2010-04-30

What King Arthur might teach us about Jesus and Christian Origins

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detai...
Image via Wikipedia

There is nothing unfeasible about the idea of a rich body of literature that reads as if it were real history, filled with details of names and places, yet being entirely fictitious, appearing suddenly and “out of whole cloth” from the mind of a single author. This is how the Arthurian literature was created in the twelfth century. It was very likely created for the purpose of establishing a national identity and assisting the Norman conquerors of England establishing a continuity with their subjects.

The Primary History of Israel contains a detailed history of Kings David and Solomon that archaeology has demonstrated is entirely fanciful. This contains many names and places and administrative lists (though not so rich as those found in the Arthurian literature) that give the story verisimilitude. This story, too, was quite arguably created for the purpose of establishing a new “national” identity and sense of continuity for newly arrived inhabitants in the land of Canaan at the behest of yet another Persian imperial mass deportation. (It was the dismal custom of Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians to repopulate imperial lands via mass deportations for a variety of reasons — economic, strategic, punitive — while promising “liberty” and “restoration” to those they were relocating. Part of the package could include happy servitude to the “original gods of the land”.)

I sometimes wonder if the meagre evidence we have for the emergence of the Gospels is best explained by a similar process, maybe late first century but quite likely early to mid second century. Not that they are the products of a new nation or occupation, of course. But thousands of Jews were displaced, and a central focus of religious and cultural identity was shattered — twice, 70 and 135 ce. It might be interesting to explore the relationships between such presumably traumatic events and their cultural and ideological impacts. Such a possibility is suggested by the several metaphors in the Gospel narratives of a destroyed temple (e.g. the rock-carved tomb of Jesus deriving from Isaiah 22:16’s depiction of an earlier destroyed Temple being a rock-carved tomb) and a “new Israel” (e.g. the twelve disciples echoing the twelve tribes of Israel). They are documents that do potentially offer a new identity for a displaced people. They reassure those who leave their families and homes — even their former racial and cultural group still adhering to a revised Mosaic set of regulations — that they have a new place in the successor of Moses and Elijah. Their story of Jesus as the cast-out, the rejected, the persecuted, yet the one who would in the end conquer; their image of an alternative “new Israel” with which to identify; these surely would answer the needs of such peoples.

But could such gospel narratives arise seemingly from nowhere?

They certainly could. Compare the literature of King Arthur. (The following notes are for most part from a discussion by Hector Avalos in his The End of Biblical Studies.)

King Arthur supposedly lived ca 480-537.

The earliest references to Arthur

Nennius, ca 800

Nennius (a Welsh antiquary) in Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) speaks of 12 battles fought by King Arthur, and associates him with a clairvoyant Ambrosius (cf Merlin).

These 12 battles are listed by place names that are mostly obscure (e.g. River Glein)

Scholar Roger Loomis thinks their obscurity supports their genuineness. It is just as reasonable to see here evidence that a fictional tale can concoct or use obscure place names.

The Annals of Wales, 10th century

In the Annales Cambriae there is notice of a battle in 499 or 516, the battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of the Lord on his shoulder 3 days and nights, and the Britons were victorious.

Another entry for the year 537 says Arthur and Mordred perished at the battle of Camlann.

.

Thus from 850-1000 Arthur is only an occasional figure in British literature.

.

Other early references

Wace, ca 1100-1174

Mentions the Round Table

Layamon, ca 1200,

Says many falsehoods have been told about Arthur (i.e. evidence for competing traditions).

The Vulgate Cycle of ca 1200-1230

Refers to Lancelot and the Holy Grail

William of Malmesbury, ca 1125

Avalos draws attention to William of Malmesbury as evidence for an author who states the importance of narrating faults in heroes for the sake of verisimilitude. In his On the Deeds of the English Kings (Gesta rerum anglorum), he says he cannot vouch for truth of the details of the past of which he writes.

Of William the Conqueror:

I shall steer a middle course: where I am certified of his good deeds, I shall openly proclaim them; his bad conduct I shall touch upon lightly and sparingly, though not so as to conceal it; so that neither shall my narrative be condemned as false, nor will I brand that man with ignominious censure, almost the whole of whose actions may reasonably be excused, if not not commended.

One of the aims of his history is one “which by an agreeable recapitulation of past events, excites its readers, by example, to frame their lives to the pursuit of good, or to the aversion of evil.”

Fear of the return of the king

At his time there seems to have been a great worry among Norman conquerors that this past king, Arthur, might return. William says he has heard stories that he labels as fables. He adds that he has investigated the matter and cannot find any burial place for Arthur, which had helped to fuel the story of his return.

Avalos compares such a myth with the expectation of the return of King David in Ezekiel 37:24. I hadn’t thought of the David prophecies like that before. Don’t know. Will have to see if I can digest the thought. Interesting.

