How it all Began…

The sleepy village of Packington, Leicestershire in the mid to late 1960s was a long way – in almost every respect imaginable – from the Jerusalem, Sepphoris, Capernaum and even the rural country of northern Palestine with its hills and lake known so well to the Galilean and his followers nearly two millennia before. (It was then, and still is I suppose, a tribute to the determination and enterprise of my impoverished, asthmatic and anaemic mother, Ishbel, that I was able to experience a uniquely, rather privileged English village upbringing at all.) The English village was still, in the 1960s and 70s, a social repository of mild attitudes and gentle appliance. I can never be appreciative enough of enjoying my formative years in such a setting.

Yet, so it was that, at around the age of 8 or 9, in some evening meeting of the “Pathfinders”, within the leafy grounds of Packington vicarage – then hard in the shadow of the village church – that I, like so many others before and since, had my first encounter with that Galilean who was soon to become the object of my historical pursuit for probably the entirety of my time.

The text under discussion that summer evening was John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto them, I am the Way the Truth and the Life, no man cometh unto the Father but by me.”
My impression was one of bewilderment and two questions impounded my mind immediately; Who, what sort of individual, could possibly claim this? Or, should Jesus have been misquoted, Who could possibly have written this and attributed such a saying to any one person? It either boasts the most outrageous conceit on the part of all involved, or else it is true. There and then it was apparent that I had to make my own personal effort to sort this one out! Of course, there were myriad other concomitant questions along the lines of “Is this simply fantastic, or is it just fraudulent?” About 6 or 7 years later when I gingerly commenced my investigations into Koine (New Testament) Greek, Classical Hebrew and Palestinian Aramaic, I learned that debate and dispute about these matters was (and still is!) rife amongst historical and Biblical scholars of all levels… and ages!

So, as I pause to reflect, it becomes apparent that the die was cast in that leafy, parochial setting on that long, “freshly mown” summer evening, nearly forty years ago in that little English village.

And it was, in some enigmatic way, being made aware, at a fairly early age, of this detachment in miles, time, culture, circumstances et al which framed, defined, what was to become an un-deviating plan in my mind; to root out and to investigate pitilessly those sources which were closest to the Galilean himself and those which would, eventually, surrender precious gems of information and, consequently, shed light on his true, original character, identity, and upon his life and times in general.

The village setting was certainly perfect for contemplation; the tintinnabulation of the mediaeval Church of the Holy Rood’s Bells; the babbling, spirited progress of the River Gillowiska as it eagerly burbled its way along lanes, around trees and tight meanders, plunging headlong into a pool at the local waterfall. And the image of the Galilean was never far away; in the daily assemblies in Packington’s Church of England School, at the village Church and its associated meetings such as “Pathfinders”, the Carol Services, the Easter Celebrations, and throughout the natural confluence of the farming and ecclesiastical calendars in general.

I began teaching myself elementary Latin and German whilst still at Junior School. A mobile library used to visit our village – on a Wednesday afternoon, if my memory serves me correctly – and I am so relieved that I had the courage to order two of the “Teach Yourself” style of books to make my initial linguistic expeditions. I enjoyed the Latin more, largely because of the historical aspect, and I was soon able to read the simpler prose passages from My Great Grandfather’s antique edition of Jerome’s Vulgate. One small step closer to the Galilean! Even my rather languid efforts towards acquiring very basic literary German proved to be more than a little useful when, much later at St Andrews whilst imbibing a hatful of Semitic and Classical languages, I took an extra course in Anglo-Saxon – mainly to wrestle with some of King Alfred’s literary renditions.

Whilst at Ashby Grammar School, I was fortunate enough to encounter a smattering of Classical Greek and made my first acquaintance with what is now an old friend, viz Hebrew grammar, through a former (exiled) Russian Jew by the name of Moskawich. A frighteningly tall man with a startling “Rasputin-like aspect! I remember once, in response to an injunction from him to “Find a Davidson’s Grammar”, darting into action by taking the local “Trent” bus to Derby – and missing school without permission. Nevertheless, I eventually succeeded in acquiring a decrepit, almost fragmentary, early edition of T & T Clark’s legendary Davidson’s Hebrew Grammar from an enchanting “84 Charring Cross Road”-style, second-hand bookshop situated near the city centre at The Spot; the shop may have been called Laura’s.

