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Jesus in Britain

And did those feet... walk to Stonehenge?

Jesus in Britain

Illustration by Alex Tomlinson.

FT261

According to the Bible, Jesus never travelled further than 300 miles from his home, and that was when he was a baby. Yet legends have persisted that in the years before he started his work as a Palestinian teacher and healer he travelled extensively – going as far as India in the east and Britain in the west (see also FT110:24–26; 146:50; 187:31).

The story of his trip to Britain is celebrated every time a football crowd, political party conference or Women’s Institute meeting sings the familiar words from the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ – “and did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?” The feet referred to, of course, are those of Jesus – or the “holy lamb of God” as the poet, artist and eccent­ric William Blake called him.

The words come from a strange mystical poem written by Blake around 1808 and set to music over 100 years later by Hubert Parry. It was the face of Jesus, the “counten­ance Divine”, that Blake imagined shining forth from England’s “clouded hills” and “pastures green”. And this seemingly preposterous idea is celebrated in England’s unofficial national anthem.


FROM PALESTINE TO BRITAIN
When Blake penned his famous lines, he had in mind an obscure West Country legend that Jesus had visited England as a boy or young man. The story goes that Jesus’s uncle was Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, after the crucifixion, provided the tomb where Jesus’s body was buried. The Bible gives no further information about Joseph, but legend has it that he was a wealthy trader and he regularly travelled on business between the eastern Medi­terranean and the tin mines of Cornwall. On one of his visits to Britain, or so it is claimed, he took his young nephew with him. They landed on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall and later travelled around the north Cornish and Devon coast to Somerset, visiting Glastonbury and the Mendips.

But could the story possibly be true? A recent book [1] and a new documentary film [2] suggest the story is both possible and plaus­ible, and they provide an explanation as to why the young Jesus might have made the 6,000-mile round trip from his homeland to the edge of the known world.

The existence of the sea route from first-century Palestine to Britain 2,000 years ago is generally acknowledged. The former was already part of the Roman Empire and the latter had trading links, and the sea and land routes across the empire were well established for military, administrative and trade purposes. There is no doubt that Cornwall was at the time an important source of tin and other metals.

What cannot be substantiated in any way, either from written sources or archæological evidence, is that Uncle Joseph was involved in travelling along these routes or that his nephew Jesus accompanied him on one of his voyages. The legend is entirely oral and there is a gap of 600 years between the events as told and the time when they first appear in any written record. Or, to put it another way, the legends of Jesus’s visit to Britain go back 1,400 years and were not simply the invention of mediæval story­tellers – they have a long pedigree. Nevertheless, say the experts, charming stories do not add up to historical facts.

One scholar who has taken a fresh look at the stories and concluded that they are not as fanciful as might at first appear is Dr Gordon Strachan, a Church of Scotland minister who for many years lectured in the Department of Architecture at Edinburgh University. His book, and the subsequent film based on it, draw on the latest archæological evidence from the Holy Land and take an innovative look at the early history of the Christian church, reaching a challeng­ing conclusion. Jesus might well have come to Britain, says Dr Strachan, not just on a fun trip with his uncle – a holy gap year before starting the real business of being a Messiah – but with a serious purpose. That purpose was to study with the Druids.


THE MISSING YEARS
The missing years of Jesus’s life have long fascinated Christians. What did Jesus do before starting his three-year ministry? Apart from the birth stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels and a single account of Jesus as a boy getting lost on a trip to Jerusalem, the New Testament says nothing about his first 30 years.

The conventional view is that Jesus worked with his Earthly father, who was a carpenter in Nazareth, and studied Jewish scripture. He was certainly a bright lad, for when eventually found by his parents after they had lost him in Jerusalem, he was discovered talking to the Jewish scholars and amazing them with his learning.

What Strachan suggests is that Jesus’s education was not limited to Jewish hist­ory and theology. It extended far more widely to include Greek philosophy and mathe­matics, and in order to study these subjects he would have needed to travel to meet the best teachers.