.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, ca 1100-1155

Geoffrey was the first to shape the story of Arthur into a complete narrative by tying earlier scattered references together into a complete biography, with a “beginning, middle and end”, from birth to death.

Geoffrey introduces dozens and dozens of characters and places and events for which there is no previous record. His story is a very complex one when compared with that of the biblical narrative of David.

Geoffrey includes highly formalized king lists who paid homage to Arthur, with many historically identifiable lands (e.g. Acil, the king of the Danes; Lot, who was king of Norway, and Gonfaljarl of the lawless Orkneys”).

He repeats variants of the list, as well as the list of officials such as “Sir Kay seneschal of England, and Sir Baudwin of Britain was made constable; and Sir Ulfinus was made Chamberlain; and Sir Bastia was made warden . . .”

Avalos remarks:

No serious Arthurian scholar deems such lists as coming from the archives of an actual king Arthur. . . . Geoffrey and many other writers are perfectly capable of adding all sorts of verisimilitude to their narratives (compare also the two genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3). p.159

.

Sir Thomas Malory, d. 1471

Produced Le Morte D’Arthur, the first prose account in English of the rise and fall of king Arthur, and of the fellowship of the Round Table.

.

Motives

The motive for the production of this new literature was “nationalism”. Geoffrey sought to give the Norman conquerors and his patrons a constructed “British” identity to help them affirm their continuity with their conquered subjects. (p. 160)

to forge an identity for imperialistic or nationalistic purposes (p.161)

If this was the stimulus for the Arthurian literature, it may have been quite similar to the catalyst for the Primary History of Israel if this, too, was an attempt to establish an identity establishing some continuity with of deportees of Persia with their new land.

Do such analogies open the possibility for a similar (if converse) origin for Gospel narratives?

.

Archaeology

The earliest inscription testifying to Arthur is at the Cathedral of Modena, in Italy, dated between 1099-1120. One of 6 knights in a frieze is labeled Artus de Bretani and woman in the tower is Winlogee (Guenevere?)

Not much to establish a real existence for the Arthur of the literature.

.

Creation of complex stories out of whole cloth

Avalos comments:

In sum, the rise of Arthurian literature refutes the notion that ancient authors could not create “complex stories about kingship out of whole cloth.” In fact, there are examples like that of King Arthur from all over the globe, and we can even observe it today as it happens. Just consider the Book of Mormon, which provides a complex story with many characters, places, and events that have little clear preceding record. It is attributed to a single individual, Joseph Smith. So whether David existed or not, it is clear that a seemingly rapid development of complex literature cannot be used as definitive evidence of historicity. (p.161)

.

A Genuine Historical Enquiry (starting with the indisputable evidence)

Here is how Arthurian scholars Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman approach their subject:

In this book, however, we distance ourselves from the debates over whether or not such a king actually existed. Instead, we consider why, in the twelfth century, a set of narratives about King Arthur suddenly emerges full-blown, virtually from nowhere (from the margins of the Norman empire), as an important subject of historical writings (at the center of the Norman empire) and why Arthur has since continued to be an enduring cultural and semi-historical figure.

What Finke and Shichtman are doing is genuine history. They are attempting to answer questions about the tangible evidence they have. That evidence is not the possibility of the existence of the Holy Grail or the Green Knight or the Round Table. It is the real existence of the stories about these. How did they come to be? Why? What led to their apparent widespread popularity? At what point do we find the earliest evidence for their existence? What were the wider political and social and other circumstances at that time and do they throw light on the possible origin of the narratives? In what social or other wider context do we first find the conditions that might best explain the most features of the narrative?

Asking the same questions of the Gospels is the way to subject them to genuine historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with known facts. The known facts are the existence of the Gospels. The known facts are not the historicity of any of the narrative contents. If there is any historicity to the narrative content, we have no means of establishing it without corroboration from sources external to the narrative itself. So that has to be shelved as an unanswerable question. The known fact is the Gospels themselves. Historical enquiry needs to focus on seeking to explain the Gospels themselves in terms of evidence external to the Gospels. It is the existence and origins and nature of the narratives the historian is seeking to understand. Objective external controls are required for this. Hence we need to subject the narratives to the same questions a historian would ask of any similar body of literature:

  1. How did they come to be? Why?
  2. What led to their apparent widespread popularity?
  3. At what point do we find the earliest evidence for their existence?
  4. What were the wider political and social and other circumstances at that time and do they throw light on the possible origin of the narratives?
  5. In what social or other wider context do we first find the conditions that might best explain the most features of the narrative?
The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

2 Comments

  • Paul S
    2010-05-04 13:25:05 GMT+0000 - 13:25 | Permalink

    But the story is just patently absurd: tables weren’t round back then.

  • phyzics
    2010-05-06 07:59:16 GMT+0000 - 07:59 | Permalink

    Yes, but Paul, they wouldn’t use such an absurd fact if they were trying to promote a myth, thus it must be true!

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.