Tuesday, 25 May
My extended stay at Elmfield House on Friday afternoon was very enjoyable indeed, mainly because I had a perfect excuse to fawn over Luke without attracting suspicion but also because Leonard has progressed to painting Luke’s portraits and I find the painting process to be tremendously entertaining. I sat behind Leonard and the large wooden easel that dominated the centre of the workroom, pretending to follow each brushstroke while all the time watching the colours swirl around inside the jar of water that he uses to clean his brush. At one point Luke developed a raspy cough that he blamed on the dusty old cravat that he was wearing for the portrait but Leonard believed that it was brought on by the strong paint fumes that were accumulating in the room and, although Luke insisted that he was fine, Leonard opened all the windows and then retreated into the kitchen to brew up a pot of cough remedy which, from what I can gather, consisted mostly of mullein, horehound and honey. He offered a mug of the steaming mixture to me and although it smelled sweet and appealing, I politely declined.
We resumed our positions around the easel and then after ten minutes or so of silence, Leonard enquired from out of nowhere: “so…any new thoughts on the wand?”. At first I was unsure to whom Leonard was speaking as he had his back to me, but since Luke was looking directly at Leonard and I knew that Luke would not be so rude to ignore him, I inferred that the question must be addressed to me. Besides I have learned to anticipate a theological-cum-magical lecture whenever the room falls quiet and on most occasions, unless I am feeling particularly tired, I am relieved when Leonard strikes up a discussion as it serves to fill the awkward silences, although I wonder whether he does this a) to genuinely test my opinions on his theories, b) to provide entertainment in order to prevent me from becoming bored or c) to simply amuse himself while he is working.
My apathetic response to Leonard’s question was the verbal equivalent of shrugging my shoulders like a sulky teenager. What else could I say? I had exhausted every conceivable theory that had come to mind during our last conversation on the matter and so I made an indifferent, hesitant noise that hung pitifully in the workroom air along with the paint fumes. Clearly impatient to reveal his own thoughts on the subject, Leonard jammed the end of his brush between his teeth and stepped back from the easel, then he reached over to a shelf and retrieved his bible. He handed the bible to me and instructed me to turn to chapter fourteen of the Gospel of Matthew and read the first two verses of the chapter aloud. Obligingly I located the passage and read:
‘At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.’
The afternoon was rapidly turning into another bible study session and I was embarrassed that yet another theological debate was taking place in Luke’s presence. Although Luke knows that I am a student of theology and these discussions have an entirely academic basis, I do not want him to think that I am a religious fanatic who talks about nothing but Jesus and the New Testament all day long. And reading bible passages aloud during our sessions is doing very little to discourage this impression.
Leonard asked me to explain, from my understanding of these two verses, how Herod believes that Jesus is able to perform miracles. I reread the passage to myself and answered tentatively “because John the Baptist has risen from the dead?”. He nodded in agreement and then asked me to explain how the deceased John the Baptist could be the source of Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. After feigning deep concentration for a short while, I shook my head and confessed that I had not considered the meaning of Herod’s words in this passage before, but the implication appears to be that Jesus somehow is John the Baptist.
My reply sounded ridiculous but, before I could contemplate it any further, Leonard presented me with yet another puzzle. He said that in the Markan version of this story the claim that Jesus is to be identified as John the Baptist is made by the general public rather than Herod and, in another episode that occurs later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples ‘who do men say I am?’ to which they respond with the names of John the Baptist, Elijah and ‘one of the prophets who has risen again’. In Mark’s version of events it is the general populace who identify Jesus as John the Baptist and by asking the question (and promptly demanding secrecy afterwards) we infer that Jesus himself was fully aware of these allegations. So, Leonard asked me, what could have led Jesus’ contemporaries to believe that he was John the Baptist or another popular deceased figure?
It seemed obvious to me that Herod and the people were thinking in terms of reincarnation - that John the Baptist had been reincarnated as Jesus – but Leonard dismissed this theory, pointing out that a) John and Jesus existed contemporaneously and they are distinctly separate characters in the Gospels, and b) Herod’s accusation is not that John has been reincarnated but that he is risen from the dead and he is actively empowering Jesus to perform miracles, to which I exclaimed “you mean, Jesus had taken John’s dead body out of his grave?!” causing Leonard and Luke to laugh at my shocked and repulsed expression. Leonard said that he seriously doubted that John’s stinking, rotting corpse was accompanying Jesus around Galilee and performing miracles on his behalf. On the contrary, he argued that Herod’s words do not concern the bodily resurrection of John but rather the resurrection of his spirit and therefore Herod’s claim is that the spirit of John the Baptist is empowering Jesus and granting him the ability to perform miracles. “Like spirit possession?” I interrupted, to which Leonard pulled a face and replied that the term ‘spirit-possession’ is a little misleading…
Leonard introduced the word ‘necromancy’ into our conversation at that point and he explained that the term typically refers to the physical resurrection or re-animation of a corpse using magical procedures, although it was also broadly applied to the magical manipulation of the spirits of the dead, particularly the practice of consulting the spirits of the dead regarding future events. He said that necromancy was widely practiced in antiquity and it features in the literature produced by many cultures throughout history, so it is no surprise that it even makes an appearance in the Synoptic Gospels. When I questioned Leonard about this statement he said that Jesus was an accomplished necromancer who performed both the physical resurrection of the dead and the magical manipulation of the spirits of the dead and when I considered the evidence presented by the Gospel authors then the claim made perfect sense: Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah during his transfiguration (which Leonard described as an invocation of the dead in order to consult with them concerning future events), Jesus raises a child from the dead on two occasions and in the account of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John we are presented with the resurrection of a corpse that had been dead for four days.
I confessed that I had not considered the raising of Lazarus to be an act of necromancy before, to which Leonard pointed out that the artists who portrayed Jesus raising Lazarus with a wand in early Christian art clearly interpreted the passage in this way. Leonard said that if these popular artistic representations of Jesus performing the raising of Lazarus using magical methods are any indication that Jesus was suspected of practising necromancy in the centuries following his death then it is likely that he encountered similar accusations during his lifetime, which could account for the popular belief that Jesus could resurrect the souls of deceased individuals such as John the Baptist. Herod’s words could therefore be further evidence that Jesus’ contemporaries understood that Jesus was capable of manipulating the spirits of the dead through magical means and they believed that the source of his miracle-working powers did not originate from the divine or the demonic, but from the spirits of the dead.
More later, I must leave for a lecture now. I will write again tomorrow…..