Dr Strachan tells the story of his own ‘Eureka!’ moment when he realised how the young Jesus’s interest in the world of Greek ideas could have come about. He was being taken round the Israeli archæological site at Sepphoris. What has been discovered there over the last 25 years of excavation is a major classical city build by Herod Antipas. Work on the city started around 4 BC, when Jesus would have been around two years old, and finished some 15 years later, when he would have been of an age to be assisting his father and learning a trade.

Strachan was standing on the summit of the extensive site when he asked his guide for the name of the small town across the valley on the hill opposite.

“Nazareth,” the guide replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Nazareth,” the guide replied with emphasis.

At that moment Strachan made the vital link that was to shape his research. If Jesus was a carpenter living in a village just three or four miles away from a major building site, he reasoned, he would have known it and most probably worked there. And if he had worked there, then he would have had the opportunity to learn about classical architecture.

The buildings of Sepphoris included many of the most fashionable architectural features of the period, including some fine mosaics and a magnificent theatre. The city was constructed on the principles laid down by Vitruvius and its design incorporated the mathematical symbols and proportions which, the Greeks believed, embodied perfection.

Shortly before the work on Sepphoris began, Vitruvius had written his celebrated 10-part treatise on architecture in which he described how to use the mathematics found in the natural world to create buildings which were in perfect harmony.

Inevitably, any local craftsmen working at Sepphoris would have absorbed the principles of Vitruvian architecture and become familiar with the underlying Pythagorean mathematics, which is relevant not only to building design but also to theories relating to music, acoustics and sacred space.

“Until visiting Sepphoris I had never brought the Hebrew and Greek worlds so closely together in my mind,” Dr Strachan recalls.

Confirmation that Jesus had known Sepphoris and was acquainted with Greek culture is strongly implied in the biblical narrative of his life. He likened the Jewish religious leaders to the hypocrites, using a Greek-based word derived from stage acting. (Of course, the Gospels we have were written in Greek.) Sepphoris had the only theatre in the region at the time and Jesus must have picked up the term from watching the masked actors at work near his home town.

The influence of Pythagoras on Greek thinking was profound. To some Greeks, he was viewed as a demi-God, a manifestation of the God Apollo, and a cult existed to honour him. He has been described as the founder of mathematics and he started a school of philosophy. He lived over 500 years before Jesus, and it is said that he developed his ideas from what he discovered on his journeys.

One account suggests that many of his ideas came from his travels to Egypt, Babylon and the north. It is certainly the case that in northern Europe, and Britain in particular, there was a highly advanced civilisation, which through detailed astronomical observation had a sophisticated knowledge of geometry and mathematics. The stone circles of the north, which predate Pythagoras, can be used as solar and lunar observatories.

By Jesus’s time, the custodians of this northern wisdom were the Druids, a priestly caste renowned for their learning. They ran the equivalent of the universities of the day, which were attended by young men from around the Roman Empire.

“It is to the Druids that a large number of the young men resort for the purpose of instruction,” wrote Julius Cæsar, “and the Druids are in great honour among them. For they determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private… This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.” [3]


THE ESSENE CONNECTION
But would a local lad working on the building site of a classical city really have taken such a close interest in the underlying Pythagorean principles of its architecture that he would have wanted to travel to Britain to study more?

Maybe not – except that Dr Strachan identified something about Jesus’s Earthly family which suggested the carpenter’s son could have had a very particular reason for taking an interest in mathematics, sacred geometry and Pythagorean mathematics: the Essene connection. And Nazareth was no ordinary village, but an abandoned settlement that had been occupied by a branch of the Essenes, the Jewish sect now most famous for the desert settlement at Qumran, near which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. They were noted students of the Hebrew forms of sacred mathematics and skilled healers, said to be the guardians of a secret wisdom. Their ideas, says Strachan, can be seen to form part of a wider wisdom tradition linked with India, Egypt and northern Europe.

