Inspired by Malcolm Muggeridge and UnHerd's argument that the news industry focuses upon the new rather than the important, our regular columnist Allan Mallinson imagines how a reporter might have operated during the period up to and after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ...
“I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and — I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”
— Malcolm Muggeridge1
Allan Mallinson imagines the recollections of a hack who was there… and who did miss the story…
I nearly wasn’t there at all.
At this distance in time, I’ll admit it: if it hadn’t been for the Centurion, I don’t think I’d have been there at all. Jerusalem was a fine place – everything a foreign correspondent needed: contacts, plenty of stories, and all the comforts. But it always got crowded at “Passover.” Prices shot up and you couldn’t get anyone to do anything (except slaves). It was against their religion. So I’d planned to take a short holiday by the sea. At first I thought I’d go up north to Galilee. It was pretty quiet there – and great fish. But it was quite a hike up the Jordan valley, and the roads were bad, or else you took the direct route through Samaria, where nothing ever happened. We’d call it “flyover country” today (and, yes, full of immigrants).
Anyway, the Centurion tipped me off that there might be trouble. All leave had been cancelled for the Temple Guards. The Jewish authorities were boiling up because of subversives from out of town. From Galilee in fact, which was another good reason not to head north. I certainly didn’t want to fall under suspicion myself.
Lucky break: Herod coming to Jerusalem
And then I heard from a source at the Roman prefect’s office that Herod was actually coming to Jerusalem for the feast. I might get an interview with him there. Another exclusive with Herod Antipas would do me no harm with the editor. He was obsessed with Herod’s court, ever since the Salome business a couple of years ago.
That was my first real scoop. Salome was Herod’s step-daughter, and the star turn at his birthday party. I’d somehow managed to wangle an invite – celebrities always liked having their parties splashed (and what parties Herod threw!).
She could dance, that girl – Salome – and she certainly knew how to dispose of her seven veils. Herod was hot for her, plain to see. So when she’d finished he promised her anything she wanted – up to a quarter of his kingdom. But did she ask for diamonds, like a good Jewish girl? No! She asked for some poor boob’s head on a plate! It seems a man called John had been going about moralising and dunking people in the Jordan – what the Jews called mikveh, and the ones who spoke Greek called baptism. What this “baptism” was I never discovered, but John “the Baptiser” overstepped the mark one day when he slated Herod for marrying his brother’s sister. Not surprisingly, Herod threw him in jail. Not content with letting him languish there – he’d been locked up for a good three years – Herod’s wife, Herodias, wanted him dead. So that was that.
Anyway, another scoop about Herod and Salome would be great and so I’d resigned myself to staying put for Passover.
Well, the Sunday before, I was just off for a bath and lunch at the Centurions’ Club (where I was an honorary member on account of some good copy I’d sent back while embedded with the Cohors Italica in Caesarea), when I ran into a big crowd of noisy Jews waving palm leaves near the Golden Gate (that’s the east side, towards the Mount of Olives). I thought it must be Herod and his team arriving, but after pushing through the smelly crowds, it was just a man on a donkey.
Not any old man, obviously, because they were all shouting “blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord.” Jews are an excitable lot and had a thing about “holy men” – especially if they had long hair and looked a bit wild.
I briefly contemplated filing something about this “Lord” he was coming in the name of. But what was he promising – tax cuts, benefits, civil rights (the Jews had some cranky ideas)? I’d heard it all before, of course, but that’s politics. But then they said that by “Lord” they meant “God.”
This completely put me off, because the Jews were always going on about “God” – they only had the one, which for some reason made them feel superior. They were always claiming to be the “chosen people”, by this one god, but they were the only people in the world who believed it (I’d once filed a story under the headline “How Odd of ‘God’ to Choose the Jews”, which my editor liked).
Sadducees versus Pharisees
And to tell the truth, I nearly forgot to ask who exactly the man on the donkey was, because by now I was running late, and the centurions were lunching a rich Jew from Arimathea (a place in the hills, north-west of the city), a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jews’ council, and I’d heard there was a bit of in-fighting there – possibly a leadership challenge: people were saying that Annas’s days were numbered, and his son-in-law Caiaphas was the coming man (popular with the voters). Leadership challenges always made for good copy.
