Did Jesus or the Apostles Visit Britain?
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the Holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
WHEN William Blake wrote the words of this well-known song he repeated a question often asked and he added to many traditions that have rolled down through the years. Yes, did Jesus himself ever visit Britain, and what do we know of Christianity’s first introduction to these islands?
Traditions seem to grow better when evidence is lacking, because there is more cause for speculation; and so here we have many stories but very little evidence. It is said, for instance, that Joseph of Arimathea, together with Lazarus, Mary, Martha and other disciples, drifted in a boat without either oars or sails across the Mediterranean Sea. Finally arriving at Marseilles, they crossed France, landed in Britain and made their way to Glastonbury in the county of Somerset. On Wyrral or Wearyall Hill Joseph planted his staff from which sprang a miraculous thorn tree, the first of the species still known to this day as the Glastonbury thorn. He and his followers were said to have built a little wattle church and lived beside an ancient Druid’s well, now called Chalice Well because near here Joseph is supposed to have buried the cup used at the Lord’s evening meal.
Another legend weaves itself around the unrecorded years of Jesus’ life, from twelve to thirty. Why, just the time for him to visit England! So with his guardian, Joseph of Arimathea, it is said, he came on a business visit connected with the metal trade, which is why the story is found in the ancient tin-mining county of Cornwall. Later Jesus is said to have returned and stayed at Glastonbury to prepare for his ministry. This association gave Joseph a reason for returning there later.
But this is not all. Paul also came to Britain, so some say, preached in London at Gospel Oak and at the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral and founded Bangor Abbey in North Wales. For good measure, the list of visitors is rounded off with Simon Zelotes, Aristobulus and even Peter.
SIFTING THE EVIDENCE
Just how strong is the evidence for any of these legends and stories? To begin with, most of the authorities quoted in support are late ones or their statements are very general in character and have been expanded by theory. A comment by one writer will be embroidered and enlarged by later ones, and when this has been done half a dozen times the result is apparently six different “authorities.” Prominent among the writings often referred to are those of William of Malmesbury, but as he lived in the twelfth century, far removed from the claimed events, his narratives often fail to reflect genuine facts. Add to this the contradiction found between one tradition and another and it is evident that “it is almost impossible to determine the means by which Christianity was first introduced into Britain . . . intriguing as are the various legends . . . it must be remarked that they command little if any historical support.”1
The historian Gildas, writing in the sixth century, affirms that Christianity came to Britain in the last year of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar and then weakens his argument when he complains about the entire lack of any records on the matter in the early centuries. He makes no allusion to an opposite theory, that it was through the conversion of a second-century king of the Britons, Lucius, that Christianity first became established. When we learn that twenty-three different dates are given for this conversion, it becomes doubtful too. A letter that Lucius is supposed to have sent to the pope has been shown to be a forgery.
Place-names are clutched at as slender straws of support for the visits of Jesus and Paul. Among these are the villages of Cross and Christon, near Priddy, Somerset; Jesus’ Well near Padstow, Cornwall; Paradise near Burnham, Somerset; Paul’s Grove, Portsmouth Harbour; and Arwystli (Aristobulus), Montgomeryshire, Wales. Yet, although the derivation of many of these names may be very old, no evidence is advanced to prove that they existed as far back as nineteen hundred years ago. Suggestive place-names sound very nice, until we find, for instance, that Crux or Cross Peak merely reflects the old British word “cruc” for hill.
Considering the barbaric nature of the native inhabitants of Britain at that time, the supposed readiness of the people for Christianity is puzzling. Nor were the people who were following the Druidic religion already prepared for its introduction because of believing in the immortality of the soul and a trinity (made up of Beli, Taran and Esu). These doctrines were no part of apostolic Christianity. They were pagan and used pagan symbols such as the mistletoe with its three white berries representing the trinity and growing out of a single oak, looked upon as the sacred tree or godhead.a
LACK OF BIBLE EVIDENCE
Because Paul expressed the desire to go to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28), it has been conjectured that he continued on to visit the British Isles. This idea is partly based on the comment of Clement of Rome, an early writer, who said that Paul, “having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west . . . suffered martyrdom.” Though very vague, Britain was said to be this extreme limit. But how strong is this claim when we do not know if Paul even succeeded in reaching Spain?
In concluding his second letter to Timothy, Paul sent the greetings of the brothers, naming, among others, Pudens and Claudia. (2 Tim. 4:21) An early British king had a daughter by the name of Claudia who was sent to Rome to receive education. Because her husband, a Roman, was named Pudens, this couple have been linked with this verse to show a connection with Christians in Britain despite the fact that the two names are separated in Timothy by that of Linus, an unusual procedure if they were husband and wife.b There is nothing beyond the names to support the identity and, as both names are of frequent occurrence in the classic writings of the time, the resemblance has no value.
The silence of the Bible record calls for our respect. Nowhere do the Scriptures hint that Joseph of Arimathea was guardian to Jesus. If it had been important for us to know whether Jesus left Palestine between the ages of twelve and thirty, the information would have been given in the Bible. Why waste time on theories about the “silent years” and miss the very purpose of Jesus’ ministry on earth?
DISMISS LEGEND AND TRADITION
There is no real support for the many traditions that convince only the credulous. “Gracious and touching as some of these legends are, the truth of history compels us to admit that they have no foundation in fact. Christianity in Britain during the Roman occupation can boast neither apostolic origin nor vigorous life.”2
So we will not read into our Bible more than is stated clearly there, or grasp at will-o’-the-wisp straws to try to bolster up a theory, the purpose of which is mainly to back up the independence of the English Church’s claim to apostolic origin. Said one-time Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Henry H. Milman, “The visit of St. Paul to Britain, in my opinion, is a fiction of religious national vanity.”3
The early Christians were anxious to spread the good news as far as possible and they did so without partiality, going where the spirit led them. Instead of singling out a small island and glorying in traditions of doubtful validity, true Christians today will also spend time in spreading God’s Word, not only in Britain, but throughout the inhabited earth.
1 The Everlasting Gospel, by E. Newgass, page 19.
2 History of the Church of England, by H. O. Wakeman, page 4, 7th edition.
3 The History of Christianity, by H. H. Milman, volume 1, page 458.
a See A. Hislop’s The Two Babylons and Sir J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Index under “Mistletoe.”