King Jesus

Robert Graves

CONTENTS

Part One

  1. SIMPLETONS

  2. CHILDREN OF RAHAB

  3. THE BIRTH OF MARY

  4. A CERTAIN MAN

  5. THE HEIRESS OF MICHAL

  6. THE APPARITION

  7. MARY AT AIN-RIMMON

  8. THE TRIAL OF KING ANTIPATER

  9. THE BLOOD OF ZACHARIAS

  10. THE NATIVITY

  11. THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT

    Part Two

  12. AT LEONTOPOLIS

  13. THE RETURN FROM EGYPT

  14. THE DOCTORS

  15. THE SLUR

  16. ARROW AND TILE

  17. FOUR BEASTS OF HOREB

  18. THE TEREBINTH FAIR

  19. KING ADAM

    Part Three

  20. THE HEALER

  21. THE POET AND SAGE

  22. THE BRIDEGROOM

  23. THE KINGDOM OF GOD

  24. THE DEBT

  25. THE BUTCHER’S CROOK

  26. THE SWORD

  27. THIRTY SILVER SHEKELS

  28. THIRTY GOLD TALENTS

  29. THE POWER OF THE DOG

  30. THE FAREWELL
    HISTORICAL COMMENTARY

When in The Gospel according to the Egyptians, Shelom asked the Lord: “How long shall death prevail?” He answered: “So long as you women bear children….” And when she asked again: “I have done well then in not bearing children? He answered: “Eat every plant but that which is bitter….” And when she inquired at what time the things concerning which she had questioned Him should be known, He answered: “When you women have trampled on the garment of shame and when the two become one, and when the male with the female is neither male nor female….” And the Saviour said in the same Gospel: “I have come to destroy the works of the Female.”

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA
(Stromata, iii.).        

…Commentators refer to Jeshu-ha-Notzri [i.e. Jesus] by mention of the wicked kingdom of Edom, since that was his nation…. He was hanged on a Passover Eve…. He was near to the Kingdom [i.e. in order of succession].

Balaam the Lame [i.e. Jesus] was 33 years old when Pintias the Robber [i.e. Pontius Pilate] killed him…. They say that his mother was descended from princes and rulers, but consorted with carpenters.

Lexicon Talmudicum, sub “Abanarbel”    
and Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 106b, 43a, 51a.

Part One

CHAPTER ONE

SIMPLETONS

I, Agabus the Decapolitan, began this work at Alexandria in the ninth year of the Emperor Domitian and completed it at Rome in the thirteenth year of the same.1 It is the history of the wonder-worker Jesus, rightful heir-at-law to the dominions of Herod, King of the Jews, who in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, the Governor-General of Judaea. Not the least wonderful of Jesus’s many feats was that, though certified dead by his executioners after a regular crucifixion, and laid in a tomb, he returned two days later to his Galilean friends at Jerusalem and satisfied them that he was no ghost; then said farewell and disappeared in equally mysterious fashion. King Jesus (for he was entitled to be so addressed) is now worshipped as a god by a sect known as the Gentile Chrestians.

Chrestians is the commoner name for Christians, that is to say, “followers of the Anointed King”. Chrestians means “followers of the Chrestos, or Good Man”—good in the sense of simple, wholesome, plain, auspicious—and is therefore a term less suspect to the authorities than “Christians”; for the word Christos suggests defiance of the Emperor, who has expressed his intention of stamping out Jewish nationalism once and for all. “Chrestos”, of course, can also be used in the derogatory sense of “simpleton”. “Chrestos ei”—“What a simple-minded fellow you are!”—were the very words which Pontius Pilate addressed in scorn to Jesus on the morning of crucifixion; and since the Christians glory in their simplicity, which the most sincere of them carry to extravagant lengths, and in receiving the same scorn from the world as King Jesus himself, they do not refuse the name of “The Simpletons”.

Originally this faith was confined to Jews, who held a very different view of Jesus from that popularized by the Gentile Chrestians; then it gradually spread from the Jews of Palestine to those of the Dispersion, whose communities are to be found in Babylonia, Syria, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Asia Minor, Libya, Spain—in fact, in almost every country of the world—and has now become international, with Gentiles decidedly in the majority. For the visionary Paul of Tarsus, who led the Gentile schism and was himself only a half-Jew, welcomed to membership of his Church the very numerous Gentile converts to the Jewish faith, known as God-fearers, who had shrunk from circumcision and the ritual rigours of Judaism and were thus precluded from becoming honorary Sons of Abraham. Paul declared that circumcision was unnecessary to salvation and that Jesus had himself made light of Jewish ceremonial laws on the ground that moral virtue outweighs ritual scrupulousness in the eyes of Jehovah, the Jewish God. Paul also assured them that Jesus (whom he had never met) had posthumously ordained that a symbolic eating of his body and drinking of his blood was to be a permanent institution in the Chrestian Church. This rite, known as the Eucharist, provides a welcome bridge between Judaism and the Greek and Syrian mystery-cults—I mean those in which the sacred body of Tammuz is sacramentally eaten and the sacred blood of Dionysus is sacramentally drunk; and by this bridge thousands of converts have come over. The Judaic Chrestians, however, have rejected the Eucharist as idolatrous. They also have rejected as blasphemous the Gentile Chrestian view that Jesus stands in much the same relation to Jehovah as, for example, the God Dionysus does to Father Zeus, who begot him on the nymph Semele. A begotten God, the Jews say, must logically have a mother; and they deny that Jehovah has ever had any truck with either nymphs or goddesses.

