22 Oct

manuscripts photo: Bodmer Papyrus, P13, Hebrews, 150 AD 12_Bodmer_Papyrus_P13_Hebrews_150AD.gif

Next year we will, to a man and a woman, be made aware that William Shakespeare died exactly 400 years ago, in the year 1616 AD and roughly on the same date as his birthday. For the uninitiated Shakespeare was special because the dramas he supposedly wrote have come down all the years since then as phenomenal works penned by a genius. And they are just that. I’ve lost count of the number of phrases he created that are still part of our language. Yet, as sceptics never tire of suggesting, there is no actual proof that the man wrote anything. His plays (if they were his) were as appreciated in his own time as enthusiastically as they are now and he was bigger than the biggest pop star of his day. He was Robbie Williams and David Beckham rolled into one.

Yet nobody can produce a shred of evidence that proves that he wrote anything. Time has warped things, academics have posed questions and the whole business of the authorship of his plays is a mass of confusing contradictions.

So, four hundred years less a few moons has been enough to create an eternal puzzle.

But it’s not just Shakespeare that we might find ourselves scratching our heads about. What about that great folk hero, Robin Hood? The chap who was supposed to live as an outlaw in the Greenwood (otherwise known as Sherwood Forest) and who robbed the rich in order to provide sustenance to the poor? Supposedly performing his altruistic deeds in the twelfth century, not a syllable about him exists earlier than a few lines in a fourteenth century ballad and there’s even doubt about where he did his outlawing. Was it Nottinghamshire, in Sherwood, or was it Yorkshire? Who can tell? And when exactly? Does anyone know? Not me, that’s for sure, even though I’ve penned a few stories about him. But then, he allegedly lived above eight centuries ago, twice as long ago as Shakespeare, so evidence for his life is, to say the least, is twice as hard to come by if it exists at all outside of folk tales.

So eight hundred years more or less has been enough to add an enigma to an eternal puzzle. Was there ever a Robin Hood? Or has he come down to us as an amalgam of the brave and noble deeds of a whole host of men over a period longer than a single life-time?

History loses stuff. Especially history of times that were considerably less literate than our own. Bits of paper get lost, blown away on the wind, burnt to ashes in a vast number of conflagrations, even blown up in wars. And the men outlined on them become distorted and eventually erased except in folk memory.

And this is the best reason I know for questioning religious texts that are considerably older than either Robin Hood or Shakespeare’s times. Best evidence suggests that nothing in the Bible (Old Testament) was penned (or scratched in a clay tablet) earlier than 900 BC. That makes it less than 3,000 years old, and that’s a great deal older than the maybe real or maybe fictional life of Robin Hood. So how come there are people so absolutely sure of its accuracy? And that’s merely when the Old Testament stories started to be written down, hundreds of years after the events described in them – nobody’s sure of dates any more but it’s quite likely that the events in Moses’ life occurred as long before they were written down as did the writing by Shakespeare of his plays, and that’s a ball of confusion if ever there was one. Four hundred years with no written support is a long time for a series of events to be kept accurate and alive by the tellers of old stories round winter bonfires. In fact, it’s unlikely that, after so long, one of the verses about Moses contains even a grain of truth.

Children play Chinese whispers, passing a message in the form of whispers from one end of a line to the other, and the fun is seeing just how the telling of even a single fact, when it’s badly heard, can change into something completely different. This distortion must surely have occurred during the centuries when the old testament was only an oral tradition. Old men telling old stories on chill winter evenings may well have added little touches of their own to a story they only half-remembered anyway. I would have had I been one of them! If so much that was true about Shakespeare has been lost, and bearing in mind that there was a reasonable degree of literacy when he thoughtfully drafted his plays, how much more of considerably more ancient events must have been lost when the facts were passed from generation to generation in the form of songs and tales, and literacy was for the future? And were they facts in the first place, or just garbled tales by bonfire gaffers eager to be heard?

Yet those old stories are believed as absolute truths by some. People have been persecuted as a consequence of various opposing interpretations, wars have been fought, lives have been lost in bloody battle. Completely muddled and confused accounts of long dead people and the things they may have done are still the substance of faith. Yet there’s no absolute proof (or even dubious half-proof) that any of the events happened. Robin Hood, a great outlaw, has been lost in a single millennium and it’s almost certain that the baby Jesus has been more lost in twice that time since he was allegedly born.

Maybe next time a brave young man straps a bomb to his flesh and sallies forth to help his faith grow he might think on this. Religion and gods are fine things if they comfort souls in distress, but they mean less than nothing in the real world unless there’s proof, and nobody’s found any yet.

So why on Earth are environments being degraded, women and children killed and millions made homeless in the name of something that probably has no foundation in truth or fact at all? It doesn’t make much sense to me.

Peter Rogerson


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