King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

Nevertheless Erkenbert had studied what few documents could be brought to him: he knew the tale as well as anyone. Maybe it was best that it should be told by one who could not be in any way seduced by it.

“As you know,” he began, “the four gospellers do not all tell the same tale of the Crucifixion of Our Lord. And this of course is proof of their truth, for how often do we not see that four men who have seen the same thing happen will nevertheless tell it in different ways? Yet where they do agree—as they agreed about the centurion who pierced Christ’s side with his lance, and venerated him forthwith as the Son of God—we may be sure that something great and holy is meant by it, for all four were inspired by the Holy Ghost to see and write the same thing.”

Bruno nodded, the satisfied expression on his bleak, hard face like that of a child who hears a well-known bedtime story unrolling.

“Yet there may also be great wisdom, or great knowledge, in something vouchsafed to only one witness. Now the Gospel of John tells us many things that are absent from the others. One thing he tells of is strange but not unlikely. I have read in other works that it was the custom of the Romans, a cruel and godless folk, when they crucified a man, to leave his body to be eaten by the birds.”

Bruno, whose gallows groaned all over Europe with un-buried dead, nodded again, perhaps with satisfaction, perhaps with imperial agreement on policy.

“But it was the law of the Jews that no dead thing might be exposed over their holy day of Passover. That is why men were sent to kill Christ and those crucified with him, not in mercy, but so that they might be taken down before sunset on Friday, when the Sabbath of the Jews begins.

“What happened then? Only John says this, but the story is not unlikely, nor need it have been known to all. He says that a rich Jew begged Pilate for the body, to have it wrapped in shroud and laid in a stone sepulchre—as is the custom in stony countries like this one, not laid in earth as we do. He gives the name of the Jew as Joseph of Arimathea. And then the story goes on to tell of the Resurrection, as all the gospellers in their different ways do.

“Now of this Joseph many other stories are told. My own people—not my Northumbrian people, but the English of the far West, have a story that this Joseph sailed from the shores of the Holy Land after the death of Jesus, and came in the end to England, not yet England but rather Britannia. And there, they say, he built a church at Glastonbury and performed many miracles. They say, too, that he brought with him the Holy Grail and that it still lies there.”

“But we do not believe that?” queried Bruno, though he had heard the answer at least a dozen times.

“No. For a rich Jew to leave the Holy Land, if he had become an enemy of his own people, might be possible. But Britannia at the time of the death of Our Lord was not yet within the Empire. It must have been a wasteland inhabited by savage Welshmen. Who would wish to go there?”

“So why do we think there is a Holy Grail?”

Erkenbert managed to conceal a disapproving sniff. He at least did not think there was a Holy Grail; but he knew from experience that if he said as much, his pious but overbearing master would keep him arguing till he had confessed he might be wrong. “Mostly because so many people have believed it. Nevertheless,” Erkenbert hurried on before his master could press for a better answer, “looked at correctly, the accounts of the death of Our Lord do leave room for wonder.

“I have already said that only the Gospel of the holy John tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea. Only that gospel also mentions the Jew Nicodemus, and it mentions him three times: at the end, when Nicodemus and Joseph arrange for Jesus to be laid to rest. In the temple of the Jews, where Nicodemus calls out for a fair trial. And when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to ask him a question.

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