed by an evil, brooding passion for vengeance. Their plan to blame the disappearance on the disciples, sneaking into the tomb while the soldiers slept had not worked. Who would believe that trained guards could sleep through the massive rumbling which the rolling and removal of such a huge stone would have caused? The disciples would have had to murder them as they slept in order to get away with the body. And, if the Sanhedrin themselves had removed the body and dumped it in the pit reserved for common criminals, why not reveal this now, and even produce the body now that the festival was over. The consequences of not doing so were too great for them to try to cover a plan which had backfired, as rumours were now spreading like wildfire throughout Judea about the Galilean carpenter’s disappearance and appearances.

In secret conclave, they therefore plotted and planned a campaign of unremitting persecution against the followers of ‘The Way’. They determined to exterminate all those who could not, or would not, escape their bloody hands. The chief ‘persecutor’ was Saul who wasted no time in striking down the followers of ‘The Way’ he found in Jerusalem, be they Greek, Roman or Judean. No mercy was shown and the records of that time show that the prisons were overcrowded with his victims. His first notable victim was Stephen, who had courageously led the brilliant defence of Jesus on the night of his appearance in the court of the Sanhedrin. Stephen had taken up the preaching of the Word throughout the holy city, together with Peter, John and the other disciples. Thousands were being converted every day and later, according to Luke’s account in The Acts of the Apostles, the numbers reached between three to five thousand daily. This goes against the age-old lie that the ordinary Jews were unresponsive to the gospel. The citizens of Jerusalem were the first converts, further infuriating the Sadducean Priesthood. The Sanhedrin’s ‘shock troops’ caught up with Stephen as he preached at the gate still bearing his name, and stoned him to death with Saul looking on.

So fierce was Saul’s vindictive purge that he wrought havoc within the Church at Jerusalem and throughout Judea. Neither was it contained within the boundaries of the semi-autonomous province. Illegally, he hounded out the devotees of ‘The Way’ in the other Jewish territories under direct Roman rule. Coming from Tarsus, Saul had Roman citizenship and, as Pilate had done, the Romans continued to wash their hands of the Sanhedrin’s hatred, no doubt because they felt Saul was doing them a service too, ridding them of an undesirable virulent new religion which was spreading throughout the Jewish enclaves and communities within their Empire. Throughout this reign of terror Joseph of Arimathea remained a fearless protector of the disciples, both men and women. His position on the Sanhedrin and his status as a Roman official meant that Saul’s fury, which otherwise knew no bounds, could not touch him personally or those whom he defended with his person. However, within four years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians were scattered out of Jerusalem and Judea. There is little doubt that Joseph’s ships carried numerous of them, as refugees, to safety in other lands. Joseph used his wealth to create an underground network which could evade Saul’s men. He was probably helped in this by converts in the Roman Army in Palestine, like Cornelius, an officer in the Italian Regiment stationed in Caesarea in the North, the first recorded foreigner, or ‘gentile’ to become a Christian. Peter was at Joppa, the port to the south of Caesarea, where there was a strong Christian community, possibly helped by Joseph, who had ships there, and the port from which many of the Judean Christians could make their escape on one of them. It was in Caesarea that Peter began his mission to the gentiles, converting and baptising Captain Cornelius, his relatives and friends, to the amazement of the Judean Christians accompanying him from Joppa (Acts 10 vv 1-48).

Even the hardened Roman soldiers in Palestine were shocked by the atrocities carried out in the name of the Sanhedrin. The Romans later followed the example set by these ‘state’ terrorists, not only persecuting Christians, but also turning their attention to the Jews themselves. Saul himself, after he was converted on the road to Damascus, eventually met a cruel death at the hands of his Roman captors, despite the protection he had enjoyed as a citizen of Rome, and which had allowed him to continue to lead the scattered Christian communities from his prison cell with the power of his pen. From his imprisonment, Paul reflected on what the love of Jesus had driven him to do:

‘Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with rods by city magistrates; and I once was nearly stoned to death. I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours. I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.’ (2 Corinthians 11 vv 23-26)

We know something of what happened to Peter, Paul, Andrew, and the gospel-writers, but very little about the other apostles. They are ‘the lost disciples’, including two of the most outstanding characters, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The pages close on them in 36 A.D., the year when many of the Palestinian Christians were driven into permanent exile. Thirty-five years later the iron-clad fist of the Roman Empire destroyed the holy city and dispersed the remaining Christians in Judea, together with the Judeans as a whole. The temple was reduced to rubble, so that while Christianity had its birth in the Holy Land, it did not continue to grow to convert the world from that root, but, as Jesus had promised the Greeks on Palm Sunday, from the scattered seeds around their world. It flourished in far-flung lands to which the apostles were sent as missionaries by Paul, Barnabas and Timothy, and not just in the centre of the Empire which it took another three centuries to convert. In the meantime, the Roman rulers remained the greatest persecutors of the Christian Gospel. How did the Church continue to grow in the face of such oppression? This question deepens the mystery that revolves around ‘the Lost Disciples’, though they were not, of course, lost to their leader.

‘Cry God for Queen Bess, England and St Cuthbert….!’   1 comment

Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne (Photo credit: Noodlefish)

Follow your spirit; and upon this charge

Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

WILLIAM SHAKESPEAREHenry V, Part One.

 

England hasn’t really got a national anthem….The Irish, the Scots and the Welsh all have anthems, the Americans have the cheek to sing ‘My Country ’tis of thee’ to the tune of ‘God Save the Queen‘, but what do the English have? ‘There’ll always be an England’…well that’s not saying much….there’ll always be a North Pole, if some dangerous clown doesn’t go and melt it!…no, I ask you, what have we got to stir the sinews of our local patriotism with? ‘Jerusalem’!! 

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s introduction to their ‘Song of Patriotic Prejudice’ aka ‘The English, the English, the English are Best!’ 

The last verse of which is:

The English are honest, the English are good,

And clever, and modest and misunderstood!

English: Stained glass window in Oban. This is...

English: Stained glass window in Oban. This is the Christian saint Columba in stained glass form. He was born in Ireland and helped spread Christianity in Great Britain, especially in the Kingdom of the Picts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Labours of the Saints and Bards

Not only do the English not have a national anthem, but they don’t really have a patron saint to call their own. Not only is St George not English (Patrick was British, not Irish!), but he doesn’t even belong to these islands, and we share him with the Georgians and the Portuguese, with whom we have very little in common. It’s also the reason why the Scots are lukewarm about St Andrew’s Day, although as a fisherman, he at least had something in common with many Scots, and his bones are said to be buried in the city bearing his name. The Scots still prefer to celebrate Burns’ Night as their national ‘fling’, second only to Hogmanay, or New Year, and the English could do well to take a leaf out of the book of their northern neighbours,  by celebrating 23rd April as the birthday of their national bard, that ‘sweet swan of Avon’. After all, there is a tradition of ‘radical patriotism’ in England which places English national identity unashamedly within the island story of ‘Britannia’ as a whole and links to the radical literary and artistic traditions going back through Morris and Ruskin, to Shelley and Blake, to Bunyan and Milton.

These, in turn, are strongly linked to both Saxon and Celtic forms of social and religious organisation, including the pre-Augustinian Church and its saints such as Alban, David and Patrick, Columba and Aidan, Cedd and Ceadda (Chad). The conversion of pagan England to Christianity was accomplished not only by the mission which landed in Kent in 597, led by St Augustine, but also by that which brought Celtic Christianity to Northumbria in 636. This second mission had Aidan as its leader, a member of a monastery established at Iona some twenty years earlier. St Columba (‘Colum Cille‘) had arrived on the small island off the west coast of modern-day Scotland as early as 563, having crossed the Irish Sea, intending to establish a monastery. His initial buildings were made of wood, wattle and turf, and it wasn’t until the eighth century that stone was imported from Mull to make the Celtic crosses and begin the building of a permanent Abbey in 1200.