The fact is that the Jews as a nation have persuaded themselves that they differ in one main particular from all others that live on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea: namely, that they never owed any duty either to the Great Triple Moon-goddess who is generally reputed to have mothered the Mediterranean races, or to any other goddess or nymph whatsoever. This claim is untenable, for their sacred books preserve clear traces of their former attachment, notably in the accounts that they give of their heroes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. Indeed, that the Jews are at the present day perhaps the most miserable of all civilized nations—scattered, homeless, suspect—is ascribed by the superstitious to the Goddess’s ineluctable vengeance: for the Jews have been prime leaders in the religious movement against her not only in their own country but in all the countries of the Dispersion. They have proclaimed Jehovah as the sole Ruler of the Universe and represented the Goddess as a mere demoness, witch, Queen of Harlots, succuba and prime mischief-maker.

Jehovah, it seems clear, was once regarded as a devoted son of the Great Goddess, who obeyed her in all things and by her favour swallowed up a number of variously named rival gods and godlings—the Terebinth-god, the Thunder-god, the Pomegranate-god, the Bull-god, the Goat-god, the Antelope-god, the Calf-god, the Porpoise-god, the Ram-god, the Ass-god, the Barley-god, the god of Healing, the Moon-god, the god of the Dog-star, the Sun-god. Later (if it is permitted to write in this style) he did exactly what his Roman counterpart, Capitoline Jove, has done: he formed a supernal Trinity in conjunction with two of the Goddess’s three persons, namely, Anatha of the Lions and Ashima of the Doves, the counterparts of Juno and Minerva; the remaining person, a sort of Hecate named Sheol, retiring to rule the infernal regions. Most Jews hold that she still reigns there, for they say: “Jehovah has no part in Sheol”, and quote the authority of the 115th Psalm: “The dead praise not Jehovah, neither do any that go down into silence.” But Jove, whose wife and former mother, Juno, is still in sole charge of women’s affairs and whose so-called daughter Minerva still presides over all intellectual activities, and who is himself bisexual, has never cared to do what Jehovah did just before his enforced captivity at Babylon: that is, to repudiate his two Goddess partners and in solitary splendour attempt to rule over men and women alike. Nor has Olympian Zeus dared to do this. He also, it is said, was once the devoted son of the Triple Goddess and later, after castrating her paramour Cronos, annulled her sovereignty: but he leaves the charge of women’s affairs to his wife Hera, his sister Demeter, and his daughters Artemis, Aphrodite and Athene. Severity towards them he has certainly shown at times (if the mythographers are to be trusted), but he cannot rule satisfactorily without them. God without Goddess, the Romans and Greeks agree, is spiritual insufficiency; but this the Jews deny.

In a somewhat obscene passage in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel is to be found Jehovah’s bill of divorcement against his two partner-Goddesses, who are there named Aholah and Aholibah. Nevertheless, the Trinity continued undissolved in a Jewish Temple at Elephantine in Upper Egypt until five hundred years ago.

Nobody can understand the story of Jesus except in the light of this Jewish obsession of celestial patriarchy; for it must never be forgotten that, despite all appearances, despite even his apparent sponsorship of the Eucharistical rite, Jesus was true to Jehovah from his childhood onward without a single lapse in loyalty. He once told Shelom, the midwife who had brought him into the world, that he had “come to destroy the work of the female”; he accepted the title of “Son of David”—King David who had stabilized the Jewish monarchy and persuaded the priestesses of Anatha, until then the proud rulers of clans and tribes, to content themselves with membership of his royal harem. And as the Second Adam Jesus’s self-imposed task was to undo the evil which, according to the patriarchal legend, the First Adam had caused by sinfully listening to the seductive plea of his wife Eve.

Whether patriarchy is a better solution to the eternal problem of the relations of men and women than matriarchy or than the various compromises which civilized nations have adopted, who shall decide? All that needs to be recorded here is that at a critical stage in their history the Jews decided to forbid the further participation of priestesses in their sacred rites. Women, they said, have an unsettling effect on religious life: they introduce the sexual element, which inevitably tends to confuse mystical ecstasy with eroticism. For this point of view there is much to be said, because the effect of sexual promiscuity in festival time is to loosen the ties of family life and disorder the social system. Besides, there was a political side to the Jewish theory: namely, that the only hope of survival for the nation, which was settled at the cross-roads of the world, lay in its keeping strictly to itself and avoiding the foreign entanglements in which amorous and luxury-loving queens and priestesses invariably involve their subjects. Yet the Jews, who are Orientals only in part, have never been able to keep their women in perfect subjection; and have never therefore succeeded in serving Jehovah with the purity that they profess. The Great Goddess, to whom the land of Palestine originally belonged, is always tripping them up and seducing them into folly. Belili, her earliest name, they spell Belial, meaning Utter Destruction. Their apostasy from the Goddess gave them qualms at first, and the poet Jeremiah who lived at this period quotes some of them as saying: “We will now again burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her as we once did, and our fathers, our kings and princes in the cities of Judaea and in the streets of Jerusalem, for then we had food in plenty and health and prosperity. But since we ceased to burn incense and pour libations to her, we have been in distress, consumed by the sword and by famine.” But the rest stood fast by their resolution.

