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After the mushroom, the manure

14 November 2014

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 headline.

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 was there.

"'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 not convinced.

"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 evidence.'"

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