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Monday, August 17, 2015
Education Toolbox

Thou shalt not misquote the Bible in news

By Jimmy McCollum

The Bible can serve as a rich resource for journalists, providing references ranging from “apple of your eye” (Psalm 17) to Zacchaeus (Luke 19). In some newsrooms and classrooms, though, biblical concepts can get lost in translation. Here are six potential pitfalls:

1. Fruit of Eden

Example: An Associated Press review of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack, February 2015 — “The 16-track album finds itself mired in an intoxicating sound that gets its potency from a mix of rock gods’ electric guitars, masterful reworkings of recent hits and electro pop beats so slithery, you’ll bite the forbidden apple.”

Example: An Associated Press story covering Pope Francis, April 2015 — “On Wednesday, he came to women's defense. He took the biblical Adam to task for having blamed Eve for having given him the forbidden apple.”

Genesis 3 gives the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The cunning serpent tempted Eve with a fruit, but we aren’t told what kind. It may have been an apple. But it may have been another fruit that can still be found in modern-day Iraq — pomegranate, quince, orange. (In fairness to the pope in the aforementioned story, he had quoted Genesis directly, referring to “fruit” instead of “apple.”) So let’s simply use “fruit.”

For the sake of accuracy regarding “snake,” here’s another interesting point: God cursed the serpent to crawl after the temptation (Genesis 3:14: “On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life”), suggesting the serpent had a non-slithering form earlier.

2. Whale of a tale

Example: A USA Today story , July 2014 — “An Iraqi shrine that is purported to be the burial site of Jonah, who the Bible says was swallowed by a whale, has been blown up by Islamic State militants (ISIS).”

Was the Jonah-swallower a mammal, as we picture from "Pinocchio"? This one’s a bit tricky. The Hebrew word used for “fish” in the book of Jonah is generic and refers to aquatic creatures of all types. The precision of modern science between fish and mammal was not a concern for the ancient writer. To be accurate, journalists may want to keep it as “great fish” (Jonah 1:17) rather than the specific “whale.”

3. We three kings?

Example: An MSN.com video, December 2014 — “According to the Bible, the three wise men found their way to the birthplace of Jesus by following a bright, shining object in the night sky.”

Matthew 2 tells us about the wise men from the East, but it doesn’t indicate how many. Plus, they found Jesus as a “young child” in a house — not as a baby in a manger, as the shepherds had.

4. Prodigal problems

Example: An Associated Press story, January 2003 — “The prodigal star … was part of a four-star group of young stars some 450 light years from Earth.”

The term “prodigal” means extravagantly wasteful, not “long-lost” or “returning.” Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 describes the younger son who asked for his inheritance, traveled to a distant country and “squandered his wealth in wild living.” (To see a multitude of recent references, try Googling “prodigal” with “LeBron James.”)

5. The name’s the thing

Example: A Washington Post review of a Ralph Stanley album, April 2011 — “‘It’s Time to Wake Up,’ a flinty ballad, revisits the biblical account of Jesus raising Lazareth from the dead.”

Example: A Los Angeles Times story, May 2013 — “Patterson will write out the final lines of the Book of Revelations in a ceremony at his church on Saturday, following which he will discuss the Bible with a theologian.”

The Bible has more than 2,500 proper names, so double-check for spelling and be wary of lookalikes such as prophets Elijah and Elisha, kings Jeroboam and Rehoboam, New Testament men Barnabas and Barabbas. Avoid mash-ups such as “Lazareth”; that’s a hybrid of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. And the last book in the Bible is Revelation — no “s” on the end.

6. Phantom verses

Example: An Economist story referring to Adrian Peterson, November 2014 — “Others defer to the Bible: ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’”

Finally, take care with phrases that are not quite scriptural, such as “spare the rod, spoil the child” (a bit different from Proverbs 13:24), “God moves in a mysterious way” (from the 1774 William Cowper hymn) and “money is the root of all evil” (actually, it's the love of money, from First Timothy 6:10).

Jimmy McCollum is a professor of communication and journalism at Lipscomb University. He also serves as director of the Tennessee High School Press Association, based at Lipscomb, and as faculty adviser of the school’s SPJ chapter. Interact on Twitter: @mccollum

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