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NYT's ironic fact-check error

David Brooks's column today is vintage Brooks. In this column I will embed my own nostalgia for the time and place in which I grew up within a framework of someone else's compelling (if simplistic) narrative, and then offer sweeping, general prescriptions for our societial ills. The upshot of this particular instance of the genre is that "religion" (impossibly generalized) used to play a more "dominant role in public culture," and that such a role supported a "moral status system" that provided a check on the "worldly status system." Back in those days, when there were "competing status hierarchies," the "culture was probably more dynamic" and -- it goes without saying -- better.

It's a pristine specimen of Brooks. Along the way, he quotes from the sourcebooks of Judeo-Christian culture (Hebrew Bible and New Testament), which is what he means by "religion," in order to show the sources of our old "mores," before we became "secular." But then there's this doozy of a blunder:

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. ..."

Where to begin analyzing this unbelievable error?! Until proven otherwise, I'm going to go ahead and pronounce it the most ironic fact-checking oversight in the history of the esteemed New York Times.

To anyone formed in the Judeo-Christian heritage, the one so exalted by Brooks, it is self-evident that Jesus did not go to Greece or author 1 Corinthians. It's almost pre-rational: Christian kids learn things like this before they even learn that they're learning things at church. Jesus barely left Galilee and did not author anything. Moreover, this section of 1 Corinthians is about Christ crucified, which is unmistakable from reading a couple verses on either side of the quote. It makes me wonder, did Brooks pluck this quote from a Bible quote daily calendar? Or from a context-less collection of inspirational quotes? In any case, during a piece lamenting the declining influence of religion, Brooks reveals his own stunning ignorance of the Judeo-Christian sources that he mines for his arguments.

On to the fact-checkers: I have great respect for these folks at the Times. They have an extremely difficult job at what is the best and most fast-paced newsroom in the country. In my limited (one) experience with writing for the Times, I was in awe of how swiftly and thoroughly they worked.

But in this case, a group of fact-checkers -- multiple people -- read over this sentence, and not one of them stopped the error. What that reveals is profound: the staff at the Times is not as secular as we think they are. They are even more secular than we think they are.

To not know that Jesus did not speak to people in Greece would be like not knowing a basic fact about the most important figures of American history. Letting this error through would be akin to: charting Columbus's voyage on the Mayflower; assigning the wrong author to the Emancipation Proclamation; praising Malcolm X's "I Have a Dream" speech; recounting Kennedy's trip to China; or commemorating Bush's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" moment. All of those errors are unimaginable, as they should be.

And so, when we turn from Mr. Brooks to the fact-checkers, we find that his comical irony becomes a kind of tragic irony. The group of fact-checkers has embodied the very absence of Judeo-Christian culture bemoaned in the column itself.


H/T @TylerWS via Twitter

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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NYT Website:

Correction: June 14, 2013

An earlier version of this column misattributed a passage from Corinthians that ends with the statement, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The letter to the Corinthians is by Paul, not Jesus.

That type of error from an author is as embarrassing as you say, but not as astounding. A writer means one thing and writes another. Jesus instead of Paul. Mental hiccup. That's one reason editors exist. But that it made it all the way through a line of professional readers and into print is amazing, like publishing an upside-down photo.

Can something be amazing and yet not uncommon? I ask because I sometimes see easily spotted errors blotting major books from prestigious publishers. I would say that standards have slipped recently, except that H. W. Fowler found plenty of errors in print when he wrote A Dictionary of Modern English Usage many years ago.

But is this error ironic? It would be ironic if Brooks was claiming that we are more steeped than ever in Judeo-Christian culture. As it is, the error is amusing confirmation of his thesis, or maybe just a quick and not entirely representative look at conditions in the shop where he works.

Some years ago, I was told by a friend that she had heard the editor of one of our leading literary reviews remark, "Well, when Jesus wrote the New Testament. . . ." I leave the review unnamed, since I can't vouch for the truth of the story.

Jesus must have been there on one of those "Follow in the Footsteps of Paul" package tours.

I once wrote "since Abel slew Cain," and it went through three editors intact, including a lay preacher at his church. Nobody can predict what the semi-conscious mind will do while the conscious mind is wrestling with phrasing the next sentence. Even Homer nodded (although I am told the sea he was talking about sometimes, in some light, turns the color of wine).

The column is a serious muddle, at best.

And the mistake is hilarious. But all I can say is, "There but for the grace of God..."

Oh, and the grace of copy editors. Copy editors are such a pain in the tuchas. Unbelievably detail-obsessed people who annoyed me no end -- and saved my hide more times than I could count. They are also the hoplites of journalism who are first to go in budget cutting.

