Cracking the masonic code

the_lost_symbolI say that if you either enjoy Dan Brown’s novels or believe them to be true, you get whatever you deserve. Okay, I’ll give you Angels & Demons out of generosity but other than that, you’re on your own.

And yet . . . people, particularly those with close to zero knowledge of church history, found his DaVinci Code to be a compelling indictment of Christianity. The bigger scandal, in my view, is that they found the writing itself compelling. But I digress.

Apparently the man has a new book coming out next week and holy hell is going to break loose when it does. People think they’ve figured out that the topic will be freemasonry. My own prediction is that this is just what the freemasons needed. As the granddaughter of not one but two freemasons (and my mom was a “Daughter of Job,” too!), I’ve been well aware that the once proud secret society has seen much better days. I don’t mean to get all Pauline Kael about it, but I know only one freemason who is still living. (And I should mention that my mother and grandfather left their respective masonic affiliations upon becoming Lutheran. More on that below.)

The novel, it is rumored, will take place in Washington and so the Washington Post has a piece about how DC is about to get “Dan Browned.” That’s the term of art for the likely arrival of eleventy billion Dan Brown afficionados:

When Dan Brown comes to town, things get a little bit nutty.

Just ask Colin Glynne-Percy, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, the rural Scottish church featured in “The Da Vinci Code,” which Langdon believed to be the location of the Holy Grail.

“Before the book came out, we had about 40,000 visitors a year,” Glynne-Percy says. “It went to 80,000. Then to 120,000. Then to 175,000. We had very small facilities. We had only two restrooms. We could survive on that for 40,000 but . . .” They’ve put in temporary bathrooms and added several new staff members.

The story is fun, co-bylined by Monica Hesse, and quotes various sources speculating about the book’s plot. Some think that maybe there will be something about cloning Jesus using parts of the blood-stained cross held by the secret society of Rosicruceans. And yes, writing that last sentence makes me want to weep for the country. Anyway, the Post‘s accompanying tour of masonic sites is even breezier and more fun. Although there are some troubling spots dealing with religion:

The Masons are cagey about their rituals, but otherwise they don’t seem all that secretive. Docents give free tours of the temple. Let’s pause for some Masonry 101.

Masons first appeared in Britain in the early 1400s as members of craft guilds. Their “secrets” included how to square a corner and build a cathedral. Claims of a connection to the Crusades and the Knights Templar — as suggested in “The Da Vinci Code” and the “National Treasure” movies — are the stuff of fable, historians say. In the 1600s, non-stoneworking gentlemen began joining, and Masonry became fashionable. The Masons encouraged free thought and religious tolerance. They helped invent America: George Washington, Ben Franklin, nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution were Masons. Both Presidents Roosevelt and 11 other presidents besides Washington were, too. Also J. Edgar Hoover, Will Rogers, Ty Cobb, John Wayne.

For the roughly 1.5 million Masons in the United States today, Masonic life involves socializing, self-improvement and raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for charity, Masonic leaders say.

But you only have to visit any number of anti-Masonic Web sites to find the darker claims of conspiracies to rule the world and undermine religion. A persistent rumor involves secret symbols in the map of the city.

Okay, it may seem silly to think of masons as undermining religion when the society has relatively little influence over the hearts and minds of anyone these days. But to describe them merely as supporters of “religious tolerance” gives precisely no weight to the claims and reasoning of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and many other churches that oppose masonry on religious grounds.

Which brings me to this fascinating Religion News Service piece on the same topic — Dan Brown’s new book and masonry.

As members of a secretive brotherhood, Freemasons are no strangers to conspiracy theories. They’ve heard it all before: that they’re child-sacrificing cult members, or religious zealots plotting a New World Order with the Jews, or satanic anti-religious alien spies. . . .

Even though Brown (of “The Da Vinci Code” fame) and his publisher, Doubleday, are being tight-lipped about the book’s contents, some Masons are preparing for an onslaught of negative press. And because Brown is known for tying religious themes to his thrillers’ plots, Masons are carefully addressing common misconceptions about their religious affiliations.

“There is the basic question asked: Do you believe in God?” said Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. “Beyond (requiring a belief in God), we’re not a religion, and we don’t pretend to be.”

