Attention New York Times copy desk: It's time to buy more reference Bibles (and use them)

Truth be told, the Bible is a very complicated book. It also doesn't help that there are many different versions of it.

Why bring this up? Well, it's time to look at another error about the Bible found in a story published in The New York Times. Another error? Click here for some background.

This one isn't quite as spectacular as the famous case in which the Gray Lady published a piece on tourism in Jerusalem that originally contained this rather infamous sentence:

 "Nearby, the vast Church of the Holy Sepulcher marking the site where many Christians believe that Jesus is buried, usually packed with pilgrims, was echoing and empty."

That one still amazes me, every time that I read it. This error led to a piece at The Federalist by M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway with this memorable headline: "Will Someone Explain Christianity To The New York Times?"

That error was rather low-hanging fruit, as these things go. Surely there are professionals at the copy desk of the world's most powerful newspaper who have heard that millions and millions of traditional Christians believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

This time around we are dealing with something that is more complicated. To be honest, if I was reading really fast I might have missed this one myself, and my own Christian tradition's version of the Bible is linked to this error.

So what do we have here? Well, it's a nice, friendly piece about some very bright New Yorkers, with this headline: "Testament to Their Marriage: Couple Compete in Worldwide Bible Contest." Try to spot the error as you read this overture, in context:

A question in the lightning round seemed to make Yair Shahak think twice.
The question was, “Who struck the Philistines until his hand grew tired and stuck to the sword?”
Mr. Shahak, 28, was competing in a worldwide Bible competition in Jerusalem that one Jewish news outlet described as “sort of a spelling bee, but with biblical verses rather than words.” Or maybe “Jeopardy!” with often-complicated questions in only one category -- the Bible. Specifically, Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. (For most readers this is the Old Testament, but a couple of books in the Hebrew Bible are not in the King James or the Revised Standard versions.)
In that lightning round, Mr. Shahak zipped through the first half-dozen questions. Then came the one about the exhausted warrior. He thought for a couple of seconds before he said Eleazar, who is mentioned in 2 Samuel. It was the correct answer -- one of more than 70 that Mr. Shahak got right on his way to tying for first place.

Wait a minute. Take a second and reread that material about the Tanakh and the Old Testament canon. What is the problem that the Times team is trying to describe here?

Is the problem that there is a clash between the contents of the Hebrew Bible and Protestant texts such as the King James Version or the Revised Standard Version? Or is the problem here found when one compares the Jewish canon and the books found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (and often Anglican) Bibles?

One of the readers who spotted this was GetReligion patriarch Richard Ostling, who sent me an email that noted:

Oops. As you know Protestants per the KJ / RSV followed the Jewish canon and both are identical. Rather the difference is between those two canons and the Catholic and slightly different Orthodox canons which add more than "a couple of books."

As I said, this is complicated material.

However, with a few clicks of a mouse one can find resources -- a Catholic site here or an Eastern Orthodox site here -- that explains what is going on. Or the Bible Odyssey page (linked to the American Bible Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities and others) has an essay with this headline, that includes some of the logical search terms: "What is the Difference between the Old Testament, the Tanakh, and the Hebrew Bible?" It opens with this extended paragraph:

The term Old Testament, with its implication that there must be a corresponding New Testament, suggests to some that Judaism’s Bible and by extension Judaism are outdated and incomplete. Well-intended academics thus offered Hebrew Bible as a neutral alternative. However, the new language confuses more than it clarifies by erasing distinctions between the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh. It is understandable if Christians think the Old Testament and the Tanakh are one and the same thing, but a closer look reveals important distinctions. For example, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christian Old Testament canons include additional books, either written or preserved in Greek (Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Maccabees, etc.), that are not in the Jewish canon. And some Orthodox communions only use the Greek translation of the Hebrew (the Septuagint) -- which varies in word choices and length from the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tanakh are also distinct from each other in terms of punctuation, canonical order, and emphases.

Now, the rest of this Times story is fine, as far as I know. It's a nice feature about some interesting people. Here's a typical passage about this bright couple:

Mordechai Z. Cohen, a professor of Bible and associate dean of Yeshiva University’s graduate school, said the contest served a valuable purpose because it was “important to appreciate people who understand the original Hebrew text of the Bible.” And he said Mr. Shahak and Ms. Frohlich, who met as undergraduates at Yeshiva, where she attended Stern College, “know it far better than I do.”
“I could recite passages,” Dr. Cohen said, “but I don’t know it at the same level of expertise as Yaelle and Yair. They have knowledge of the original sources. They could repeat it to you backwards and forwards in the original language. But their knowledge is not just rote knowledge. It’s really in-depth knowledge.”

I am glad that the Times published this story, which does involve some complicated, truly academic material.

However, if journalists are going to add notes to their stories that explain complicated issues, it helps if these notes are accurate. Thus, the Times needs to publish a correction in this case. As of the writing of this post, there is no correction attached to this feature.

Is this a matter of media bias? Probably not. This is a different kind of failure, in terms of not "getting religion." Often it is hard for journalists to know what they don't know and, thus, know what they need to look up.

However, there is a good chance that the world-class pros at the Times copy desk (who long ago used to call GetReligion about some of these issues) need a wider shelf of reference books? Or maybe editors -- in the frantic dash of journalism in the Internet age -- need a better online library of resources or experts to consult?

But, yes, one more time let's note the candid words of Dean Baquet, the executive editor at the Times:

I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she's all alone. We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives.

That's true. But there is also the simple truth that religion is complicated stuff and the facts matter, especially when things are published in the world's most powerful newspaper.

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