The Goddess’s venerable Temple at Hierapolis, on the Syrian bank of the Upper Euphrates, a region connected in Biblical legend with the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, is well worth a visit. There, a Sun-god, a sort of Dionysus-Apollo-Zeus who rides a bull, is married to his mother the Moon-goddess who rides a lion and grasps a snake in her hand. The Trinity, which is ruled by the Mother, is completed by an ambiguous bisexual deity to whom the dove is sacred. The Temple, which is served by oracular women and eunuch priests, faces East; outside the portals are two enormous phallic pillars like those which stood outside King Solomon’s Temple; inside, all is gold and gems and marble. The ritual is a complicated one and includes pre-marital prostitution for young women, self-castration for young men; for others, intercessions, comminations, hymns of praise, libations, purifications, incense-burning, sacrifices of sheep, goats and children; holocausts of live beasts hanged from terebinth-trees; and oracles taken from sacred fish and sweating statutes. The Temple is said to have been founded in honour of the Moon-goddess by Deucalion (whom the Jews call Noah) when the Deluge which had overwhelmed Asia at last subsided. In his honour a sacred ark of acacia-wood is exhibited and water is poured down the chasm through which, it is said, the waters of the Deluge were carried away.

The Canaanites, whom the Israelites conquered and enslaved under Joshua, were devotees of this Goddess. Their remnants still cling to the cult of the terebinth-tree, the dove and the snake, still bake barley-cakes in honour of the Goddess, and still maintain the right of every young woman to provide herself with a dowry by prostitution.

I grant the political expediency of keeping certain remarkable facts connected with Jesus’s birth and parentage concealed from all but the inner circle of Chrestian initiates. I have discovered these by patient and discreet inquiry, and it is clear to me that if they were laid before the Emperor he could hardly be blamed for suspecting that the other-worldly religious communism of Chrestianity was a cloak for militant Jewish royalism. I also grant the expediency of Paul’s decision to dissociate the new faith as far as possible from the faith from which it sprang, and though it is untrue to say that the Jews as a nation rejected Jesus, it is true enough that ever since the Fall of Jerusalem the poor remnants of the Jewish nationalists have detested not only the Gentile Chrestians but the Judaic sort as well. These offended by what seemed at the time a cowardly and unpatriotic refusal to assist in the defence of the Holy City: quitting Judaea and settling at Pella across the Jordan.

The Judaic Chrestians had kept strictly to the letter of the Law under the original leadership of James (I mean the Bishop of Jerusalem, who was the half-brother of Jesus). They were no cowards, but merely considered it a sin to engage in war; since Jesus himself had foreseen the fate of Jerusalem and had shed tears for it, they could hardly have been expected to risk their eternal salvation by defending the walls. After its capture by Titus many of them were tempted to renounce Judaism because of the double disadvantage of being ill-treated as Jews by the Romans and despised by the Jews as traitors. But they would not renounce their allegiance to Jesus. Must they then modify their principles and enter the Gentile Chrestian Church originally controlled by the Apostle Philip but reorganized after Philip’s death by their former enemy and persecutor Paul—the very man who had once thrown James down the steps of the Temple? That would mean consorting with uncircumcised and ceremonially unclean Chrestian converts of all classes and conditions—few of whom knew as many as five words of Hebrew and who all considered the Mosaic Law to be virtually abrogated.

It was a hard choice, and only a few chose the more heroic alternative of keeping true to the Law. The Gentile Chrestians were accommodating to those who compounded, for James was dead and Paul was dead and Peter was dead and they had instructions from Jesus himself to forgive their enemies. It was important that a religion of brotherly love should not be contradicted by indecent dissensions. Though there was no question of the circumcision problem being raised again, the breach was repaired with a doctrinal compromise; and what was more, the Gentiles, as they put it, heaped coals of fire on the heads of the Judaists by relieving their financial distresses. For Paul’s quarrel with the original Church had been largely a money quarrel. He had counted on a large sum of money collected from converts in Asia Minor, and on an ecstatic vision of Heaven vouchsafed him in an epileptic trance, to win admission to the Apostleship. He was informed coldly that the gifts of the spirit could not be bought and that the vision was indecently ambitious.

This compromise had its disadvantages, as all compromises have: the greatest of which was the mass of petty contradictions in the official account of the life and teachings of Jesus which resulted from the fusion of rival traditions. The mediators between the two societies were the Petrines, or followers of the Galilean apostle Peter, strangely enough a converted Zealot, or militant nationalist, who had been rejected by the followers of James for consorting with the followers of Paul, and by the followers of Paul for consorting with the followers of James. As Jesus had foreseen, it was on the Petrine rock that the Church was finally founded: Peter’s name now stands on the diptychs before that of Paul.

