King Jesus is Robert Graves' version of the events of the gospels, a mythopoetic retelling of Jesus' life and times. Grave's work is infused with his belief that religion and myth records the story of the victory of male-dominated religions over the original religion of the Goddess, and the frontispiece of the work begins with a quote from Clement of Alexandria describing the Gospel of the Egyptians: "I have come to destroy the works of the Female." Therein lies Jesus' tragedy, and the tragedy of Christianity.
I first read this book nearly twenty years ago, and put it away because I hadn't a clue as to what it meant. Only now, after having developed some familiarity with the canonical and extracanonical literature, as well as with Graves' ideas regarding the origin of myth and the Goddess religion, can I truly appreciate the complex interplay of myth, history, and gospel Graves orchestrated in this mighty work.
Graves' underlying theory of the Historical Jesus is relatively simple. Mary was indeed a virgin, a Temple Virgin at the Jerusalem Temple, dedicated there by her parents as a child, raised there, intended to perform ritual acts and then later married out to a wealthy man. In Graves' story Mary is one of the line of David. As such, she secretly marries Herod the Great's son Antipater, who at the time of the marriage is the Royal Heir. Herod later has him killed, while Mary is pregnant with the child Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the Royal Heir to both the Jewish Kingship and the Roman-granted Kingship of Palestine.
This idea was sparked by Graves' observation that Pilate, who grants a private audience to Jesus, would not have done so for anyone but a Roman citizen, and his inscription on the cross, which clearly identifies Jesus as the rightful claimant to the throne. Although the story is presented in the form of a historical fiction, Graves clearly intended that it be seen as a valid solution to the problem of the Historical Jesus.
Using the Gospel of Luke as the basis for his novel, but drawing from a voluminous collection of writings, Graves then builds the story of Jesus' life. In it Jesus is a prodigy, disputing in the Temple, traveling to Egypt to study magic, slowly beginning to develop his own dream. For Jesus does not want to merely fulfill the political role King. Instead, he begins to imagine himself a spiritual and political leader who will redeem his people and usher in a golden age.
As it is, the story is interesting enough, but Graves pushes it one step further; he enriches and enlightens it with a leavening of his brilliant mythological understandings. For in Graves' book, the major actions are driven by the plans and desires of women. It is Luke's Anna the Prophetess who ensures that Mary is born to Hannah, and then that she is wedded to Antipater. What looks like the destiny of the god YHWH is instead presented as a subversive conspiracy of the Goddess working within the heart of the Jerusalem Temple. It is Augustus' wife Livia who fatefully prevents her husband from intervening in favor of Antipater and preserving his life. When Jesus appears before Herod Antipas, it is Herodias who bargains with him. At the end, the resurrected Jesus is not taken up into Heaven, but instead disappears into a cloud while in the presence of three women. The men may propose, but the Goddess disposes. More I will not say.
As a book, King Jesus begins with a slyly witty introduction from its putative narrator, one Agabus, writing in 93 AD. The history of Christianity he sketches is drawn from the extracanonical writings, but presented with great humor, and not a little sympathy. The first hundred pages go by at a romp, and the events leading up to the birth of Mary are told with great relish. After that, the book becomes the tale, briefly, of Antipater and his eventual doom, and then Jesus' birth.
As Jesus grows and gets further into his mission, the book begins to bog down for a while in speeches by Jesus and long discussions of myth, as well as hymns and poems. It picks up finally as Jesus is arrested and brought before Pilate. There Jesus' wealthy, behind-the-scenes supporter Nicodemon works out a deal with Pilate to save Jesus' life, and make him the King of Palestine. But Jesus will have none of it.
The best scenes in the whole book involve Pilate, who is presented as a well-fed, witty, amoral and thoroughly engaging rogue who likes nothing better than to twit the Sanhedrin. Expanding on scripture, Graves has Pilate say:
Pilate cried scornfully: "What is truth? Every so-called truth has its antithetical truth, equally valid in logic. The salt of life is humour: the realization that, in the long run ? praise to the Gods! ? nothing really matters."Despite our familiarity with the gospel story, there are several shocking insights, twists and reconceptualizations. The framework of Graves' mythic insight, once accepted, offers surprising explanatory power. For example, Herod's mad slaughter of his own relatives is made sensible by Graves' reinterpretation of his behavior in light of Goddess-belief. Jesus' crucifixion is made necessary not by some cosmic joke of YHWH's, but by the raising of Lazarus. There is a surprise twist at the end: the real tragedy of Jesus' crucifixion, and the real betrayal of Judas. For Jesus is the King in not one, not two, but three ways: the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son, married to the youngest daughter of a youngest daughter of a youngest daughter, he is also the chosen of the Goddess, her ritual consort. Ultimately, the Kingdom of Peace does not arrive on this earth not because of what Judas did, but because of what he failed to do. It is this realization that drives him to kill himself.
I highly recommend this remarkable and beautiful book. Graves' characters display his wit and erudition in their every spoken word. His intellectual reach is breathtaking; as a scholar, he is at equally at home with Jesus disputing in the Law Courts, or in a discussion between Greeks, Jews and Arabs in a merchants' caravan on its way to distant cities. As the reader reaches the end, prepared for one tragedy, she is offered another one, one ultimately more profound, moving, and sorrowful than anything that the early Christian writers ever imagined.