Tag Archives: Oxford

The Final Days of Jesus

The Holy Sepulchre By Berthold Werner

I liked this book, The Final Days of Jesus. Its author, Shimon Gibson, is an archaeologist based in Jerusalem. He has dung up bits of the ancient city, shimmied into ancient mortuary caves and even found an ancient shroud, so he knows what he is talking about. With a name like Shimon I guess that he is Jewish, but he takes his profession seriously, so his book is mostly religion neutral, although there is a mournful note when he writes about the destruction of the second Temple in 60 C.E.

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

The book begins with that walk down from Galilee. At the end of this trek (no fifteen mile drives to the mall in those days), He stays at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. There is a rich crop of Beth villages around Jerusalem: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethabara, and Bethphage (which apparently means “house of green figs.”) Gibson discusses in some detail the rituals of purification and anointing at that time and shows that Jesus’s anointing by Mary is consistent with the practices of the time.

We then walk down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, its skyline dominated by the Temple “which dazzled those who entered the city from afar” as it “gleamed all over with gold and polished stones.” The well-to-do had nabbed the hills of Upper Jerusalem for their palaces and forts while Jesus characteristically stayed with the people in Lower Jerusalem.

Dividing the city in two is the Tyropoeon Valley: Tyropoeon apparently means cheese-makers who, of course, were blessed in the beatitudes according to the Life of Brian. In Lower Jerusalem is the Siloam Miqwa’ot (ritual purification pool of Siloam). Gibson describes the care to separate the pre and post purified with different steps and even different sides of the street. In an age before antibiotics and immunization, and the prevalence of diseases like leprosy, a concern about hygiene is understandable.

Gibson downplays two events of Holy Week: Jesus’s arrival on Palm Sunday (p18) and when Jesus chased the money lenders out of the Temple precincts (p48). He argues that anything smacking of insurrection would have swiftly been jumped on by the forces of law and order, both Jewish and Roman. The Last Supper Gibson reckons took place somewhere near the Siloam Miqwa’ot and not in the tourist stop off, the Cenacle, whose Gothic arches were clearly built in Crusader times and is just too big. Why wouldn’t Jesus and the Disciples just have hunkered down there rather than schlep up the Mount of Olives? Gibson suggests that the real room was too small and they were just camping out like many other Passover visitors. The choice of Gethsemane as that evening’s camp site would have been down to its proximity to the lower city and its accessibility through the Siloam Gate. It would also have been comparatively comfy as the whole hill was an olive grove: the name ‘Gethsemane’ is derived from the Aramaic for “olive press.” Once He had been arrested, Jesus would have been taken down the Kidron Valley into the city and up to Caiaphas’s house somewhere in the Upper City.

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest and chairman of the Sadducees, belonged to an influential family and held the job from 18 to 36 CE. It was given to him by one Roman, Valerius Gratus and fired from it by another, Vitellius, Governor of Syria, at the same time as Pilate was removed as Præfectus.” We know that Pilate really existed as there is an inscription mentioning him on a piece of stone found at Caesarea. Also, we’ve found the Caiaphas family tomb. Both fellows were career bureaucrats whose lives, their rise and fall was routine for the time, except for that minor nuisance around 30 CE which, for them, was probably simply a matter of keeping the riffraff in their place. I wonder what they would make of their fame down the ages principally due to the man they had had executed.

Gibson puts Christ’s trial in a complex of buildings near Herod’s Palace called the Essenes’s Gate, which had been built to provide a quick escape for the royals should the masses become too revolting. Here is the nice tie to the visionary folk, who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shared many of Jesus’s ideas. The gate complex centered around a small courtyard with a raised platform, so would have suited Pilate for a quick summary trial. If it really was the location of the trial, then the story about Barabbas and the guilt of the Jews cannot be true. The Essenes’s Gate was far too small for a decent crowd to claim the guilt of Christ’s murder for themselves and their children. Neither was there a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover Time. Sad to say that the Holocaust, centuries of pogroms and hatred may be all down to a few lines by a scribe trying to suck up to the Romans.

Gibson describes the horrendous business of crucifixion in some detail including the bent nail left in some poor sod’s ankle. During the siege of Jerusalem in 60 C.E. the Roman soldiery got so bored with nailing people up they “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” What must the screaming and groaning have been like?

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

The Roman soldiers probably did not think much of the Jewish religion. After all, Alexander the Great and his Greeks had beaten the Jews in battle, and then Pompey’s legions had done it all over again. Any normal people would have signed up for the winning gods. The Romans and Greeks believed in essentially the same capricious, amoral Marvel characters. As ingénues, those Romans didn’t realize that they were just the latest in a long line of military powers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians – who had been awesome in the day, and were no more. The Jews and their faith would outlive them too. Nowadays, we also prefer Marvel heroes and Mammon, and don’t have much time for the meek or the venerable.