The RNS piece is fantastic and well worth a read but it reminded me that if we’re all going to be Dan Browned and subjected to an onslaught of media discussion of masons, I just want to remind reporters that religious opposition to masonry is not actually related to child-sacrificing, alien-spying conspiracy theories. Also, there’s a difference between claiming not to be a religion and having religious views that Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and other Christians find false. Without a shared definition of religion or religious, it means little to quote one side or the other. Maybe an exploration of actual views of masons and of their critics will be in order as we continue down this media juggernaut.

On that note, did you know the Amazon page for this book has a four-minute video of how the jacket for this book was made? Seriously. If there’s that much interest in this schlock, the least we can do is have some good in-depth reporting on masons and Christianity’s widespread objections to it.

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Define pluralism: NYTs in Egypt

mbrotherhoologoAn encouraging headline got me started on this memo from Cairo in Saturday’s New York Times: “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates.”

Why? Because that would be pretty big news. Egypt is, like many countries in the Muslim world being run by conservative religious tradition and an autocratic ruler, not known as a place of intense religious diversity. Egypt has about 12 million Coptic Christians and a few hundred thousand Protestants, a few thousand Baha’is and less than 200 Jews. The remaining 84 percent, or so, of Egyptians are Muslim — and conversion is not encouraged.

In fact, just last week the Los Angeles Times chronicled the trials of a Muslim convert to Christianity who has been forced to live like a fugitive:

“Islam is the only thing Egyptians are 150% sure of. If you reject Islam, you shake their belief and you are an apostate, an infidel,” he says. “I can see in the eyes of Muslims how much my conversion has really hurt them.”

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

But converts, such as Gohary, are even more unsettling. Islamists believe that Muslims who forsake their religion should be punished by death.

Gohary wants to be called Peter and refuses to yield. He has filed a lawsuit asking an Egyptian court to officially recognize him as a Copt by changing the denomination on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian. The court ruled against him in June, finding that Gohary’s baptism documents from the Coptic Orthodox Church were “legally invalid.” The verdict is on appeal.

And that article didn’t even mention the Muslim Brotherhood. So, like I said, hints of pluralism would be news to me and good news for many, many Egyptians.

But after reading the NYT story, which seemed surprisingly anchored by the assertions of a few like-minded liberal thinkers, I had the feeling that the headline should have replaced “hints” with “hope” and “debates” with “reality.”

Reporter Michael Slackman had couched his story’s main claim within the framework of relativity:

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers

Slackman offered as evidence an encouraging development for the Baha’i, a persecuted minority in a nation that officially only recognizes Muslims, Christians and Jews:

Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.

An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group’s executive director, Hossam Bahgat.

“It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions,” Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais’ legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.

OK, that’s a hint: But lets be clear about something. Pluralism, an incredibly complicated phenomena that isn’t unpacked here, involves a lot more than just being extended some of the same basic rights given to members of the majority religion. And it expects a lot of the members of a society at large.

It’s difficult to imagine Egyptian society adopting the liberal pluralism of the United States or the liberal secularism of Europe. I imagine, however, that Maher El Gohary would settle for a lot less.

That logo belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood

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One man’s story, wrapped in tricky facts

Fr-James-vesting.img_assist_custom-350x263Let me begin by expressing my deepest and most sincere sympathies for reporter Ron Cassie of The Frederick News-Post.

It’s one thing to be assigned a complicated feature story about a complicated subject — the conversion of a minister in one Protestant tradition into the oh-so-complicated world of Eastern Orthodoxy. But it’s something else to be handed a story as confusing as the journey of James K. Hamrick and his flock.

So let me start by saying that Cassie gets one big thing right — by allowing Hamrick the time and space to explain his decision. The problems in this story are almost all technical and historical. Let’s face it: This is complex stuff. Here’s the lede:

Last weekend, at a service at St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in Poquoson, Va., Bishop Thomas Joseph ordained James K. Hamrick into the holy priesthood of the Western Rite Orthodox Church.

It was a moment Hamrick’s congregation in Lewistown has been waiting for since early spring. On April 10, his small flock at the former Charismatic Episcopal Lamb of God Church converted en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox faith, which includes both Western Rite and
Eastern Orthodox churches.

The problem is that the Western Rite Orthodox Church does not exist. Instead, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America has a small Western Rite ministry or branch. Click here for more information on the history of that.