This is an image of the 802 of the historic Ki...

This is an image of the 802 of the historic Kingdom of Northumbria which is on the island of Great Britain. I created this image. Created under this guidance of this of historical source of a 802 map of Britain, which itself was developed by cartographer and historian William R. Shepherd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aidan’s mission from Lindisfarne was successful in re-introducing the Faith in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, which produced a flowering of literature,manuscript illumination and sculpture, in which Iona also participated. The missions also extended to Mercia, where Wufhere became the first Christian King following the defeat of the pagan Penda by the Northumbrians. While Ceadda was the main missionary here, his brother Cedd led successful missions to the Middle and East Angles, as well at to the East Saxons, whom Augustine had failed to convert from his base in Canterbury. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, it was Cedd’s fluency in Early Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Northumbrian Saxon, Early English and Latin, which enabled the Roman and Celtic traditions to find compromise over their many differences. Bede records that Cedd’s linguistic abilities were taken as a sign of his being blessed by the Holy Spirit, as the first Apostles were at Pentecost, helping the participants to overcome the tendency to become a second tower of Babel. By the early part of the eighth century,  the monastic communities and churches were observing the same calendar, rites and rituals.

St Cedd

However, this period of Christian concord came to an end abruptly with the Viking raids of the late eighth century and early 800’s, though many treasures survived these raids, including the recently purchased ancient gospel of St Cuthbert, from Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells, so-called because the Iona community relocated to the Irish settlement and took the gospels with them. These were masterpieces of Hiberno-Saxon art, and this cross-fertilisation of Hibernian and Northumbrian Christian cultures emphasises the continuity between Celtic and Saxon Britain. This was also true of the relationships between the Christian territories of Cambria, Mercia and Wessex, who together stood against pagan Saxon incursions as well as the Danish invasions and, by so doing, ultimately brought about the peaceful settlement of the kingdoms.

Celtic cross at dawn in Knock, Ireland (at the...

Celtic cross at dawn in Knock, Ireland (at the bus stop to Westport) 28/07/2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early British Christians never used the Latin cross. Their cross combined the Druidic circle with the cross, embracing Christ’s suffering with the symbol of eternal life, the symbol of resurrection, of victory over the grave. It also symbolised the peaceful merging of the Druidic religion with Christianity. The Druids seemed to recognise that the old order was fulfilled according to their own astronomical prophecies in the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and that the arrival of Christianity from the East on their shores marked the beginning of a new dispensation which they embraced with little or no resistance. Unlike under the Romans, there was none of the Diocletian persecution and martyrdom (e.g. that of Alban of Caerleon), and neither was there any need to slay dragons to win converts.

Soldiers of the Cross

English: St. George before Diocletianus. A mur...

English: St. George before Diocletianus. A mural from the Ubisi Monastery, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, with Cuthbert seen as the patron saint of the of early Saxon kingdoms, how and why did the English come to pick as their patron saint an Armenian who gives his name and his flag to Georgia, and is also the patron saint of Portugal? The little that we know about him comes from a Byzantine named Metaphrates who tells us that George was born in Cappadocia, sometime in the third century, of noble parents who gave him a strict training in the Christian faith, that he rose to high military rank in the Roman Army in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. He organised a Christian community at Urmi in Persian Armenia and one report suggests that he visited Britain on an imperial expedition. The Emperor turned against the Christians, instituting a persecution of them. George sought an audience with him on their behalf, but was arrested, tortured and executed on 23rd April in A.D. 303. This was also a difficult period in the history of Christianity in Roman Britain.

George was canonised by the Church and became St George, but was not known in England until at least the time of the Crusades when his story became more widely known. In 1098, when English and Norman soldiers were under the walls of Antioch, there was a story that George appeared to lead them to victory in the siege. When Richard I was leading his troops into battle with the Saracens, George is said to have appeared to lead them to victory. These stories were brought back to England, but George was not adopted as England’s patron saint until 1222 when it was declared a public holiday. It was about this time that the upright red cross on the white background, which had  first became the flag of the Italian city-state of Genoa, became the flag of England. It also became the flag of Georgia (see below).

            

                                                                                               The flag of Genoa

The National Flag of Georgia

However, the ‘Lamb and flag’ (right) is also a very old Christian symbol, appearing as it does in Medieval stained glass and on many old public houses and inns throughout Britain. This suggests an even earlier origin, which I refer to below. So, the upright red cross on a white background, became ‘the cross of St George‘ and was adopted as the national flag of England, later to be integrated with the crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick into the flag of the United Kingdom. The chivalric stories of George inspired the founding of the Order of the Garter by Edward III  in 1348 and St George’s Chapel at Windsor. This is the noblest of the knightly orders in Europe. The members, limited in number, are chosen by the Queen without any reference to her ministers, or to Parliament. Thereafter, George became more popular during the Hundred Years’ Wars, inspiring English and Welsh troops at the Battle of Harfleur and Agincourt, as Shakespeare’s Henry V suggests. The red rose became the flower emblem of England sometime later, after the coming to power of the Tudor Dynasty, signalling victory in the ‘Wars of the Roses’ for the Lancastrian line over the Yorkists, whose symbol was the white rose. In fact, the Tudor emblem included both red and white, following the conciliatory marriage of Henry VII to Margaret of York.  Seen by many, initially, as Welsh ‘usurpers’ on the English throne, the Tudors needed an English symbol to balance out their fearsome Red Dragon, which provided a link to Arthurian mythology, and Henry VII even named his son Arthur, perhaps to emphasise the importance of Celtic Christianity in England’s past, as well as that of his native land.

St. George and the dragon Русский: Чудо Георги...

St. George and the dragon Русский: Чудо Георгия о змие Tempera on wood, 58.4×41.8×3.5, State Russian Museum, Sankt Petersburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many legends have grown up around  the mythical figure of George, often involving conflicts with dragons. They probably also came to England in the 12th century, with the return of the crusader knights and the revival of Arthurian chivalry, but later became popular because of the rich dragon lore of the British Isles. The first Anglo-Saxons to land in Britain in the middle of the fifth century marched under a White Dragon banner. In the epic tales of the Welsh, The Mabinogion, written around this time, a story is told of a battle between the Red Dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, and an invading White Dragon for control of Britain. This got so out-of-hand that the dragons had to be imprisoned in the mountains of Snowdonia, while sleeping off the effects of the strong local mead left for them in a specially dug pit there! The story was continued by the ninth-century monk, Nennius, in his Historia  Britonium, in which he records the earliest-known legends of Merlin and Arthur. The dragons had continued their fight underground, until released, when they rose up into the air, where the red dragon was seen to triumph. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) claims the victory as a prophecy that Arthur ‘Pendragon’ would return in victory to Britain. This was the prophecy which the Tudors made good use of in their propaganda. While the Welsh kings continued to use the Red Dragon after the time of Arthur, Alfred the Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the invading Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. It was subsequently flown by Athelstan at Brananburgh in 937 and Harold II at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Together with the personal flag of the king, the Dragon standard provided a rallying-point for his troops. In 1191, we know that Richard the Lionheart carried a dragon standard into the Third Crusade, rather than the ‘cross of St George’.

 

According to one story documented in The Golden Legend (1483) by Jacobus de Voragine, George found himself at Silene in Libya. The townspeople were in deep distress because the not-so-friendly neighbourhood dragon from the nearby lake was forcing them to donate two sheep a day for his lunch and supper. Running out of sheep, the dragon demanded two citizens instead. Not any tough old citizens, mind you; only the purest and tenderest virgins would do! These were chosen by drawing lots.

