Israel, Britain, and early Christianity
|And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On Englands pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of
Did Jesus visit Britain? Did his mother Mary die here? Did Peter, and Paul, Luke, Simon, and other apostles preach here? Was the first Christian Church built here? All these claims and more are contained in ancient documents that most people do not read, or reject as apocryphal. But could they be true?
It is a stirring and inspiring story. Could it be true? It is, after all, based on documentary evidence. The claims of the "British Israelism" movement are listed on this page, together with comments from the point of view of conventional scholarship and the restoration.
See also: Early Celtic Christianity | Celtic Christianity after AD 570 | The Holy Grail
This topic is too big to do justice to on one page, so I will just list the major claims. The information is from "The Drama of the Lost Disciples" by George F. Jowett. Page numbers refer to that book. This and similar publications can be ordered from Covenant Books, 8 Blades Court, Deodar Road, Putney, London SW15 2NU, or online from artisanpublishers.com . Please note that these publishers are nothing to do with the LDS church!
The "Messenger" site has a good page on Joseph of Arimathea at http://website.lineone.net/~mahonri/winston.htm. This is part of a fundamentalist (i.e. pro-polygamy) web site. It contains some great material - well researched and thought through. I am very impressed by the site. But there are fundamental errors with fundamentalism.
The British Israelite position
At its simplest, the British Israelite believers say that Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain some time after the crucifixion. (Joseph was the man who provided Jesus' tomb - see Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 16:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38). The story is that Joseph was a tin merchant who sometimes came to Cornwall (the ancient center for tin mining). This is quite a modest claim, and backed up by several ancient traditions.
At its most developed, there are claims that the British are literal descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and that Britain, not Rome, is the true cradle of Christianity in the years following the crucifixion. Jesus himself had visited this land while a young man, and many of the apostles visited at later times. This legend is best expressed in Blake's famous poem "Jerusalem", later set to music by Parry.
Do modern scholars take these claims seriously?
Possibly not. But how many scholars do you know who even read the sources? The British Triads, the Roman histories, the Byzantine Martyrologies, and so on? And how many of these even take them seriously? If we do not take them seriously, it is only because we filter them through modern points of view. It seems to me the "British Israelite" believers have simply read he works that we ignore, and said "maybe they were telling the truth".
That isn't to say that every claim will turn out to be true. Every scholar has to revise his work, especially where ancient history is concerned. But after seeing the mess that many scholars make of the Bible, I am personally inclined to trust the people who trust the ancient sources.
How important are these claims?
I have not investigated the "British Israel" theory as closely as I would like, so I cannot say whether all the claims (or even most of them) stand up to scrutiny. I am not an expert. But the claims deserve to be heard. After all, few people would disagree that at least one of Christ's original apostles may have visited Britain as part of their command to go into "all the world". So it is reasonable to assume that Britain had a claim to apostolic authority. It is also safe to assume that the British church would have developed a little differently to the church in Rome, if only because of the great distance between them.
But if these claims are true, they are significant for three reasons:
- They shed new light on the Great Apostasy. It shows another fulfillment of how the Lord uses far flung corners of his vineyard in an attempt to preserve the truth - see Jacob chapter 5 (Book of Mormon).
- We see that the apostasy was not a quiet slide into obscurity, but a life and death struggle between the outlying churches and Rome, dramatically reconstructed in the book "The Drama of the Lost Disciples"
- Many (if not most) of the early Latter-day Saints traced their roots back to Britain, and most of these are (according to patriarchal blessings) literal descendants of the house of Israel.
Each of these claims are defended and developed at length in the books published by Covenant and elsewhere. Here I just list them with minimal comment.
A summary of the boldest claims:
In brief, it is claimed that the following visited Britain at least once:
- Jesus Christ (with his uncle, Joseph, long before his ministry began)
- Mary, mother of Jesus (and she died here)
- Simon Zelotes (who was martyred here)
- Joseph of Arimathea
- Mary Magdalene
- Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead)
- Maximin (whose sight was restored by Jesus)
- and others
- The word "Christian" was first used in Britain
- Britain also saw the first Christian church
- British people began the church in Rome
- The bodies of Peter and Paul are in Britain
- and so on.
Why was Britain chosen? Because the claim is that the British people have Hebrew origins, had never been defeated, worshipped Jesus by name in pre-Christian times, and so on. Let's look at this in a little more detail.
|Claims regarding Joseph of Arimathea|
What other scholars say
Some other scholars disagree with all this. But if you examine their arguments, they come down to "the ancient historians were always changing history to suit themselves so we don't trust them". But they are unable to prove that the ancient historians were mostly liars. Personally, I trust the ancient historians more than the modern ones.
|Claims regarding Jesus and the early Church|
Claims regarding the early Christian church
There are plenty more claims of this nature, but listing them all is beyond the scope of this page. I am sure you get the general idea by now.
|Claims regarding the nation of Britain|
Claims regarding the ancient Britons (Before Christ)
Many "British Israel"ers make the grand claim that the ancient British were predominantly Hebrew. I have looked at many sources relating to the ancient Britons, and the evidence does not seem to say this. The LDS point of view is that most modern Britons do have some blood of Israel in them. But this could just as well mean we are all on average1% Hebrew and 99% Gentile - that would still mean we have the blood of Israel.