Let nobody be misled by the libels against the Jews in general and the Pharisees in particular which, despite the nominal reconciliation of the Churches, are still circulated among the Chrestians of Rome. The Jews are accused by the Gentile libellists of having universally rejected Jesus. Let me repeat that the Jews did nothing of the sort. All his disciples were Jews. The Judaic Chrestians remained an honourable sect in Judaea and Galilee until the so-called “secession to Pella”. Throughout the years intervening, they had taken part without question in Temple worship and in that of the synagogue; which is not surprising, seeing that Jesus himself had done the same and had explicitly told the woman of Samaritan Schechem: “Salvation comes from the Jews.”

The Jews are also accused of having officially sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion after a formal trial by the Beth Din, or religious High Court; they did nothing of the sort. Nobody with the least knowledge of Jewish legal procedure can possibly credit that the High Court condemned him to death, or doubt that it was the Roman soldiers who crucified him at Pilate’s order.

As for the Pharisees, who are represented by the libellists as having been Jesus’s greatest enemies: he never denounced this enlightened sect as a whole, but only individual members who failed in their high moral pretensions, or outsiders who falsely pretended to be Pharisees—especially those who, taking advantage of his dialectical method of teaching, tried to entrap him into revolutionary statements. For the Pharisees softened by their remarkable humanity the harsher provisions of the ancient Mosaic Law and both preached and practised those very virtues which Gentile Chrestians now pretend to be exclusively and originally Chrestian. Their moral code was first formulated shortly after the Exile by descendants of the original Aaronic priesthood which had been removed from high office in the reign of King Solomon by the usurping Zadokites, or Sadducees; as priests without stipend or distractive ecclesiastical duties they were able to refine spiritual values without the taint of politics. Jesus denouncing the Pharisees indeed! It is as though Socrates were represented as having denounced philosophers in general because he had found flaws in the arguments of particular sophists.

The ecclesiastical Sadducees, who were necessarily politicians, had little sense of the peculiar spiritual mission with which the Jews as a whole considered themselves entrusted, and were always ready to meet foreigners half-way by a deliberate blurring of their national peculiarities. When the Pharisees, which means the Separated Ones—those who separate themselves from what is impure—had made their popular religious revolt under Maccabee leadership against the Hellenizing Seleucids, the Syrian heirs of King Alexander the Great, it was the Sadducees who undid their work by persuading the later Maccabees to backslide half-way to Hellenism again. The Pharisaic principle of taking arms only in defence of religious freedom was abandoned by the Sadducees, and the consequent enlargement of a small poor kingdom by wars of aggression against Edom and Samaria proved its eventual undoing.

Gentile Chrestians who quote Jesus as having made apparently damaging criticisms of the Mosaic Law are unaware that, as often as not, he was merely quoting with approval the critical remarks of Rabbi Hillel, the most revered of all Pharisaic doctors; and I would not have you ignorant that in certain remote Syrian villages where Judaic Chrestians and Jews still manage to live amicably side by side, the Chrestians are admitted to worship in the synagogues and are reckoned as a sub-sect of the Pharisees.

There were, I grant, degrees of Pharisaism in the time of Jesus; as he pointed out, material prosperity tends to weaken the spiritual sense, and many so-called Pharisees had forgotten the spirit of the Law and remembered only the letter; but in general the spirit triumphed over the letter, and in the monastic order of the Essenes, who were the most conservative sort of Pharisees, spirituality and loving-kindness were practised in a more orderly and humane style than in any Chrestian society of to-day which has not modelled its discipline closely upon theirs.

It will be asked: What reason have the libellists to circulate these statements if there is no truth in them? The answer is plain. Not only do the remaining Judaic Chrestians still refuse to deify Jesus, since for Jews there is only one God; but, the Gentile Chrestians being ignorant of Hebrew, Judaists naturally stand at a great advantage in expounding both the Messianic prophecies relating to Jesus and the collected corpus of his moral discourses and pronouncements. This has bred jealousy and resentment. Truths that to a Gentile brought up in the Olympian faith seem a wholly original illumination appear to the Judaists as a logical development of Pharisaism.

I once heard a Roman Chrestian cry out at a love-feast where I was a guest: “Listen, brothers and sisters in Christ, I bring glad tidings! Jesus rolled up the Ten Commandments given to Moses, by substituting two of his own: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength.’ And ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’”

Great applause.

A former Judaist sitting next to me blinked a little and then said dryly: “Yes, brother, that was well said by the Christ! And now I hear that those rascally Jewish copyists have stolen his wisdom and interpolated the first of these two overriding Commandments into the sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, and the second into the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus!”

“May the Lord God pardon their thievish wickedness!” cried a pious matron from the other end of the table. “I am sure that the Pharisees are at the bottom of it!”

Not wishing to cause a tumult, I refrained from reminding her that Jesus had praised the Pharisees as “the righteous who need no repentance” and as “the able-bodied who have no need of a physician”, and in his fable of the spendthrift runaway had made them the type of the honest son who stayed at home: “Son, you have always remained dutifully with me and all my goods are yours.”

In Chrestian Churches, as among the Orphics and other religious societies, secret doctrine is taught largely in the form of drama. This, though an ancient and admirable way of conveying religious truth, has its disadvantages when the characters are historical rather than mythical; and when the worshippers accept as literally true what is merely dramatic invention. I have before me a copy of the Nativity Drama now used by the Egyptian Church, in which the principal speakers are the Angel Gabriel, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias the Priest, Joseph, Mary’s husband, three shepherds, three astrologers, the midwife Salome, King Herod, Anna the prophetess and Simeon the Priest. The play is simply but skilfully written, and I have no fault at all to find with it as devotional literature. Its purpose is to demonstrate that Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah, and more than this, that he was the same Divine Child who had been foreshadowed in all the ancient mysteries—Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Armenian and even Indian. The third scene, for instance, opens in the Bethlehem stable on a darkened stage.