 

When George arrived, they had just about run out of ordinary maidens. The King, who had failed to bribe the citizens with half his kingdom and all his wealth if they would let him keep his own daughter, was just about to serve up his daughter, dressed as a bride. As George galloped to the rescue, the princess was approaching the dragon’s lake wearing a white wedding dress. Just as the dragon was about to carry the girl off, George charged the dragon and drove his lance down the dragon’s throat. He then persuaded her to throw him her white garter, which he placed around its neck. Thus tamed, the Dragon followed the princess like a leashed pet dog to the town square. The still-terrified townspeople offered George any reward he wanted if he would finish the job for them. He  promised to kill the dragon, but only if the King and his subjects would become Christians. Apparently, 15,000 ‘converts’ were added for the faith on that day and four farm-carts were needed to carry the dragon’s body away. On the spot where the Dragon met its end, the King built a church and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and St George. From that church flowed a spring that cured all diseases.

Mummers’ Plays are still performed in some parts of England on St George’s Day, since many revolve around the saint, other more English heroes such as Robin Hood and Little John, and various enemies, such as ‘Turkish’ or ‘Moorish’ knights. They are also performed at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and All Souls. They also include a host of comic characters such as the Doctor, a soldier bold, Jack Finney and Tom the Tinker. The plot involves fights between St George and the Turk and St George and the Prussian, the other traditional ‘enemy’ of the English. Wounds are healed miraculously and dead characters are brought back to life. Of course, these days the plays are taken by all as just good fun, but in medieval times the fighting could get out-of-hand, which is why they were frowned upon by the Church. Elsewhere, and especially in the areas controlled by the Byzantine Churches, now Greek and Russian Orthodox, George became a much-venerated figure, as can be seen from this ikon from the Greek church in Kecskemét, Hungary (picture left). He still is, of course.

However, the cultural association of St George with the ‘Christian’ crusaders fighting the ‘Muslim’ Ottomans for control of ‘the old Jerusalem’ has not endeared him to many modern English people, for whom pride in the multi-faith and multi-cultural Britain separates them from these ‘Crusader’, Islamophobic traditions, though they still feel a strong association with the ‘Saxon’ freedom-fighters of Robin Hood’s merry men. This is somewhat ironic, as George is venerated in Aleppo by both Christians and Muslims and, of course, the stories of ‘Robin of Locksley’ have Richard Coeur de Lion as the royal hero, returning from the crusades, and Prince John as ‘villain’. A more careful reading of the historical record might result in a more balanced view, especially given the time and resources, not to mention ransom money required by the absentee ‘Lionheart’ from his long-suffering people, whether Saxon or Norman.

Sweet Swan of Avon

However, a good reason for continuing to celebrate the 23rd April as England’s national day is that it was also the day on which William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the day on which he is said to have died. The festival held in the Midland town attracts visitors from all over the world and the flags of the nations fly from flagpoles set up in the street. Many countries have also dedicated lamp-posts in the bard’s honour. There is one for Hungary close to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Theatre. It’s therefore appropriate that one of England’s greatest should be celebrated on St George’s Day, his birthday, and shared in such an international manner. But this is simply a happy coincidence. If we look into the heritage of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’ more carefully, surely we can find more ancient causes for celebration of English national identity, just like the Welsh and the Irish. To do so we need to go back to the pre-Roman Celtic times in which two of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline and King Lear are set. Both were Silurian Kings before the successful Claudian invasion of 43 A.D., and the line of British monarchs is traced back to the former.

Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’

William Blake’s mystical poem, Jerusalem holds the key to the relevance of this period in British history and mythology. When sung to Hubert Parry’s wonderful tune it is more of an anthem than a hymn, almost a national anthem, most famously sung on the last night of the ‘Proms’ (‘Promenade’ Concerts held annually at the Royal Albert Hall).  Blake (1757-1827) was born in London, the son of a hosier.  Leaving school at the age of ten, he was apprenticed to an engraver. From an early age he ‘saw visions and dreamed dreams’. Most of his literary works, like Songs of Innocence and Experience,  illustrated by his own engravings, had a highly mystical style. A constant theme is the exaltation of love and imagination against the restrictive codes of conventional morality. In his later works, he emphasises the revelation of redemption through Christ. As a young artist and poet he developed an unconventional and rebellious quality, acutely conscious of pretentiousness and pomposity, so that in 1784 he wrote a burlesque novel, An Island in the Moon, in which he ridiculed contemporary manners and conventions, not sparing himself. The manuscript part of this has survived and contains the several poems which afterwards became the Songs of Innocence.

In 1788 he began to assemble these into a small volume, for which he laboriously made twenty-seven copper-plates, dating the title-page 1789. This became the first of his famous ‘Illuminated Books’, reflecting his own state of mind in which the life of his imagination was more real to him than the material world. The books therefore identify ideas with symbols which then become translated into visual images, with word and symbol each reinforcing the other. His words, his poetry, became increasingly affected by his growing awareness of the social injustices of his time, from which his Songs of Experience developed. His feelings of indignation and pity for the sufferings he saw in the streets of London led to the publication of this second set of lyrical, antithetical poems in 1794. He then combined the two collections into one book which was made into a standardised illuminated edition in 1815.

The four verses of the poem which make up the hymn, Jerusalem, first appeared in one of Blake’s last poems, Milton, written in 1804. Underneath them he wrote, ‘would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’, quoting from Numbers 11. 29. In the poem the seventeenth-century poet is depicted as returning from eternity and entering into Blake to preach the message of Christ crucified and the doctrines of self-sacrifice and forgiveness:

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 those 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.

The imagery of these verses is complex. Some of it is borrowed from the Bible, for instance, the chariots of fire, taken from 2 Kings 2.11, but much is of Blake’s own invention. In suggesting that Jesus may have set foot in England, Blake is resurrecting the old legend which told of Christ’s wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant owning mines in Cornwall and the west of Britain, who later removed Jesus’ body from the cross and provided a freshly cut tomb for it, his own tomb.  A verse from his long poem, Jerusalem, also echoes this myth:

She walks upon our meadows green;

The Lamb of God walks by her side:

And every English child is seen,

Children of Jesus and his Bride.

 

From Bethany to Avalon?: The Glastonbury Legends

Tradition and some written testimony suggest that Jesus of Nazareth did live in Britain for some time during the ‘silent’ period of the gospels before he began his ministry at the age of roughly thirty, creating a Temple for his mother on the isle of Avalon, later to become Glastonbury in Saxon times.  St Augustine, during his mission to Britain, beginning in 597, wrote a letter to Pope Gregory in which he referred to ‘a certain royal island’ in which there was to be found ‘a church..divinely constructed, or by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of His people. The Almighty has made it manifest…that he continues to watch over it as sacred to Himself and to Mary, the Mother of God.’  Fanciful though the legend may be that the feet of Jesus of Nazareth, together with Joseph of Arimathea, may have actually touched British soil, the symbolism of the myth is resonant in British culture, just as the Arthurian mythology crafted by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory, and the legends of Robin Hood, have also proved to be. Henry Tudor saw useful propaganda possibilities in the former, gathering support en route from Milford Haven to Bosworth Field, and naming his first son Arthur in order to mythologise his dynastic claim, and radical republicans in the English Civil War drew on the latter to liken the rule of the Stuart Kings to the ‘Norman Yolk’ imposed on free-born Englishmen by the feudal Norman Kings and Lords.

In his 1961 book, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, George F Jowett produced a compelling, if at times far-fetched narrative of the legends surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and ‘the Bethany Group’, drawing on sources in the Vatican Library, as well as the medieval chronicles of bishops and monks. Of course, chronicles are not histories, and neither is Jowett’s work to be regarded as mature historical narrative, but it does point to the enduring significance of these legends, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain deserves to be treated as romantic, imaginative literature, part of the Celtic tradition of Britain. After all, even historians need to use their powers of imagination to interpret the silences, as well as the vague traces left to them by the past.