It could get complicated, because there were two parties at that time, the Sadducees, who were hardliners, the nasty party, and the Pharisees, who liked arguing, although they were always trying to catch you out. Anyway, you just made most of it up, frankly, because nobody could ever check your sources.
Well, the man on the donkey turned out to be another Galilean, called Jesus of Nazareth. Now, I’d heard of him, for he was a great one for giving his opinion on everything, and some of it, so they said, pretty controversial. Interestingly, though, he never seemed to upset the Romans – just other Jews. In fact, I’d tried to write a piece about him a couple of years before when I’d been in Galilee for one of Herod’s parties. (He wasn’t at the party, of course. He didn’t move in those circles. I think he was a joiner or something).
The Jews only had one God, which for some reason made them feel superior. They were always claiming to be this one god's “chosen people” but were the only ones in the world who believed it.
The trouble was, he spoke in riddles half the time – or parables as his lot called them – and the editor didn’t want long copy. That’s the thing about Latin: it’s great for epithets – “sound bites” we’d call them today (“Multum in parvo”2 et cetera). Longer stuff – those “parables” – weren’t what busy readers wanted (my editor was insistent about that).
I don’t know where this Jesus went after his not-so-grand entrance into Jerusalem, but it was the last I heard of him until the following Friday, when there was an unholy row at the Sanhedrin.
I’d just left the prefect’s monthly breakfast for foreign correspondents – I was always invited, though technically not “foreign” (and I vaguely knew the Pontii – Pontius Pilate’s family – from back at home, who were pretty smart and on good terms with the Emperor) – when word came that the Temple Guards had arrested Jesus and were out for blood. Apparently, when they’d come for him, in a garden somewhere, a “disciple” called “Rocky” had cut off a Guard’s ear and they’d all made a run for it in the confusion. Except for Jesus, who’d gone quietly. (Why he went quietly when he could have got away I never could work out).
By the time I got to the Sanhedrin, the whole thing was over: Guilty. I wasn’t sure what exactly the charge was, but apparently it was a capital offence. (I think he’d said something like he was King of the Jews).
Now – and here’s the interesting bit (well, it would have been if things had turned out differently) – the Sanhedrin couldn’t sentence Jesus because of their quirky laws about killing people during religious festivals, so they sent him to Pilate.
Fortunately, I managed to get back to the prefecture just in time to hear a bit of the inquisition – and basically there was no case to answer. Pilate could be a sh*t but being Roman he was fair when it came to the Law. Consequently he pronounced that he could find no fault in the man. (Later, he told me his wife had had bad dreams about something like this).
Anyway, one of his advisers suddenly remembered that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore not under his jurisdiction, so Pilate sent him on to Herod. (Nazareth is in Galilee, though Jesus had been born in Bethlehem for some reason, which is in Judea, hence the confusion – enough for any decent defence brief to use to get an adjournment). What happened next, I don’t know; it wasn’t important really (these lawyers…), but back he came sharp to Pilate.
This was getting tedious and I was getting annoyed. I had, after all, hoped to get away for a few hours’ rest before Herod’s Passover party but Pilate, cleverly, decided to use the old “presidential pardon” thing, whereby at one of the big Jewish festivals the custom was to release a prisoner. He went onto the balcony and told the crowd – which had got pretty big and noisy – that he’d pardon and release Jesus.
But what did they do – the same, many of them, who’d been waving the palms the Sunday before? They all screamed “Release Barabbas!”
Now, Barabbas was a robber. “Gods above”, I thought: these people! It must all have been whipped up by someone – the Sadducees probably, or the Pharisees, or both. And after that, really, Jesus’s number was up.
I forget where they crucified him exactly. All I remember is that in the afternoon it went very dark and I thought we were in for one of those Vulcanesque Judean storms. But it didn’t actually rain and so I got to Herod’s party in good order. And I got a pearler of an exclusive with Herodias (who was herself, by the way, a real looker, as our readers always liked to be reminded). She let slip that Salome was going to be married – again – to one of Herod’s brothers. At least, that’s what I recall… But it was a time ago. And, frankly, it was pretty seedy and incestuous. Most importantly, the editor was thrilled with the story.
