Robert Graves and Easter

Did I get all my ideas between the ages of ten and twenty? It feels like it. Anyway, here is the gist of what Robert Graves had to say about Easter, i.e. the biblical accounts of Jesus’s death, not the chocolate festival. It was published in The Listener in about 1967, so it must have been based on a radio talk. I can’t find my copy of it (yet), so I’m doing this from memory.

Graves had had the disturbing experience of being left for dead on a World War One battlefield when he was a young man, for twenty-four hours. He survived, he was told, because of the heat of the day. This set him to thinking about the climatic conditions in Palestine (call it what you will), and the repeated references to darkness at the Crucifixion. He takes this to be a sign that a storm was brewing, and that therefore, the weather was very hot. He also spots that Jesus was on the cross for a comparatively short time, and that his legs were not broken to hasten his end (which was customary). Incidentally, he also thinks that the spear thrust which brings out blood and water is a sign that Jesus had pleurisy, brought on by the scourging.

So, Jesus is taken down from the cross in one piece, early, on a hot day, and delivered into the hands of his friends, who take him to a tomb. According to St. John (the account Graves seems to have fixed on), the philanthropic Nicodemus places a ‘mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight’ in the tomb, where Jesus is bound up tightly, and the stone rolled into place. The tomb is guarded with Roman soldiers.

Robert Graves

Robert Graves

What, asks Graves, would you do if you were a Roman soldier keeping guard over a tomb with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes in it? The answer, he says, is to open the tomb and steal it – because, according to Graves, that amount of ointment (what it apparently was) was worth about three years’ pay to a hacked-off legionaire stuck in a Judaean outpost. So, conjectures Graves, they wait until dark, and roll back that stone (since Graves is being logical, he points out that it couldn’t have rolled itself back). What do they find? A live Jesus, who has come round, after being kept warm by the heat and the binding. At this point, Graves gets just a little conjectural…

While the soldiers are running around going ‘Sarge! Sarge! This bloke’s not dead!’, one of Jesus’ disciples – who wouldn’t have been staying away, Graves reckons – nips in, and gets Jesus out. Jesus is then hidden away. The Roman soldiers can’t do anything about it because they’d be had up for conspiracy to nick valuable ointment. The disciple will have seen it as a miracle,  and so too, perhaps, will Jesus himself.

Now what? Well, the obvious thing to do is to get Jesus out of the country as quickly as possible. He is, in every sense, a marked man. And there is a Muslim legend that Jesus, in the company of St. Thomas, died at the age of 70, after many years preaching on the North West Frontier of India.

There are so many holes one might shoot in this, starting with the fact that the gospels are not contemporary, that it is fair to dismiss the theory as hokum. But it always struck me as very intelligent hokum, and that’s a start.


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