Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.



A bit of substance emerged during a 2012 campus debate between Daniel Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at Dallas Theological Seminary, and his longtime friend Bart Ehrman, New Testament professor at the University of North Carolina.

When Ehrman contended that the New Testament is historically unreliable, Wallace parried with news about a forthcoming Mark text. He said a renowned (but unnamed) expert in the science of ancient handwriting styles known as paleography had dated the writing back to the 1st Century. He also revealed that  E.J. Brill of The Netherlands, notably authoritative in technical publishing of such discoveries, would issue specifics in “about a year” (= 2013).

Ehrman thought it was dirty pool to cite the Mark claim in debate when the key information remained secret. He asked via blog, “Why not tell us where it was found, who found it, how extensive it is, who has examined it, what his grounds for dating it were, whether his views have been independently corroborated?” Wallace responded here.  

Stage two was a interview in 2015 (by then the expected year for delayed Brill publication) with Craig Evans, now at Houston Baptist University. Evans said several dozen scholars bound by a non-disclosure agreement worked on newly discovered papyrus sheets that ancient Egyptians had written on and then reused to glue together and form mummy masks. A new technique removes glue so the sheets can be separated and the writings examined. Experts concluded the Mark copy “was written before the year 90,” Evans said, which would put the original composition earlier in the 1st Century. 

Stage three began last July 14 when a blog for specialists identified the mystery paleographer as the well-qualified Dirk Obbink at the University of Oxford.  Early this year, Gary Habermas of Liberty University announced that the paleographer involved (not named) gave him permission to say the dating falls between A.D. 80 and 110.

If The Guy were still toiling for Time or the Associated Press, phone call No. 1 would go to Brill’s U.S. office (617-263-2323) for Dutch contacts who’d know why the delay and when publication will occur. Contact #2 would be Obbink (01-865-276212 or Then he’d pump Wallace, Evans and Carroll, whose inside role in this intrigue remains unclear.  

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Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

There are so many questions to ask, and all of them need asking as journalists probe the "why" question in the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" of the Austin bombings.

First things first. As Bobby Ross Jr. noted earlier (please see that post), 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt grew up in an intensely Christian home and he has expressed views that can -- in some sense of this vague word -- be called "conservative." He was active in a small, racially diverse church and then in a popular megachurch.

Well, the prodigal Texan in me wants to note that quite a few people in Texas go to church, even in the Austin area. Lots of them go to megachurches, since many things in Texas -- as you may have heard -- tend to be big.

Also, lots of people in Texas are committed to home-schooling their children. As with any form of intense education, some children like that more than others.

I say all of this to make one point: Journalists need to investigate all of these religion angles because this young man's faith -- or his loss of faith --  may turn out to be crucial. Most of all, law officials seem to be focusing on finding the source of the pain, anger and "darkness" that seized Conditt's life in the days, weeks or months leading up to the bombings.

Where would you start, reading between the lines in this passage from the main Associated Press report?

Conditt’s family said in a statement they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” ...

Jeff Reeb, a neighbor of Conditt’s parents in Pflugerville for about 17 years, said he watched Conditt grow up and that he always seemed “smart” and “polite.” Reeb, 75, said Conditt and his grandson played together into middle school and that Conditt regularly visited his parents, whom Reeb described as good neighbors.

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Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

For residents of Austin, Texas, weeks of terror ended Wednesday when Mark Conditt — identified as the serial bomber responsible for killing two people and badly wounding four others — blew himself up.

As reporters began delving into the 23-year-old Conditt's background, religious details — some more concrete than others — quickly emerged.

My thanks to GetReligion reader Deann Alford, a Texas-based journalist and author, who alerted us to crucial facts in an Austin American-Statesman story. The key: The religious questions linked to this story are valid hooks to investigate — right now. But authorities say they see no clues, so far, to motives in these acts.

