Press column 24 March, 1997

Press column 24 March, 1997

Andrew Brown

The Daily Telegraph devoted an entire leader to the guilt of Judas Iscariot, perhaps appropriately for a paper whose motto on both penal and soteriological policy could well be "crucifixion works". The Telegraph’s religious leaders fluctuate in tone between sneering superiority and real passion: I suspect that the editor feels the passion, and the leader writer the superiority, even if he is never quite sure why he is superior to what. In any case, one has to admire the chutzpah of anyone who can put down a biblical scholar with the phrase "a glance at a lexicon would have shown that Greek (like English) words often convey several related meanings." If only these scholars would glance at a lexicon from time to time, how much trouble they would save themselves.

They might also learn how much easier textual criticism becomes if you leave all the Greek out of it: "The meaning is clear enough in Matthew 26:16 ‘and from that time on he sought an opportunity to betray him’, which is echoed by passages in Mark and Luke." Clearly, Dr Klassen has got the whole story back to front, and failed to realise that paradidomi was simply a mistranslation of "betray".

The final paragraph of the leader, though, suddenly swerves into an entirely different argument, and one which, I suspect, came straight from dictation. "To subject the historical Judas to fashionable academic speculation… is a kind of religious illiteracy. Judas’s main role is as an example of the renunciation of Christ, and, in his suicide, of the spiritual annihilation that follows. This is an essential part of the Good news of the Gospels."

The belief that the facts of history are secondary to its meaning is an essential part of the religious imagination. But it is also an essential part of all our understanding of the world. If facts don’t make sense as parts of stories, they simply disappear from view. This explains why papers with clear story-telling style, like the Telegraph, do better than blurry ones.

The original Judas story, so to say, took up a large chunk of the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, in a piece by Patrick Cockburn full of interesting nuggets. "In Germany it is forbidden for children to call their offspring Judas on the grounds that this would damage the child (Satan is another forbidden name.)" . Cockburn, one of the paper’s Middle Eastern correspondents, has also been to see the field where Judas traditionally hanged himself. "It is a suitably gloomy spot, used as a rubbish dump by Palestinians from the Silwan and Abu Tor district. Wrecks of old cars, discarded children’s clothes, and black plastic bags litter the ground between the olive trees." But he does not seem to have bought the story himself entirely: "There are times when Professor Klassen’s interpretation of what Judas did sounds like the defence of O.J. Simpson." Whatever, it made a good excuse for a layout with a lovely Giotto fresco in the middle.

The greatest mystery of the week remains the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle stolen from St Katherine’s, Exbury, in Hampshire. This made its appearance in a tiny un-bylined story on page 15 of Saturday’s Times, which was otherwise almost entirely written by Ruth Gledhill. It was stolen three years ago, when it was insured for £20,000, and turned up in the possession of a Southampton man who had paid £300 for it. What was never explained was what he used it for: the priest from whom it was stolen said: "I cannot understand how anyone came to steal the eagle in the first place. It takes four men and a trolley to shift it even a couple of inches."

Holy Week is the time when the Independent’s godslot has the market to itself: a devotional article appears every weekday. The idea that you could actually run a week’s worth of articles that were aimed at intelligent, theologically literate grown-ups does not seem to have caught on among the competition, but it is one of the bits of the job that I really felt I got right. The feedback one would get from such a series was immensely satisfying.

Paul Vallely, who is now editing it, scored a considerable coup the other week by getting Cardinal Hume to write one, though this was not signalled anywhere else in the paper. This Saturday, the Faith and Reason column was flagged on the front — but when you turned to the page it had been knocked off completely by the death of the Rev W.V. Awdry, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine. This is a sad lowering of standards: for many years the only death allowed to bump the godslot off the obituaries page was that of a living deity, the emperor Hirohito.

But Awdry was huge news, provoking acres of turgid coverage, enlivened only by Sandra Barwick in the Daily Telegraph. She is a startlingly good miniaturist, able to put grace notes into the most unpromising subjects. Awdry, she said "opposed plans to improve women’s standing in the books by upgrading the role of female carriages."

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