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Journal of the Bible and its Reception

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From Golgotha to Glastonbury and Beyond: The Transmutation of Jewish Burial Piety into English Imperial Exceptionalism

William John Lyons
Published Online: 2014-06-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0006

Abstract

At the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, the English gold medalists heard the music from the anthem ‘Jerusalem’ as they collected their medals. Chosen by a popular vote for that occasion, Sir Hubert Parry’s musical setting of the poetic introduction to William Blake’s epic poem, Milton, continues to serve as the most powerful piece of sacred music lauding England as a chosen nation, as the blessed place where the young Jesus walked and the aged Joseph of Arimathea founded the oldest church in Western Europe; it presents ‘Albion’ as the one place on earth in which Jerusalem is to be built anew. Yet the biblical Joseph was far removed from the British Isles for over a thousand years, long being thought in the East to have died in his hometown. It was through five incidental side-effects of important moments in the Joseph tradition’s growth that the pious Jewish councillor who appears momentarily to bury Jesus before disappearing from Mark’s gospel was transposed into the wealthy tin merchant-cum-decurio, soldier/knight-cum-uncle of Jesus who is found within the legends of Glastonbury and who supports an English exceptionalism which continues to echo today throughout the postcolonial spaces of the remnants of the British Empire.

Keywords: Christianity; England; Europe; Joseph of Arimathea; literature; modern; music

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About the article

Corresponding author: William John Lyons, University of Bristol, 3 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TH, UK, e-mail:


Published Online: 2014-06-06

Published in Print: 2014-06-01


Though I believe reception history is the answer to our current woes, it is by no means new. We might point to R.E. Protheroe’s first edition of his The Psalms in Human Life (London: John Murray, 1903) or to Ernst von Dobschutz’s 1909 essay, “Bible in the Church” (in J. Hastings [ed.], Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 2 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark] 579–615), offered by D.P. Parris as the earliest example of reception history (Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009], ix–x), or – depending on our definitions – look even earlier (e.g. the 16th century provenance described by N. Klancher, ‘A Genealogy of Reception History’, Biblical interpretation 21 (2013), 99–129). It has been largely ignored, however, in the Enlightenment project called biblical studies, and it is that omission that needs to be remedied. Other attempts to redraw the terms of reference for biblical studies have taken one of two approaches. The first is to re-frame current practices in a different idiom, but leave the subject matter of the discipline unchanged; the biblical texts remain at the discipline’s center, whether they are viewed through the lens of New Criticism, reader-response, or deconstruction. The second is to examine the wider application of biblical texts, but to do so under the heading of some form of ‘minority’ criticism. Neither has proved able to budge the majority of those who hold posts in biblical studies into changing their traditional practices, however. It was one such attempt – that of George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh in their article “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible” in JBL 128 (2009), 383–404 – which led me to think that the big issue for the discipline was not so much the methodologies it used to interpret the Bible, but rather its vision of the Bible altogether. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not in disciplinary terms a Hebrew/Greek text with a bit of Aramaic thrown it; rather it is whatever anyone at any given time has decided it was, the Vulgate, the King James Version, the Yorkshire Bible, Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever. The subject matter of biblical studies properly configured is not what scholars have long thought it was; it is something much larger, more exciting, and more relevant within a hostile Academy. Accepting and promoting such a message is, I believe, of paramount importance in the academic environment in which biblical studies now finds itself. As C. Vander Stichele has recently written, in relation to “the survival of Theology or Religious Studies as an academic discipline… in the Netherlands,”

there is less and less societal support for its presence in the academy… Biblical Studies has a hard time surviving as an academic discipline in such an environment and has thus become an endangered species. People who are retired are not replaced, including feminist scholars. The result is that younger scholars also do not get a chance to start an academic career in the field and that the whole discipline may be wiped out in a decade. The only way to survive may be for Biblical Studies to redefine itself in terms of cultural studies, as some scholars, such as John Lyons [“Hope for a Troubled Discipline? Contributions to New Testament Studies from Reception History,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (2010), 207–20] and Tim Beal [“Reception History and Beyond: Toward the Cultural History of Scriptures,” in Biblical Interpretation 19 (2011), 357–72] already suggested. That could make its position at least somewhat less vulnerable and contested than it currently is. It may, however, also be an opportunity to re-invent itself. Gender-critical issues can be part of such an endeavour. The crucial question however is, if there still is time to make such a cultural turn and/or if ‘resistance is futile’ (“Is Doña Quixote Fighting Windmills? Gendering New Testament Studies in the Netherlands”, Lectio Difficilior 1 [2103], 11–12, http://www.lectio.unibe.ch/13_1/vander_stichele_caroline_is_dona_quixote_fighting_windmills.html , accessed on 25 September 2013).

