Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a cage?
Everyone seems to talking about that viral religion story, as The Tennessean faith reporter Holly Meyer points out.
In case you missed it, the Indianapolis Star reports that the three biblical figures "were incarcerated behind a barbed wired-topped, chain link fence on the lawn of Monument Circle's Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday."
The Rev. Stephen Carlsen, dean and rector of Christ Church, said the caged Holy Family is a protest to President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy that is holding families in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I know what the Bible said," Carlsen said. "We're supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves."
It's a fascinating story, and I'd urge you to check it out. But for the purposes of this post, I have a side question: Which version of the Bible should a news organization quote in a story such as this?
I'll admit surprise at the one the Gannett newspaper chose to quote (at least the one it said it quoted):
The Rev. Lee Curtis, who came up with the idea for the demonstration, said the Biblical trio was a family of refugees seeking asylum in Egypt after Jesus' birth.
"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him,'" the Message Bible says in Matthew 2:13-14. "When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt."
"This family is every family, and every family is holy," Curtis said.
For those not familiar with The Message, it's a contemporary version in modern English. The religion satire news site Babylon Bee has published stories such as "‘The Message’ Now Available In Popular Comic Sans Font" and "7 Updates ‘The Message’ Totally Needs." Among the proposed updates: Substituting all references to Jesus with "The J-Man." That gives some indication of how seriously (read: not) some take that translation.
I'm not sure I've ever seen The Message be the go-to version quoted in a news story. (I'll eagerly await all the links proving me wrong.) My first thought was perhaps the Star was trying to put the verses in language readers could understand.
I moved on and didn't think any more about it until I noticed the same story, edited a bit, on the Religion News Service wire and attributed to Gannett flagship USA Today:
The USA Today version of the story attributes the Scripture to a different version:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him,'” according to the New King James Version of Matthew 2:13-14. “When he arose, he took the young child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt.”
OK, apparently somebody decided the New King James Version was a better translation to quote than The Message. But then again, the verses quoted are the same.
Thanks to my friend Alan Cochrum — a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram copy editor — who told me:
(1) Speaking as a former ink-stained wretch, I don't think I would ever make The Message my go-to version for biblical background except under special circumstances.
(2) The larger issue is that the passage quoted in the original article is not from The Message, which in Matthew 2:13-14 reads: "After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, 'Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.'
Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness."
So the Star didn't quote The Message. It just said it did. Are you as confused as I am?
Now I'm curious: Why pick the New King James Version?
The church involved is described as a progressive Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church website says:
The Bible is of extraordinary importance to Episcopal worship; during a Sunday morning service, the congregation will usually hear at least three readings from Scripture, and much of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer is based explicitly on the Biblical texts. According to the Catechism, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures” (p. 853-4)
There are several translations of the Bible authorized for use, including:
King James or Authorized Version (the historic Bible of The Episcopal Church)
English Revision (1881)
American Revision (1901)
Revised Standard Version (1952)
Jerusalem Bible (1966)
New English Bible with the Apocrypha (1970)
Good News Bible / Today's English Version (1976)
New American Bible (1970)
Revised Standard Version, an Ecumenical Edition (1973)
New International Version (1978)
New Jerusalem Bible (1987)
Revised English Bible (1989)
New Revised Standard Version (1990)
Common English Bible (2012)
Notice two translation missing from that list (unless my eyes are playing tricks on me)? That's right — the Message and the New King James Version. So why quote those versions in this story? That is not meant as a rhetorical question. I am honestly, truly asking. Please help me out here, friends — particularly my fellow religion writer friends.
Since I've fallen so far down this rabbit hole, I'll note the recent controversy on Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13. In that case, the Star — which covered the story because Sessions made his comments in Indiana — did something that impressed me as perfectly logical. It quoted a version of the Bible often associated with the United Methodist Church, of which Sessions is a member:
The first three verses of Romans 13 in the Common English Bible, traditionally used by the United Methodist Church, read:
1 Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God.
2 So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished.
3 The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval.
The Associated Press Stylebook, "the journalist's bible," has this entry:
Capitalize, without quotation marks, when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Capitalize also related terms such as the Gospels, Gospel of St. Mark, the Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures.
Lowercase biblical in all uses.
Lowercase bible as a nonreligious term: My dictionary is my bible.
Do not abbreviate individual books of the Bible.
Old Testament is a Christian designation; Hebrew Bible or Jewish Bible is the appropriate term for stories dealing with Judaism alone.
The standard names and order of Old Testament books as they appear in Protestant Bibles are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
Jewish Bibles contain the same 39 books, in different order. Roman Catholic Bibles follow a different order, usually use some different names and include the seven Deuterocanonical books (called the Apocrypha by Protestants): Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch.
The books of the New Testament, in order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation.
Citation listing the number of chapter and verse(s) use this form: Matthew 3:16, Luke 21:1-13, 1 Peter 2:1.
All of that information is extremely helpful, but it doesn't speak to which Bible version to quote.
I write a lot about evangelicals and tend to quote the New International Version, just because it's a popular and mostly respected translation among evangelicals. In other cases, I'll ask a source what version they use or have a preacher confirm which translation was quoted from the pulpit. I recall that when Hillary Clinton spoke at a Flint, Mich., church during the 2016 presidential campaign, the New York Times quoted her from the King James Version.
If you've made it this far in this post, perhaps you're as intrigued by this "which version to quote" question as I am. By all means, please comment below with your thoughts and ideas about possible best practices for religion writers and all journalists.
Update: I've updated this post to reflect Cochrum pointing out what I missed in my quick typing — that the verses quoted by the Star weren't actually from The Message. The newspaper's story is still incorrect as I type this, even though somebody at USA Today caught the mistake before posting the national version.