The location of Golgotha, the site of both the Crucifixion and the tomb in the garden, Gibson reckons has always been known, as it was on a prominent outcrop overlooking a main route to the city, all the better to show off Rome’s might. It was pointed out to the Roman emperor Constantine’s mum, Helena, when she visited the city in 326-8 C.E. As she had bought the empire’s piggy bank with her, she brought up everything and anything to do with Christ, including those pieces of the true cross carried by the Frankish kings of Jerusalem, some 800 years later. She had her son tear down the temple to Athena which was standing on the hill of Golgotha and build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration to our times.

The big question is did Jesus just die that horrific death, knowing his life and work destroyed in the maw of imperial justice, or did God stretch out his hand and bring him back to life? This is a matter of belief: science, in the form of archaeology, cannot  answer yea or nay. For most of its existence the Christian tradition has stood by Jesus at the Siloam Pool with the humble folk. In time, of course, the folk from the upper city came down to help (themselves). The official religion of Constantine shattered into many fragments and became such strangers that epic bloodshed was countenanced by the words of the Good Shepherd, mildest of men. But it wasn’t all bad; even a Borgia pope left the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and Barbarini – the pope who had Galileo summoned to the Holy Offices of the Inquisition – sponsored Allegri’s Miserere Mei.


Both chapel and chant are some of the artillery of art made for the Counter Reformation. That shock and awe campaign flowered into Baroque and is in part theatrical and therefore man made. I have had many sublime theatrical experiences: the sunrise in the Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real: Much Ado in the garden of St. John’s, Oxford when the toasting summer had run dry of Pimm’s,

Clown Song in Twelfth Night
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

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Five Stars And Four More Plus Copious Supplies Of Oxford Blue

Stone bull's head rhyton used for libations, from the Little Palace of Knossos (1600-1450 BC), Heraklion Archaeological Museum by Carole Raddato

Almost ten years have passed since that evening; an evening which did not have a good beginning. At the time, I was working at the worst job I’d ever, ever had. It was in a town which I can only describe as a boil on the bum, angry, taut and tender. The job itself was maniacal, a St. Vitus dance on broken glass. The commute was a leprously icky dirge. I arrived home in the city of dreaming spires, feeling gritty dirty and worn, soul torn and rueful. I needed to have some fun.

I had been told that up on Boar’s Hill there was a folly called Jarn’s Mound and I thought, why not go and find it. The mound, the lily covered lake and wild garden are all that remain of Youlbury, the home of Sir Arthur Evans. In the 1920s, he followed the scratches on trifles found in junk trays of the antiquitieres in the Plaka in Athens to a field in Crete and his epoch-making discovery of Minoan palace at Knossos. The Iliad recalls, that from this palace, the heart of the labyrinth, the Bull Masked King Idomeneus lead his eighty black ships to keep fealty with Agamemnon, High King of Mycenae, rich in gold, and made war on Priam and his sons and his city of Troy.

Oxford Christ Church Meadow by Tejvan Pettinger

Oxford Christ Church Meadow by Tejvan Pettinger

After a wonderful shower – I do like Adidas shower stuff – and so, zesty fresh, wearing clean clothes, I unlocked my mountain bike and set offinto the twilight. First across the little wooden bridge into Hinksey Park where, during early autumn, the lido pool exhales grey ghosts. Then on to the pedestrian bridge over the swan pool. On the water, several dozen of the white birds rested in the dusk, like white magnolia blossoms strewn on oil.

As I carried the bicycle up the first flight of steps, descending down towards me was a family on a quest with a question. Had I seen it yet? What was I supposed to have seen? Oh, the great alignment. I vaguely recalled that all five of the planets known to Ptolemy, might be seen that night strung along the ecliptic, and no I hadn’t. Just at that moment, we were engulfed in a flurry of miniscule, cheeping Pipistrelle bats. After pointing out the bats as some kind of consolation, I continued across the bridge, up the second flight across the rust colored railway lines and down into a meadow.

The meager little path on the other side, overgrown but still passable let into a farm lane, where I mounted the trusty bicycle, The lane lend into a small village of South Hinksey which is just a row of flaxen thatched cottages molded out of the honey sandstone of hereabouts and – an Oxford staple here – the lighted windows showing rooms full of graceful living and books. Further on I passed the rather sparse General Grant (I made a mental note to pop in one day) which was followed by a farm yard with the pungent tang of cows’ muck. Then up a wicked little slope onto the A34/Oxford Bypass, round the roundabout and up the hill.

The road up Boar’s Hill has been worn by nature and thousands of years of farming into a kind of  reverse ziggurat; several duple bands scored into the hill side, each band temptingly shallow to begin with followed by a gear stripping, wobbly scramble. I will admit that come the steep bit number three my heart was knocking on 150 bpm so I dismounted to catch my breath. By the time I reached the top, night had finished falling and I was faced with a Y junction: the hill road continuing along an unnamed road stretching to the gloom and another diving off down into the Vale of the White Horse, which by the way does have a white horse, an Iron Age minimalist sketch scored through the turf to the creamy chalk just below.

