Remember when Jesus went to Assiut? (Yeah, me neither.)

“Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries,” says the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. “Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters.”

Berger is probably right — which is cause for optimism. The condition of being “less informed on religious matters” is not only much easier to fix than anti-religious bias, it is often self-correcting. In my experience, when it’s pointed out to journalists that they are missing a “big story” they are quick to correct their oversight. Sometimes they have to be browbeaten into doing their jobs (e.g., Gosnell), but usually their natural curiosity about the world is enough to provoke them into seeking out what they’ve missed.

A prime example of this type of media self-correction can be found in recent articles about the Middle East. Many mainstream outlets that had previously missed or underplayed the persecution angle have, within the past few weeks, done a commendable job of reporting on the plight of Christians in Egypt. For example, the AP had a particularly good story yesterday titled, “Egypt’s Coup Puts Fearful Christians in a Corner.”

Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said.

A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.

Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.

In such an well-reported article, it feels unseemly to pick nits. But Bible-related gaffes are irresistible to us GetReligionistas, so I have to comment on this one:

Nile-side Assiut, a city of one million people 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, dates back to the pharaohs. The New Testament says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus passed through as they fled the infanticidal King Herod. Today, its Christian fears are compounded by the failure of authorities to curb the graffiti-spraying and the Islamists’ demonstrations, which have gone on almost nightly since the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi.

Did Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus pass through Assiut? Maybe, but the New Testament certainly doesn’t make that claim. The book of Matthew simply says Joseph “took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.” (Matt. 2:14)

It’s possible that such a story is part of Egyptian legend or found one of the apocryphal writings that are recognized by some Christian traditions. But those sources can’t be claimed as being in the “New Testament.” The AP’s own stylebook even lists which books are included in the Bible, so a reference to a non-canonical source should have been duly noted in the article.

By now you’d think reporters and their editors would learn not to rely on their own knowledge about Jewish and Christian scriputres. Fact-checking a claim about the the Bible should be rather easy since the books are widely available and accessible online. There’s even an app for that.

Nevertheless, while the Jesus-in-Assiut gaffe is distracting, it shouldn’t prevent you from reading the otherwise excellent article. We need more of such accurate reporting on persecution, even if it does come with some not-quite-so-accurate claims about the Bible.

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  • helen

    The Holy Family went to Egypt. That’s all we’re told. The various places in Jerusalem (and the stairs imported to Rome) are ‘tradition’ just like the location in Assiut. If the traditions help to keep the Christian faith alive in these places of persecution, are they harmful?

    • Matthew Jamison

      I think it would have been fine had it said “tradition says” rather than “The New Testament says.”

    • Kevin Spencer

      Agreed on the little “t” in “tradition” here. Catholics and Orthodox aren’t “sola scriptora” in matters of faith or history, so passing through a town isn’t a problem to the overall story, just as most Protestants or journalists may not know Mary’s parents by name, as stated in extra-biblical texts. Chalk this article’s gaffe in the same category as the Wise Men fallacy. The number of wise men isn’t three (it’s not stated in Scripture) but it isn’t a serious detraction.

    • Manfred Arcane

      Yes, there are no details in the NT, of course, and the article is wrong about that. There is, however, a very old and detailed Coptic itinerary for the Holy Family in Egypt (see Otto Meinardus’s book of the same name) which includes a sojourn in Upper (Southern) Egypt where Assiut is located so the writer may have confused an old, popular local tradition with the Bible because the writer is biblically illiterate.

  • Julia B

    “Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, as Egypt’s Christians are called.” – from the linked AP article.

    Very good article, but I have some problems with this sentence. “Copts” is just another word for Egyptians. These folks kept their religion when the Arabs took over – so they are ethnic Egyptians. Same as the Christians in Iraq who kept their religion after the Arab take-over. The article mentions that many of the Copts are relatively well-off. My in-laws from Iraq say that’s because only the well-off could afford to pay the taxes imposed on those who refused to convert.