Indeed.

I would not wish to be misunderstood here. My use of terms like ‘text’, ‘context’, and ‘audience’ is not to be understood as the invocation of a set of essentialist items, each of which is available for an objectivizing study by the scholar interested in reception history; whatever it is that passes down through history, it is certainly not an unchanging lump of material encountered alike by all (and apparently misunderstood by the vast majority). Biblical texts exist and mean things because people encounter and interpret them from their very first moment of contact. Such audiences exist in turn as complex and located entities set within multiple traditions and settings which are both fluid and yet constraining. Added to the reception history mix is the scholarly investigator, also an interpreting reader and a located entity. Thus there is no way to read anything apart from these factors, but that does not somehow invalidate critical studies, least of all, studies of specific examples of reception history. Plausibility is a good enough criterion, I would argue; if we are honest about it, plausibility has always been our measure of the value or persuasiveness of any scholarly argument in biblical studies.

The extended study was published by Oxford University Press in February 2014, as Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History.

Unless otherwise stated, biblical quotations are from the NRSV.

Though Mark’s text certainly displays his own interests, my own view is that his account of Joseph is as close to the historical figure of Joseph of Arimathea as it is possible for us to get (W.J. Lyons, ‘On the Life and Death of Joseph of Arimathea’, JSHJ 2 [2004], 29–53).

Details about the origin and content of the anthem will appear later, but readers may wish to stop here and search YouTube for an online video of that part of the wedding service. Turn up the volume and play it loud!

D. O’Briain, ‘Update on 29 April 2011’ (http://twitter.com/daraobriain/statuses/63927262 210306048). He wrote: “In summation, then: No, Chewie didn’t get a medal; and Jerusalem is the Prod’s best choon. Better go now, this Portal 2 won’t play itself...”, accessed 30 April, 2011; M. Chilton, ‘Royal Wedding: Jerusalem triumphant at Kate and Wills wedding’, Daily Telegraph, 29 April, 2011 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-wedding/8483364/Royal-Wedding-Jerusalem-triumphant-at-Kate-and-Wills-wedding.html, accessed 30 April, 2011).

Cf. A. W. Smith, “‘And Did Those Feet…?’ The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain,” Folklore 100, (1989), 63–83.

On these various positions, see, e.g., M. Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 2001). Goodacre is himself a major proponent of the Farrer Hypothesis.

Cf. e.g., R. Bauckham, ‘John for Readers of Mark’, in his edited volume, The gospel for all Christians (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1998), 147–71; and J. D. Crossan, “Historical Jesus as Risen Lord,” in The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict, ed. J. D. Crossan et al. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 23–6.

W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 355.

C. E. B. Cranfield, The gospel According to Saint Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 462.

W. J. Lyons, “On the Life and Death of Joseph of Arimathea,” 38–44.

While it is true that Matthew does not here employ a stock phrase indicating scripture fulfilment, most commentators eventually have little difficulty in making this connection (cf., e.g., W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew, Vol. III: XIX-XXVIII [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997], 648)

That the “rich man” involved was originally understood – by parallelism – to also be a wicked man did not bother Matthew. In R. H. Gundry’s words, “his use of the OT easily surmounts such obstacles” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution [2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994], 580).

A. Powell, “The Errant Image: Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition from the Cross and Its Copies,” Art History 29, (2006), 540–62 (542). Subsequently Mary of Hungary (1505–58), the Stadtholder of the Low Countries, who was ruling the region as the representative of her older brother, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, purchased the original, and after her death, the painting was shipped to Spain and came into the collection of the powerful King of Spain, Philip II. The source of many copies and much emulated for centuries, it is now in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

D. de Vos, Rogier van der Weyden: The Complete Works (New York: Harry N Abrams, 1999), 20.

Walkin, Praying for Miracles, 2nd ed. (Xulon Press, 2011), 375–6. In an Easter Sunday sermon in Rio de Janeiro, placed online, the Rev. Canon Stuart Broughton placed Joseph “in the same league as Bill Gates,” and re-named him “Joseph ‘Bill Gates’ of Arimathea” (“’The day God came back to life’: an Easter Day Sermon” (http://www.christchurchrio.org.br/cchurch/newscontent.asp?id=7051, accessed 15 October, 2012).