The buzz of becoming familiar with the Hebrew alphabet, vowel and tone systems will remain with me for the rest of my days. I would steal literally any opportunity of learning new words, constructions, verbal forms etc! This was, in due course, to place me in good stead when encountering Qumran Hebrew (the written dialect of the Dead Sea Sect), Mishnaic Hebrew (in the style and grammar of the Jewish scribes and lawyers), Syriac, and Aramaic some years later! My wayward attitude towards my regular lessons at Ashby School did catch up with me eventually; my last term prior to Sixth Form was tarnished, regrettably, with a splattering of suspensions – my English and Maths suffered somewhat but I had, at least, gained the rudiments of several key ancient languages at a relatively early age. Of course, some of this fervour for 'dead tongues' was not relayed to my classmates; how self deprecating that would have been!

Christian Union was an unlikely venue to find a student with my rather brooding demeanour and questionable academic record, but find me there – upstairs in Lockton House in those days, fellow Ashbeians! – you would, at each of our lunchtime meetings. Some ten years later, it was a surprise and a pleasure to be invited back, by the CU, to return to my old school and participate in a debate about the historicity of Jesus Christ! The vote was carried in our favour! I have life-long friends from my CU days at Ashby!

My two years at Moorlands College in Dorset consolidated my study of Hebrew and cemented my interest in New Testament (Koine) Greek which I had first encountered years before at Ashby. A career in the pastoral ministry beckoned but the lure of grappling with the original texts proved, in the end, to be irresistible and I found myself becoming impatient to indulge in an outright, linguistically orientated, textually based studies course. Even so, the Moorlands lecturers appreciated my efforts there and awarded me the College’s “Academic Prize” for that year.

Having surveyed thoroughly the various university faculties of our Island, I eventually settled on St Mary’s College, St Andrews; at that place alone, it seemed, as an undergraduate I was able to commence courses in Classical Hebrew, Greek (Classical and Koine), Aramaic, Syriac, Mishnaic Hebrew and Qumran Hebrew. I could even top up my Latin for a year and, as I mentioned earlier, did a couple of terms of Anglo-Saxon for good measure. In almost every text, each lecture, seminar or tutorial, the Galilean was somewhere around, rather like a residential guest, seated passively towards the rear of the room!

In those days, at St Andrew’s, classes and the correlated tutorials were tiny, intimate affairs and the assessment was virtually entirely examination centred. My final “home straight” at that University comprised of 28 hours of exams from the Monday of one week until the Wednesday of the next, in six (or seven) different languages. I was delighted to be “acquitted” with a haul of prizes including ones for excellence in Hebrew and in Greek.

When that final Wednesday evening arrived, I showered, then dashed to the station at Leuchars to board a train to Edinburgh and then, in turn, at Waverley Station, jumped aboard one to Carlisle – my favourite British city. Having checked in at a comfortable B & B there, and showered (once more), I relished the night-life of that friendly northern city; pasta, Frascati, local ale (Threakston’s – the brewery is now a University hall of residence!), and some live 60s music provided me with the evening I had anticipated with wild optimism for weeks.

The morning next, I awoke, cumbersomely, in my room on my bed, fully clothed, only minutes before breakfast … I showered straight after breakfast on this occasion! But that morning, in a peculiar sort of a way, heralded the end of an era; I was the world’s undergraduate no longer. I had already received an offer to study at Oxford under Prof Geza Vermes and it was clear to me that the real expedition on the trail of the Galilean must now commence in earnest!

A number of years later, whilst commencing research at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, it became apparent that even my investigative work thus far (the findings of which you can read about shortly) were, and are, of a value which had greatly exceeded my own estimation. For myself, knowledge – the establishment of truth, facts – has its own merit; its own intrinsic value. From a series of mildly covert sessions with a former Don, all situated within various walls of the University’s venerated edifices (the Coin Room above the Ashmolean Museum, the Radcliffe Camera Library, the basement café of the Oriental Institute to name but a few) I was – to couch it directly – encouraged to “write up” my own, original, findings and to “get them circulated, post haste”.

In fact, it was on a recent return to Oxford and a chance encounter with an ex-colleague that the behests of my old friend resonated in my conscience once again. Completely independently of these entreaties, at least as far as I am aware, the press have also expressed considerable interest in the content – and, indeed, the potential impact – of my historical enquiries. Coffee-table academia is, apparently, alive, even thriving, around our green and pleasant land.

That is a ruthlessly précised account of how Jesus Christ: 1st Century Radical finally came to be penned. Some will think it remarkably – and incredibly – fortuitous that the work emerges in the wake of the surge of interest caused by a number of currently populist works; this was in no way schemed. Works such as those are merely playful historical works; they are essentially entertainment: pretend histories, fabulae novae! Discussing the value of such “works” here is not a profitable use of either the writer’s or the reader’s efforts to ascertain the real, historically defensible, identities of the Galilean and certain ones of his followers and associates.

Michael Calum Jacques.