The Cock (crowing): “Christ is born!”

The Bull (lowing): “Where?”

The Ass (braying): “In Bethlehem!

These creatures, by the way, are not quaint characters borrowed from the Fables of Aesop: they are sacred animals. The cock is sacred to Hermes Conductor of Souls and to Aesculapius the Healer. It dispels the darkness of night, is the augur of the reborn Sun. You will recall that almost the last words spoken by Socrates before he drank the hemlock were a reminder to a friend that he had vowed a cock to Aesculapius: he was expressing, I suppose, his hope in resurrection. The cock likewise figures in the story of Jesus’s last sufferings and is now interpreted as an augur of his resurrection; though I find this notion far-fetched. The bull and the ass are the symbolic beasts of the two promised Messiahs, the Messiah Son of Joseph and the Messiah Son of David, with both of whom the Chrestians identify Jesus. The “feet of the bull and the ass” mentioned in the thirty-second chapter of Isaiah are invariably explained by Jewish commentators as referring to the two Messiahs.

After this brief dialogue between the creatures, the day dawns, and the Holy Family are discovered together. Virgin Mother and Child in their ancient pose: the mother wearing a blue robe and a crown of silver stars, the child traditionally laid in the manger-basket which is used for the same purpose in both the Delphic and Eleusinian mysteries. Bearded Joseph leans on a staff a little way off, not crowned nor even clothed in purple—the type of all just men whose virtue has earned them a part in the divine illumination. Distant sounds of drum and pipe, gradually nearing. Enter three joyful shepherds, like those of Mount Ida who adored the infant Zeus…. Or (if it is permitted to disclose this) like the mystagogues dressed as shepherds who, at the ceremony of Advent which gives its name to the Eleusinian mysteries, introduce the virgin-born infant by torchlight and cry: “Rejoice, rejoice, we have found our King, son of the Daughter of the Sea, lying in this basket among the river reeds!”

Now, I do not question the tradition that the infant Jesus was laid in a manger-basket in a stable, nor that shepherds arrived to adore him, but the rest of the scene must not be read as literally true: it is rather what Aristotle in his Poetics terms “philosophically true”. And I cannot, though my authorities are reliable, be sure that my own Nativity narrative is correct in every particular, but I will say this much. An expert in Greek sculpture or pottery can usually restore the lost details of a damaged work of art: take for example a black-figured vase, with a scene of the harrowing of Hell by Orpheus. If the Danaids are there with their sieves and, next to them, above a defaced patch, the expert notices part of a bunch of grapes and two fingers of a clutching hand and, beyond, a rough piece of rock, that is detail enough: he imaginatively sees Tantalus gasping for thirst, and his fellow-criminal Sisyphus pushing the outrageous boulder up the hill. My own problem of reconstruction is very much more difficult, because history, not myth, is in question. Yet the history of Jesus from his Nativity onwards keeps so close to what may be regarded as a pre-ordained mythical pattern, that I have in many instances been able to presume events which I afterwards proved by historical research to have taken place, and this has encouraged me to hope that where my account cannot be substantiated it is not altogether without truth. For instance, Jesus has so much in common with the hero Perseus, that the attempt made by King Acrisius to kill the infant Perseus seems relevant to the story of Jesus too; this Acrisius was the grandfather of Perseus.

I have also witnessed the performance of another religious drama, concerned with the final sufferings of Jesus. The Chrestian fear of offending the Romans makes this play a masterpiece of disingenuousness. Since only what was publicly said or done on that painful occasion is enacted on the stage, Pilate’s infamous behaviour appears correct and even magnanimous and the entire blame for the judicial murder is, by implication, laid upon the Jews whose spokesman the High Priest claims to be.

But I must now warn you against accepting the Hebrew Scriptures at their face value. Only the rhapsodies of the Hebrew poets, the so-called “prophetic books”, can be read without constant suspicion that the text has been tampered with by priestly editors, and these too are for the most part incorrectly dated and credited to authors who could not possibly have written them. These unscholarly practices the Jews justify with: “Whoever speaks a good thing in the name of the one who should have spoken it brings salvation to the world.” The historical and legal books have become so corrupted in the course of time, partly by accident and partly by editing, that even the shrewdest scholars cannot hope to unravel all the tangles and restore the original text. Still, by comparison of Hebrew myths with the popular myths of Canaan, and of Jewish history with the history of neighbouring nations, a general working knowledge can be won of the ancient events and legal traditions most relevant to the secret story of Jesus, which is all that need concern us here.

What an extraordinary story it is, too! Slave to books though I am, I have never in all my reading come across its match. And, after all, if the Gentile Chrestians, despite the clear prohibitions of the Hebrew Law against idolatry, are moved to partake of Jesus’s substance in their symbolic Eucharist and to worship him as a God, declaring: “None was ever like him before, nor will be again, until he returns to earth!”—who, except the devout Jew, can blame them? To be laid at birth in a manger-basket, to be crowned King, to suffer voluntarily on a cross, to conquer death, to become immortal: such was the destiny of this last and noblest scion of the most venerable royal line in the world.