S. Rebbenich, Jerome (London: Routledge, 2002), 32–3.

A. Jülicher, Itala: Das Neue Testament in altlateinischer Überlieferung, vol. 2, Marcus Evangelium 2nd ed. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1970), 155; A. Jülicher, Itala: Das Neue Testament in altlateinischer Überlieferung, vol. 3, Lucas Evangelium (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1954), 268.

The modern Vulgate includes a number of revisions of Jerome’s work, including those of Alcuin of York in the late eighth-century for Charlemagne, and the ‘Clementine’ version commissioned by the Catholic hierarchy in the 1590s. Our best witness to Jerome’s original translation is therefore the early eighth-century Codex Amiatinus (C. Tischendorf, Novum Testamentum Amiatinus [Avenarius Et Mendelssohn, 1850], with Matthew 27, 57; Mark 15:42(43), 88–9; and Luke 23:50, 141).

Jülicher, Lucas Evangelium, 268.

Jülicher, Marcus Evangelium, 155; cf. A. Jülicher, Itala: Das Neue Testament in altlateinischer Überlieferung, vol. 1. Matthäus Evangelium (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1938), 209.

C. Gizewski, “Decurio, Decuriones,” in Brill’s New Pauly Online, 2011, eds. H. Cancik et al., http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-new-pauly/decurio-decuriones-e312510?s.num=174&s.start = 160 (accessed 22 May, 2013).

Gizewski, “Decurio, Decuriones.”

Gizewski, “Decurio, Decuriones.”

M. H. Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 29.

Williams, Monk and the Book, 29.

F. D. Gilliard, “Senatorial Bishops in the Fourth Century,” HTR 77, (1984), 154–5.

J. Paxton, “Lords and Monks: Creating an Ideal of Noble Power in Monastic Chronicles,” in The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe 950-1350, eds. R. F. Berkhofer et al. (London: Ashgate, 2005), 235.

Paxton, “Lords and Monks,” 235.

D. K. E. Crawford, “St Joseph and Britain: The Old French Origins,” Arthuriana 11 (2001), 12.

R. L. Krueger, “Chretien de Troyes and the Invention of Arthurian Courtly Fiction,” in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. H. Fulton, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), 160–2.

When its use was described, the foodstuff that it was said to be improperly used in serving was fish, and not a liquid as we might expect (N. Bryant, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances attributed to Robert de Boron [Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008], 4).

N. Bryant, Merlin and the Grail, 2–3; Crawford, “St Joseph and Britain.”

Crawford, “St Joseph and Britain,” 14.

Bryant, Merlin and the Grail, 18–21.

Crawford, “St Joseph and Britain,” 14.

Bryant, Merlin and the Grail, 34–44.

C. J. Chase, “The Gateway to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle: L’Estoire del Saint Graal,” in A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, ed. C. Dover, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2003), 69.

Chase, “Gateway to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle,” 69–70.

Chase, “Gateway to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle,” 72.

Chase, “Gateway to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle,” 73.

P. Rahtz and L. Watts, Glastonbury: Myth and Archaeology (Stroud: Tempus, 2003), 40–1, 44–5.

Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: Myth and Archaeology, 46.

Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: Myth and Archaeology, 47.

So D. K. E. Crawford, “St. Joseph in Britain: Reconsidering the Legends, Part I,” Folklore 104, (1993), 86–98 (87). For V. M. Lagorio, however, hesitancy was not the issue. Instead she argues that the monks’ encounter with the Joseph stories in the Grail material just proved too great an opportunity to claim an original apostolic conversion for them to resist (“The Evolving Legend of St. Joseph of Glastonbury,” Speculum 46, [1971], 215–6).