What is certain is that, as Monmouth pointed out in his early chapters, Britain ‘aboundeth in metals of every kind’, and that, even before the Romans sought to exploit this mineral wealth, there was a great deal of trade by sea  between Gaul and ‘the three noble rivers’, the Thames, the Severn and the Humber, with their great estuaries even wider than today. The Glastonbury Legend claims that ‘the Bethany group of missionaries’ navigated their way from Gaul up the Severn estuary to the Brue and the Parrot tributaries, until they came to Glastonbury Tor, or the Isle of Avalon, which gets its name from the Brythonic word ‘afal’, meaning an apple. Somerset (as we know it today) was, even then, full of apple orchards, and the fruit was the emblem of fertility to the Celtic Druids. The legend states that, following their disembarkation, the travellers made their way up the Tor, where Joseph stopped to rest, thrusting his staff into the ground. It then became part of the earth, taking root, and in time blossomed, out of season, becoming the ‘Holy Thorn’.

In Saxon times the land around Glastonbury was drained by the monks, making wetlands, now part of the Somerset ‘levels’. It is still believed by many that the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey house the remains of the church that was erected over the spot where Joseph of Arimathea and the group of disciples from Bethany built their altar of wattle, thatched with ‘withy’ reeds, the custom of the time. The ancient Britons used wattle in the construction of their homes. This wattle church survived, according to a former Bishop of Bristol, until after the Norman invasion when it was accidentally burnt down. Just over a mile from the town a large number of wattle structures were discovered, preserved in the peat, in the nineteenth century. They were set on mounds built in the wetlands, connected by causeways also built with wattles. In the last century, postholes and preserved timbers were also uncovered, and these can sill be seen today, along with stretches of the wattle, the remains of an early British settlement which was burnt down. The wattle church was sixty feet in length and twenty-six feet wide, following the pattern of the Tabernacle, built between 38 and 39 A.D. It was then encased in lead, a plentiful local material, and over that St. Paulinus erected the chapel of St. Mary in 630 A.D. Various documents suggest that St. Mary’s Chapel, erected by St. David in 546 A.D., was built over the remains of Jesus’ mother. It remained intact until destroyed by fire in 1184, when the great fire gutted the whole of the Abbey. It is said to be the oldest Christian Church in the British Isles, possibly the first above ground in Europe, built in the shape of the cross, the pattern followed in Britain into medieval and modern times.   When the first books came off the printing press, Wynkyn De Worde printed a life story of St Joseph, and a further account of the Arimathean story was printed, copying from earlier documents,  in which the following intriguing lines appeared:

Now here how Joseph came into Englande;

But at that tyme it was called Brytayne.

Then XV yere with our lady, as I understande.

Joseph wayted styll to serve hyr he was fayne.

The flag of the Christ’s cross, which became the flag of St George, is said to have  flown above British churches from earliest times. Glastonbury Tor itself was said to be a ‘Gorsedd’ or ‘High Place of Worship’ for the Druids, a hand-built mound with a circle of stones on top, from which they observed the stars.

The Unbroken Line of Church and Monarchy 

In 871, Alfred the Great, himself no stranger to Glastonbury and the wet-lands around it where he is reported to have burnt his oat-cakes while hiding out from the Danish invaders, commissioned monastic scholars to translate into the Saxon tongue the ancient British history from documentary evidence. His ‘Wessex’ therefore provides the link in southern Britain that connects the Celtic Christian kingdoms of the Silures with Saxon England. He was then given great credit for creating laws, institutions and reforms which restored and enforced the ancient British practices of law and order, as well as religion, rather than replacing them with Saxon ones. Perhaps for this contribution alone, Alfred deserves to be remembered as England’s true patron saint, let alone for his exploits as a military leader and founder of an identifiable Christian English nation. In this, he is similar to the Hungarian King István, or Stephen, who was canonised by the Pope as the founder of the Hungarian nation around the year 1,000, and also used the banner of the long red cross as his original symbol. The ‘Lamb and Flag’ is also in the coat of arms of the Hungarian Reformed Church, hanging on the walls of its school classrooms to this day. Recent evidence has shown that there was much continuity in the population of the Celtic and Romano-British territories of western Britain and the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Whilst the dynastic leaders and their retinue may have been pushed into modern-day Wales, Devon and Cornwall, many of the ordinary farming folk would have remained, mixed and married. The ‘genes’ as well as the ‘blood’ and languages of the Celts all inter-mingled with those of the Saxon settlers. The ‘English’ may be more Celtic than they think, and not so different from the Welsh in genetic make-up!

So, while school history textbooks still wrongly assert that the coming of Christianity to England occurred with the Augustinian Mission, sent by Pope Gregory, in 596 A.D., that date actually marks the introduction of the Roman Catholic Church, and Papal authority, into the English lands, not yet united under one king. The Papacy itself, and its historians, have never denied the story of St Joseph being the first Apostle to Britain, though they claim that the first official envoy of the Roman Church was St. Paul himself, some twenty years later. It was the Catholic countries who attempted to depose Elizabeth I with the Pope’s blessing, who tried to claim that the Church of England drew its authority from the Augustinian Mission, followed up by the successful conquest by the Normans under the Papal banner and blessing in 1066. Elizabeth herself, the last native-speaking Welsh monarch, and lineal descendant of the Silurian King Cymbeline (the subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays) was careful to point to the pre-existing Celtic orders as the source of her authority as Supreme Governor and ‘Defender of the Faith’, a Latin title which had been bestowed on her father by the Pope prior to the Reformation, but which she now (in 1570) claimed was hers by ancient right anyway. Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1953,  took the oath as ‘Defender of the Faith’ and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, despite opposition from the Papacy, which petitioned to have it withdrawn from the ceremony.  It was politely refused on the grounds that the sovereign of the United Kingdom was the Defender of the British Christian ’cause’, with Christ as its Head.  Bishop Ussher wrote categorically in his Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Anquititates: ‘The British National Church was founded in A.D. 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity. ‘

Christianity spread rapidly throughout the British Isles at this time. It was recorded that in A.D. 48, Conor Macnessa, the King of Ulster, sent his priests to Avalon to commit the Christian law and its teachings into writing. However, it was not until A.D. 156 that Britain, by the edict of King Lucius, officially proclaimed the Christian Church as the ‘national’ religion of Britain, at Winchester, the then royal capital, where its kings were crowned until the Norman Conquest. Tertullian of Carthage, writing in 208, tells us that in his time the Christian Church extended to all the boundaries of Gaul, and parts of Britain the Romans could not reach, but which were ‘subject to Christ’. These were the woodlands, wetlands and islands  on either side of the Severn sea. Thereafter, scholars from the third to the sixth century testify that Christianity, or ‘The Way’ as it was first known, was firmly established, certainly in the west of the island, from as early as 37 A.D. to the middle of the sixth century. An ancient English chronicler, in his account of the conversion of the Celtic King Arviragus, makes an interesting comment about the ‘cult of St George’:

Joseph converted this King Arviragus

By his prechying to know ye laws divine

And baptized him as write hath Nennius

The chronicler in Brytain tongue full fyne

And to Christian laws made hym inclyne

And gave him then a shield of silver white

A crosse and long, and overthwart full perfete

These armes were used throughout all Brytain

For common syne, each man to know his nacion

And thus his armes by Joseph Creacion

Full longafore Saint George was generate

Were worshipt here of mykell elder date.

Therefore, the ‘long cross’ on a white background became the symbol of Celtic Christian chieftains, traditionally emblazoned on their shields, long before St George was born, and even longer before he became the patron saint of England, in fact long before England came into existence as a unified country. Arviragus carried the cross on his shield into battle with the invading Romans, who did not officially become Christian until about 350, under the Emperor Constantine. Arviragus ruled over the area of south-western England, while Caradoc ruled Cambria, the area covered by Wales and the West Midlands of England today. Arviragus led the Celtic resistance to the Roman invasion of A.D. 43, following the death of his brother, Guiderius, in the second battle, then submitting to Caradoc as Pendragon, or ‘Head chieftain’. It was in these battles that the cross given to Arviragus, which later became the cross of St George, was first unfurled, and a nine-year-long war of resistance began.

