3. ‘King Jesus’, by Robert Graves – book review   Leave a comment

Image[coin of King Herod Agrippa I, circa 40 C.E.]

When Robert Graves’ controversial novel ‘King Jesus’ came out in 1946, the reaction was predictable. ” … a work of fundamental perversity”, wrote Time Magazine [Sept. 30, 1946], in a scathing review under the fatal title of ‘Old Heresy, New Version’. Whereas critics and readers had been pleased, if not mildly puzzled, by his bestseller ‘I, Claudius’ back in the 30s (and delighted by the BBC series in the 1970s), they raged against him when he dared to tackle the most famous historical-religious mystery of them all.

Compared to the identity and truth of someone named “Jesus Christ” in the dark recesses 2,000 years ago, the search for other famous men or women like William Shakespeare, Nefertiti, or Siddhartha Buddha seemed relatively easy. There were after all plenty of trails leading to a lot of facts and evidence, no matter how contradictory, that at least established that they were real men and women who had lived. They were not shrouded in mythic symbolism or institutional religions that required blind faith and/or a trust in some spurious documents and resources.

The life and times of Jesus Christ were written down in strange documents that came to light only decades, and probably centuries after he lived. The gospels of the New Testament of the Bible are now firmly rooted in our human world, which told of his brief span in poetic homilies, and in another contemporary history by an unreliable Jewish chronicler named Josephus. All these books are well known, and so is the endless debate about every single scrap and shred of every word and deed quoted ad infinitum (literally, as He is deemed no less to be the “Son of God”).

So why was Graves’ book so explosive when it came on the scene right after World War II? He tells the story in the same first person style of an eyewitness at the time that he did in the Roman history, and with the same erudite authority of a first-class historian who really piles on the facts. He follows the familiar Biblical story, in outline, of the miraculous Nativity, parables of a wandering preacher, a crucifixion in Jerusalem, and Resurrection. That he equates it with mountains and mountains of mythological parallels to Egypt, Greece, and just about everywhere else, might account surely for the vitriolic critical response, but it is still a very respectful and religious work of imaginative fiction. What’s the matter with that?

Yes, academia disagreed with his adherence to a “Goddess’ aspect of the Christian Faith as entirely mistaken and without any substantiation in their male-dominated theogony. Devout followers of Christ as a good and loving Savior did not like their Man’s easy-going liberalism with wine, women, and song. There is a great deal of fascinating mythology in it that amounts almost to a puzzle of interlocking pomegranate goddesses and Venus to the Virgin Mary, terebinth trees as symbols of The Cross, and . . . well, it might be better to quote Graves in his own words to begin to get an understanding of the book, short of reading the whole thing over several times at least. It is indeed a textbook of scholarly mythography far different than what other mythographers like Joseph Campbell seem to relegate to psychology or natural symbolism like Frazier’s ‘The Golden Bough’. Graves is an acknowledged expert on these matters, with the 1948 publication of his seminal masterpiece ‘The White Goddess’, and the 2 volumes of his ‘Greek Myths’ in 1955, both of which are taught as standard texts in universities around the world, and further substantiate his erudition regarding not only Roman but Palestinian myths.

And he starts out on the first page with the first chapter titled ‘Simpletons’ that I think inflames the comfortable ideas of the Biblical Establishment more than anything:

“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, A.D. 89-93. It is the history of the wonder-worker Jesus, rightful heir-at-law to the dominions of Herod, King of the Jews . . . ”

As far as I can tell, this is just about the first, and only, time anyone on record has seriously postulated a connection between the infamous Herod and the esoteric Jesus. If any commentator of any nationality from the earliest days of ‘King Herod the Great’, starting back in the days of Julius Caesar, up to our own worldwide Internet has ever included one of the many Herodian Family members directly in the Jesus story – in this case the eldest son of the King, Prince Herod Antipater – I can’t find it. And not only that: Graves makes Antipater a major character in his novel as the husband of Mary and the actual father of Jesus!

In many, many, studies written and disseminated widely, especially in my lifetime after WWII, disproving any historical trail of anyone named Jesus Christ in Judaea, Galilee, Jerusalem, or anywhere else quoted in endless Bibles, the only really dominant personage of unquestionable historical provenance is Herod, and his family.

Herod?! The one guy whom everyone loves to hate, from the unhistorical ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ in Bethlehem, found only in Matthew’s gospel and nowhere else, and even in rock operas like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, where even Judas is portrayed sympathetically.