Note that this story also had to deal with complex issues linked to recent divisions within the Charismatic Episcopal Church — as opposed to charismatic congregations within the Episcopal Church. Or, wait, are we actually dealing with the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church? See what I mean? These kinds of problems cannot be avoided. Here’s another example:

After preparation, members went through the sacramental rite of chrismation into the Antiochian Orthodox faith. Further highlighting their transformation, the congregation adopted a new name: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church.

This weekend, Hamrick will lead an Orthodox Sunday Mass for the first time at the church, marking the final step for the 45-year-old priest and his congregation as Maryland’s first Western Rite Orthodox church.

Actually, they were simply chrismated into Orthodoxy — period. I also need to ask someone in the Western Rite movement: Is the proper term “Mass,” or “Divine Liturgy,” as in the Eastern tradition?

Hamrick’s own story is told in very simple terms, even though it is quite complex, as well. He was born into the family of a United Methodist pastor, but pursued a career in law enforcement. In fact, as a bi-vocational priest, he still serves as assistant chief of police at the University of Maryland. This must create some interesting wardrobe issues.

Working weekdays in College Park and leading weekend services near his home in Thurmont, Hamrick is called a “bi-vocational” in the religious community.

“Other people sometimes call me ‘the pistol-packing priest,’ ” he said, with a laugh.

Handling the demands of both jobs, and what could be construed as inherent conflicts — the image of a peaceful nonviolent minister versus a policeman who may be required to deadly force — has never been an issue, Hamrick said.

“I see a lot of similarities, actually, in the two roles,” he said. “There is a similar sacred trust. Being a police officer is not contrary to my thinking of Christ as the Good Shepherd.”

But then the story has to head back to the complex issues of church history and government, in Orthodox and alternative Anglican environments. And what about Rome?

For practical reasons, he dismissed becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Being married didn’t rule him out automatically — previously married and ordained Christian ministers are sometimes admitted to Catholic seminaries — but he thought, if nothing else, the process would take an unreasonably long time given his circumstances.

Hamrick finally realized his beliefs were in more in line with the Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

The key word there is “from” and you could assemble a football stadium full of church historians to argue whether Rome left the Eastern Church or the Eastern Church left Rome without coming to much clarity. For a glimpse of all of that, click here (West) and then here (East).

LambofGodCECphotoWait, there’s more:

Hamrick disagrees with the Roman Catholic concept of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the pope; he prefers the somewhat less hierarchical Orthodox structure. He said, however, that he would like to see the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches reunite.

The Orthodox are “less hierarchical”? Not really. You can say that the ancient Eastern Churches are not united around a single core hierarchy, but that does not ultimately make the system less hierarchical. I would assume that a fine detail of Hamrick’s explanation was lost. But, hey, the story doesn’t say that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul is the “Orthodox pope.” That’s a start.

As a reader noted, while sending in the URL for this report, it would have been good to have known if any parishioners did not want to make this move and stayed with the CEC and its blending of Protestant and Catholic streams of faith. I also wondered if the reporter was actually present at the service, since Bishop Thomas is not quoted. We also needed at least one sentence explaining the Eastern Rite, in order to help readers understand the unique history of the Liturgy of St. Gregory — which is a truly ancient Western rite.

But, as you can tell, I am trying to express sympathy for the task faced by this reporter. The key is that this new priest got to tell his story — which is surrounded by details so complex that I am sure that I have left a few things out that should be mentioned. The religion beat is complicated, folks.

Photos: From the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

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Iraq, vague laws and minorities

persecution-of-gays-in-iraqThat tmatt file of GetReligion guilt is getting pretty deep, in part because of two weeks of dizzying travel — a combination of vacation, work and a funeral for a loved one.

Some of this older material raises journalistic issues that I believe are really crucial. So with that in mind, let’s flash back to a recent USA Today story that pivoted on one of the crucial questions facing American officials in the wake of our second involvement in the future of Iraq. That question: Will the harsh penalties of Sharia law return, officially or unofficially? In other words, what happens to the rule of law in Iraq if the police are unwilling to stop a riot?

This is serious. Here’s the lede, which focuses on an issue that should worry everyone, not just the cultural left:

BAGHDAD – The young man turns to the camera and pleads with his tormentors.

“I’m not a terrorist,” he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. “I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist.”

To some fundamentalist Iraqi Muslims, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh was worse than a terrorist. He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.

