Religion: God’s Word, According to Wikipedia

A few times a week, Alastair Haines, a grad student at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney, sits down with a Greek version of the New Testament and translates a bit of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Haines doesn't speak Greek, but he can read it. When he's done, he loads his work onto a Wikipedia page as part of the Wiki Bible Project, a take-all-comers effort launched in January to create "an original, open content translation of the Bible's source texts," which by most counts includes about 30,000 manuscripts. Along with Haines, who admits to signing up for duty as a way to put off finishing his dissertation, 21 others have answered Wikipedia's call to "claim a chapter!" The eclectic group includes a liberal Christian living in the United Arab Emirates and a Methodist financial counselor in Texas. Some claim to be formally trained in Biblical Hebrew and classical Greek; others, such as user John Kloosterman, admit to being "without qualifications of any kind." The project will take a few years to complete and require constant refinement, says John Vandenberg, one of project's main administrators. But "that is part of the beauty," he writes. "It's a laissez-faire translation."

But Biblical scholars see the potential for an inaccurate, bias-filled mess. "Democratization isn't necessarily good for scholarship," says Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who worked on the most recent translation of the New Revised Standard Version in 1988. "Those were the best Greek and Hebrew scholars in the country, and it took them 20 years." Repercussions of mistranslations are great. (Old Testament scholar Richard Friedman says he's already found errors in Wiki's Genesis translation.) In the Middle Ages, Ehrman notes, someone added 12 verses to the Gospel of Mark where Jesus says believers will "pick up serpents"; it now forms the textual basis for Pentecostal snake handlers.

Advocates say the discussion pages will be a microcosm of a theological debate that has been raging for centuries. Of course, those debates had winners and losers. "We're lucky," says Barnard College Biblical scholar Alan Segal, "that we no longer live in a period where they burn the scholars."

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