In Robert Graves’s unique retelling, Jesus is very much a mortal and the grandson of King Herod the Great. When his father runs afoul of the king’s temper and is executed, Jesus is raised in the house of Joseph the Carpenter. The kingdom he is heir to, in this version of the story, is very much a terrestrial one: the Kingdom of Judah. Graves tells of Jesus’s rise as a philosopher, scriptural scholar, and charismatic speaker in sharp detail, as well as his arrest and downfall as a victim of pitiless Roman politics.
Bringing together his unparalleled narrative skill and in-depth expertise in historical scholarship, renowned classicist and historical novelist Robert Graves brings the story of Jesus Christ to life in a strikingly unorthodox way, making this one of the most hotly contested novels Graves ever wrote—and possibly one of the most controversial ever written. It provides a fascinating new twist to a well-known story, one that fans of this historical period are sure to love.
“This is not reading for the easily shocked; it definitely presents Jesus as a sage and a [poet], if not divine. It moves, as does all Mr. Graves’ writing, at a brilliant fast pace, and with a tremendous style.” —Kirkus Reviews
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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. 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "King Jesus"
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Table of Contents
II. CHILDREN OF RAHAB,
III. THE BIRTH OF MARY,
IV. A CERTAIN MAN,
V. THE HEIRESS OF MICHAL,
VI. THE APPARITION,
VII. MARY AT AIN-RIMMON,
VIII. THE TRIAL OF KING ANTIPATER,
IX. THE BLOOD OF ZACHARIAS,
X. THE NATIVITY,
XI. THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT,
XII. AT LEONTOPOLIS,
XIII. THE RETURN FROM EGYPT,
XIV. THE DOCTORS,
XV. THE SLUR,
XVI. ARROW AND TILE,
XVII. FOUR BEASTS OF HOREB,
XVIII. THE TEREBINTH FAIR,
XIX. KING ADAM,
XX. THE HEALER,
XXI. THE POET AND SAGE,
XXII. THE BRIDEGROOM,
XXIII. THE KINGDOM OF GOD,
XXIV. THE DEBT,
XXV. THE BUTCHER'S CROOK,
XXVI. THE SWORD,
XXVII. THIRTY SILVER SHEKELS,
XXVIII. THIRTY GOLD TALENTS,
XXIX. THE POWER OF THE DOG,
XXX. THE FAREWELL,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Robert Graves treats the story of Jesus with imagination and courage, developing a narrative that accounts for most of the detail of the Gospels while going further to explain contradictions and unrealistic stories than any writer ever has. Graves places Jesus within the House of Herod, making him the issue of a secret marriage between Antipater (son of Herod the Great) and Miriam, a young temple virgin. Because of the threat to his life from Herod the Great, Jesus is reared in Alexandria, the world's center of learning. The young Jesus is a prodigy, mastering the elements of his religious instruction at a pace that shocks and enrages his elders. On his family's return to Judea, Jesus joins the Essenes, only to understand their greatest mysteries so quickly that he is expelled. He begins his sojourn, meeting along the way all the personalities we know through the Gospels. Graves' great facility with poetry and ancient traditions allows him to postulate new paths to the fulfillment of prophecy. As Jesus approaches the end of his tale, Graves gives us a messianic figure in the throes of failure. Jesus' strange behavior prior to his arrest and execution make more sense here than in any writing I've ever come across. This novel is probably not for the devout Christian, since so many conventions of Christianity are discarded for more reasonable and historically plausible explanations. But for those intrigued with Jesus' story, yet unconvinced by the accounts in the Gospels, King Jesus is superb. I personally have serious doubts as to whether Jesus really existed. King Jesus is the most compelling argument that he may have, and is the best explication of the various details attached to Jesus' story ever published. On the down side, the vocabulary is challenging, and the scholarly treatment of prophecy is exhaustive. The book may require multiple readings before its central notions become easy to reflect upon. It is certainly worth the effort, and for his pains the reader is rewarded with a dense tapestry of prophetic fulfillment and archaic Jewish mysticism. I rate King Jesus as one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
King Jesus provides an alternative semi-historical account of Jesus including the possibility of his secular legal right as king of the jews. Research also prompts Graves to give alternate meanings of biblical terms such as 'amen' (he was firm) and the real name of Jehovah. A tough read for those not familiar with religion at the time of Christ but worth it for lovers of Graves' historical novels.