CHAPTER TWO

CHILDREN OF RAHAB

Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, had been widowed for sixty-five years; but the memory of her husband’s benefactions to the Temple and her own remarkable devoutness, which kept her in the Women’s Court of the Temple night and day, had secured her at last an honourable office, that of guardian mother to the holy virgins. These were wards of the Temple, and were instructed by her in obedience and humility, in music and dancing, in spinning and embroidery, and in the management of a household. All were Daughters of Aaron, members of the ancient Levite nobility, and had for the most part been dedicated to the Temple by their parents as an insurance against an unworthy marriage. Pious, rich and well-born husbands could always be found for Temple virgins. Their initiation into the lore of their clan was in the hands of the guardian mother, who was tested by the High Priest’s deputy for knowledge of Temple procedure and correct deportment but, being a woman, was not expected to have a perfect understanding of religious doctrine. Since their return from Babylonian captivity under Ezra, the Levites had denied the Daughters of Aaron their former function as priestesses, debarring them, with all other women, from any closer approach to the Sanctuary than the Women’s Court, which was separated from it by a massive wall and the spacious Men’s Court, or Court of Israel.

Anna whined and mumbled in a devout sing-song whenever she moved among priests and Temple servants, but when alone with her charges spoke to them in a voice of calm authority.

The eldest of the virgins was Miriam, whom the Chrestians call Mary, the only child of Joachim the Levite, one of the so-called Heirs of David, or Royal Heirs. She had been a Temple ward since the age of five and had been born on the very day that masons first began to work on King Herod’s Temple. Year by year the glorious building was swallowing up the battered old Temple, called Zerubbabel’s, which had risen from the ruins of King Solomon’s Temple but had been several times seized by foreign armies and seemed to have lost a great deal of its virtue since its desecration by the Syrian king Antiochos Epiphanes. Thirteen years had now passed, and though the central Sanctuary—the House of Jehovah and the Court of the Priests—was completed, and the greater part of the two Inner Courts as well, it was to be nearly seventy more years before the masons ceased work on the Court of the Gentiles and the enclosing walls. The new Temple grounds were twice as large as the old ones, and it was necessary to build out vast substructures on the southern side of the hill-top to allow sufficient space for them.

Anna had been entrusted with dyed flax from Pelusium in Egypt, to be spun into thread for the annually renewed curtain of the sacred chamber called the Holy of Holies—a task which virgins were alone permitted to undertake. She cast lots in turn among her elder charges for the honour of spinning the purple, the scarlet, the violet and the white threads. The purple fell to Miriam, which excited the envy of the rest, who teasingly called her a “little queen” because purple is a royal colour. But Anna said: “Daughters, it is vain to dispute the lots, which are of Heaven. Consider, does anyone else among you bear the name Miriam? And did not Miriam, the royal sister of Moses, dance in triumph with her companions beside the purple sea?”

When she cast lots again and the royal scarlet also fell to Miriam, Anna said to forestall their jealousy: “Is it to be wondered at? Who else among you is of Cocheba?” For the village of Cocheba is named after the star of David, and the Heirs of David owned Cocheba.

Tamar, one of the virgins, asked: “But, Mother, is not the scarlet thread the sign of a harlot?”

“Does Tamar ask me this? Did not Tamar the wife of Er, Judah’s first-born, play the harlot with her father-in-law? Did not the other Tamar play the harlot with Amnon her brother, David’s first-born? Does a third Tamar covet the scarlet thread because she wishes to do as they did?”

Tamar asked demurely: “Is it recorded, Mother, that either Tamar was punished for her sins by barrenness or by stoning?”

“These times are not those, child. Do not think that by emulating the first Tamar you will be enrolled among the glorious ancestors of another David.”

Miriam said: “With your permission, Mother, Tamar shall help me spin the scarlet, for the sake of the scarlet thread that Tamar the wife of Er tied about the wrist of Zarah, twin to our common ancestor Pharez; they had quarrelled for precedence within her womb.”

The violet and the white flax were allotted to two other virgins, and as the distractive noise of spinning might not be heard in the Temple, the four spinners were set to work in private houses. Miriam was entrusted to the care of her cousin Lysia, Joseph of Emmaus’s daughter; Joseph’s wife, now dead, had been the eldest sister of Miriam’s mother. She had borne him four sons and two daughters, of whom the elder, Lysia, was married to a purple-seller of Jerusalem, another of the Heirs, and lived near the Temple, just across the Bridge. To Lysia’s house Miriam went with Tamar every morning to spin; every evening they came back together across the Bridge and through the Beautiful Gate to the Virgins’ College in the Women’s Court.

This is the story of Miriam’s birth. Her mother, Hannah, had been married ten years but continued childless, to her grief and shame, and found little comfort in the riches of her husband, Joachim. Every year at the appointed day he rode up to Jerusalem from Cocheba to offer a donation to the Temple. There, because of the nobility of his birth and the riches of his estate, he usually took first place in the line of gift-bringers, the elders of Israel dressed in long Babylonian robes embroidered with flowers. It was his custom to say, as he dropped his gold pieces through the slot of the chest: “Whatever I give of my earnings is for the whole people; and here I give it. But these other coins, which represent a diminution of my estate, are for the Lord—a plea for his forgiveness if I have done anything amiss or displeasing to his eye.”