The Austin newspaper interviewed Jeremiah Jensen, 24, who was homeschooled in the same community as Conditt:

The two were close in 2012 and 2013, said Jensen, who would often go to the Conditts’ home for lunch after Sunday church service and attended Bible study and other activities with him. Jensen said Conditt came from a good family, was athletic, enjoyed rock climbing and parkour and was a “deep thinker.”
“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” Jensen said. “He was a very assertive person and would … end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation. A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it. He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.”
Jensen said Conditt attended regular church services at the Austin Stone Community Church on St. John’s Avenue.
“I know faith was a serious thing for him,” he said. “I don’t know if he held onto his faith or not. … The kind of anger that he expressed and the kind of hate that he succumbed to — that’s not what he believed in in high school. I don’t know what happened along the way. This wasn’t him.”

A little later in the story, there's this:

The Austin Stone said in a statement it had no records of Conditt or his family’s active involvement in the church or interactions with staff members.
“We love and grieve with our city and we continue to pray for the victims and their families who were affected by these recent tragedies. We are cooperating with law enforcement with any pertinent information we can find that may be of help as they continue their investigation,” the church said in a statement.

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Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Back when I was breaking into Godbeat work (soon after the cooling of the earth's crust), one of the first pros that I met was the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I interviewed him for my graduate project ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and then we stayed in touch.

How hard was it to be the AP's religion guy in that era? Basically, he told me, his job was to cover all the religion news on planet earth, other than the Vatican (which was its own beat).

How would you like that task? Of course, our own Richard Ostling knows all about that, since he worked for the Associated Press after his era at Time magazine. However, he had some timely assistance from pros like Bobby Ross, Jr.

The bottom line: AP religion-beat specialists have a tough row to hoe. It's one thing to do good work. It's something else to do good work on complex stories when you're facing a global news storm almost every day, while working with wire-schedule realities in terms of time and space.

With that in mind, I would like to point readers toward Nicole Winfield's hard-news report on the "Lettergate" scandal at the Vatican, a very important story with multiple layers of politics, intrigue and theology. I kept waiting for a hole and, in the end, the only thing I had second thoughts about was what pieces of the puzzle went where. Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican ... released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.
The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.
In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ″anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”
“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Whoa. So which angle of this story should get the most attention?

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New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

I have to say, this is one clever article. I rarely run into news reporters (other than religion-beat pros) who know anything about Hillsong and Mosaic.

What follows is a New York Times piece about a Seattle pastor who moved to Los Angeles to start a new church and who’s succeeded quite well. But added to the story are little hints that at some point, this young pastor has sold out to the zeitgeist. We all know the William Ralph Inge saying: "He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."

But for now, marrying what’s cool in 2018 is paying off nicely for the pastor (I guess that he was ordained by someone, although the story doesn't say) at the heart of this story. It starts like this:

LOS ANGELES -- On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool had been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey Theater. It was a balmy December afternoon, and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.
Today was Baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were gathered behind a metal barricade. Chad Veach, the 38-year-old founder of Zoe, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, chewed gum as he danced to a pop gospel playlist blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram…
Zoe -- pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Mr. Veach often says -- is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes here. While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Mr. Veach is claiming nothing less than Los Angeles County and its population of 10 million. “We’ll have many locations,” he said of Zoe. He is opening a San Fernando Valley campus on Sunday and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.

Then come the mentions of Hillsong and Mosaic. Then there's the fact that this new church draws 1,600 people per Sunday and that the pastor has major connections with pop star Justin Bieber.

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'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

Twitter has spoken: Tim Alberta's in-depth Politico Magazine story on U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is a must-read. 

It's a fabulous profile. 

It's a powerful look at the most prominent black elected official in America today.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

For his part, Alberta — the magazine's chief political correspondent — tweeted that Scott is as complex and fascinating a character as he has met in politics." The journalist's exceptionally well-told story reflects that.

Now, about the faith angle: From the piece's title — "God made me black" — to the revealing details shared about Scott's religious journey, Politico does a nice job with that crucial element of what makes this influential senator tick. 

