Tamar Sternthal

The New York Times’ Jesus problem

Accuracy about biographical details of a historical figure central to a leading world religion shouldn't be too hard

“When it comes to the religious future, you should follow the social trends, but also always expect the unexpected,” writes Ross Douthat in The New York Times opinion pages (“You Can’t Predict the Future of Religion,” Feb. 25).

That’s prudent advice. Predicting the future in any discipline is always a precarious exercise. In contrast, recounting the well-documented and basic biographical and geographical realities surrounding a historical figure central to a leading world religion should be a walk in the park, even for the Times’ opinions desk. All the more so when those historic facts have been carefully reviewed and laid out in two previous corrections published in the very same newspaper.

Nevertheless, the outlet once acclaimed as the “Paper of Record,” has wandered woefully astray from the historical record – and its own archives. The New York Times has twice previously and rightly clarified that Jesus was neither Palestinian nor lived in Palestine.

The April 27, 2019 correction stated: “Because of an editing error, an article last Saturday referred incorrectly to Jesus’s background. While he lived in an area that later came to be known as Palestine, Jesus was a Jew who was born in Bethlehem.”

Earlier, a June 20, 2008 correction made clear that the Romans named Judea and the Galilee, where Jesus was born and then lived, “Palestina” more than a century after he was crucified, stating:

The Malula Journal article on April 22, about efforts in the village of Malula, Syria, and two neighboring villages to preserve Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, referred incorrectly to the name of the region where Jesus spent most of his time. It was Galilee — not Palestine, which derives from the word Palestina, the name that Roman conquerors gave to the region more than 100 years after Jesus’s death.

In 132 (Common Era or AD), approximately 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Jews fought against Roman rule for a second time in what is known as the Bar Kochba Revolt. After the Romans defeated the rebellious Jews in 135, they renamed the land of the Jews Palestina to punish the Jews and to make an example of them to other populations considering rebellion. The Romans took away the Jewish name, Judea, and replaced it with the name of an ancient enemy the Jews despised. The Philistines were an extinct Aegean people whom the Jews had historically loathed as uncultured and barbaric.

But, for the powers that be at the Times’ Opinion pages, those 2008 and 2019 corrections — not to mention actual events of 2000 years ago — are totally irrelevant. Alternatively, perhaps it’s the very journalistic imperative requiring adherence to factual accuracy which they deem irrelevant.

Either way, following an earlier relapse, the most recent spate of counter-factual reporting about Jesus’ times emerged with a vengeance in recent days. First there was the Feb. 19 Opinion piece, “The Decolonization of Christianity is Not Complete,” in which Tish Harrison Warren, an opinion writer for the paper, interviewed book author Ekemini Uwan. In the interview, edited for clarity and length (but not accuracy), Uwan states:

For me, it’s about reorienting myself on what is true, what is factual. Jesus was, is, a historical man who lived and walked this earth. He is a brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish man, even now. That to me is fundamental to the faith.

Responding to this writer’s request to correct the factual error concerning Jesus’ “Palestinian” identity, the Times’ Opinion sages averred that this was a matter of Uwan’s “views,” and thus not subject to correction.

That the historical misinformation was contained within quotation marks is immaterial to its falsehood and the obligation to correct. Indeed, Harrison Warren had plenty of opportunity to either correct her interviewee or delete that statement, and she neglected to do either.

Days after receiving communication about Uwan’s Palestinian Jesus falsehood, editors hunkered down, republishing the misinformation yet again. In his aforementioned Op-Ed, Russ Douthat rehashed the anti-historical chronology: ” . . . two thousand years ago a motley group of provincials in Roman Palestine believed they’d seen their teacher heal the sick and raise the dead and then rise transfigured from the grave . . .”

There’s a debate raging within The New York Times. Journalists who still profess to adhere to traditional professional standards based on “factual, accurate journalism” and the “ethical and professional protections” ensuring “independence and integrity” face off against colleagues who champion narratives hewing to partisan causes.

“We pursue the facts wherever they may lead. We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear,” wrote the former group in defense of ethical journalism.

In The New York Times’ opinion pages, where even well-documented historical facts about Jesus’ life are candidates for transfiguration, that line has already been redrawn.

About the Author
Tamar Sternthal is the director of the Israel Office of CAMERA
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