Nobody can be sure
Of course, nobody can be sure. If anybody says "the evidence PROVES this or that" they are lying, because:
Claims regarding the medieval Britons (long after the early apostles)
Many "British Israel"ers claim that Britain is so strongly descended from Israel that the Biblical prophecies regarding Israel are fulfilled in Britain. Most scholars strongly disagree. The LDS church also disagrees. Israel in the Bible refers either to the nation of Israel or to the church. The case for Britain being predominantly biological Israel is weak. And the case for Britain representing the true church died in the Dark Ages, the Great Apostasy.
modern day prophets
- what is the LDS view of "British Israelism"?
A definition of Israel - Discourses of Brigham Young, Pg.437
Israel -- Who are Israel? They are those who are of the seed of Abraham, who received the promise through their forefathers; and all the rest of the children of men, who receive the truth, are also Israel. My heart is always drawn out for them, whenever I go to the throne of grace. 1:107.
Israel is diluted and mixed with other nations - Discourses of Brigham Young, Pg.437
Israel is dispersed among all the nations of the earth; the blood of Ephraim is mixed with the blood of all the earth. Abraham's seed is mingled with the rebellious seed through the whole world of mankind. 16:75.
Brigham Young also said that the Anglo-Saxon race has the blood of Ephraim. But given that Ephraim's descendants have been spread thinly over all the world, and that most of them (us) are in a state of apostasy, we should not be surprised if most of the world does not look or act like Israelites!
Some misunderstandings regarding changing blood
Again, if a pure Gentile firmly believes the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and yields obedience to it, in such a case I will give you the words of the Prophet Joseph: "The effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham."- Discourses of Brigham Young, Pg.437.
Some people think that the LDS church teaches that blood physically changes when someone is baptized. Other people think that the idea of the "blood of Israel" is racist. Both ideas are false. Anyone who joins the church, if they are not Israel already, are adopted into the house of Israel. As John the Baptist said to those who relied on their blood ancestry:
Luke 3:8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
"Purging blood" just refers to cleansing the inner person, including cleansing of anything bad inherited from the past ("foolish traditions of their fathers" as the Book of Mormon bluntly states it). It is explained in Hebrews 9: 13-14:
"For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Now let us return to the separate issue of the legacy of Joseph of Arimathea:
|Whitby and the loss of early British Christianity|
The "Golden Age" then the Great Apostasy
All this refers to the time before Gregory the Great sent Augustine in the late sixth century to "convert" the British.
The teachers of the "British Israelite" theories do not directly admit that the sending of Augustine was a tragedy that destroyed whatever good the British church had preserved. But by their own evidence that is exactly what happened. Page 162, speaking of the synod of Whitby, says:
"Though the British Church [up to this point] steadfastly refused to recognise the recently instituted authority of the Pope, A.D. 610, flatly denying the worship of Mary or the use of the term 'Mother of God', proclaimed by the Roman Church A.D. 431, at the council of Ephesus, or the doctrine of Purgatory, established by Gregory the Great about the year A.D. 593, they shared the same communion".
In other words, they drank from the same poisoned goblet, and in time the British church accepted all these things and more. The book will not say that giving in to Rome after 600 years, was a disaster. All it will say is, in the very next paragraph:
"The first six hundred years following the Passion of Christ can truly be called the Golden Age of Christianity"
When Gregory sent Augustine to "convert" the British, all was lost.
A criticism of British Israelitism
The British Israelite theory (as far as I have seen) teaches that the British retained its truths even through the dark Ages. I think this is a great weakness in the theory. it ignores the testimony of history. If Rome had so many errors, how could Britain be ruled by Rome and accept those errors without becoming polluted?
No wonder people cannot accept the evidence that the British church as once great, when they are also asked to swallow the idea that its greatness continued through the ignorance and evils of the Dark Ages. Plainly the British church as as mixed up as every other church for that period. People see it and say "the British church is not so great - British Israelitism must be rubbish". Yet perhaps the British church was great, once, before it became just another satellite of Rome?
Reformation or Restoration?
The "Lost Disciples" book tries to say that the British church was revived by the Protestant reformation, which rejected much that was Roman and unbiblical. But even here it has to admit the truth. Henry VIII is credited with bringing about the reformation in England. yet he turned out to be even worse than the Roman church leaders. On page 145 we see that the British church headquarters at Glastonbury had survived the worst the Roman empire and Roman church could throw at it for 1500 years. But it could not survive Henry VIII.
"This despotic monarch not only stole all its precious possessions but robed it of all its ancient privileges and brutally murdered the last Abbot."
The true church could not be reformed with men like this in charge. The truth must be restored in the same way that it was restored the last time - by prophets of God, with the ministering of angels, under the direction of Jesus Christ himself.
The British church - and the church everywhere - needed to be restored from heaven. And it was, in the year 1830, the only year it could happen, and exactly as prophesied.
I do not know if all the claims of British Israelitism are correct. I know that many Christians think they go too far. But I also know that these same critics do not even read the early texts.
I will just finish by noting that Joseph Smith claimed to be a literal descendant of Ephraim - and this Joseph's ancestors came from Britain.
the bottom line
If these claims are true, then God did not leave the church in the hands of the Beast - Rome. He prepared another place of safety. But by the late sixth century even Britain had been overcome.