Enoch Powell’s Odd Defence of the Gospels

The Gospel of Enoch

How Mr Enoch Powell gets into the odd position of defending his version of Christianity on the basis that the compilers of the Gospels were gross liars

by Gwydion M. Williams

For Mr Powell, the genealogy at the start of the Gospel of Matthew is rejected as an intrusion. He is quite as ready to dissect Holy Writ as any skeptic. The difference being he seems to believe that God was quite content to let God’s own tale get twisted.

‘The book cannot originally commenced with the genealogy of somebody whose name and existence were as yet unknown to the reader’ (Evolution of the Gospel: A New Translation of the First Gospel with Commentary and Introductory Essay. Yale University Press 1994, p 56).

For all his knowledge of incidental facts, Enoch Powell is utterly unable to understand the pattern of thought of anyone outside of modern British middle class culture. Almost every major character in the Bible is introduced with a list of genealogies. Adam is an exception, obviously. But can anyone come up with another?

The main characters of Ruth and Esther and Samuel all appear as part of a genealogy, a crucial point to people for whom family was everything and individual existence almost inconceivable. Daniel comes closest to breaking the rule, being introduced along with three friends and with no mention of his exact parentage, merely that he was a well-born Jewish victim of the Babylonian captivity.

Looking further afield, the Icelandic Sagas anticipate aspects of the later novel, but the main characters in them are typically born only a few chapters into the tale, and after excruciatingly long details of their genealogy. The same is true of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the gospels of Hinduism. The main characters are born into a genealogy and a social situation. Robert Graves in I, Claudius follows a genuine old pattern in having Claudius only introduces himself some way into the narrative.

Graves was out of tune with his own time and able to get some plausible understanding of a different sort of era. By contrast Powell is very clever, but deeply lacking in sympathy or broad-mindedness. He is the last notable example of an odd old British pattern, an honest person self-consciously and idealistically serving cultural values that must be judged dishonest.

Hacking a personal vision of Jesus out of the alien world-view of the Gospels is part of the process. It allows Powell to be comfortable suggesting that Jesus was stoned to death by the Jewish elders rather than crucified by the Romans – he surely knows that crucifixion was abhorrent to Jewish law and that the simple fact of it proves he was seen by the Romans as a dangerous rebel. To get away from this possibility, Powell is willing to suppose that the Gospels were not just confused or misremembered, but deliberately falsified on their core event

Powell is personally honest, but feels a duty to be dishonest on behalf of what he sees as good causes. The English have a strong and even a naive belief in the effectiveness of wickedness for good causes. Britain’s precipitate decline in the 20th century is due to a repeated habit of playing one power off against another instead of trying to make permanent partnerships for some sort of stable world order.

It used to be an understanding that an English gentleman was bound by his word, no matter how inconvenient it might prove. Even someone like Mr Powell does not keep to that sort of standard, not when it comes to larger social matters. A promise that seems now to be wrong is viewed as null and void. He sees no need to honour the original commitment made to Indians and Caribbean immigrants when they were encouraged to come here.

Invocation of “higher moral principle” is used mostly as matter of vanity, and occasionally as a way to wriggle out of ordinary moral duties. In the older sort of Tory this was rather irrationally combined with personal idealism, quite different from the sleaze of the modern lot. After Mr Enoch Powell there will be no more of note. And why should there be?

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 1994.

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