The late Swiss archæologist Father Bargil Pixner, who excavated a site identi­fied by some as an Essene section of Jeru­salem, believes Jesus, while not being a member of the Essenes, had strong links with them. He pointed to the reputed site of the Upper Room, where the last supper was held, being in the Essene quarter and to how the social structures of the Essene community were very similar to those of the early Christian Church. The Essenes also followed a calendar which differed from that of the Jews, calculating a year with 364 days. And it is by using the Essene calendar that the confusing chronology of the week of Jesus’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion begins to make sense.

The author Robin Heath makes a link between the Essenes and Britain. His work [4] has primarily been the study of the geo­metry of the ancient stone circles , trying to demonstrate how they were used to track and predict the movements of the Sun and Moon. The non-canonical Book of Enoch, he says, which was one of the key scriptures found at Qumran, and which is also quoted in the New Testament, contains an intriguing set of astrophysical observations. Enoch is a character from the Old Testament, the great-grandfather of Noah, who, it is said, lived for 364 years. In the book bearing his name, he is told by an angel to come north with him “to measure”, and in another passage the measurements given are those of the rising and the setting of the Sun at different times of the year.

The information is not set out as it might be in a modern set of scientific observ­ations, but as this extract describing the Sun at midsummer shows, the meaning is clear enough. “And the Sun returns to the east and enters into the sixth portal, and rises and sets in the sixth portal one-and-thirty mornings on account of its sign. On that day the day becomes longer than the night, and the day becomes double the night, and the day becomes twelve parts, and the night is shortened and becomes six parts.”

“From the description,” says Heath, “the latitude can be deduced and Enoch is not in the Middle East, but at the latitude of southern Britain. And while I cannot say positively he was in Britain and the portals described are Stonehenge, the description fits very well.”


THE ISLE OF AVALON
The oral legends give the sketchiest details about Jesus’s supposed visit to Britain. Not surprisingly, they have attracted some pretty wacky supporters over the years. One group well to the left bank of the mainstream is The True Jesus Organisation, which claims to represent the 99th generat­ion of descendants of the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. They have added their own embroidered details to the stories and they go far further than Dr Strachan’s conjecture:

“Jesus began his spiritual studies with his mother and father… both Enlightened Ones of the Essenes. The Essenes… were all that remained from the ancient Egyptian Mystery School founded in the 15th cent­ury BC by the Pharaoh ThothMoses III…

“However, over time, certain amounts of the ancient wisdom and techniques had been forgotten because the Ark of the Covenant had been buried long ago. The Ark, along with Moses’s documents and all but one of the Stones of the Covenant, was buried in the Jerusalem area during the 6th century BC and no one in Jesus’s time knew where the Ark was buried.

“Jesus travelled throughout the Middle East and Europe to study at various ‘Mystery Schools’. Jesus found the sacred ‘Rock of Israel’, one of the Stones of the Covenant, much to his surprise, while visiting the Druid Mystery School in Glastonbury, The Rock of Israel (later known as the Stone of Destiny) was on loan from the Celts and Druids of Ireland to the Celts and Druids at Glastonbury at the time of Jesus’s visit.”

The Victorian clergyman Rev. RW Morgan wrote a book [5] in 1860 tracing the origins of British Christianity before the Church of Rome took charge. He claimed unequivocally that Joseph of Arimathea first introduced Christianity to Britain some time between AD 36 and 39. Morgan named the first British bishop, identified the earliest converts and even claimed that St Paul came to Britain on his travels.

He asserted that it is generally acknow­ledged that the British were the first Europ­ean converts and quoted various figures from history who held this view. One impressive source is Gildas, the 6th-century British historian who dated the arrival of Christianity in Britain to five years after the crucifixion, “the last year of Tiberius Cæsar”. Morgan cited an even earlier reference to Joseph of Arimathea, the words of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, dated to around 450, who said, “Joseph received his everlasting rest at the Isle of Avalon.” Glastonbury was long believed to have been the location of Avalon, an identification that was strengthened when some 12th-century monks claimed to have dug up the bones of King Arthur there (see FT143:40–44; 187:31).