A big chunk of the compelling opening scenes:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At the end of Forest Avenue, a narrow artery slicing through blocks of muddy lots and decaying one-story homes, Tim Scott kicks at the gravel and waits. He had shared a table Saturday night with the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, at the annual dinner of Washington’s Alfalfa Club, the ultra-exclusive gathering of the political and financial elite that began as a celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Now, it’s Monday morning and the junior senator from South Carolina is back home, in one of this challenged city’s most challenging neighborhoods, to get a haircut. The dramatic change of scenery doesn’t faze Scott, a man who straddles disparate universes with unusual ease. But he is not without powers of observation. As conspicuous as he was at the Alfalfa dinner—one of the few black faces in the Capital Hilton ballroom—I am all the more so here. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “you’re about to be like the third white dude ever inside this place.”
The Quick Service Barber Shop is the aesthetic pinnacle of Forest Avenue; its cream-colored exterior is dressed in red and blue paint announcing the proprietors and proclaiming Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s easier said than done around these parts. There was a shooting inside the shop a few months back, Scott tells me; his friends urged him to find a new barber. The senator wouldn’t hear of it. Scott got his very first haircut here a half-century ago, courtesy of Charles Swint. His son, Charles Swint Jr.—a minister who took over the family business—is the only person Scott trusts with a pair of clippers. When his white Cadillac Escalade finally pulls up, Swint Jr., a small, salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a dark three-piece suit, jumps out and grins at Scott: “Praise the Lord!”

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New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

Let's say that you are a reporter and you are going to write a feature story about an order of Catholic monastics.

If you were writing about an order that is growing -- let's say the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville -- it would be very important for your piece to mention the larger context of this story. I am, of course, referring to the overall decline of Catholic monasticism and holy orders in the United States.

For example, see the opening of this classic NPR piece:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

So lots of monasteries and convents are in decline -- but not all. In other words, there are two sides to this equation.

So let's flip this around. Now you are a reporter and you have been assigned to write about the decline and potential death of a Catholic monastery. That, for example, this lovely New York Times feature with this expansive double-decker headline:

The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?
Meet the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, who are trying to maintain age-old religious traditions in a rapidly evolving world.

You can see half of the equation right there in the headline. Throughout the piece, the challenges faced at Mepkin Abbey are -- as you would expect -- spelled out in great detail.

What is missing? The story does not include the other side of the equation.

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Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

OK, so I’m booking political fantasy bets on whether President Donald Trump will actually have a monumental sit down with North Korea’s equally uniquely coiffed supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Not because I’m a gambling man, mind you, but because I’m a journalist in need of a lede graph to get rolling here, and that’s what came to mind. Forgive me, but that’s how I work this craft.

Now let’s get serious.

Despite the lower-level North Korea-United States talks in Helsinki this week, a Kim-Trump nuclear summit still feels like a long shot to me.

But if they do actually meet what might religion scribes contribute to the story beyond the standard pieces noting how Korean-American Christian missionaries and other idealistic Westerners occasionally get arrested in North Korea.

Well, you could write about how the officially atheist state actually has what some scholars identify as, speaking from a sociological point of view, a homegrown quasi-religion.

I’m speaking about Juche, North Korea’s official governing philosophy.

It's not that Juche hasn't been writing about before. It has, but only rarely. For some reason, editors (and I must cede, the public, too) seem to care more about those potentially deadly nuclear threats that both sides toss about every so often.

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Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

As we at GetReligion frequently lament, the Dallas Morning News — which once boasted a team of religion writers — no longer has anyone covering the Godbeat.

That lack of focus and expertise shows up often in the Dallas newspaper's coverage of stories with religion angles.

I can't help but think that the Morning News — in its religion-writing heyday — would have offered a much more insightful treatment of a story on today's front page.

Actually, I'm not sure I can explain exactly why this particular story is Page 1 news in a major daily.

The basic story is that a small Christian school in the Dallas area is experiencing serious financial problems.

The somewhat opinionated lede:

Carrollton Christian Academy may soon need another miracle.
After struggling financially for years, officials at the tiny, faith-based school scrambled in December to raise $400,000 they said they needed to keep the doors open through the end of the school year.
In a matter of weeks, donors were able to raise enough money to keep the school afloat, and Carrollton Christian officials now say they believe they can complete the school term.
But court records, interviews and statements from school officials over the past few months cast a wide shadow of doubt about whether that confidence is merited.
"It is our plan to move forward, finish the year, re-enroll for next year," Principal Elaine Marchant said in an email Thursday. "But we are still working on financial planning."
It seems, though, that Carrollton Christian is always walking a financial tightrope, relying on crowdsourcing and even pleas through the media to help meet its basic obligations such as payroll for its 17 teachers, rent and insurance.

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