The assault was captured on video and circulated on cellphones throughout Baghdad, says Ali Hili, founder of London-based Iraqi LGBT, a group dedicated to protecting Iraq’s gays and lesbians. Shortly after the video was made public, Hili says Saleh contacted him, fearing for his life, and asked for his help to flee Iraq.

“Unfortunately, it was too late,” Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.

In the past eight months or so, activists report that 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq.

This long and highly detailed story has two major religious themes, neither one of which is explored in depth. This is, literally, tragic. Read on.

The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities last month.

Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, liberal Sunni legislator, is among those who blame the killings on armed militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army militia. By targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in a conservative Muslim society — people whose sexual orientation is banned by Iraqi law — the militias essentially are serving notice that they remain powerful despite the U.S. and Iraqi militaries’ efforts to curtail them, al-Alusi says.

You might ask whether homosexual “orientation” is banned or whether sexual acts by gays, lesbians and bisexuals or banned. You could also ask whether these kinds of distinctions make any difference to Islamists in Iraq.

But note that the story says this is an issue of “Iraqi law.” This is never explained. You mean that national laws passed in the wake of the U.S. occupation — supposedly secular laws — make these kinds of acts against religious and cultural minorities legal? If that’s the case, why is this an issue of activity by nonofficial militias? Do regular police enforce the same laws?

Of course, another question remains unasked. What does Islamic law actually say about homosexuality? Are we actually talking about the enforcement of religious, not state, laws? Is there a difference?

The story also says a variety of minorities are being persecuted. I understand that there is little room to explore that theme, since this story has a strong — and valid — focus on the violence against gays. But it is interesting that these issues are woven together in the context of the new Iraq.

So, secular law or religious law? Read on:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf … says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.

Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and “is rejected by the customs of our society.” He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.

What kind of law are we talking about? Don’t you want to know?

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Faith & football — to the max

troy with son 2Regular readers may have noticed at some of your GetReligionistas are big sports fans, which includes the National Football League in several cases. This continues to be the case even though young master Daniel Pulliam is inactive, while serving as editor of a law review.

Regular readers may also know that we are big fans of intelligent question-and-answer interviews, especially when this format allows a skilled journalist to let intelligent and colorful people stretch out and tell their own stories and describe their own beliefs in their own words.

Regular readers may also know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity and, it goes without saying, I am interested in the views of other Orthofolks.

However, just about the last thing I would expect to see in public media is a long and highly intelligent interview with an NFL superstar, commenting on the role of his Orthodox faith in his life as a parent, husband, churchman and athlete. Can you imagine the odds against that?

So, click here and check out Gina Mazza’s conversation with — you guessed it — the mane man in Pittsburgh, which would be Troy Polamalu, the star safety for the Steelers. I don’t quite know where to start with the interesting material in this one (Can you say, “Mount Athos?”), but let’s start with this part of the introduction:

Fatherhood is new in Polamalu’s life since the birth of his son, Paisios, named after a beloved contemporary Greek Orthodox monastic, Elder Paisios, on Oct. 31, 2008. Has daddy-dom been life-changing? Will he encourage his son to play professional sports? How’s that beautiful new mom doing?

And last but not least: Faith. In order to properly meet Polamalu where he lives, this is the requisite, the grounding force that gives meaning to everything he does, every play he makes. Polamalu’s evident gratitude to the one who made him is marbled throughout our talk — from his training regime to his travels to Mount Athos, a monastic site in Greece, a place he calls “heaven on earth.”

So this interview includes some very unusual questions, in the context of sports. How about, “Would you want your son to be a priest?” But, you see, that isn’t the biggest question.

Here’s a major chunk of the interview:

What is your greatest wish for your child?

Without a question, my greatest wish would be for him to understand the spiritual struggle and to be a pious Orthodox Christian. That’s what I want for myself, as well. Sometimes parents want their children to be what they never were. And that’s one thing that I am gracious for Paisios to have: that he’s able to grow up in the Orthodox church around monastics and priests that I was never able to experience as a kid — to grasp that, not take it for granted and really culture that. …

How would you define the spiritual struggle you referred to earlier?

It’s the struggle of good and evil, and with that comes the struggle with greed, jealousy, materialism, sexual morality, pride, all these types of struggles that we face every day, in every second of the day.

Your faith continues to evolve. In the past few years, you formally
converted to Greek Orthodox. Where do you worship?

My wife and I go often to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Saxonburg [Nativity of the Theotokos], a monastery in Arizona, and several parishes in Pittsburgh. We like the monastery because it’s most serene there and we can talk to the monastics. To see their daily struggles really fascinates me.

