So, did the pope and Israel’s prime minister have a rancorous exchange in Jerusalem over the topic of Jesus’ mother tongue?
One thing is certain: Headline writers had a field day with the “spar”, as Reuters characterized the encounter. Was it a “spat,” as per The Chicago Tribune? Did they “publicly bicker” as per The Age of Melbourne? Did Francis “correct” Netayahu, as Time reported? Or was the National Post correct in calling it a “quibble”?
Commentators were quick to jump. I’ve seen a fair number of anti-Semitic comments on Facebook, as well as anti-Catholic ones (I move in mixed circles), that denounce Francis or Netanyahu with vigor.
Aslan Reza tweeted his views:
Carolyn Glick of The Jerusalem Post noted the political ramification of the remarks, placing them in the context of what she saw as a failed papal visit that set back Catholic-Jewish relations.
In one of his blander pronouncements during the papal visit, Netanyahu mentioned on Monday that Jesus spoke Hebrew. There was nothing incorrect about Netanyahu’s statement. Jesus was after all, an Israeli Jew.
But Francis couldn’t take the truth. So he indelicately interrupted his host, interjecting, “Aramaic.”
Netanyahu was probably flustered. True, at the time, educated Jews spoke and wrote in Aramaic. And Jesus was educated. But the language of the people was Hebrew. And Jesus preached to the people, in Hebrew.
Netanyahu responded, “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”
Reuters’ write-up of the incident tried to explain away the pope’s rudeness and historical revisionism, asserting, “Modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.” The report went on to delicately mention, “Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.”
Israelis “object to that” because it is a lie.
Setting aside the politics of the Middle East and inter-faith realtions, when it comes to the reporting on the interchange between pontiff and prime minister Yair Rosenberg of The Tablet has the story. Offering a cross section of headlines that painted the exchange in tense or harsh tones, Rosenberg wrote:
But unfortunately for headline writers hoping to gin up controversy for clicks, there is video of this supposed smackdown, and it shows nothing of the sort. As you can see [above], Pope Francis is laughing throughout the entire exchange, which to a normal observer would appear to be an amiable conversation between friends (albeit one mediated by a translator), not a “spat.” As New York Times Middle East reporter Liam Stack tweeted, “not sure this counts as sparring.”
As an aside, Reza Aslan’s pronouncements on Jesus’ mother tongue do not represent the current scholarly consensus, according to R. Steven Notley, who is identified as the distinguished professor of New Testament and Christian Origins and director of graduate programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins on the New York City Campus of Nyack College. In an article entitled “Your Holiness, Bibi was right — Jesus spoke Hebrew!” published by the Times of Israel Notely set forth the evidence about the language used by Jesus and concluded:
Old ideas die hard, and it appears this also to be the case concerning the languages of Jesus. Why scholars and others continue to believe Hebrew was not Jesus’ mother tongue is another question, but it is not for lack of evidence.
I wholeheartedly agree with Rosenberg’s thoughts about the sloppy journalism that arose from this encounter.
Perhaps the reason the Pope is chuckling when he quibbles with Netanyahu is that he knows they are both right. As the scholar quoted by Reuters in their own piece explains, “Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker, but he would have also known Hebrew,” which was spoken by “the kind of people he ministered to.” Whatever language Jesus may or may not have spoken, it is clear that despite attempts by some media outlets to imply otherwise, the incident is not indicative of any hostility Francis harbors towards the Israeli Prime Minister. This can be seen not only from the video of their exchange, but from the photo above from the Pope’s farewell ceremony, where the two parted on warm terms.
In his Tablet piece Rosenberg lays out an argument that the meeting of prime minister and pontiff was a success and bodes well for Jewish-Catholic relations. I encourage you to read his well written, thoughtful piece. For that matter, add The Tablet to your list of essential religion news sources. It is consistently one of the best religion weeklies in the business.