There is very slight evidence at all of a Pontius Pilate, maybe, and a John the Baptist, but that is apparently all. No Jesus or anyone else in the familiar story, outside of “Scripture” and just barely in Josephus – except for Herod, Herod, and a dozen other major Herodian characters mentioned in the gospels, like Salome, Herodias, Philip; and hundreds of hopelessly confusing pages in Josephus. Not only were there written records of the Herods in non-Jewish sources, but there are the vast monuments he built at Jericho, Caesarea Philippi, aqueducts all over Judaea and Israel, Masada, and especially the Jerusalem Temple whose western Wailing Wall is still, paradoxically, contradictorily, illogically, worshipped by Jews as their holiest site built by the vilest personage in their history during the Second Temple Period in which Jesus and The Herods lived. Even by definitions in the Torah of a Messiah, in which the successor to Kings David and Solomon would be required to reunite Judah and Israel and rebuild The Temple – all of which King Herod did, between 23 b.c.e. and approximately 1 A.D. – Herod fit the crucial definition.

Graves depends heavily on Josephus for the source of his narrative, extrapolating the basic outlines of the Gospel ministry with his own fictional scenes explaining a lot of the Mystery Religion as scholars like to call the parables and miracles. And his quotations from Judaic lexicons is mind-numbing, such as one in the preface from ‘Lexicon Talmudicum, sub Abanarbel and Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 106b,43a,51a’:

“… 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.”

“King Jesus’ requires a diligent reading, and re-reading, to comprehend its mythic puzzle, just as ‘The White Goddess’ is so full of Welsh mythology adding to it all, along with graduate seminars in just about every deity from Dionysos to Isis, and King Arthur in-between. It will take a lifetime of study and thought, and further research, to find the links between those heady days in Galilee and how it wends it way back and forth, frequently to Rome and Augustus Caesar, and the conniving, poisonous Empress Livia he vividly portrayed so completely in the ‘I, Claudius’ series.

Where, indeed, did Herod come from, and who was he, apart from the impossible mess Josephus makes of it? What is Robert Graves thinking of? Even proponents of Josephus admit he is unreliable, and he is the only source for much of ‘King Jesus’ apart from the vast mytho-poeics. Who wrote the Gospel of St. Mark, really? Robert Graves implies that all roads lead to Rome.

“14 And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad:) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.

“15 Others said, That it is Elias, and others said, That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets.

“16 But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.” – Mark 6: 14-16

The most famous beheading, in proven historical evidence, and well-known to everyone, was that of Pompey in Egypt in 48 b.c.e, after Julius Caesar had defeated him in the Roman Civil Wars. How can Herod hold such an incredible opinion, and why have both Evangelists Mark and Matthew repeated his insights almost word for word, and it has survived the centuries of endless translations and editors? When I asked orthodox scholars about it on the chat-line ‘To Kata Markon’, they sneered and dismissed my question with “Look who’s talking.” I said, “you mean Mark, and Matthew?” “No! Herod.”

Herod, it seems, and his sons and daughters and progeny lasting until the end of the first century of the Common Era until King Herod Agrippa II, was, or is, hated mostly because he was a “client-king” of Rome. Josephus mostly praises his architectural deeds – which are grudgingly acknowledged even to this day as works of unparalleled Genius – , and also has nothing but good things to say about Philip the Tetrarch, for instance, who just coincidentally built one of Christ’s favorite haunts Caesarea Philippi {Caesar Philip?} and who also happened to die in 33 A.D., the same year as the unknown and unrecorded Jesus, at Bethsaida-Julias, the same hometown as the celebrated Apostle Philip.

Graves writes, on page 91, in chapter 8 ‘The Trial of King Antipater’;

“Augustus expressed sincere sorrow when Antipater came to take his leave. He gave him costly presents as well as a letter of commendation for delivery to Herod. In this he characteristically punned on Antipater’s name: ‘A son so dutiful should not be called Antipater, but Philopater – one who cherishes his father, not one who opposes him. I envy you, dear Herod, in having a Philopater as your royal colleague whom you can trust to take from your shoulders some of the burdensome weight of public business. His zeal on your behalf has been remarkable.’ Augustus knew, of course, that Antipater does not really mean ‘one who opposes a father’, but, in the other sense of the preposition Anti, ‘one who acts as deputy of a father’. It was a hereditary forename of the House of Herod, and originally, I suppose, signified ‘Priest of Hercules-Melkarth’.”

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Posted April 2, 2012 by dionoia in Uncategorized

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