Jesus Christ is often assumed to be a real historical figure but many academics question this assumption with some believing he wasn’t a man but a myth. This especially divides agnostics into historicists and mythicists. Both sides don’t believe he was the Son of God or a supernatural being. But they are bitterly divided over whether he was a historical figure (historicists) or a literary construct (mythicists).
And both sides have compelling arguments. It’s a fascinating topic because at the heart of it is the question – how did Christianity ever get off the ground? How did an eastern mystery cult, built around an executed Judaean seditionary, become the state religion of the Roman Empire?
Historicists are faced with the challenge of bridging a gap of about forty years between the likely date for the crucifixion of Jesus and the first gospel. They normally claim that the first gospel writer, widely recognised as Mark, got the biographical details on Jesus from a mix of sayings past down and oral traditions. Mythicists retort – you have no hard evidence. And why didn’t Paul, who was writing before Mark, ever refer to the life story of Jesus?
Then we have the next two gospel writers, chronologically….Matthew and Luke. Mythicists say they basically rewrote Mark but with twists designed to appeal to their specific Christian communities. Historicists say they used Mark but also a long lost book of sayings referred to as “Q” and sources unique to each of them – accounting for the differences in their accounts.
And then both historicists and believing evangelicals like to point to non-Christian (pagan) Roman sources that seem to prove the existence of a historic Jesus. Roman historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius. But even historicists will admit that Christian scribes very likely altered texts and added references to Jesus to suggest he was a recognised figure in his lifetime – or shortly afterwards. Mythicists scoff at these Roman sources as faked interpolations.
The view of journalists today among the public is at an all time low. This is not good for democracy. Especially when that hatred is fuelled by populist politicians who resent being scrutinised….by journalists. But this is a new phenomenon – journalists in the past were loved, not hated by the public.
I have to declare an interest here. I’m a former journalist (BBC News, Sky News, Financial Times magazines, etc) and still a paid up member of the National Union of Journalists. And it depresses the hell out of me to see ill-informed people on Twitter writing BS about the so-called MSM. So I’m writing this blog post as a well overdue corrective.
The public loved journalists – even in the pillory
The path to creating a free press was a treacherous one. Not for nothing does the US Constitution protect the right of free speech. Because in the Old World – that right was non-existent or permitted at the whim of an absolute monarch.
Into the early 19th century, British journalists and publishers were literally placed in the pillory for producing work that offended the establishment. Just to be clear – they were put on trial and then taken to a wooden post with a yoke and fixed by their head and hands to be pelted by the mob.
But in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the ‘mob’ often didn’t comply. They came out and supported the hapless journalist in the pillory. They loved them for defending liberty and exposing corruption and vice. How different from today!
Daniel Defoe – journalist loved by the public
One of the many journalists placed in the pillory was the author of Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. Aside from writing a great yarn (based on real events) about a castaway, Defoe was essentially a tabloid journalist. He was also a bit of a spin doctor for the government.
In 1703, he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It was intended to be a ribald commentary on the attitude of the Church of England to Protestant dissenters on the one side and Catholics (or “Papists”) on the other. The CofE was likened to Christ with a dissenter thief on one cross and a Papist on the other. All pretty silly and Defoe wrote the whole thing tongue in cheek.
But the Church of England and government took the pamphlet very seriously and he was charged with sedition. The pamphlet was burned by the public hangman and Defoe went into hiding. However, he was discovered and put in three separate pillories around the centre of London for maximum humiliation.
The public, though, admired Defoe for his literary bravery and instead of throwing rotten vegetables at him – brought flowers and sang songs. Including a song he’d written for the occasion!
Public loved journalists who stuck it to the king!
Even though Daniel Defoe was cheered by the public – the experience of the pillory undoubtedly freaked him out. So much so that he agreed to spy on another journalist, Nathaniel Mist. Mist’s early 18th century weekly journal was hugely popular and it poked fun at the new German speaking king of Britain – George I.
Mist described the great grandfather of George III (who lost the American colonies) as a “cruel, ill-bred uneducated old tyrant”. He served a short prison sentence and like Defoe was sent to the pillory. Also like Defoe, the public cheered him on as a free spirit. But then Mist fled to France unable to handle the pressure and threats from the government.
Edmund Curll – also loved by the public
Edmund Curll was another early 18th century figure in the publishing world. This time, a publisher as opposed to a journalist. His sin in the eyes of the church and state was to publish both radical political works and pornographic tracts. Almost as if to cause maximum rage in respectable society.
One publication, Venus in the Cloister, alleged that while the church was prudish, Jesus Christ had believed in sexual exploration. This was a translation of a French work that went on to influence the notorious Marquis de Sade.
Curll eventually earned a place in the pillory where, like Defoe and Mist, he was treated rather kindly by the crowds. And the list of pilloried and prosecuted journalists loved by the public – in Britain particularly – goes on and on.
What a sad contrast with today when many of the public would rather side with power against free speech. Or, worse, take the word of YouTube charlatans and hucksters as the truth ahead of people who are on the front line trying to report what is happening in the real world.
Below is the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez in 2020 while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd. A modern pillorying of a member of the ‘fourth estate’.