The Truth against the World: The Long Fight for Social Justice

The Christian battle-cry, still used in the Druidic ceremonies at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, was ‘Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd’, ‘the truth against the world’. Caradoc was finally defeated at Clun (modern-day Shropshire) in 52 A.D. by the combined forces of five Roman legions led by Aulus Platius, Vespasian, Titus and Claudius himself, who had landed at Richborough (now Kent) to take personal command of the combined Imperial forces, with heavy reinforcements, including a squadron of elephants! Apparently, the offensive smell of the great beasts panicked the Celtic horses pulling the Silurian chariots, causing havoc in their own ranks as they scythed through the defensive lines of Caradoc’s men and women warriors. Caradoc, known to the Romans as Caractacus, was taken prisoner with his family and they were all shipped to Rome, later pardoned by Claudius, freed and eventually allowed to return to Britain, promising not to take up arms against Rome again.

‘And did those feet’ and the longer poem, ‘Milton’ from which it is drawn, are both a plea for ‘ancient’ intuition and imagination in the face of  ‘modern’ scientific  rationalism, for a return to ‘innocence’, and a call for a ‘crusade’ for the values of social justice, or ‘equity’, and liberty, with which Blake envisions a ‘new Jerusalem’ being built in Britain. The ‘dark, satanic mills’ are not simply the factories of the industrial revolution, but the cold, logical philosophies of Locke and Bacon that Blake deplored. However, it was more than a century after it was written that Robert Bridges rescued the poem from obscurity for his patriotic anthology, The Spirit of Man, and asked Sir Hubert Parry to set it to a simple tune so that it could be sung at rallies of a crusading movement set up to build a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return to Britain after the First World War, to Lloyd George’s ‘Land fit for heroes to live in’. It also became, at the end of the war, the anthem of the suffragists, the ‘Women Voters’ Hymn’. Shortly after this, it became a great favourite of King George V and on special occasions of national significance he would ask for it to be played and sung.  More recently, Billy Bragg, the ‘protest’ singer-songwriter, has said that it asks the questions that Jesus would if he came to modern Britain and saw how far we  have built the kind of society based on the principles of social justice that he championed. It has long been a favourite within the Labour movement.

In his 1980 book, To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life 1875-195,  John Gorman concludes the introduction to the collection with the thought that ‘if the dream of a new and golden Jerusalem to be “builded here” faded from the hearts of those elected as master builders, the hope yet remains with the many.’ Perhaps, approaching the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation, we should both adopt and adapt Shakespeare’s words, and ‘Cry God for Bess, England and St Cuthbert!’ Perhaps we should also petition to have 20th March, St. Cuthbert’s Day, made the English national day. However, since the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria covered much of modern-day lowland Scotland, including Melrose where he was born and brought up, educated by Hibernian monks, and since he is still venerated in Edinburgh as well as Durham, we might need to redefine what it means to be British…and English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish.

Easter Saturday: The Secret Arimathean Apostle   10 comments

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ f...

English: Joseph asked for the body of Christ from Pilate Русский: Иосиф Аримифейский просит у Пилата тело Иисуса Христа для погребения (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Deuteronomy 21. v 23

‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree. but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’

Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and it was a typical punishment for slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand and the victim being made to carry the beam of his own cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire knew that this punishment, whether carried out by the government authorities or even landlords, might one day be their fate. When Jesus talked about being ready ‘to take up your cross’, this was the destiny and destination he had in mind for his followers. He meant it quite literally, and in many cases, it became an ultimate ‘acted parable’, as for our Lord himself. But this was, like the entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the Temple Courts, a real historical event. A death like this could not be other than the final event in Christ’s life. This is John’s account of the aftermath of Jesus’ death upon the cross:

 

 

 

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take down their bodies from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the sabbath, since the coming sabbath was especially holy.

So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side, and at once blood and water poured out. (The one who saw this happen has spoken of it, so that you also may believe. What he said is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth.) This was done to make the scripture come true: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And another that says, “People will look at him whom they pierced.”

‘After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph took it away. Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.’

‘There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried. Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.’

John 19 vv 31-42 

(see also Mt. 27, vv 51-61; Mk. 15, vv 38-47 and Luke 23, vv 47-56)

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only man in the Sanhedrin who we know supported Jesus, though not openly, was Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew tells us owned the nearby tomb, just recently dug out of solid rock. He could even have been a close relative of Jesus, perhaps his uncle, which would have permitted him to prepare the body for burial, in the tomb, with the crowd of women outside. In the gospel accounts, he appears as a transitory figure at the trial and crucifixion. However, other writers have pointed to his significance in preserving ‘The Word’, proclaiming ‘The Way’ and protecting both Jesus’ mother and the small band of disciples during the perilous years after the crucifixion. The legends surrounding his role as ‘the Apostle of Britain’ have had a profound influence on British history and culture, not least in William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem, which has become the unofficial anthem of England. But, for now, the scriptural record tells us that it was him who laid the body of Jesus to rest, properly anointed, in his own tomb, and that it was this tomb which Pilate had sealed and guarded, the only events of Saturday, the Sabbath.

Joseph of Arimathea was a man of refinement, well-educated, possessing many talents. He had extraordinary political and business ability and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world of that time, a metal magnate controlling the tin and lead industries across much of the Roman Empire. Tin was the chief metal for making alloys and was in great demand by the Romans. Many authorities claim that his control of tin was due to his holdings in the ancient tin mines of Britain, in particular in Cornwall, where it was smelted into ingots and exported throughout the Mediterranean by Joseph’s ships. The tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia is frequently referred to by classical writers, especially by Dioderus Siculus as well as by Julius Caesar himself. In the Latin Vulgate of the gospels of Mark (15: 43) and Luke (23: 50), both refer to Joseph as ‘Decurio’, the common term employed by Romans to designate an official in charge of metal mines. In St Jerome‘s translation, Joseph’s official title is ‘Noblis Decurio’, indicating a prominent position as a ‘minister of mines’ for the Romans. It was quite remarkable for a Jew to hold such a high rank in the Roman State. We know he was an influential member of the Sanhedrin and a legislative member of a provincial Roman senate. He owned a palatial home in Jerusalem and a fine country residence just outside the city. In addition, he possessed another spacious estate at Arimathea, several miles to the north of the city, at Arimathea, known as Ramelleh today. Everything points to him being as a person of affluence and influence in both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies.

According to the Talmud, Joseph was the youngest brother of the Virgin Mary’s father, making him Jesus’ great uncle. Joseph the Carpenter seems to have died while Jesus was still quite young. Under these circumstances, the Law appointed the next male kin of the husband, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, as  legal guardian. We now that Joseph never abandoned his great-nephew. He defended him at the trial, defied the Sanhedrin by going to Pilate and claiming the body, when all others feared to do so. His arms were the first to cradle the broken corpse, taking it from the cross to the tomb. He continued to protect the    body from the conspiratorial Sanhedrin members, risking his wealth, power and position in doing so, The disciples spoke of him as ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘honourable’ and ‘a disciple of Jesus’. The Gospel of Nicodemus shows that Joseph believed in the validity of Jesus’ teaching.

The speed with which Joseph called on Pilate after Jesus’ death indicates that he had been present at the crucifixion, together with John the Divine and a number of the women following Jesus. Pilate appears to have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death, asking those near him to verify it. According to both Jewish and Roman law, unless the body of an executed criminal was immediately claimed by the next of kin, it would be cast into a common grave with others and all physical record of them was completely obliterated. Why then, didn’t Mary the Mother, as the immediate next of kin, claim the body of her beloved son? Perhaps John, fearing for her safety, suggested leaving this duty to Joseph of Arimathea, as family guardian, to make the request. Also, Joseph had a nearby tomb ready, a private sepulchre, within the garden of his estate. Meanwhile, a reign of terror continued to prevail within the city walls. No follower of Christ was safe from the Sanhedrin, who were not just enjoying the Passover, but also a Roman holiday in the persecution of the followers of ‘The Way’.

