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William Blake's preface to Milton, commonly called Jerusalem and set to a famous hymn tune by Hubert Parry, questions whether the child Jesus might have visited England.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

This apparently refers to an old tradition, not originated by Blake, that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus to Glastonbury; after the crucifixion, Joseph returned, possibly carrying the Holy Grail.

Whether this actually happened is not my question.

What I would like to know is: what is the origin of the story? According to Wikipedia, Robert de Boron wrote about Joseph and the Grail, but it does not mention if he wrote about an earlier visit by Jesus himself. So how and when did the story get started?

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    Not an answer, but possibly related: at the time there was a popular movement called British Israelism which believed that the British Royal Family were descended from King David. – Wikis Oct 5 '13 at 8:42
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    You know, some Japanese claim Jesus visited (and died in) Japan, Pakistanis have a site that Jesus supposedly visited and also died in, and Mormons think that Jesus visited the USA (although that story postdates this claim). I find it interesting how many cultures have a similar story to this one... – Affable Geek Oct 5 '13 at 15:36
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    Good point @AffableGeek, and it's interesting that these are all places quite far from Israel. I don't know of a tradition that Jesus visited Ephesus or Alexandria, say. – James T Oct 5 '13 at 19:05
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    @Wikis, I've only heard of that movement vaguely but it may well be related. I wonder if they had any interest in the Stone of Scone (Jacob's pillow). – James T Oct 5 '13 at 19:06
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    Who was it who described the hymn "Jerusalem" as "a series of questions to which the answer is no"? – TRiG Jan 25 '14 at 19:40
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With reference to the story of Jesus' visit to England with Joseph of Arimathea, OP asks:

  • So how and when did the story get started?

    There is, so far as I know, one scholarly article on just this question which has recently had some scrutiny. The article is: A. W. Smith, "'And Did Those Feet...?': The 'Legend' of Christ's Visit to Britain", Folklore 100.1 (1989): 63-83. Smith works carefully, investigating a number of questions related to the central one, and so really needs to be read in full by anyone interested. The leading findings are these (citing Smith's own form of the questions, "it" refering to the legend of Jesus-in-England):

  • What current form or forms does it take? How far back can it be traced?

    Smith documents a wide variety of forms of the story, with many details differing based on locale. They share, minimally, Joseph (usually as a metal merchant) coming to England, and Jesus coming with him. Beyond that, Smith finds the welter of changing detail to indicate a "weak and fugitive" tradition that is "far from" unvarying.

  • How far is it the creation of identifiable literary and clerical authors, and how far rooted in oral folk tradition?

    Smith traces documentary evidence in sketchy form to the late 19th C, and much more from the 1920s, and attributed to a trio of energetic clerics who boosted the legend. One of these sources, H. A. Lewis, Christ in Cornwall? (3rd edition, 1948) is available online.

    Beyond that, Smith argued, it was a matter of hazy oral tradition and local lore, and that demonstrable only into the 1890s.

  • Is the assumption that it "was known to William Blake and is alluded to in his lyric 'Jerusalem'" in fact correct?

    According to Smith, the short answer is "No" (see pp. 71-72). In his own words:

    [T]o return to our starting point, does Blake's lyric attest a knowledge of or a belief in a literal visit by Jesus to Britain? I would suggest it does not. I have searched Blake's poetry, prose and ephemera for any evidence that he knew this story and can find none.... (p. 72)

    Moreover, not only is there no written documentary evidence to suggest it, but Smith goes on to adduce some positive considerations explaining why it would be unlikely that Blake should be read this way.

  • Is there any historical context or religious system of thought which could account for its origin and its spread?

    Smith thinks there is, and he locates it in the developing British Israel traditions of the growing Empire in the early and mid-nineteenth century. These, he suggests, picked up medieval hints along these lines (interestingly, associated with the apostle Paul), which mutated into the "legend" as we now see it (pp. 76-80).

I mentioned there was some "recent scrutiny" of Smith's article. It comes in a fascinating book: William John Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History (Oxford: OUP, 2014). He devotes a chapter to "The 'Jerusalem' Joseph" which considers Smith's article at some length. Lyons writes cautiously of it, but (so far as I can see), is broadly approving. (Unlike his remarks on Dennis Price's fanciful The Missing Years of Jesus: The Extraordinary Evidence that Jesus Visited the British Isles [Hay House, 2010].)

But Lyons's work is ultimately pursuing a different agenda. Smith has assembled the data, sorted and sifted it, and considered the matter carefully -- whether he has placed the most compelling construction on the evidence he has uncovered may be up for debate, but it looks cogent to me.

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There are a range of interpretations of this poem. Speculation abounds, but one piece that is lacking in some of the discussions I have read is to recall that this is a preface to the poem Milton. Milton was non-sectarian in his theology, but clearly anti-Catholic supporting the Reformation in England. A movement intent on cleansing the hypocrisies in the Roman Church of that time.

As many great poets, Blake sees the past, present and future and envelopes these into one treatise. I believe that he, like Milton, longs for a pure expression of Christianity and posits that that purity will be present in the "New Jerusalem" which will be brought to England through the enterprise of the British people. The first two verses ask questions about whether the Lamb of God did visit England which are clearly intended to be answered negatively. Therefore if it is true, the Lamb of God did not visit England, then it is for us to bring the New Jerusalem to England through our own work.

  • The end of your first sentence makes no sense. that this is a preface to the poem Milton -- what do you mean to say there? – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 20:42
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The short answer is William Blake. It is all in the reading of the poem and understanding Blake. He wished that instead of Israel, Jesus was born in England. Why were the Jews the chosen people and not the English? Because of the 'dark satanic mills'. Jesus will not come to England unless the social injustices are removed. After Blake a supposed legend about Jesus visiting England started. There is no earlier legend.

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    There is an earlier legend as James T has alluded to. It's also on the Glastonbury Abbey website – Andrew Leach Oct 6 '13 at 17:53
  • I read about this legend in one of the conspiracy type 'Christian' books and thought it complete fiction. Never realized there actually might be a local legend. – gideon marx Oct 6 '13 at 19:15
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    Whether or not it is true that Blake invented the story, you still need to provide evidence! – James T Oct 7 '13 at 15:45
  • The book mentioned in was the Armageddon Conspiracy book. Strange book and difficult read with all the side story catch up. But entertaining all the same. – Barrett Nov 11 '13 at 5:03

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