Joachim, a High Court judge, was a Pharisee—not one of the Shoulder Pharisees, as those are called who seem to wear on their shoulders a list of their own good actions; nor a Calculating Pharisee, who says: “My sins are more than counterbalanced by my virtues”; nor a Saving Pharisee, who says: “I will save a little from my fortune to perform a work of charity.” He could well be reckoned one of the God-fearing Pharisees who, despite the sneers of Chrestians who hate to be in their spiritual debt, compose by far the larger part of that humane sect.

This year, the seventeenth of Herod’s reign, as the elders of Israel stood waiting for the hour of donation, Reuben son of Abdiel, a Sadducee of the old school, stood next below Joachim. Reuben had recently gone to law with him about the possession of a well in the hills beyond Hebron, and lost his case. It irked him that Joachim should be devoutly offering to the Treasury, as his own gift, part of the value of the well, which would water a thousand sheep even in the height of summer.

Reuben cried aloud: “Neighbour Joachim, why do you thrust yourself to the head of this line? Why do you boast yourself above us all? Every one of us elders of Israel is blessed with children—with sons like sturdy plants, with daughters like the polished corners of a palace—everyone but only you, and you are childless. The Lord’s displeasure must be heavy on your head, for in the last three years you have, to common knowledge, taken three lusty young concubines, yet still you remain a dried stock without green shoots. Humble your heart, Pharisee, and take a lower place.”

Joachim answered: “Forgive me, Neighbour Reuben, if I have offended against you in the matter of the well, for I suppose that it is this memory, rather than some notorious offence of mine against the Law, that prompts you to reproach me. You surely cannot be gainsaying the verdict of the Court of Disputes?”

Reuben’s brother, who had been a witness in the case and who stood further down the line, spoke up for Reuben: “Neighbour Joachim, it is ungenerous in you to triumph over my brother in the matter of the Well of the Jawbone, and unseemly not to answer him fairly in the matter of your childlessness.”

Joachim replied meekly: “The Lord forbid that I should dispute with any man on this holy hill, or harbour evil thoughts.” Then he turned to Reuben: “Tell me, Son of Abdiel, were there never found honourable men in Israel who remained childless to the last?”

“Find me the text that mitigates the force of the Lord God’s commandment that we should increase and multiply, and you may keep your place with good courage. But I think that not even the ingenious Hillel will help you over this gate.”

All who stood in the line were now listening. A low laugh went up and a soft hissing; then, for shame, Joachim lifted up his two bags of gold from the pavement and went down to the lowest place in the line.

The news of his discomfiture ran quickly through the Courts of the Temple. The Doctors, when asked for an opinion, gave it in the same words: “He did well to yield his place; there is no such text in the Scriptures, blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Joachim offered his donation with the accustomed words, and the Treasurer pronounced a blessing on him; but it seemed to him afterwards that the elders avoided his company as if he were a creature of ill-luck. He was about to return home with a sad heart when a Temple servant saluted him and said softly: “The word of a prophetess. Do not return to Cocheba, Benefactor, but remain here all night in prayer. In the morning ride out into the wilderness, towards Edom. Take only one servant, and as you travel abase yourself before the Lord at every holy place, eat only the locust-bean, drink only pure water, abstain from ointment, perfume and women, and continue southward until you are granted a sign from the Lord. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which will be forty days from the beginning of your journey, be back here at Jerusalem. It is likely that the Lord will have heard your prayer and shown his mercy to you.”

“Who is this prophetess? I had thought that her race was extinct in Jerusalem.”

“A Daughter of Asher, an aged and devout widow, who waits in prayer and fasting for the consolation of Israel.”

Joachim sent his servants home, all but one, and spent the night on his knees in the Temple. At dawn he rode out towards the wilderness with only the one servant at his back: he took no food with him but a bag of locust-beans, and no drink but pure water in a goatskin bottle. On the morning of the fifth day, as he passed over the border into Edom, he fell in with a company of tented Rechabites, or Kenites, a Canaanite tribe with whom the Jews had been allied since the days of Moses. He saluted them civilly and was for passing on, but the tribal chieftain restrained him. “You will not reach water before nightfall, my lord,” he said, “unless you ride throughout the heat of the day, which would be cruelty to your beasts, and this evening the Sabbath begins, when it will be unlawful for you to travel. Be the guest of Rahab’s Children until the Sabbath has ended.”

Joachim turned aside, and presently the Rechabites, who were of the smith-guild, pitched their tents in a valley where there was a little water. When the chieftain saw the face of his guest, which until then had been covered up against the heat and dust, he cried out: “Aha, well met! Is this not Joachim of Cocheba to whose corn-lands we come yearly in the winter with our lyres to sing praises to the Lord? Our young men and women tumble about on your rich plough-land together and offer up prayers that the grain may sprout sturdily and be heavy in the ear.”

