IN THE Evening Standard Diary, there was a proverb that
claimed that every story contained a fact, a joke, and a mistake;
the subs would spot and remove the joke.
But what to do with stories that are built around a premise that
is counterfactual? The Daily Mail and The
Guardian offered lessons this week.
First there was Rowan Williams, interviewed by Theos, to whom he
talked about the influence of Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty on his
understanding of language.
You can see where this is going, can't you? "Let primary
teachers wear the veil in the classroom, says former Archbishop of
Canterbury" was the Mail's headline.
"Rowan Williams claims that there is no reason to 'panic' over
the use of the niqab, and that even young children do not
necessarily need to be able to see their teacher's face.
"Speaking in an interview for the Christian think-tank Theos, he
argued that their fears over how such a practice might affect
children's learning were 'misplaced.'
"He said: 'I've actually been in public discussions in Pakistan
with women wearing full face veil, and you learn to read
differently, it's not that those codes don't happen. . . But
there's a cultural obstacle to overcome."
And here is what Lord Williams actually said: "When a child
learns language, he or she also learns gesture - coding and
decoding gesture and facial expression. . . As I learn a language,
I learn not only to identify objects, I learn how to interact with
another speaker. We all know what happens when people don't learn
that, when they speak without a sense of the codes that are
operating - the tone, the timbre, etc.
"I suppose that's what panics people about, let's say, a primary
school teacher wearing the face veil."
It's possible that Lord Williams is quite spectacularly missing
the point about veils here, but he is also saying something clever
and profound about language. It requires quite a lot of effort and
ingenuity to wrench it to point towards the Mail's
Let us be charitable, and suppose that the reporter was just too
stupid to understand what the former Archbishop meant. What happens
with the other sort of story: the one that, you know as you are
writing it, is rubbish?
HERE, again, the Mail comes to our aid, with a story
whose print headline asks "Is this proof Jesus married and had two
sons? Ancient manuscript said to be 'lost gospel' with a
sensational twist", although the web title, which is designed to be
read by robots and to lead people to the page, wastes no time in
such equivocation: "Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had two
children, lost gospel reveals".
The interesting thing about this is that the journalist who
wrote it clearly doesn't believe a word. Given that he is Harry
Mount, son of the most civilised man in the Conservative Party, and
author of a book in praise of Latin, this is hardly surprising.
The gold standard of sensational biblical reinterpretations is,
of course, John M. Allegro's theory that Jesus was actually a
psychedelic mushroom. This story qualifies at least for a bronze,
because the purported fifth Gospel does not actually mention Jesus
at all. In fact, it tells the story of the patriarch Joseph and a
wife, Aseneth. So, naturally, it is really the story of Jesus and
St Mary Magdalene. That's how they get to the most novel part of
the story: the assassination plot against Jesus by a love rival, 13
years before his ministry began.
"Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-Canadian film-maker, and Barrie
Wilson, a professor of religious studies in Toronto . . . say that
the manuscript says the Pharaoh's son wanted to marry Aseneth, and
planned to kill Joseph and their children, but was foiled by
Joseph's brothers. Jacobovici identifies the man as Roman emperor
Tiberius's adopted son Germanicus, who was in Galilee when Jesus
"'If you look at the cumulative evidence for Jesus's marriage,
it's getting overwhelming,' says Jacobovici. 'This new discovery is
probably the most important piece.'"
Long after most people have let the paper drop from stunned
fingers - or, on the web, tabbed away to look at a lost cat video
which rewrites, sensationally, all previous scholarship about cats
- Mount finally cuts loose:
"Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Christian historians are
"Typical is Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the
Church at Oxford University. He says the 'lost gospel' claims sound
'like the deepest bilge', adding: 'I'm very surprised that the
British Library gives these authors houseroom.'
"As for the British Library itself, staff have refused to
endorse the new book.
"Undaunted, Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson insist: 'The
only way there is no evidence is if you keep ignoring the