Northern lights in Iceland seen from f-road 326 during my travel, close to Hekla volcano and Steinsholt guesthouse farm by Moyan Brenn

Northern lights in Iceland seen from f-road 326 during my travel, close to Hekla volcano and Steinsholt guesthouse farm by Moyan Brenn

Without light or a map this was a puzzlement which was quickly fixed by the welcoming lights of the Westwood Country Hotel, a little way down the Abingdon Road. This evening had yet to contain any alcohol which settled it. I padlocked the bike to a trellis and went in. The only beer they had was a lager so I made do with that. The only other residence were a rowdy Russian family. I settled down to read my book: Northern Lights.

This is the first book in the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. If you haven’t read it you should. It is the most marvelous tale which starts in Oxford, not this Oxford, but one in another universe. The hero is Lyra, dubbed “Lyra Silver Tongue” by Iorek Byrnison, the rightful king of the snow bears. So I lounged and supped and read those last few pages. I was taken to the snows of Svalbard to join Lyra in the destruction of Bolvangar and stepped with her and Pan through the Northern Lights into our universe. I closed the book with a sigh knowing that I had already bought part 2, The Subtle Knife and could begin again tomorrow. The drink was drained, the bike released and I set off down the hill.

Once over the brow of the hill it dawned on me how dangerous the road down might be. It had no street or house lights and as it was enclosed by a tree canopy it was as dark as dark could be. I did have my itty bitty cycle lights but didn’t imagine that would make a difference to some Beemer late for a date. So I whistled down the hill – no brakes – enjoying the danger and speed,

and I’m please to say no stone turned my wheel and sent me off karooming into a bush. The real danger lay at the bottom at the roundabout: people. Although I was pedaling furiously some plonker chose to tailgate me.

Mad lHatter By Tenniel

Mad lHatter By Tenniel

I narrowly escaped on to the ring road cycle path which was protected by a raised curb. As I cycled along it occurred to be that there was in these parts a remote establishment called The Isis Tavern, and voted unanimously that that to be the next stop. A little further on, the ring road ran over the Thames, known in these parts as the Isis, an odd name which has more to do with the scholars who rendered the Saxon place name Tamese into Tamisis or Tamesis rather than, as I thought for a long time, the queen of the Egyptian gods. As I came up to the bridge I noticed a path down to the bank. This path was a deeply incised cleft into the slippery clay of the embankment and proved a little tricky to negotiate what with a book bag and bicycle but barring a few slips I did it.

I mounted the bike and pedaled away but found the towpath full of mud and pots and holes. It was gloomy yet the moon cast enough light to turn the path into a metal leopard pelt, pockmarked with silver mirrors. I was concentrating on trying to avoid the puddles and a muddy tumble when out of the corner of my eye I saw it. There. there lined up across the sky were all five wandering stars, just as predicted. The ecliptic, the line across the heavens which all the planets follow (except the dwarf planet Pluto), appeared to me to be about 70 degrees to the horizontal, so my five where at a steeper angle than Russell’s amazing photo. So there they were, lined up, ascending at a jaunty angle. a truly amazing sight. Thing is though once you’ve seen them, said to yourself Good gracious, isn’t that remarkable, etcetera, they quickly become uninteresting.

So I remounted and rode into the gloom cast by some tall poplar trees and almost immediately almost ran over some fellow. Now, this being Oxford, what you think were the first words out of his mouth? They were not too surprising: it was the question of the family a couple of hours ago, had I seen it? Yes I had, just follow me. We retraced my steps and I gestured, there they are. Enjoy!

One of my oldest memories, I could only have been four or five, is the smell of a pub: a sweet smell of beer, the warm hearth and conviviality. The Isis Tavern is a Victorian farm house close to the Isis Lock and the (Oxford) Mathematical Bridge. That evening was busy but not crowded. I walked to the bar, ordered a pint of Oxford Blue and asked the assembled drinkers whether anyone had seen the Northern Lights. I got two replies – from the bar folk; the blond Canadian girl had seen them from the northern part of her country and the blond Swedish boy from the northern part of his, both places deep into the Arctic Circle. The liberating effects of the flowery deliciousness of Morrell’s brew, allowed me to strike up a conversation with a fellow patron whose history included being a Buddhist nun.  She was our Alice and I the Mad Hatter, we were joined by a highly inebriated fellow, a builder’s merchant’s clerk, who played Dormouse. He dozed on his barstool but managed to awake whenever the was a drink in the offering.

We drunk till closing time. Then I unpadlocked the bicycle and wheeled it – I was far too gone to attempt to mount the beast – along the muddy towpath to Folly Bridge and home.

Micky in Fantasia from primogif

Micky in Fantasia from primogif