What intrigues you about the monastic life?

For me, faith is to be simple in this way. If anybody believes in God and believes in the Holy Bible, how can you be in any grey area? I’m talking about myself here, how can “I” think one way and do another way? To me, Christianity is very black and white. Either you take it serious or you don’t take it serious at all. The monks’ example to me is that they take salvation seriously in every facet of their lives. This is a model for me as a Christian and for my family on how to live our lives.

Read on. This has to be one of the most off-the-wall (in a good way) interviews of the year. Enjoy.

Photo: From the TroyPolamalufan.com website.

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Let’s go down to the (Jordan) river …

Baptism iconWe need some kind of special award here at GetReligion to salute really fine news stories about religion that still fall one or two facts short of being, you know, just right. It’s frustrating, you know. The story is really enjoyable and then — bzzzzzzz.

Take, for example, the USA Today story entitled “Outdoor baptisms dwindling.” It’s a great subject to write about, in the age of modern sanctuaries and declining rural churches. Thus, we read:

Outdoor baptisms are rapidly disappearing in America. Once prevalent in the rivers and deltas of the South, the ritual has been nearly extinguished by indoor pools, mega-churches and modernization, researchers and ministers say. Only a handful of churches keep it alive.

“It’s a feature of American Protestantism that is vanishing,” says David Daniels, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

No one keeps statistics on outdoor baptisms, which are performed predominately by Baptists and Pentecostals. But officials at the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest grouping of Baptist churches in the USA, say of the 342,000 baptisms performed last year by its member churches, the vast majority were done indoors.

Now I have to admit that I twitched when I saw that the voice of authority in this piece was from a oldline Protestant seminary in Chicago. This is not where I usually look for deep insights into Bible Belt culture.

But that was not my main problem with the background material in this piece. Pay close attention to this part:

The tradition of submerging someone in a river to wash away their sins began in Europe, came to America in the 18th century and spread across the South by Baptist ministers, Daniels says. The Christian tradition replicates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist 2,000 years ago.

African slaves on plantation churches in the South quickly adopted the tradition, says Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of Sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University. The slave who walked down to the river for his baptism was publicly embracing Christianity while shedding his African religious beliefs, Lee says.

Excellent link to the African-American tradition, of course. But you have to ask yourself this question: Did Christians ever stop baptizing new believers in the River Jordan? Is it accurate to say that this tradition — note the definitive reference — “began in Europe”?

This would come as interesting news to Christians in the Holy Land and in other settings where baptisms by immersion — which are the norm in Eastern Orthodoxy — are held near lakes, rivers or even oceans. I am not saying that outdoor baptisms are the norm. Quite the opposite. I am saying that they have, on occasion, been done for centuries and that this sacramental act continues to take place from time to time in large bodies of blessed water.

Take the River Jordan, for example. If that particular river was nearby, wouldn’t you want to baptize some people in it every now and then?

So, a fine story — with one historical reference that is a bit off. Perhaps the Protestant tradition of outdoor Baptisms began in Europe, where Protestantism itself began, after all. But did the tradition begin there, PERIOD? I think not.

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The oink and Holy Communion

LastSupperFullSo my husband fell ill with the flu last week — likely swine flu. We’ve been taking the necessary precautions, which include not attending Divine Service today at our church. While much of the hoopla surrounding swine flu is overblown — we’ve learned it’s basically the same as normal flu, just scarier sounding — the pandemic is affecting the way congregations handle communion.

This is an old story, in that every time there’s a particularly bad flu outbreak we get stories about the matter, but this piece that ran on CNN.com seemed a bit brief and problematic.

The headline, to begin with, struck me as a bit irreverent:

Poisoned chalice? Swine flu hits church wine

It also makes it seem as if, well, swine flu actually hit church wine. Nothing in the story supports that idea. It’s just that the archbishops of Canterbury and York in the Church of England have recommended that parishioners stop sharing the chalice during communion because of fears over swine flu.

The article itself isn’t bad, explaining intinction and Health Department advisories against sharing common vessels. It never even comes close to discussing the theological implications of the change in practice. And there’s this error in the final graph:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Church, the second-largest Christian denomination after the Roman Catholic Church.

No, that would be the Orthodox Church. Haven’t we been here before? Yes indeed, we have.

