But whether Jesus ever did really set foot in Britain has remained a tantalising, if rather whimsical, mystery.
Until now. For a new film argues there is evidence that the Son of God’s visit to England is more than just a legend.
Indeed, the documentary claims he may have visited a number of locations in the West Country.
The film-makers – former BBC religious correspondent Ted Harrison and Dr Gordon Strachan, a Church of Scotland minister who lectures on the history of architecture at Edinburgh University – suggest in And Did Those Feet that the young Jesus came to Britain on an educational trip with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy tin merchant who traded with a number of Cornish mines.
During this time, it claims, the Son of God also learned mathematics from Druids, and built a church in the Somerset town that remains to this day a centre for New Age spiritualists.
‘If someone was wanting to learn about the spirituality and thinking not just of the Jews but also of the Classical and Greek world, he would have come to Britain, which was the centre of learning at the time,’ says Harrison.
‘He would have come to learn astronomy and geometry, which was being taught at “universities” by the Druids.’
Intriguing, yes. But is any of these claims plausible?
Well, it is certainly possible.
The four Gospels of the New Testament contain almost all we know about the life of Jesus and they are notably silent on what he did in most of the three decades between his birth in a Bethlehem stable and the moment he began preaching and performing miracles, aged around 30.
Indeed, they only really cover the three years before his death, aged 33, on a cross in Jerusalem.
Consequently, apart from his circumcision, as was required eight days after birth by Jewish custom, and being presented at the age of 12 at the Temple, Judaism’s holy of holies, Jesus’s youth is a mystery.
He could have been anywhere. Even England.
‘When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth,’ Luke writes in his Gospel of Mary and Joseph after Jesus’s birth.
‘Meanwhile, the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was with him.’
Many stories attempt to fill these empty years. The British producer Kent Walwin is working on a film, Young Jesus, that places him in India.
His premise is that Jesus was so intrigued by the Three Wise Men who attended his birth that as soon as he was old enough, he went in search of them.
He made the voyage to the subcontinent on a ship owned by Joseph of Arimathea and worked his passage as a carpenter.
But while both stories paint a fascinating picture of Jesus’s youth, they rely largely on one almost certainly spurious detail: that Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s travelling companion, was his uncle.
What the Gospels do tell us about Joseph of Arimathea is that he was a wealthy Jew who was a secret follower of Jesus.
And that after the Crucifixion, he asked the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, for permission to place Christ’s body in a tomb he had prepared for himself.
Nowhere in the Gospels – and, for that matter, nowhere in what are known as the extra-canonical or apocryphal gospel texts, which were written at the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but were excluded by the Church authorities from the Bible – is there any reference to Joseph being Jesus’s uncle. Nor is there any mention of him dealing in tin.
Indeed, archaeologists haven’t even been able to find any other reference to a place called Arimathea.
However, this has not prevented the growth of stories linking the intriguing character of Joseph to Britain.
One appeared in medieval times and is intimately bound up with the legend of King Arthur.
In this version, William of Malmesbury, a 12th-century monk and otherwise respectable chronicler of English history, records how in AD 63 Joseph approached Glastonbury by boat – entirely possible because the lowlying Somerset Levels that surround the town had not at that stage been drained.
In his knapsack, Malmesbury records, he carried the Holy Grail – the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper – which he then buried in Glastonbury, endowing the town ever after with special mystical powers.
Another version of the story claims Joseph went to Glastonbury with Jesus before his ‘nephew’ started preaching in public.
Legend has it that the 20-year-old Messiah built a church from mud and wood there and dedicated it to his mother. It stood in the grounds of what went on to become Glastonbury Abbey.
The new film, which cites the second story, includes testimony from the sixth-century St Gildas that just such a building existed in Glastonbury.
But while the claim is fantastic, it was made more than 500 years after any possible visit and hardly counts as an eye-witness account of Jesus toiling over the construction of an English chapel.
And besides, in medieval times, they rarely let facts get in the way of a good story. After all, a visit by Christ, however fanciful, would have been a major draw for a location’s pilgrimage trade, sucking money into the coffers.
But the film does uncover some fascinating details – and provides plenty of circumstantial evidence that Britain was the centre of learning for any wealthy young Palestinian in the 1st century AD.
Even so, Rome was a whole lot closer to Nazareth than England, and it is hard to imagine why a knowledge-hungry Jesus would bypass the centre of arguably the greatest civilisation the world has ever seen in favour of a small town in Somerset.
It is also doubtful that Druids made gentle schoolmasters. After all, most contemporary references to 1st century Druids describe them as bloodthirsty warriors rather than the Mr Chips of the Dark Ages.
Roman historian Tacitus, for example, describes the imperial army clashing on Anglesey with Druids who ‘poured forth horrible imprecations’ and performed ‘barbarous rites’ at altars ‘stained with the blood of their prisoners and the entrails of men’.
We do know that some ancient religious traditions encouraged scientific exploration, but if it was maths Jesus wanted to find out about – as the film claims – he really would have done better heading for India.
Arithmetic, including squares, cubes and roots, are all to be found in its sacred Vedic texts dating to 1,000 BC.
And anyway, why maths in particular? It is not as if once he began his public ministry, Jesus preached the parable of the accountants.
What all these speculative efforts rather depressingly reveal is a penchant in human nature for concentrating on the superficial rather than the profound.
The Gospels are full of challenging teaching from the adult Jesus that is, at the very least, worth debating and which, if applied, might make our society more harmonious and compassionate.
Yet instead of rising to the challenge of grappling with that, we are more fascinated by the trivia of imaging what he might have been doing in Somerset as a teenager.
Perhaps we should just accept that this is one part of Jesus’s life that will always remain a mystery.
Source: Daily Mail