Dave Sim's blogandmail #230 (April 29th, 2007)
Okay, I promised to do a bit of a review of Robert Graves' King Jesus a while back.
It's an interesting book. If there's a greater expert on all things pagan who strode the earth in the twentieth century I don't know of him. I read his White Goddess years ago (well, most of it anyway) -- which was certainly useful in my preparation for Mothers & Daughters and also his I, Claudius series of books. So, once I got the idea of what he was driving at with King Jesus, it was certainly worth the full day or so that I spent reading it. I had expected that he would be making the attempt (now pretty common) to paint Jesus in pagan hues -- there's even a Da Vinci Code style bestseller called The Pagan Jesus, evidently, which always strikes me as being about as intellectually dishonest as trying to turn Zeus into a prototype of the Prophet Isaiah.
But, no, Mr. Graves is nothing if not intellectually honest and here he doesn't disappoint: he definitely grasps the fundamental "ne'er the twain shall meet" dichotomy between Christianity and paganism and also (and I found this admirable) was able to confront head-on that the former had kicked the latter's ass fair and square. No playing the victim for him, no suh. He documents pretty carefully and at length all of the Greek and Roman precursors and the popular adherence to those precursors, the Unconquered Sun, The Sacrificial King -- here's a particularly interesting conversation around a caravan's campfire where Jehovah and God are discussed in Greek and Roman frames of reference made all the more interesting by the fact that, even as the participants are asserting all of the by now-familiar theories of derivation, Jesus says... exactly nothing. Which was apropos. And the sense that I get of Mr. Graves behind the narrative is This Was Not the Way to Do It. We Made a Fundamental Mistake Here. Which I might just be reading myself into it, but I would agree that once you make your gods into archetypes and start "splitting the difference", rounding off your own corners in order to fit with other systems of belief, you've made an irretrievable error. Of course, in my case, my own faith tells me that this process was inevitable and that all God was doing in the course of human history was waiting for that inevitable erosion to take place, for the pagans to exhaust themselves against their own cleverness, knowing His own creations and knowing not only roughly but specifically how long they could last with pagan gods of their own invention before they got to the "What's the diff?" stage.
But Mr. Graves does seem to know (how could a scholar of his standing not know?) that Christianity didn't succeed as it did and defeat his pagan gods and goddesses as the result of some manner of happy (or in his case, "unhappy") accident. He knows his scripture inside and out which, combined with his knowledge of the structure of the Roman Empire and pagan religious observances of the timeƒwell, I sure wouldnÕt read it on Sunday, but it was pretty darned good for a weekday read.
Good moments, like the young Jesus debating with the doctors in the Temple with that rapid-fire "no quarter asked, no quarter given" Talmudic hair-splitting sophistry which has as much to do with your ability to come up with the right answer on the spot as it does with genuine piety and devout observance. God -- like Chance -- favours the prepared mind. Another good moment with the young Jesus' warm glow of pride when he hears indirectly that one of his freelance judgments has been endorsed by the legendary scholar Hillel: now that's a fine piece of writing, to strike that human note perfectly and to know that the lives of Jesus and Hillel overlapped (barely). And that he has to hear indirectly. In his own Judaic context Jesus was a nobody -- a smart kid and little else -- without the remotest chance of getting an audience with Hillel himself.
In his afterword, entitled "Historical Commentary" he has some good lines that made me laugh out loud. "A detailed commentary written to justify the unorthodox views contained in this book would be two or three times as long as the book itself, and would take years to complete; I beg to be excused the task." What a point to arrive at in a life spent immersed in scholarship! You've got all "the goods" but the complexity makes justification too large a task to contemplate let alone execute. Of course, I suspect the old pagan found himself being "drawn in" and thought, "I've done the most honest treatment I could of HOW they beat us, I'll be damned if I'm going to spend any more of my precious time justifying my conclusions TO them." From the other side of the chasm, it seems to me another example of how pagans (as an Israeli Foreign Minister said of the Palestinians) "Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity": redemption beckons. You've already done all the hard stuff, now you just have to stick with it and your intellect will do the rest for you. Nope. Off to greener -- and more sybaritic -- pastures, presumably.
"Perhaps the greatest hindrance to a reasonable view of Jesus is not the loss of a large part of his secret history but the influence of the late and propagandist Gospel According to John. Though it embodies valuable fragments of a genuine tradition not found in the Synoptic Gospels, the critical reservations that have to be made reading it are proved by the metaphysical prologue, which makes no sense whatever in the original context; by the author's willful ignorance of Jewish affairs; and by the Alexandrian Greek rhetoric unfairly ascribed to a sage and poet who never wasted a word."
Again, you can't do much better when it comes to inadvertent intellectual humour than giving God's Writing a bad review where you accuse God of willful ignorance of Jewish affairs. You literally couldn't make that up.
"Alexandrian Greek rhetoric? Who? Me?"
The "metaphysical prologue... makes no sense whatever in the original context" because, I suspect, it was Genuinely New as befitting the Creator. Not even so much Genuinely New as an elaboration of that which had been almost entirely overlooked for untold generations, the first chapter of the first book of Moshe. "Then began men to call upon the name of the YHWH" and that was pretty much it for God's Truth for literally hundreds of pages and thousands of years, until the first chapter of John's Gospel came along.
"Here, let me put it to you another way."
And then THAT was it for God's truth for literally hundreds of pages and (so far) two thousand years. Alexandrian Greek rhetoric. Oy.
Anyway, a highly recommended novel. For reading during the week, anyway.
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