Concerning that gathering called by the Ecumenical Patriarch

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” according to a famous quote by publisher Philip Graham of the Washington Post. If so, shouldn’t journalists have a sense of history? Especially when the history stretches over centuries?

Like when Reuters reports on a recent conference of Orthodox patriarchs. It starts out OK, then degrades quickly:

Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East.

Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.

Here’s where to hit the “pause” button.

Are we talking about an “ecumenical council” or an Ecumenical Council, as in a meeting of the leaders of the ancient patriarchates called by the Ecumenical Patriarch? In this case, the upper-case letters really matter.

Either way, this is big news.

But watch how ya throw that term around, buddy. An ecumenical council — no big E, no big C — would be one called by the leaders of all faith groups to settle church-wide matters. And as Theopedia shows, only seven councils — the last in the year 787 — have been honored by Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism alike. Of course, those events took place before the Great Schism of 1054.

Adds the site:

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics. The primary value of these early ecumenical councils is their documentation of the early consensus of doctrines regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead.

Nor does the roster for the upcoming meeting include Oriental Orthodox churches, which accept only the first three “ecumenical” councils. The Oriental Orthodox include a couple of newsmakers, the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians. Other notables include the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox in east Africa, and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

What’s the deal? Well, none of these churches are currently in communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches (although talks with the Copts are getting interesting) and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Thus, they are not being invited to this gathering of the Eastern Orthodox bodies that are in communion with one another. It would help if the story explained some of these differences.

All told, that’s a lot of Christians to overlook, when it comes to the information in this story. There are some holes.

Dare I add a little finger-waggling on the need to hire religion writers who actually know something about religion?

To be fair, this Reuters story gets a lot right.

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The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!

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KENNETH ASKS:

With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even weather.com joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

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Sharp reporting exposes anti-Israel PCUSA study

I once made a Presbyterian leader sputter.

Didn’t mean to. I just asked a question about the Middle East that he didn’t like. Things like that happen.

He was a Palestinian-American activist who was addressing the Religion Newswriters Association several years ago. His topic was the need to divest stocks of companies that did business with Israel until that bad ol’ country stops oppressing Palestinians.

During a Q&A period, I asked if companies should apply similar pressure on the Palestinian side. That’s when he sputtered: “Do you realize how poor Palestinians are? Were you born on the moon?” Etc., etc., etc.

I let him run his bolt before pointing out: “Many companies do business with nations that support Palestinian guerrillas. So there is a corollary.” He finally conceded that he opposed violence on all sides.

How diplomatic. But the exclusive focus of his speech was on Israel.

Why the trip down memory lane? It was occasioned by a new story on “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Guide.” Issued by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the study doesn’t appear to move much from the viewpoint of my friend years ago.

I’m heartened to see that my skepticism is shared by the likes of the new religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith’s robust and many-sided article says the new guide “includes depictions of Zionism as a heresy at the root of the Middle East crisis.”

Smith reports also that a “major governing body” — which he identifies later as the Presbyterian Mission Agency — recommends dumping investments in three corporations that deal with Israel. As his story notes, this is the measure voted by the Presbyterian General Assembly a decade ago, then reversed at subsequent assemblies.

He says the two events have “combined to roil already-tense relations between Presbyterians and Jews,” giving local examples in the Pittsburgh area. And he quotes both sides:

The study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” while not an official church declaration, represents the work of a group created by the denomination 10 years ago. The illustrated 72-page guide, produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decries what it calls years of fruitless talk over a two-state solution, saying Israel has effectively been creating a single state with apartheid-style oppression of Palestinians. It decried Israel for “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from hundreds of communities in 1948 and said the state resulted from a “toxic relationship between theology and politics.”

Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he realizes the study guide “isn’t something that is emanating from the grassroots.” But he called it “a crash course to advocate for an end of the Jewish state.”

He said it reads “as if there were no wars waged against Israel, no campaign of terror by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah and … ignores the reality that Israelis and the American Jewish community support a two-state solution.”

The reporter says the PCUSA leadership has “distanced itself from the publication, emphasizing the decentralized nature of the denomination” — an odd claim in a church body that has long stressed its connectional nature. Smith quotes the executive director of the Mission Agency that the report is a “statement to the church rather than on its behalf.”

