CHARLESTON, West Virginia — The Gospel of Luke records that, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus showed his boundless mercy by praying for his killers this way: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
Not so fast, say contributors to the Conservative Bible Project.
The project, an online effort to create a Bible suitable for contemporary conservative sensibilities, claims Jesus' quote is a disputed addition abetted by liberal biblical scholars, even if it appears in some form in almost every translation of the Bible.
The project's authors argue that contemporary scholars have inserted liberal views and ahistorical passages into the Bible, turning Jesus into little more than a well-meaning social worker with a store of watered-down platitudes.
"Professors are the most liberal group of people in the world, and it's professors who are doing the popular modern translations of the Bible," said Andy Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia.com, the project's online home.
Experts who have devoted their careers to unraveling the ancient texts of the Scriptures, many in long-extinct languages, are predictably skeptical about a project by amateur translators.
"This is not making scripture understandable to people today, it's reworking scripture to support a particular political or social agenda," said Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who calls himself a theological conservative.
Religious publishers already provide an alphabet soup of Bible translations for a range of theological outlooks, from the King James Version to the Revised Standard Version and beyond. The most widely used traditional translations were overseen by scholars who are considered the best minds in conservative Christianity.
"The phrase 'theological conservative' does not mean that someone is politically conservative," said Schlafly, who lives in Far Hills, New Jersey.
This liberal slanting, Schlafly argues, ranges from changing gendered language — Jesus calling his disciples to be "fishers of people" rather than "fishers of men" — to more subtle choices, like the 2001 English Standard Version of the Bible, which uses "comrade" and "laborer" more often than the conservative-friendly "volunteer."
Contributors to the project aren't arguing on ideological grounds alone. The discussion forum on the site is full of discourse on Greek grammar, along with arguments long familiar to Biblical scholars about the history of certain passages.
Take the famous passage from Luke: the Conservative Bible Project omits it not only because it's "a favorite of liberals," but because there's some dispute over its authenticity, based on the manuscripts it appears in.
Jones, the professor, said while some early Greek manuscripts omit Jesus' words, others include them.
"There are so many factors to consider when looking at that, but here it gets boiled down to 'liberals put it in,'" he said. "You've got people who are doing this who have probably never looked at an actual ancient manuscript."
In some ways, the Conservative Bible Project reflects an ancient debate over Scripture. The Bible as it's known today more or less took final shape in the 4th century after hundreds of years of debate over which books were canonical.
The debate flared up again during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther fruitlessly yearned to cut the Book of James because of its fairly explicit contradiction of his belief that salvation could be attained by faith alone.
"People have always done this with the Bible," said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. "Virtually everyone in a mainstream Protestant or Roman Catholic church in the United States is reading a doctored version of the Bible."
Jenkins is referring to the Revised Common Lectionary, a selection of biblical texts read in worship services that amounts to about a third of the full text.
'Every translator is a traitor'
Schlafly's project is distinctive, though, because non-experts collaborate Wiki-style on the Internet to produce their version.
"The best of the public is better than a group of experts," said Schlafly, whose mother, Phyllis, is a longtime conservative activist known for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
Jones says the project is a misguided effort to read contemporary politics back into the text.
"Ironically, there's a long tradition of the liberal twisting of scripture," Jones said. "Scholars have rightly deemed those translations illegitimate, and this conservative Bible is every bit as illegitimate."
The Bible's roots in a dizzying variety of ancient manuscripts require a lifetime of dedication to master, said the Rev. Frank Matera, a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.
"There's a little Italian proverb, 'Every translator is a traitor,'" Matera said. "Most Bible translations are usually done by a group of scholars, precisely so they can balance out each other. It's not something that everybody can do."
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