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The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

3 Jan

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

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Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

15 Dec

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

More mouths to feed: ‘Food insecurity’ grows to record numbers

29 Nov

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother" (1936)

One of the benefits for which we can give thanks this year is that a growing number of signs say we’re pulling out of our deep economic recession.

But it’s no secret that recovery is a slow train coming for millions of Americans. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that record numbers of people in the U.S. had trouble getting enough food in 2008.

“Seventeen million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure,” meaning they “lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That’s an increase of more than 1.5 million homes in one year and the highest figure since such statistics started in 1995.

Tennessee’s food insecurity for 2008 was slightly below the national average, at 13.5 percent of households. But if history is any guide, the Appalachian counties are likely to show above-average rates when detailed figures are released in January. Poverty is typically more prevalent in Appalachia than in other regions, and the lack of enough resources to obtain basic needs is “the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Children are especially vulnerable. Virtually every measure of poverty or food insecurity reveals that children fare worse than adults. For instance, while Tennessee’s overall food insecurity rate in 2007 was 12.8 percent, the rate was 20.5 percent among children. The general poverty rate was 14.8 percent; for children it was 20.2 percent.

In the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, 52 percent of schoolchildren were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2008, according to the Tennessee State Report Card. That is, more than 37,000 schoolchildren were eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or other public assistance.

Of the 49.1 million people in the U.S. who lived in food-insecure households in 2008, more than one-third – 16.7 million – were children.

Such numbers are almost overwhelming, obviously too big for even the most generous individual to make a dent. The good news is that we have ways to work together to feed neighbors in need.

In this area, more than 200 nonprofit organizations work with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. This nonprofit clearinghouse, part of a nationwide network of food banks known as Feeding America, gathers food in bulk directly from manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – which helps keep costs down – and distributes it to congregations, food pantries and other nonprofits. Second Harvest distributed 6.5 million tons of food last year.

The organization itself isn’t faith based, but 75 percent of the organizations that work with it are, according to Communications Director Kathy Smith. The biggest partners for Second Harvest in at least six of the region’s eight counties are churches or church-related ministries.

Certainly we’re in the best season for food banks. The message of Thanksgiving and the warmth of Christmastime apparently make people feel more generous than other times of the year. Just this week, listeners of WCQR, a Christian radio station, donated $27,000 to Second Harvest in one of several food drives this season.

Still, the gap between supply and need is never far away.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the increased need at this point,” Smith reported on Wednesday. “But it appears to be an ever-growing need. Donations are up compared to last year, but not significantly. The food is going out the door as fast as it comes in.”

Food banks like Second Harvest welcome and rely on the extra efforts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But then comes January. Then February, March and April. The Second Harvest Web site lists at least 17 events in November and December. But between January and April 2010? Five.

The need for food doesn’t end when the holidays are over and, as the USDA reports, more Americans are hungry now than in any recent time.

But individuals, families and small groups can help feed hungry people year-round.

“They can organize food drives through their churches, businesses or in their neighborhoods,” Smith suggested. “They can consider holding a fundraising drive on our behalf, like a dinner. And of course they can volunteer with Second Harvest. We have various opportunities through the year.”

And of course, we can donate money. The Web sites for Second Harvest  and Feeding America even include secure links for making donations online.

That’s something to chew on, all year long.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 Nov 2009.

A student prays. Can controversy be far behind?

18 Oct

Yes, that really is the name of the high school mascot.

It’s been a busy three weeks for Greg Ervin as principal of Gate City (Va.) High School. He’s been fielding phone calls almost every day from parents or the press about a church-state storm that unexpectedly boiled up after a student said a simple, heartfelt prayer at a football game.

“Somewhere lost in all this was the fact that a kid died,” Ervin said this week. “No one ever intended to sensationalize this. It was a simple act of kindness and respect.”

The story started on the night of Sept. 11, when the Sullivan South High School football team played at Gate City. Not only was it the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the folks from Sullivan were still grieving the death of Jake Logue, one of their players who suddenly collapsed and died during a game in Knoxville on Aug. 21.

Before the game began at Gate City, a brief ceremony remembered the 9/11 victims and Logue, including a moment of silence. A student who was allowed to speak said a prayer, concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

At least one parent in the stands took offense and contacted the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few days later, Ervin received a letter from the organization, advising him that a “sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system” before a football game violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Such prayers, the letter noted, carry “the impermissible endorsement of the school and coerce participation” in a religious exercise.