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Wait a minute: First EVER married Maronite Catholic priest?

Several years ago, while working on my contribution to the book “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I called up one of the patriarchs of the religion beat, Richard Ostling, to discuss the craft that he practiced so well for many years at Time and then with the Associated Press. These days, of course, his “Religion Q&A” pieces are featured once a week here at GetReligion.

We started off by discussing the most basic subject — sins of commission.

For Ostling, the bottom line was clear: If you can’t trust journalists to get their facts right, then why trust them at all? This passage is a bit long, but essential:

“Sometimes we are talking about things that can get complicated. … But it isn’t good when people read their newspaper and say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s just wrong.’ ”

Here’s a prime example, a mistake that Ostling has seen countless times in news reports. … Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.

“It would be accurate,” noted Ostling, “to say that the overwhelming majority of men ordained as Catholic priests are not married. It would even be accurate to say that ‘almost all’ priests are not married. But what about Eastern Rite Catholicism, where you have married priests? Then there are the married men who have been ordained in the Anglican Rite, who used to be Episcopal priests. You have a few Lutherans, too.

“Now some people would say that little mistakes like this do not matter all that much. Well, they matter to the people who read the story and know that what they are reading is wrong. What does this say about our journalistic standards?”

This brings us to a short report from KMOV.com in St. Louis that has some fact checkers quite stirred up in the Catholic blogosphere. Of course, they also appealed to your GetReligionistas for a small bit of justice. Here is most of that story:

(KMOV) – The Maronite Catholic Church is set to ordain its first married priest on Thursday, and it’s happening in St. Louis.

Deacon Wissam Akiki will be ordained at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral at 6:30 p.m. He will be the first married priest to be ordained into the Maronite Catholic Church. A spokesperson says Pope Francis made an exception for him to be ordained.

The Maronite church is one of several Eastern Rite churches that acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the highest authority.

But just wait a minute, I can hear careful readers muttering, that’s an Eastern Rite Catholic church? Don’t they allow clergy to marry before they are ordained as priests?

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Camels and tigers and bears, oh my!

The silly season is early this year. With editors and most top-tier reporters away in August on vacation (along with the subjects of their stories — need to set the proper precedence of seniority at the start of this story) the late summer is the time when the second team knocks out stories that leave readers asking: “what were they thinking?”

True — there are exceptions to this venerable custom. What would Easter or Christmas be without stories proclaiming what “the science” tells us about such events. Perhaps the massive snowstorms in the Northeast have kept the A-team in bed for some publications? Otherwise I would be hard pressed to explain the thinking behind the editorial line taken in a spat of stories reporting on a paper published by two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University.

The gist of the report in publications like the Huffington Post, IBT and the Fashion Times (yes the Fashion Times) among a score of others is that “No camels = No God.”

The absence of camel remains at an archeological site in Israel dated to the time of Abraham demonstrates the Bible is false — or as the Fashion Times headline tells us “Historical ERROR in Bible’s Old Testament, REVEALED: Radiocarbon Dating of Camel Bones Shows Inconsistency.”

I like the screaming ALL CAPS used for error and revealed — one need read no further to see where that story is headed.

The New York Daily News was a little more cautious in its story “Israeli archeologists’ discovery suggests the Bible is wrong about camels.” It reported:

New archeological evidence is throwing cold water on the biblical image of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph riding camels through the desert. A team of Israeli archaeologists has studied the oldest-known camel bones from this ancient period and the results are in — camels reportedly started plodding around the eastern Mediterranean region centuries after the Bible tells us they did.

After analyzing the facts from radioactive-carbon dating, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University claim the domesticated animal arrived on the biblical scene near the 10th century B.C. Scholars believe Abraham lived at least six centuries before that, Time reports.

Still, stories about the Jewish patriarchs contain more than 20 references to the domesticated camel, according to The New York Times. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant traveled on his master’s camels.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Perhaps it was out of caution that its reporter might not have been able to verify the information the New York Daily News cites the New York Times for the flash news that there are camel references in Genesis.

Time does a much better job with this story. Reporter Elizabeth Dias lays out the facts and then proceeds to pour cold water on the hyperbole — taking as her target the New York Times’ account.