The earliest surviving Old English manuscript of the gospel of Nicodemus had been donated to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric [d. 1072] and so the text was almost certainly available in both Latin and Old English to the monks in the thirteenth century (C.W. Marx, “The gospel of Nicodemus in Old English and Middle English,” in Z. Izydorczyk [ed.], The Medieval gospel of Nicodemus: Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts in Western Europe [Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies; v. 158, 1997], 208). John of Glastonbury would quote the gospel of Nicodemus at length in his Chronicle, c. 1340.

J. P. Carley, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), 5.

C. Rowland, Blake and the Bible (New Haven: Yale, 2010), 3.

The mixture of antinomian radical traditions that lie behind Blake’s work is helpfully articulated in E.P. Thompson’s Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 10–21, and is taken up, along with the work of earlier proponents of that view, in Rowland’s recent study of Blake and the Bible (2011, 158–80); Thompson’s proposal that the Muggletonians form the direct antecedents to Blake’s thought (1993, 65–105) has found little favor, however.

C. Rowland, Blake and the Bible, 120.

A. W. Smith, ‘And Did Those Feet…?’, 63–83.

Smith, “’And Did Those Feet…?’”, 72.

Smith also quoted plate 27 of the epic Jerusalem, from “Chapter Two: To the Jews”:

The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood:

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood (Smith, ‘And Did Those Feet…?’, 72–3).

The human cost of the war in France was increasingly apparent by 1916 and Younghusband’s Fight for Right movement was created in order to bolster the nation’s weakening resolve to see the war to its end (F. Younghusband, Fight for Right [New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1918]; cf. P. French, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer [London: Harper Perenniel, 1994], 302–3).

French, Younghusband, 308.

D. Fitch, Blake Set to Music: A Bibliography of Musical Settings of the Poems and Prose of William Blake (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 167. Parry’s pupil, Walford Davies, subsequently took the music to a publisher and soon the song was being used in ways far beyond that of boosting morale in war-time, not least among the churches (cf., e.g., Hymns of the Kingdom [1923], the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary [1927], The American Student Hymnal [1928], and The Hymnary of the United Church of Canada [1930]; Fitch, Blake Set to Music, 168).

Anonymous, “FAQs: WI website,” http://www.thewi.org.uk/faqs (accessed 3 Sept. 2012).

Anonymous, “FAQs: WI website,” http://www.thewi.org.uk/faqs (accessed 3 Sept. 2012).

S. Goodenough, Jam and Jerusalem: A Pictorial History of Britain’s Greatest Women’s Movement (London: Collins, 1977), 34.

Anonymous, “FAQs: WI website,” http://www.thewi.org.uk/faqs (accessed 3 Sept. 2012).

J. Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876–1953 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 161–2.

See, for example, Anonymous, “XIX Commonwealth Games,” http://d2010.thecgf.com/ (accessed 3 Sept. 2012).

See, for example, S. Condron, and P. Matthews, “Why Britain should sing Jerusalem on Thursday,” [2005] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/cricket/article-361425/Why-Britain-sing-Jerusalem-Thursday.html (accessed 3 Sept. 2012).

R. Thomas, “England pick Jerusalem and Fat Les for Euro 2000,” 2000; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ football/2000/may/09/newsstory.sport6 (accessed 3 Sept. 2012). Fat Les consisted of Allen, the artist, Damien Hirst, and the band Blur’s Alex James, and released a number of singles around the turn of the Millenium including ‘Vindaloo,’ eventually an unofficial ‘England’ theme for the 1998 Football World Cup.

“U2 – Where The Streets Have No Name – Glastonbury 2011,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pjve5n7jeGk (accessed on 18 Apr. 2013).

D. Boyle, “London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony: Media guide,” http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Documents/Publications/01/30/43/40/OPENINGCEREMONYGUIDE_English.pdf (accessed 4 Sept. 2012).

Cf. e.g., the Sun newspaper’s headline March 22, 2013, “Britain’s Olympic spirit has been killed by the recession: Ceremony guru Danny Boyle’s bombshell,” http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4854282/danny-boyle-olympic-spirit-killed-by-recession.html (accessed 25 Sept. 2013).


Citation Information: Journal of the Bible and its Reception, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 103–127, ISSN (Online) 2329-4434, ISSN (Print) 2329-440X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jbr-2014-0006.

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