Confirmation – or, on the other hand, perhaps the origins – of this story comes from a supposed Vatican manuscript dated to AD 35 quoted by Baronius, a 16th-century cardinal historian, and cited by Morgan. At the time when, according to the New Testament’s Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the supporters of Jesus were scattered abroad from Judæa, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and others fled by boat. They landed in southern France before Joseph set sail again to travel to Britain, where after “preaching the gospel, he died” – or so Morgan claimed.

According to Gordon Strachan, the Glastonbury legends largely took shape in mediæval times – it was then that they resurfaced and became mixed up with tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The Grail, said by some to have been the cup used by Jesus at the last supper, was believed to have been brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury after the crucifixion and to remain hidden somewhere in the area even today. Another legend tells of how the thorn tree in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey (or that on nearby Wearyall Hill) was grown from the wooden staff carried by Joseph. The mediæval abbey certainly found it good for business to endorse the legends that Glastonbury had been both the burial place of Arthur and the cradle of British Christianity.


A PYTHAGOREAN TREASURE
But long before the abbey was built, it seems there was a place of Christian worship in the town. When St Augustine arrived in AD 597 to bring Roman Catholicism to Britain, he heard about a small wattle-and-daub chapel at Glastonbury. In a letter to the Pope, he reported that this was believed to have been built by Joseph of Arimathea or even “by the hands of the Lord himself”.

Dr Strachan believes that before Augustine’s mission the pre-Roman version of Christianity in Britain was well established. Early Christ­ianity had synchronised well with the indigenous British religion to create the Celtic Christianity that predated the Roman Catholic Church.

One reason why Christianity was readily accepted, Strachan suggests, is that the Druids had religious ideas that paralleled the new faith. In one Druid myth, they were expecting the emergence of a messiah-type figure called Hesus. “If Jesus is to be seen as a universal figure, and not solely one of relev­ance to the Jewish people, there is no reason why Jesus could not have come to fulfil the ‘Old Testaments’ of other religions. To me Jesus is a universal, inclusive figure.”

Yet once the Pope’s ecclesiastical rule in Britain was established, there was no place for such colourful local deviations from orthodoxy. “There was a cover-up and the old stories went underground or were lost.”

And irretrievably lost was the secret of Glastonbury, which some say to this day lies beneath the floor of the mediæval abbey. It might, says Strachan, have been in symbolic or code form. Perhaps it related to the story that Jesus was there. Perhaps it confirmed the early Christian interest in numbers, numerology and astrology, showing how everything in God’s creation was connected by mathematics.

“I was quite sceptical when I first heard the Glastonbury legends about Jesus coming to England with Joseph of Arimathea,” Dr Strachan recalls. “Certainly they related to the silent years of Jesus. But I wanted to know why he would come, and none of the previous studies addressed that.  I now think I know why. He had discovered Greek Pythagorean mathematics as a young man working at Sepphoris. He was from an Essene background, which was Pythagor­ean. He wanted to go to the source of the ancient wisdom. And that was in Britain, where the Druids had preserved and taught the ancient ideas.”

Early Christians, Strachan says, were fascinated by mathematics. They were very interested in gematria, the old art or science of attributing numerical values to letters, when numbers were written as Greek lett­ers – alpha was one, beta two and so on. Gematria could also be applied to Hebrew letters, and in both languages the name of Jesus had huge numerical significance. “New Testament writings are permeated with Pythagorean number symbolism and cosmology,” he goes on. “If many of the early Christians in Jerusalem were converted Essenes steeped in the Old Testament and other important Jewish literature such as the Book of Enoch, they would have been perfectly equipped to produce Pythagorean editions of the Gospel narratives in which Greek number symbolism, gematria and cosmology would have been cleverly matched to the Hebrew. The precious Pythagorean treasures would have been hidden in the foundations of the linguistic structure of the New Testament” (see below, 'Pythagoras, the Bible and Stonehenge').