    Second point: Pope Tawadros is not the head of all the Copts. There are over 100 parishes of Catholic Copts who are in communion with the Catholic Pope in Rome and have their own patriarch. Unlike Pope (not Patriarch) Tawadros, who has made a lot of public statements against Morsi, the Catholic Pariarch has not spoken much in public.

    Third point: Tawadros is not a Patriarch; his title is “Pope”. He is the head of the Egyptian group that is usually called Oriental Orthodox, which also includes the Ethiopian Orthodox. Both (might be others) split off from the unified Christian church many centuries before what are usually known as the Eastern Orthodox allied with the Patriarch in Constantinople.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church

    Later in the article, the author acknowledges that it’s a tradition that the Holy Family stayed in that city before heading back to Nazareth. That doesn’t match up with what he said about the New Testament. Perhaps he just meant that the NT said the Holy Family went to Egypt.

    • Manfred Arcane

      The Coptic Pope is both Pope (Baba) and Patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark (Kiraza Mar Marqus), not to be confused with the much less significant Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. So he is both.

      • frjohnmorris

        Although the Greek Orthodox Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria has few followers in Egypt, he has several hundred thousand in Africa.

        • Manfred Arcane

          Fair enough, but even that is dwarfed by the 10% of the Egyptian population who are Coptic Orthodox, about 8 million. It is by far the largest single Middle Eastern church.

    • frjohnmorris

      There is also the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and Pope of Alexandria, who leads Orthodoxy in Africa.

      The Eastern Orthodox did not “split off” form the united Christian Church. The Bishop of Rome split off from the united Christian Church when the other 4 leaders of the Church, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, refused to submit to Roman domination. Rome went its separate way due to its demand for authority over the entire Church, the power to change the Nicene Creed from the text approved by the Ecumenical Councils, desire to mandate compulsory clerical celibacy, and enforce Roman Catholic doctrine on the entire Church.
      The Copts, Ethiopians, Syriac Orthodox, Indian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Churches form the Oriental Orthodox Churches. They split from the Church because they rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which condemned the heresy of Monophysitism, which taught that the divine nature of Christ absorbed the human nature of Christ.

      • Julia B

        “There is also the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and Pope of Alexandria, who leads Orthodoxy in Africa.”

        I didn’t think the Greek Orthodox had any leaders with the title of “Pope” any where, only Patriarchs.

        • frjohnmorris

          Patriarch and Pope really mean the same “Father.” In Alexandria the Patriarch is also called the Pope. The Bulgarians call a Priest a Pope and the wife of a Priest a Popess.

      • Tim Hoskins

        I think Julia B’s reference to “split[ting] off” makes it pretty clear that she is referring to Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodoxy, not Eastern Orthodoxy.

    • wlinden

      Insisting on “Pope” would just confuse an occidental audience.

      • Julia B

        But the writer first calls him Pope and then Patriarch in the same sentence. That’s even more confusing.

      • frjohnmorris

        That may be a good thing, because Western Christians should know that in the ancient Church there was not just one Pope, but 5 each of which presided over their Churches independently. There was no universal papacy in the ancient Church. The highest authority was an Ecumenical which everyone, including the Bishop of Rome, had to obey.

  • Julia B

    Should have said Tawadros is head of the Egyptian branch of a group of Christian churches usually known as Oriental Orthodox.

  • Julie Gould

    This is indeed terrible news. Assiut is the most important city for Christians in Egypt. The majority of Christians in leadership positions were born there. One of the biggest universities is there. The AP article states that 40% of the city is Christian; it doesn’t mention that this is the highest density in Egypt. In 2000-2001, Our Lady appeared to thousands there. If the Christians of Assiut are now under attack, this is a significant development. The article does not go nearly far enough to explain its importance, and here we are quibbling over what the NT says about it. At the end of the article is a quote from a nun named Martyria. Do not miss the significance of her name.


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