All but two of the disciples had fled the city and gone into seclusion for fear of their lives. Nicodemus and Joseph remained, but only the latter dared walk openly in the streets without fear of physical attack. Yet he knew he was dealing with dynamite. Why then did he go to Pilate? Why didn’t he simply claim the body, according to the custom, on the hill of crucifixion itself? Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for him to go further than the Sanhedrin, but he knew that its fanatical Sadducean Priesthood sought the total extinction of Jesus, even in death. Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests, would have preferred Jesus’ body to be cast into the common pit so that all memory of him would be steeped in shame. To have him decently interred within a family sepulchre would run the risk of allowing a shrine to be set up, a martyr’s tomb, to which multitudes of pilgrims might flock for generations to come. The Sanhedrin might therefore have intervened to prevent her taking the body, but they could not interfere with Joseph. Nevertheless, he went before Pilate and boldly asserted kinship rights on behalf of his niece, thus securing the procurator’s support, just in case…

Following the entombment, the Sadducees, suspicious of the disciples, and determined to prevent any possible tampering with the body, requested a guard from Pilate, reminding him that Jesus had claimed he would rise again on the third day. Whether Pilate gave them a Roman guard, or whether he simply allowed them to arrange a guard from the Temple’s own men is unclear from the gospel accounts. The fact that they met with him on the Sabbath of the Festival shows just how determined they were to take every possibly precaution. They accompanied the guard to the tomb and saw to it that the tomb was sealed.

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn

Joseph of Arimathea plants the Glastonbury Thorn (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

So, on the Sabbath, the Saturday, the tomb was sealed and guarded, and the disciples, except for Joseph, were in hiding outside the city. The next day, Joseph of Arimathea was no longer guardian over his nephew’s body, but over Christ’s mission on earth.He was also to become the guardian of all the beloved against their arch-enemy, the Sanhedrin, and the Chief Priests. He made the work of Peter and Paul possible, and planted the roots of Christianity in fertile soil a long way from his homeland.

Prayer: Joseph of Arimathea

Bless all, O Lord, who worship you in secret; all whose hearts are growing round an undeclared allegiance; all whose life is laden with a treasure they would pour out at your feet; all who know with greater certainty each day that they have found the pearl of greatest price: then by the power of the Cross, O Christ, claim your victory in their heart, and lead them to the liberty of being seen by all men to be yours, for your dear name’s sake. Amen.

 Dick Williams

Good Friday: Shrouded from history?   1 comment

Mark 15, vv 1-37

Early in the morning, the Jewish Council talked over what they should do with Jesus. They handcuffed him and took him off and handed him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. They brought the charge against him. “Haven’t you got anything to say?” asked Pilate. “See the charges they are making against you.” But Jesus had nothing more to say. Pilate was very surprised. He wanted to put the mob in a good mood, so het set Barabbas free and had Jesus flogged. Then he handed him over to the soldiers to be put to death on a cross.

‘Simon, whose home was in North Africa, was coming into the city from the country at the time. The soldiers made him carry the wooden cross and marched Jesus to Skull Hill. They offered him drugs to deaden the pain, but he didn’t take them. They nailed him to the cross and tossed up for his clothes and shared them out among themselves.

‘The charge against Jesus was fastened on the cross, THE JEWISH KING. Passers-by shook their heads and swore at Jesus. “Aha! You’d pull down the Temple and rebuild it just like that? You’d better look after yourself and get down from the cross!”

‘It was now three o’clock in the afternoon.

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” Jesus called out loudly (The words are the words of an old Bible hymn)…One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine and put it on the end of a cane and tried to make Jesus drink it.

‘….Jesus gave a loud cry and died.’

Image

Image

(from Alan T Dale’s, Portrait of Jesus)

Only Jesus seemed to realise how near the end was. And what an end: a slave’s death on a Roman cross, executed as a threat to Roman peace! Suddenly, ‘with a loud cry and a gasp’, as Mark puts it, it was all over, or so it seemed. So, on the dawn of the day which commemorates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, one is tempted to ask, ‘What was Good about that?’

What we need to remember is that is not a piece of historical writing. It is part of an act of worship, a celebration. When they repeated it, Jesus’ friends were thinking of the greatness of God’s love which Jesus’ death had made real for them. The details of what happened vary in the accounts of the gospel-writers because they were writing for different ‘congregations’ and never intended to give a detailed account of what happened, since they thought the event would remain in living memory, and all that was needed was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice each time they met. They expected their world to end soon with the return of the resurrected Jesus.

When these accounts were written down there were misunderstandings and bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities. They therefore tend to emphasise the Jewish part in Jesus’ death, especially that of ‘the mob’ and the Temple authorities, and to underestimate the role of the Roman governor, Pilate. There is no doubt that he took the final decision; he could not have done otherwise. Any suggestion of a threat to Roman peace, especially in the crowded Jerusalem of the ‘High Festival’, Pesach, would force a governor worth his salt from Caesar to act quickly. The fact that some of Jesus’ supporters were armed would, on its own, give him the basis for Jesus’ execution as ‘The King of the Jews’, the words of the charge he had pinned to the cross and which he refused to alter.

Besides, the death of Jesus came to mean something very special to his friends. Not a desperate defeat resulting from a huge miscarriage of justice over which to remain bitter and brood, but a celebration of God’s love. This was how far Jesus’ love for humanity took him. His resolution to live according to God’s will and in his way, and to share that with his people, took him to the cross. He could have escaped at any point, but didn’t try to.

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns

English: Homemade Hot Cross Buns (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course it was a dark day, in every sense, but the Christian knows that without its events there would have been no Easter Sunday. For many British people, the most pleasant memory associated with the day is eating hot cross buns which were once sold from house to house by street vendors who cried ‘one-a-penny; two-a-penny; hot cross buns’. This is a seemingly trivial reminder of the fate of Jesus, and is, in fact, yet another example of the grafting of a Christian tradition onto an older pagan one. Two loaves, each marked with a cross, were found among the ashes of Herculaneum, destroyed in A.D. 75, and it is unlikely that they were made for a Christian, especially since at that time the more universally accepted symbol for the nascent religion was the sign of the fish. The Greeks also marked cakes like this, and the Anglo-Saxons made small cakes marked with a cross at the Spring festival held in honour of Diana. From early Roman times right the way through to the Saxon invasions, altars to Diana were raised at crossroads, and traders sold refreshments, including ‘cross buns’. The famous Banbury ‘cross’ of another nursery rhyme is a market place at the junction of two ancient roads, such as those that sprang up in market towns throughout the Cotswolds as the wool and textile trades developed.

The Church services in England and Wales remind Christians of the events of the first Good Friday. The sacred bread is brought back from the altar of repose and consumed, the cross is uncovered and many services recall the last words of Our Lord, the seven ‘words’ from the Cross:

Father forgive them for they know not what they do’

‘Let us pray for all those who are doing evil. Let us pray for all proud, violent, and malicious men…..let us pray for ourselves when lack of zeal, the deceitfulness of riches, and the cares of this world make us the sleeping partners of social evil…

Father forgive us, for we know not what we do’

‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’

‘Let us pray for all those who want to repent and begin a new life, but who feel that it is too late…And let us, as one with the thief, pray as he did: ‘Lord remember me’. So may our last hour blend into light of paradise, through the power of the crucified.

‘I thirst’

‘Let us pray for all who suffer physical distress through lack of food and water…And let us pray for all who hunger and thirst after righteousness; that in their obedience to Christ they might have meat to eat unknown to them before and, according to Christ’s promise, be satisfied.

Mother, there is your son. Son, there is your mother.’