Jesus' followers had made a run for it in the confusion but not Jesus himself, who’d gone quietly. (Why he went quietly when he could have got away I never could work out).
And that was that, except…
Next day, a queer thing happened. The rich Jew I’d met at the Centurions’ Club – Joseph from Arimathea – sought me out and told me that there’d been a gross miscarriage of justice. The charges against this Jesus of Nazareth had all been trumped up, he said, and that he’d been the sole dissenting voice in the Sanhedrin. He was adamant that Jesus was a man of peace (not, I have to say, my idea of peace – Pax Romana – but all the same…) and that he’d been put to death unjustly. In fact, he said, Jesus had taken on himself the sins of the world.
I did have to agree that the way the Sanhedrin had gone about things didn’t look good – and Joseph of Arimathea had guts. He’d actually gone to Pilate in the afternoon and asked if he could take Jesus’s body off the wooden cross used to execute him and put it in a tomb that he’d had made for himself. That was generous but very risky – risky the Jews had very legalistic notions about what they could and couldn’t do on a Friday.
I thought briefly about filing something about the judges being out of touch, but as this Jesus wasn’t a Roman citizen, I doubted the editor would give it space. Was there another angle: his wife or girlfriend or whoever? Frankly Joseph, I said, sex sells.
He then told me a pretty racy story about a prostitute (well, that’s what she sounded like to me) and some scented hair oil but I couldn’t see how I’d make it work. Besides, I had to live in this place for at least another couple of years and I didn’t want to be declared persona non grata by the Sanhedrin, let alone Pilate. Come to think of it, being declared PNG might have been the least of my worries.
What was the point anyway?
Jesus was dead – dead and buried.
End of story.
There was no story.
So I gave him some lunch – the poor chap evidently hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before – and then, at long last, I set off for a couple of weeks by the Dead Sea at Qumran (though not before I’d filed the Salome story – for which, incidentally, the editor gave me a considerable bonus at Saturnalia).
The last I heard of Joseph of Arimathea, he’d been having a bad time with the Jews – jailed no less – but he’d managed to escape and get away on a boat for Britannia, which shows just how desperate he must have been3.
It wasn’t quite the last of the story, though. I’d followed events in Palestine in a fairly desultory way after leaving eighteen months later – it all began to fall apart quite quickly after the death of the Emperor, Tiberius – and I kicked myself that I’d missed a couple of big stories. There was a hell of a revolt in Samaria which I should have seen coming, if only I’d not ignored the place (like everyone else in Jerusalem), and, second, huge fallout from that Jesus of Nazareth episode. It seems he’d had some pretty inspirational things to say after all, and though dead and gone he’d got himself quite a following well beyond Judea.
There were even stories that he’d been seen alive, so I’d obviously missed a trick in not finding out from Joseph of Arimathea what the game was. Had they switched bodies? Paid for a substitute to be crucified? Clearly something was going on – and I’d failed to sniff it out.
Of course, that’s if the editor would have been interested. You can’t sell stories just because you reckon they may be important if it’s not what people want to read.
Then the other day, the strangest thing: I got a letter from the centurion who’d tipped me off about the Temple Guards – Cornelius, whom I’d got know with the Cohors Italica. (He’d struck me then as being a thoughtful officer, not at all your average miles). Well, he’d left the army not long after the Samarian rising and joined the “Christians”, as the followers of the late Jesus were calling themselves. And he’d caused quite a stir, it seems, because of course he wasn’t circumcised. Apparently, though, the Christians decided that circumcision wasn’t necessary – that you didn’t need to be Jewish to enter into the kingdom of their one God.
(They’d even appointed Cornelius a leader – “episkopos”, preferring to do everything in Greek, apparently – in Caesarea).
So you know, I think I may have missed the biggest scoop ever. In fact, the greatest story ever told…
Or never told – not by me at least.
And at The Jupiter we thought we were the best.
Further to the extended caption under the image of the nails, the theologian John Piper spotlights the very public horror that was a tortuous death by crucifixion.
- Quoted in How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society by John Sommerville, 1999
- ‘Much out of little’
- Local legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea was sent to England to preach the Gospel, taking with him the Holy Grail, and founding Glastonbury Abbey