The ACLU had been told that Gate City regularly opened its games with prayers – but that is not the case.

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Ervin shared the letter’s contents with teachers and the Scott County school board and then responded to the ACLU, describing what happened and correcting the wrong information.

In its reply to Ervin, the ACLU pronounced itself satisfied: Case closed.

The story could have ended there, if a little more patience and a little less readiness to be angry had ruled the day.

“We don’t go looking around for incidents,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis in a phone interview this week, “but when someone calls and says this is what they witnessed, we respond. We usually resolve these matters quietly. We write a letter, and the official writes back to explain or clarify. That’s OK. That’s our standard procedure.”

The ACLU did not make its first letter public, but apparently someone in Scott County was upset enough to notify the press about it. Reporters soon arrived, and as word about the ACLU’s concern spread, anger flared. People wrote furious letters to local newspapers and posted unfounded accusations on Web sites.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Some Gate City students printed about 1,000 T-shirts to hand out at their Oct. 2 football game, taking a swipe at the ACLU. “I still pray…” the shirt fronts read, and on the back: “In Jesus’ name.” When the Virginia ACLU heard about that protest, it publicly affirmed the students’ rights to distribute the shirts, saying they were only exercising their constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.

While the ACLU has a long record of controversial crusades and debatable pronouncements, Willis insists it is not “anti-religion.” Any list of religion-related cases that the ACLU has handled, he said, will include as many defending the free exercise of religion as those challenging unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

Last week in Nashville, for example, the ACLU of Tennessee completed a successful negotiation on behalf of Christian students from Belmont, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities who were barred from holding worship services for homeless people in a city park. The Metro Board of Parks and Recreation had “unfairly blocked religious groups’ regular use of park space,” according the ACLU, and helped to revise the policy.

“We’re not the prayer police,” Willis said this week. “The original plan at Gate City (on Sept. 11) was for a moment of silence, and there’s no problem with that. We’re down to a really minor (legal) issue that happened one time. The principal was put on the spot. … This was something spontaneous. What was he supposed to do?”

What Principal Ervin wants to do now is move past the controversy and just “remember the spirit” when two communities shared a moment of sadness and sympathy and “a student reached out and spoke as best she knew how.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 Oct 2009.

The URI tries on its Bible Belt

12 Sep

coexistPat Griggs of Johnson City, a self-described activist, traces her “call” to a quarter century of interfaith involvement.

In the early 1980s, she helped organize people of different faiths to protest nuclear arms. On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, she sat in a school parking lot to make sure the children of Muslim friends made it to class without incident.

So joining the effort to re-launch a local chapter of the United Religions Initiative? No question.

The URI is a worldwide network designed to encourage cooperation among people of different faiths, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or agnostic. The ultimate goal is world peace, based on the idea that before the world can find harmony, the religions of the world must learn to live together.

URI was born in 2000, the brainchild of Bill Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California, who dreamed of an organization that would serve as a kind of United Nations for religions. Today, URI claims more than one million people from 120 faith traditions are involved in more than 320 local self-governing organizations, or “cooperation circles,” in 60 nations. The U.S. and Canada comprise 44 circles, including the one in Johnson City, the only circle in Tennessee.

The local “CC” was formed in 2000, but small membership limited its efforts mainly to hosting an interfaith dinner each Thanksgiving.

Last spring, however, the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, who moved to the area in 2007 as the new minister of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gathered the few CC members for lunch, and they decided the time was right for a new start.

With Luck acting as coordinator, a dozen people from at least five faith traditions gathered at the Johnson City public library on Aug. 31 to gauge interest in interfaith cooperation and discuss what a revitalized CC might do.

“There was a lot of energy in developing a circle,” Luck said in a phone conversation this week. “The roots are already planted. We just need to nurture it a little bit.”

Since CCs are self-governing, there is not one model. Some emphasize environmental issues; others focus on educating about religions; still others work to help poor people. Whatever shape the local group takes, Luck thinks it can make a big impact.

“I think the main thing is learning to work together,” she said. “Anything to help with this community, to work on local issues that cut across faith boundaries. That’s why I think it’s a natural to do justice work. In this area, caring for the earth is a strong possibility too. It’s trying to love our neighbor in one way or another. That’s common ground too.”

URI logoThese goals sound praiseworthy, but the URI has been the object of criticism from its start. Various religious groups, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and several evangelical Christian bodies, keep the URI at arm’s length. (For examples, go here and here.)