The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Time also puts this story in context, noting Biblical scholars have long been aware of apparent anomalies. It quotes a number of liberal Biblical scholars to flesh out the conundrum of Biblical history v. a Biblical faith.

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” [Duke University's] Eric Meyers says.

I would have liked to have seen Time ask conservative Biblical scholars — say someone from the Dallas Theological Seminary — for their view on the camel controversy. It would have improved an otherwise great story.

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On the cautious use of loaded terms such as ‘messianism’

So let’s try this again.

The other day I wrote about a news report that ran in The Los Angeles Times that used a very interesting and, in the context of Israel and the Middle East, very loaded term. Here is the lede on that piece, once again:

WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday condemned as “offensive” the reported comment of Israel’s defense minister that Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s campaign for Mideast peace grows from his “messianism.”

My question was quite simple. I suspected, based on the coverage offered by other mainstream outlets, that Moshe Yaalon had not actually used a specific noun best translated as “messianism,” but had used words that would best be translated, as my post noted, either as “messianic fervor” or words to that effect. Perhaps the goal was to say that Kerry suffers from some kind of “messiah complex.” Yes, I also wondered if — because of a variety of controversies linked to Christians in the Middle East — any use of a term similar to “Messianism” would have been considered especially cutting.

Thus, I thought that a reference to the noun “messianism” would have needed some explaining, no matter which definition was selected from a typical dictionary online:

mes·si·a·nism … noun

1. (often initial capital letter) the belief in the coming of the Messiah, or a movement based on this belief.

2. the belief in a leader, cause, or ideology as a savior or deliverer. …

The crucial question, once again: Did Yaalon used a term best translated as “messianism”?

As it turns out, Prof. Mark Silk at Trinity College has offered a post that offered some helpful information on this question, working from the Hebrew text at the heart of the story.

Aided and abetted by my religion department colleague Ron Kiener, I am happy to report that the term in question is … techushah meshichit … which is better translated as “messianic impulse” than “messianic fervor” (as the Yedioth translator put it). In English, “messianism” (or “Messianism”) is usually used to refer to belief in an imminent coming of the messiah (or The Messiah), rather than a conviction of one’s own messianic status, which is what Ya’alon intended to tag Kerry with.

Quite interesting and, as I said, helpful.

In other words, the point was — using that second definition — to imply that, in his quest for peace in the Middle East, the U.S. secretary of state seems to think that he is acting in some kind of messianic role or that he is being driven by a messianic impulse. Did I get that right?

The only issue, apparently, on which Silk and I disagree is in his next statement:

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Whoa! Was John Kerry being too messianic or Messianic?

Holy dictionary! Talk about leaving a crucial term in a story undefined, unexplained, unattributed or all of the above.

I almost spit my Diet Dr Pepper all over my iPad this morning (which is easier to clean than a computer keyboard, just sayin’) when I read the top of this Los Angeles Times report about Secretary of State John Kerry’s ongoing, some would say “relentless,” campaign to make headlines in the Middle East.

Spot the land-mine term in this opening:

WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday condemned as “offensive” the reported comment of Israel’s defense minister that Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s campaign for Mideast peace grows from his “messianism.”

In an incident that may deepen strains between the two governments, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot as saying that Kerry is “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic.” He added that “the only thing that may save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us,” the article said.

OK, hold it. It is one thing to say that Kerry has a bit of a “messiah complex” when it comes to engineering a breakthrough. It is also possible to say that he is hunting this white whale of foreign policy with “messianic fervor.”

But who took a colorful use of messianic language and turned it into the noun “messianism”? Was this someone in this particular newsroom?

Also, since the status of Palestinian Christians in Israel and in the wider Middle East is such a hot-button issue, is there any chance that Yaalon deliberately used hot-button language that hinted at Messianism with a big “M,” as opposed to with a tamer small “m”?

Does that matter? Let’s look at a typical online dictionary for guidance on this question:

mes·si·a·nism … noun

1. (often initial capital letter) the belief in the coming of the Messiah, or a movement based on this belief.

2. the belief in a leader, cause, or ideology as a savior or deliverer. …

Meanwhile, I am seeing some interesting variations on the actual Yaalon quotation. Consider the top of this report in USA Today:

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WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood

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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

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