Joachim answered: “And is this not Kenah, Chieftain of the Children of Rahab? Well met! Your craftsmen repair the mattocks, sickles, pruning-hooks, cauldrons and kettles of my labourers, and your work is excellent. But the annual invitation to perform your rustic rites on my land comes from my bailiff, not from myself; he is a Canaanite, I am an Israelite.”

Kenah laughed. “Since we Canaanites have the more ancient title to the land, it is only reasonable to suppose that we know best which rites will please the Deity of the land. You cannot complain of your harvest, surely?”

“The Lord has been most bountiful to me,” said Joachim, “and if your intercession has carried any weight with him, I should be ungrateful not to acknowledge it. But how am I to know whether I stand in your debt or not?”

“Your bailiff has rewarded us well with sacks of corn from your bins, and though you may be unaware of your debt to us, we are well disposed towards you. By the same token, most noble Joachim, it was only three nights ago that I had a dream of your coming. I dreamed that you freely presented to my people the Well of the Jawbone, near Cushan, the same well that your neighbour Reuben grudges you: you gave it to us for a perpetual possession. And in my dream you called it a gift well bestowed, for your heart was dancing with gladness. You would have given us seven such wells had you possessed them, and all the sheep that watered there besides.”

Joachim was not pleased. He replied: “Some dreams are from God, noble Kenah, but some from God’s Adversary. How can I tell what reliance to lay upon your dream?”

“By waiting patiently.”

“How many days must I be patient?”

“It still wants thirty-five of the appointed number, or so I was assured in my dream.”

Here evidently, thought Joachim, was the promised sign. For how, except in a dream, could Kenah have learned of the forty days’ journey ordained by the prophetess?

That night, in the black goat’s-hair tent, Joachim had no need to excuse himself from wine-drinking, for the Rechabites themselves are forbidden either to own vineyards or, except once a year at their five-day festival, when they also shave their heads, to consume any part of the grape—juice, seed or skin. But when he refrained from the tender mutton prepared for him, and from the little honey-cakes enriched with pistachio, and from the scented junkets, Kenah asked him: “Alas, most noble Joachim, are you sick? Or are you used to daintier food than ours? Or have we unwittingly offended you in some way, that you refuse to eat with us?”

“No, but I have a vow. Give me locust-beans and I will eat greedily.”

The servant fetched him locust-beans. As they sat in peace together after they had eaten, a young man, Kenah’s sister’s son, seized his lyre and sang to it in a loud voice. In his song he prophesied that Hannah, the wife of an Heir of David, would presently conceive and bear a child, a child famous for many ages. Hannah would be one with Sarai of the silver face who had been long barren and laughed to hear the angel’s assurance to Father Abraham that she would presently bear him a child. Hannah would also be one with Rachel of the crisp curls, who likewise was barren at first, yet became the mother of the patriarchs Joseph and Benjamin, and through them the ancestress of countless thousands of the Lord God’s Israelitish people.

The spirit of the lyre stirred in the singer and he seemed to swell before their eyes as in a changed voice he chanted of a certain mighty hunter, a red hairy king, whom three hundred and sixty-five valiant men followed into battle: how he rode in his ass-chariot over that very border in the days gone by and drove out the usurping giants from the pleasant valley of Hebron and from the Oaks of Mamre, beloved of Rahab. His garments were stained red with wine, and panthers bounded by his side, sweet of breath. The shoes on his feet were of dolphin-skin, a fir wand was in his hand, and a fawn-skin mantle covered his shoulders. Nimrod he was called. And another of his names was Jerahmeel, the beloved of the Moon.

Then the Kenite sang over and over again: “Glory, glory, glory to the land of Edom, for the Hairy One shall come again, breaking the yoke to which his smooth brother, the supplanter, has subjected him!”

He ceased singing but continued to thrum the strings meditatively. Joachim asked: “This Nimrod whom you celebrate, he is surely not the same Nimrod of whom the Scriptures tell?”

“I sing only what the singing lyre puts into my mouth.” He prophesied again: “Nimrod shall come once more. He shall soar aloft upon his eight gryphon wings, he shall make the mountains smoke with his fury—Nimrod, known to the three queens. Cry ha! for Nimrod, who is named Jerahmeel, and ha! for the three queens, each with her thrice forty maidens of honour! The first queen bore him and reared him; the second loved him and slew him; the third anointed him and laid him to rest in the House of Spirals. His soul was carried in her ark across the water to the first queen once again. It was five days’ sail in the ark of acacia-wood across the water. It was five days’ sail from the Land of the Unborn. To the City of Birth it was a five days’ sail; five sea-beasts drew the ark along to the sound of music. There the queen bore him, and named him Jerahmeel, the Moon’s beloved.”

He was singing a parable of the Sun, who turns about in his sacred year through three Egyptian seasons of one hundred and twenty days apiece. At midsummer he burns with destructive passion, and at mid-winter, enfeebled by time, comes to the five days that are left over, crosses the gap, and turns about again; when he becomes a child, his own son Jerahmeel. Both Jerahmeel and Nimrod were titles of Kozi, the red hairy Sun-god of the Edomites, but a smooth-faced Israelitish Moon-god had long usurped his glory. This usurpation was justified in the myth of Jacob and Esau, and also plainly established in the calendar of the Jews—who now let their year turn with the Moon, not with the Sun as in ancient days.