They suspect that the URI is promoting a philosophy that artificially erases distinctions between faiths or dilutes doctrine to a hodge-podge of vague spiritual clichés. Many Christians, for example, find it hard to reconcile the URI’s goals with Scriptures that teach Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.” They point out that the URI’s charter is written with such broad strokes that it never even uses the word “god.”

But seeking common ground, say URI supporters, is not the same as asking believers to abandon their own faith.

“The URI is a bridge-building organization, encouraging mutual respect among all faiths, with domination by none,” according to Sandy Westin, technology and communications coordinator for the URI in North America. “It in no way encourages homogenization of religious belief, but rather encourages respect for the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” The URI charter, Westin pointed out, encourages members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.

“We’re trying to learn to communicate with each other, trust each other and work together toward this ideal of hoping all religions can exist together,” Luck said. “I’d like us to be visible in the community as an example of what’s possible, to be standard bearers for harmony among religious people.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Sept 2009.

American Ramadan

22 Aug

happy ramadanThe discipline of Ramadan is daunting: While the sun is up each day during Islam’s holiest month, Muslims will fast from food and water and sex and be extra careful about what they say and hear. It’s a time to purify the body, an avenue for purifying the soul.

It sounds stringent enough in a place with a temperate climate, like East Tennessee. But consider that most Muslims live in southern Asia, Indonesia and Africa, and that the lunar calendar nudges Ramadan into high summer every few years. Long days of triple-digit temperatures and not even a sip of water – it sounds like a recipe for misery.

On the contrary, Muslims say, Ramadan is the most wonderful time of the year.

I sat down with six members of the Muslim community at their masjid, or mosque, on Antioch Road this week, to talk about the holiday, which celebrates the revealing of the Koran, which Muslims regard as God’s word, to the prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Arabic calendar, begins this weekend, the moment when the slightest sliver of the new crescent moon becomes visible. It will conclude at the end of the four-week lunar cycle, marked by Eid-al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast.

The group was full of anticipation. Although most of them have lived in the U.S. for decades and are American citizens, they recalled memories from their homelands.

“You feel different, and there is a liveliness during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Atyia, a pharmacist originally from Egypt. “Fasting is good for your body, to cleanse it and give it a rest. You feel sad after the month ends.”

It is a month not only to change habits, said Taneem Aziz, an engineer and the Muslim Community’s president, but also a month of extra blessing. The effect of good deeds is literally multiplied 10 times, the Koran says.

“All the senses are focused on worship,” said Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh. “With the discipline, it is God making it easy for us to feel good and celebrate.”

People are friendlier and try to be more patient during the month. Crime goes down. Homes open up to family, friends and strangers like no other time of the year.

“The community is one of the reasons we are excited,” said Aziz’s daughter, Imani, a 19-year-old student at East Tennessee State University and the only American-born Muslim in this conversation. “Every night, we worship together.”

Life slows down during the day in Muslim countries. Families rise long before dawn to eat together. People who go to work feel unhurried, but many businesses just shut down. The normal daily prayers continue, perhaps with greater attention and attendance at the mosques.

But when prayers are finished at sundown, communities spring to life in a different way. The Koran commands Muslims to break the fast as soon as they can each night, and they do it with gusto.

Food comes out from almost every house, spread on tables lining the streets or served under colorful, open-air tents. Festive tin lanterns with colored glass glow in windows. As people pass by, whether or not they are strangers or Muslims, they are likely to be invited to stop for food – and conversations and games and songs and prayers and extended readings from the Koran. The nightly celebrations can last almost until the early morning meal begins the daily round again.

“It’s like having Christmas for a month,” Natalia Suit, a Christian friend who lived in Cairo, told me later. “Ramadan really is the best time of the year there.”

The holiday, of course, takes on a different cast in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority in the same way Christians are a minority in Pakistan or Egypt. No one expressed any resentment or regret. They accept the differences.

“We don’t feel conflicted, living in America,” said Yusuf Gangat, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. “The purpose is to worship God in everything. It’s a very easy life, once you accept it.”

Besides, they agreed, the times are changing, and non-Muslim Americans are growing more aware of Ramadan. They notice in ways both small and significant, from seeing their holidays printed on calendars to having employers provide time off.

Imani Aziz was smiling broadly during the entire conversation. She simply enjoyed thinking about the month to come, she explained.

“I’m just excited it’s almost here,” she said.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 22 Aug 2009.

The 1,600-year-old online Bible

11 Jul
  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/).

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

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