‘Let us pray for family ties. Let us pray for the bereaved; let us pray that Christ may create relationships which survive the worst blows which life can give. And let us thank him for his power in creating new relationships which sustain us in the different stages of our pilgrimage.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

‘Let us pray for all who are abandoned; for nations…for children…for old people…for captives…who are abandoned…and for ourselves when we feel ourselves to be abandoned…May we learn to say “I shall yet give thanks unto him who is my Saviour, my King and my God”.

‘It is finished’

‘Let us thank Christ for finishing the work that he came to do; let us thank him for doing everything that is necessary for our salvation…to end our search for forgiveness…for pardon. And let us thank God that with the end of our search there is the beginning of a life of thankfulness, praise and service, offered to God not from fear but out of love. And let us pray that we may find the work he has for us to do, and finish it.

‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’

‘Let us thank God that when the conscious control of our life is beyond our grasp we may still repose upon God’s eternal changelessness…that in death our lives pass into the hands which made the world, and guide the universe. And may we place our lives in those hands while life is strong and full and sweet.

 ‘Father, with thanksgiving, we commit our spirit.’

(Dick Williams)

Good Friday has become a fashionable day on which to perform what are known as Passion Plays, re-enacting the events of the last week of Christ’s life. The most famous of these is performed at Oberammergau in memory of a time when the village survived a great plague which swept across Germany. The people perform the play every ten years, usually in the summer when more people can see it. Some 400 performers take part in a vast theatre with an open-air stage which holds 5,000 people, and the play lasts nearly five hours. It is accompanied by a symphony orchestra and a choir. A hundred performances are given of what has become a vast commercial enterprise, but also remains a sincere, unique and moving experience.

In some parts of Britain Pace Egg Plays are still performed on Good Friday, closely resembling the Christmas Mummers plays. Pace is derived from Pasche or Paschal, meaning Easter-tide. The custom still continues at Midgeley in Yorkshire and the Pace Egg Play there has been performed since 1800. It is thought to be based on a 16th-century story,

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman...

Deposition of Christ, 1507, drawing from Roman sarcophagi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘The History of Seven Champions of Christendom’. Seven is, of course, the number of perfection in the Bible, while thirteen, the number of people at the Last Supper, including Judas, is considered ‘unlucky’ by more superstitious Christians, who think that Friday 13th is doubly unlucky, since Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  However, there’s no need to ‘touch wood’ (i.e. the cross), because we are assured of the Resurrection on Sunday. Unlike ‘doubting’ Thomas, we don’t need to see and touch the wounds of the crucified and risen Christ to celebrate that as another historical fact. Nor do we need to establish the authenticity of the Turin shroud to prove this fact, though it’s interesting to read that scientists no longer think it is a Medieval fake. We may lack more than the simple chronicles of the events of Good Friday contained in the four gospels, but these chronicles mean that the passion of Christ, interpreted in various forms of art down the century, also remain indisputable facts. There is no fiction in the crucifixion of Christ, we know that he died on the cross and that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped his body in a linen sheet and laid it in a cave he himself had cut out of the rock, with a heavy stone rolled against the mouth. The Jewish historians also wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion.  These facts are the bedrock of  the Christian witness and the chronicles from which they come are not ‘shrouded from history’.

 

Spy Wednesday: The treachery of our unfaithful hearts.   4 comments

English: Judas Iscariot The face of Judas Isca...

English: Judas Iscariot The face of Judas Iscariot peers from carved foliage whilst carvings of the other 11 disciples adorn the pulpit in St.James’ church http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/740582 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

In Christianity, Spy Wednesday (also called Holy Wednesday, and in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Holy and Great Wednesday) is the Wednesday of Holy Week, the week before Easter. It is followed by Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Paschal Triduum. This day is known as Spy Wednesday as a reference to the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot, indicating that it is the day that Judas Iscariot first conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins. This event is described in the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6. The Sanhedrin was gathered together and it decided to kill Jesus, even before Pesach if possible. In the meantime, Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Here he was anointed on his head by a woman with very expensive ointment of spikenard. In John’s Gospel, this woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some of the disciples, particularly Judas, were indignant about this. Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on, Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. On Spy Wednesday, and sometimes during other days of Holy Week, a Tenebrae service (“tenebrae” meaning “shadows”) is held. During the Tenebrae service, there is a gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and Psalms is chanted or recited.

 

 

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Judas’ ‘surname’, Iscariot, derives from the place-name, ‘Kerioth’, which was in the far south of Judea, beyond Mount Hebron, looking east to the Salt Sea, Or ‘Dead’ Sea, across the wilderness of Judah. Like Jesus himself, through Joseph, Judas was also descended from the tribe of Judah, through his father Simon, and was the only one of the twelve not from Galilee. His speech and manners would therefore have differed substantially from the other disciples, who would have regarded him as more of an outsider than Jesus himself, who spoke with the same accent as them and, as far as they were concerned, was a Galilean, a member of the northern tribes of Israel. The Aramaic dialects would have been as different as the sixth century differences between Mercian and Northumbrian ‘English’, though they would have shared the ancient Hebrew of the scriptures, plus a smattering of Greek.

Mark’s gospel (14: 1-2, 10-11) gives us the earliest account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, paraphrased here in Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus:

It happened two days before the Great Feast.

The Jewish Leaders were trying to find some way of getting hold of Jesus and killing him. They didn’t dare do this openly, or when the Great Feast was on, for they were afraid of a riot.

They were delighted when they heard that one of ‘the Twelve’, Judas Iscariot, had come and offered to put Jesus into their hands. They promised to pay him, and Judas began to look for the chance of doing it.  

 

Matthew adds the detail of the thirty pieces of silver and Luke cites the primary cause of Judas’ betrayal as his mental condition; in first-century terms, demonic possession. He also adds the involvement of the officers Temple Guard in the plot to arrest Jesus. These are interesting additions. Luke, a doctor, is concerned to stress Judas’ psychological condition, suggesting that the financial reward was accepted, but not sought, by Judas. The disciples’ anger at Mary of Bethany for ‘wasting’ the expensive ointment, attributed in John’s gospel to Judas as ‘Treasurer’ to ‘the Twelve’, suggesting Judas’ love of ‘filthy lucre’ as his primary motivation, is not even mentioned by Luke, whereas both Mark and Matthew, like John, place it ‘centre stage’ in their accounts of Judas’ act of betrayal. John calls  Judas ‘a thief’, regularly helping himself to the disciples’ funds. Although John agrees that Judas’ plan to betray Jesus was pure evil, he does not attribute it to sudden mental illness on Judas’ part. John’s account places that event of demonic possession very specifically as taking place during the Passover meal. However, he suggests that Judas had already formed his plan before the Wednesday of Passover week, perhaps jealous of Andrew and Philip, who had provided access to Jesus to Greek Jews through their Bethsaida connections, Jews whom many ‘pure’ Judeans, like Judas, would have regarded as gentiles, though Jesus welcomed them as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. There is also a clue to Judas’ motives in John’s report of the fact that, although many of the Jewish authorities believed in Jesus, they feared the power of the Pharisee Party in the Sanhedrin to ban them from the Temple and its courts, so they would not speak openly of their belief, preferring the approval of men to that of God (Jn 12 vv 20-26, 42-43).

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot (Photo credit: Missional Volunteer)

 

Luke’s mention of the Temple Guard shows his emphasis on Judas’ concern, shared with the Sanhedrin, to keep this as an internal ‘Temple’ matter, not something to involve the Roman authorities in, at least at this stage. However, when the arrest takes place two nights later, John’s report claims that Roman soldiers were present, accompanying Judas, the Sanhedrin representatives and the Pharisees. This account makes it difficult to believe that Judas had any motive of forcing Jesus into an armed rebellion against Roman rule, as some commentators have suggested. His followers were armed with swords at Jesus’ own bidding, but following Peter’s attack on Malchus, the High Priest’s servant, Jesus himself ordered them not to resist his arrest.