For additional information on pandemics and communion, much better work has been done. Religion News Service had this back in April. And I liked this Chicago Tribune piece during the same time period for the way it highlighted how sharing the peace or holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer might also be avoided.

One interesting thing, that I learned from an old Al Tompkins column at Poynter, is that the CDC gets asked about transmission of infectious diseases via the chalice all the time. They report that people who share the chalice have no higher incident of infection than those who don’t. Interesting.

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Cracking the Codex

codex_sinaiticusA couple of weeks ago, there was quite a bit of coverage regarding the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the most important ancient Christian manuscripts. Nobody flagged any stories as being particularly bad and it was during a pretty busy news cycle — so we didn’t look at coverage here at GetReligion. But a reader pointed me to another critique of the media coverage that is worth considering.

The Codex Sinaiticus, which originally contained the entire Bible as well as some patristic writings, was written in the mid-fourth century and was held in a Sinai monastery for 1500 years before being split up in the mid-19th century (parts were taken to London, Russia, Germany). The parts have been reunited online, which is completely awesome and you can check it out here.

Dan Wallace over at Parchment and Pen has a rundown of some of the mistakes that were made by the media when covering this momentous occasion. Some of his points are stronger than others. For instance, he criticizes the ubiquitous headline reference to “the world’s oldest Bible” because it’s only the world’s oldest complete New Testament. He’s completely right on the point but since the Codex Sinaiticus web site advertises itself as “the oldest Bible,” it’s hard to complain that the media took that ball and ran with it. But his comprehensive list shows how facts are sometimes sacrificed in the rush to make ancient news sound more interesting.

Here’s part of the New York Daily News account:

The text was written on vellum, a type of animal hide, and the pages that have survived include the entire New Testament and the earliest surviving copy of the Gospels, written after Christ’s death by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But, Wallace notes:

No, there are several manuscripts, especially papyrus fragments, that are older: P52 (c. 100-150 CE, thus a good 200 years older than Sinaiticus) contains five verses from John’s Gospel; P66 (c. 175 CE) contains most of John; P75 (early third century) contains most of John and Luke; P45 (third century) contains large portions of all four Gospels, etc. There are well over twenty papyri that are both older than Sinaiticus and have portions of at least one of the Gospels. In addition, Codex B has the complete Gospels and is probably older than Sinaiticus.

Or take this reference to the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas from The Independent (UK):

It includes two works which have since been dropped from both Catholic and Protestant Bibles . . .

Wallace responds:

This presupposes that these books were considered canonical in the fourth century. But that is doubtful in the extreme. It is, in fact, doubtful whether such books would have been considered scripture at any time by a majority of Christian churches. That they are under the same cover as the OT and NT does not necessarily indicate that they were regarded as scripture, especially since we have no corroborating evidence to suggest this. In the least, the reason why Barnabas and Hermas are within Sinaiticus’s covers is open to more than one interpretation.

The same article also confuses how a verse from the Gospel of Mark is rendered in Sinaiticus with how it is rendered in the Codex Bezae, writes Wallace. And it says:

The Codex omits the words which Protestants add to the end of The Lord’s Prayer, and Catholics omit: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever (Matthew 6:13).

But, as Wallace notes, it’s not on the basis of most “modern” translations that Protestants use these words. It’s based on how the King James Version was translated. (And it neglects to mention that these words are part of the Orthodox Divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and that they have been part of the Roman Catholic mass at various points in its history)

Here’s another funny error:

You might suppose it would upset those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, since the Codex shows there have over the centuries been thousands of alterations to today’s Bible. But they can counter that there are earlier, individual manuscripts of almost all the books in the Bible; the Codex just pulls them together into a single volume. In any case, fundamentalists have long been adept at ignoring the evidence of historical biblical scholarship.

Well! Wallace responds:

A whole host of faulty assumptions occur in this paragraph, such as that inerrantists and fundamentalists are synonymous, that the changes made to the codex in later centuries can have any impact on one’s belief in the inerrancy of the autographs, that the whole issue of canonicity is in some way altered by this codex, or even that knowledge of this manuscript is only now coming to light. All this really shows is that the author is ignorant of both inerrantists and Sinaiticus.

Wallace also highlights some media errors from CBC (Canada), The Guardian and CNN. Sometimes it takes an expert in the issue area to critique the media coverage. I’m glad Wallace listed some of the larger errors for posterity.

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