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I work for a publication, and a subtitle for one of the articles goes thus: "What do Jesus, John, Jude, Mark, Matthew, Peter, and Paul have in common?" It is referring to people in the Bible, who have obviously all since passed away. A copyeditor suggested changing "What do Jesus, John, etc." to "What did Jesus, John, etc."

For me, it seems fine to use do, but I see where they're coming from. So my question is: Is it acceptable to use do when comparing people who have already died? Or is it imperative to use did?

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Either works. Both are legitimate. ‘Do’ might be more appropriate if the piece is written in the present tense and discussing religious or philosophical or theosophical ideas. If the same piece was written in the past tense, then ‘did’ might work better.

If the piece is a historical reflection of their lives, then ‘did’ would likely be better since that kind of piece would be written in the past tense and not present tense.

And, another consideration would be that ‘do’ suggests the differences are still relevant while ‘did’ might suggest the differences are no longer relevant.

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  • I would recommend do as well. Especially seeing that Christianity revolves around the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and so is (currently) alive in heaven. Saying otherwise might hurt your ethos as a presenter. Commented Mar 20 at 21:05
  • @ShadowOfHassen: But that same 'Christianity' has John currently dead and not yet resurrected. Saying otherwise might contradict some books in some biblical 'canons'.
    – user21820
    Commented Mar 22 at 5:21
  • That is an interesting point. But I don't think that would hurt. We Christians are an easy-going bunch and wouldn't care either way. It was just a thought. Commented Mar 22 at 12:46
  • The last paragraph is what goes through my mind.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:46
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My general guideline is to use "do" when referring to ideas, teachings, wisdom, works; and to use "did" when referring to the person's life story and historical context.

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When you write do, in the present tense, in my mind I automatically attribute the names to something that (still) exists in the present, for example books in the Bible:

What do [the gospel of] Matthew and [the gospel of] Mark have in common?

When you write did, in the past tense, I automatically think of the historical persons that no longer exist today:

What did [the apostle] Matthew and Mark[, the companion of Saint Peter,] have in common?

Of course, the names can refer to the portrayal of the literary characters as they are depicted in the Bible (some of whom may or may not have existed in reality). As these literary depictions still exist today, I would use do when talking about them:

What do [the biblical depictions of] Matthew and Mark have in common?

Of course, the different referents and tenses can appear in the same text:

What did Matthew and Mark have in common? Historical sources are sorely lacking. All we have are their depictions in the Bible. And we can ask: What do they have in common?

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The trouble with just the figures you mentioned is that many people don't think of them as someone who's long dead and thus doesn't exist anymore; in Jesus' case, not as someone who is dead at all. Jesus is a resurrected deity, the rest are saints, all of them are still active in the Kingdom of Heaven, and to imply they (Jesus in particular) stopped existing when they died can be perceived as offensive by a believer.

Using past tense is perfectly appropriate if the context is that you're discussing them as historical persons. But if you speak of them as a deity and saints, then probably don't, at least unless you're talking about something that would apply during their time on Earth only. And if you're thinking of them as characters in a story, present tense is somewhat more customary there, too.

So I think you and your editor need to make up your mind who exactly they are to you and the article - historical persons, religious figures, or characters. You can use either tense but keep in mind that your choice may be understood as a statement.

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