As important as astrology and mathematics were to the early Christians, they were not subjects which found a place in orthodox theology as it evolved. For 1,000 years, these ideas were successfully suppressed. In Britain, the indigenous version of Christianity was suppressed by successive incomers and conquerors, only to resurface in mediæval times in the Glastonbury legends, and more especially in symbolic form in the design of the great mediæval cathedrals. Dr Strachan has also published a major work on the sacred geometry of Chartres Cathedral. [6] Chartres is full of astrological symbols in carvings and glass, as well as a ground plan that seems to be based on the vesica piscis.

To the ancient Greek, Essene and Hebrew worlds and to the early Christian commun­ities, numbers were more than tools of calculation. Numbers had meaning and value. Today, we might think of 13 as being unlucky, but in many ancient cultures all numbers had their individual personalities and characters. And the shapes derived from numbers through geometry equally poss­essed significance. Pythagoreans believed that the golden ratio (1:1.6), drawn from the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…) which is found in the patterns of nature, represented the qualities of perfection.

Yet, if all these connections between Druids, standing stones, Glastonbury/Avalon, Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus all seem too improbable – how about this for coincidence? Just outside the Israeli city of Ramla, traditionally believed to be the town of Arimathea and where there is a church dedicated to St Joseph, can be found Israel’s best standing stones. They are aligned north-south and, appropriately,  overlook the Ayalon Valley.


Notes
1 Gordon Strachan: Jesus The Master Builder, Floris Books, Edinburgh.
2 And did those feet, Pilgrim Productions, Canterbury, 2009.
3 Cæsar: Gallic Wars, Book 6.
4 Robin Heath: Sun, Moon and Stonehenge: Proof of High Culture in Ancient Britain, Bluestone Press.
5 Rev. RW Morgan: St Paul in Britain, 1860.
6 Gordon Strachan: Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space, Floris, Edinburgh.




PYTHAGORAS, THE BIBLE AND STONEHENGE
The Bible is full of significant numbers: 666 (or 616 – see FT201:17) is said to be the number of the beast; 40 days were spent by Jesus in the Wilderness; 12 apostles were selected; a further 72 disciples were sent to preach, to give just a few examples. Some of the most obscure numerical references can only be understood with reference to Pythagorean mathematics. A strange story is told in the New Testament (John 21 vv1–14) of the third appearance of Jesus to the apostles (known as ‘the 12’) when 153 fish were caught in the Sea of Galilee. The theorem attributed to Pythagoras says that in a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. And 3 squared is equal to 9; 12 squared is equal to 144; and 144 plus 9 is 153.

The length of the hypotenuse is the square root of 153, which is 12.37.

The significance of the sum 12.37 is that it is the number of lunar months in a solar year, a figure which, says Robin Heath, can be calculated from measurements taken at Stonehenge.

The early Christian logo was the fish, and Gordon Strachan points out that the simple shape of the fish they used is the product of Pythagorean geometry – the vesica piscis. It is a shape produced from two intersecting circles and one also found in the ground plan of many stone circles. The word for fish is significant in numerology and in its form as Pisces has enormous astrological signific­ance. “The underlying message was that Jesus was more than just a teacher and healer. He was more than the Messiah, he was also the creator of the heavens – God himself.”

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Jesus in Britain - well

Vesica piscis on lid of Glastonbury's Chalice Well.
Kurt Thomas Hunt

  Jesus in Britain - Glastonbury Tor

St Michael's Tower, atop Glastonbury Tor.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Jesus in Britain - druid

A druid.
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  Jesus in Britain - Stonehenge

Sunset at Stonehenge.
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Author Biography
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious affairs correspondent and author of many books, including Diana: The Making of a Saint (2007).He also produced and directed the documentary And Did Those Feet?

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