This morning I sat in a quiet waiting room, read Brooks' article, and missed the error.  The column was not headed FIND THE ERROR BELOW.  Even those often stump me.  I read quickly, my mind creates what the sentence is probably saying.


Did the scribes copying codices of scripture ever make errors?



And then there was the "Wicked Bible" of 1631.


"The word not in the sentence 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' was omitted, thus changing the sentence into 'Thou shalt commit adultery.'"


The printers might have had the fun-loving Corinthians in mind when they documented this new commandment.


"Jesus barely left Galilee and did not author anything."


Eusebius, the Father of Church History, tells us about a letter Jesus wrote to Abgarus, Ruler of Edessa.

Scroll down to Chapter 13:


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


Correction: June 14, 2013


An earlier version of this column misattributed a passage from Corinthians that ends with the statement, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The letter to the Corinthians is by Paul, not Jesus.

Thanks, Gerelyn. Eusebius says the letter existed in his time in the city of Edessa


The answer of Jesus to the ruler Abgarus by the courier Ananias.

Blessed are you who hast believed in me without having seen me. For it is written concerning me, that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and be saved. But in regard to what you have written me, that I should come to you, it isnecessary for me to fulfill all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to him that sent me. But after I have been taken up I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal your disease and give life to you and yours.


"Correction: June 14, 2013

An earlier version of this column misattributed a passage from Corinthians that ends with the statement, 'God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.' The letter to the Corinthians is by Paul, not Jesus."

Even the corrected version is wrong. Would it have been too much to hope that the editors at the nation's newspaper of record might have noticed that there are two epistles to the Corinthians?

Then we have the following assertion in the Catholic world: "Jesus made Peter the first Pope."  Holy Mother Church has no problem infecting history with doctrine.

It may reflect my prejudice in the endless battle between editors and writers, but I assumed the copy desk was responsible when I read it. But I guess not - the correction would probably have specified if it was an editing error. Still, not a good day for the editors.

Coming soon in the NYT:

"An earlier version of this editorial implied that President Obama may actually be losing credibility, and that criticisms of his policies may have some validity.   We regret the error."

My dad, on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Tourism Minsitry was shown a site where St Peter was supposed to be buried.  My dad told the very earnest guide that someone should let the Pope know; he thinks he's buried at the Vatican.  

Samuel Johnson, a man of prodigious memory, when presenting his Dictionary to the world, wrote of the way "that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present; that sudden fits of inadvertence will surprise vigilance, slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain trace his memory at the moment of need, for that which yesterday he knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his thoughts tomorrow."  

My guess is that David Brooks just suffered one of those Johnsonian "eclipses of the mind." Too bad the Times couldn't have caught it for him, though.

I read Brooks fairly regularly.  I find you never know just what he's going to say.   Sometimes he sounds like a genuine independent, occasionally he sounds sort of profound like a child, and sometimes he sounds just a bit flaky.  Anyway, he seems to have different sorts of mental processes from other pundits, and not a bad thing :-)

I think the real story here is Michael Peppard's article - much ado about nothing.

So David Brooks made a mistake - so what! Is really worth the extent to which Mr. Peppard goes - 7 or so paragraphs - to castigate Mr. Brooks?

I hardly think Mr. Brook's oversight equals saying Kennedy went to China, etc.

I think Mr. Peppard needs to step back and take a little look at what he has done and how overblown and trivial it really is.

Whoops, I think Mr. Peppard or one of his friends is going to write 7 paragraphs about how I left out the word "it" at the beginning of my sentence, "Is (it ) really..."

Heaven help me!

Brooks' mistake was trivial.  What was noteworthy is that a team of checkers missed it.  What that shows is that the NYT is staffed with many people who do not have the foggiest notion of what is considered important in the world of religion. Given that it is the "paper of record" -- and is a great paper in many ways -- such a mistake is noteworthy,  It substantiates the claim that the NYT has a blind spot when it comes to religion.

Interestingly, Peppard himself showed ignorance about essential religiouys knowedge.  The original Op-Ed (not blog) by Brooks *also* said that the stories of Saul, David, and Esther were in the "Torah."  (Wrong.  They are not in the first five books of the Old Testment, but in later books (e.g., Book of Esther).

Should we also blame the copy correctors at COMMONWEAL "for their ignorance of the Old Testment" and for leeting "blog" through as well?

It looks to me like Brooks had had a really bad memory that day, for several reasons.

... And, it looks to me like I am having an especially bad typing-spelling day right now!

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