I’ve always assumed that St. George was an Englishman. He wasn’t.
Yes, St. George’s cross is the central symbol of the British flag. Yes, he is the patron saint of England.
But also of Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia, and of a dozen or more cities and counties.
I started researching St. George because this year St. George’s Day falls on Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It turns out that George never even visited Britain, let alone killed an English dragon. Apparently he was a Roman soldier, from what is now Syria. He achieved prominence as an administrator under Emperor Diocletian, and died on April 23, 303 AD.
And the dragon? The stories vary. The most popular version describes a fearsome beast who required a sheep or a young maiden every day. The terrified villagers drew lots to determine which sheep, or maiden, would appease the dragon. One day, the lot fell to the local princess.
In the nick of time, St. George rode up, slew the dragon, saved the princess, and presumably lived happily ever after…
Other stories refer to a monster so fearsome its fiery breath killed 300 soldiers a day. Since no one had invented Listerine, St. George had to do the job.
So there really was someone called George, but his fame is almost certainly mythical.
Which is interesting, in the context of Easter. Because much the same could be said about Judas, the world’s most famous villain. According to all four gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus. Later he either hanged himself in remorse, or ripped his guts open while working a field.
I had always taken Judas’s authenticity for granted – like St. George’s.
Then recently I read an essay by John Shelby Spong. Spong’s reputation for debunking biblical literalism makes him unwelcome in some circles, but he writes well and clearly, opening up biblical scholarship for non-scholarly readers.
Spong points out that Judas is the Greek form of Judah, the dominant Jewish tribe. And that the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s letters, refer to the resurrected Jesus appearing to “the twelve” – not to eleven remaining disciples.
The gospels themselves weren’t written until 20-40 years later.
Maybe, suggests Spong, Judas was written into the story to link Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish establishment, who failed to recognize the Messiah among their own people.
So was there really a Judas?
Does it matter?
Was there really a St. George? Or a Krishna? Real or not, their stories have shaped millions, billions, of lives.
Many people have expended enormous energy to prove, or disprove, the existence of a Galilean artisan, crucified on Good Friday, resurrected on Easter Sunday.
I’ve known several people who claimed to have suffered childhood abuse. They cannot prove, long after the fact, that it really happened. But their fractured lives bear witness to the long-term effect.
Whether Jesus or Judas, Krishna or St. George, really existed is less important to me than how they have affected – and continue to affect — people who believe in their story.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.