The whole situation seems to have become hopelessly confused. Judas may have been an extreme example of the confusion felt by all Jesus’ disciples. The ‘traitor’ may have thought that Jesus, whatever he said in public, was the national leader sent by God to deliver his people and that he, Judas, only had to force his hand to make him act as he ought to free the Jewish people and overthrow the Romans, and that God would give him the miraculous power to do this.  So, he betrayed him into the hands of both the Sanhedrin and the secular Roman government. But nothing happened. Jesus accepted his arrest. When Judas realised what he had done, he went out into the shadows and committed suicide, so Matthew tells us (Mt 27 vv 3-10). The point is that, in his lifetime, there was nothing about the appearance of Jesus  to demonstrate his authority, no outward sign guaranteeing who he was. He had been passionately concerned with one thing only – what God was doing, summed up in the phrase ‘God’s Way’ or ‘the Kingdom of God’.

 

Judas' regret

Judas’ regret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the truth about God, men and women, and the world we live in, that Jesus tried to make clear in word and deed. He stood for something very different from the popular political assumptions and religious convictions of the other rabbis of his age, the sorts of things they preached about in the synagogues. He challenged some of the central religious beliefs of his own people, facing them publicly and finally in the central shrine of the national religion, the Temple in Jerusalem, Zion itself. The demands he was making on both leaders and led were far more radical and revolutionary than their aggressive nationalism. So, in their eyes, he was unpatriotic, unheroic and irreligious. He could have avoided a head-on collision with them, but chose not to. When the confrontation came, the Sanhedrin knew exactly what they thought the issue would be, ‘blasphemy’.  There was no alternative for them but to get rid of him, because he represented a threat to all they stood for. He also stood for something very different from the convictions all his closest friends seem to have held, not just the muddled political motives of the traitor, Judas. It was only after his death that they began to realise and understand his demands on them.

Spy Wednesday Prayer: “God our Father, we are exceedingly frail and indisposed to every virtuous and gallant undertaking. Strengthen our weakness, we beseech You, that we may do valiantly in this spiritual war; help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.” (Prayer of Thomas a Kempis)

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Posted April 16, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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Atrocities and Announcements   1 comment

Luke IV, xvi-xxi:

‘And Jesus came home to Nazareth and on a holiday went as usual into the Assembly and began to read. They gave him the book of the prophet Isaiah; and unrolling it he read. In the book was written: The spirit of the Lord is in me. He has chosen me to announce happiness to the unfortunate and the broken-hearted, to announce freedom to those who are bound, light to the blind, and salvation and rest to the tormented, to announce to all men the day of God’s mercy. He folded the book, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. And all waited to hear what he would say. And he said to them: That writing has now been fulfilled before your eyes.’ (Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’)

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hunga...

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunday 27th January this year is the day on which the victims of the Holocaust are commemorated, together with those who have been more recent victims of genocidal atrocities in Europe, Africa and throughout the world.

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jesus ‘announced’ the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue, he was in the middle of recruiting his disciples in Galilee. He had just returned from staying with John the Baptist, together with Philip and Andrew, the fishermen from Bethsaida. Andrew introduced his brother Simon to Jesus, who renamed him Peter, perhaps because he already had a close friend called Simon in his company. Philip’s brother Nathaniel, also from Bethsaida, was surprised that he of whom the prophets wrote should come from a neighbouring village, joking that it was unlikely that God’s messenger could come out of such a place as Nazareth. Obviously, local rivalry was strong between the relatively prosperous lakeside fishing ports and the poorer hillside villages. However, Nathaniel joined the small band of brothers already following the man from Nazareth. This may already have included the other Simon, a member of the Jewish Resistance hiding out in the hills, Simon the Zealot. He may well have been from Jaffa, the mother town of the Nazareth hamlet, two miles away. It was well-known as a Zealot town, the centre for several thousand men who were farmers or fishermen by day and ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. Later, Jesus met five thousand of them by the lakeside, looking like a leaderless rabble, a flock of sheep without a shepherd. He went back with them to the hills, out of sight of the Roman garrison at Capernaum, talking and breaking bread with them in companies of fifty, rank by rank, until late into the evening. Simon was probably one of those who wanted Jesus to stay in the hills and become their chief, but Jesus went off alone to think carefully about the different path he had envisaged for himself and his followers. They wanted revenge for the atrocities committed by the Romans, which were all, still within living memory, including that of 63 B.C. when some of the Judeans had barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress of Jerusalem.

Pompey, the Roman general, built a huge ramp on the north side and brought up his battering rams. However, the strong temple walls stood up for three months until one of the towers gave way and the legionaries poured through the breach. In the massacre that followed, twelve thousand people died. Pompey himself broke into the ‘Holiest Room’ of the Temple, where only the Chief Priest was allowed to go. This was an act of sacrilege which the Jews could not forgive. A century later, thirty years after Jesus’ life, the Zealots did gain their revenge when they ‘liberated’ Jerusalem in the war with Rome, destroying all the legal documents which recorded Jewish ‘debts’ to Rome, breaking up the landed estates and setting the slaves free. But Jesus had argued with them that violence was not God’s way, especially the ‘terrorism’ of the Zealots. When he rejected their offer to turn them into a more regular, disciplined ‘guerilla’ army, many of them abandoned him. Simon was one of the few who did not. Even the people of his own village turned against him, whereas he had always been well-liked as a young man. ‘No Man of God is liked by his own kin-folk’ he told them. They were even prepared to throw him off a nearby cliff, and, escaping from their grasp, he was unable ever to return, travelling incognito in the vicinity. It didn’t help that he continued to fraternize with some of the Roman soldiers in Capernaum.

Jesus’ words show us how appalled he was at the suffering and evil that violence, even in a good cause, brought. He quoted some of the prophets’ poems, and his own poems echoed their spirit:

‘…you did not see that God has come to you in love, not war’

‘There will be great distress among men,

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world is really God’s world’.

Already by the first century, there were more Jews living outside of Palestine than within it. It’s been estimated that there were two million living in Judea and four million elsewhere, so the ‘diaspora’ or dispersal had taken place gradually, before the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D. following the Zealot Uprising. There had been forced deportations to Babylon, where a million Jews still lived, but most of the others were ‘economic’ exiles who traded around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. They had to preserve their identity in a dominant culture which was predominantly Greek. They were therefore often organised into communities within city states, with a degree of self-government. In this context, the Medieval idea that the Jews as a ‘Nation’ were responsible for the death of Christ, which perhaps developed because Hellenistic Judaism later gave way to Christianity, would have been anathema to first century Palestinians. Even if we take Jesus’ parables, lamentations and prophecies as referring to Judea, they clearly refer to the religious leaders, the lawyer class and the ruling Pharisees in the Sanhedrin, not to the ‘Nation’ as a whole.

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (e...

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (event) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This tendency to make an entire ‘nation’ or people responsible for historical events is what leads to a cycle of vengeance and violence which Jesus came to break. It ends in mass genocide, from the pogroms of the middle ages to Rwanda and Bosnia. But it also repeats itself in making Turkey responsible for actions taken by Ottoman Turks in the First World War, or the German People as a whole responsible for the Holocaust. For some years after the Second World War, American GI’s were given guides to de-Nazification which did just this and urged them see themselves as agents sent to purge the Germans of a deep psychosis of racism and militarism which, of course, had in fact been prevalent in other early twentieth century ‘civilisations’, not least among the British, who ‘invented’ the Science of Eugenics and thus the theories of racial superiority, as well and ‘the instrument of the Concentration Camp’ in which Boer women and children died of disease. As Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, pointed out, the idea of collective guilt is not helpful in achieving justice and reconciliation. Individuals and organisations are responsible for atrocities, not whole peoples and nations. When we accept our individual responsibility for our own actions, we break the cycle of violence and add another link to the peace chain.

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