Wednesday, March 29, 2006
"Sometimes, you don't know what you've got until you look at it with new eyes," says Oxford native Stephen Merris. Merris, who once helped NASA map the face of planets, now uses the same technology to read ancient scrolls of papyrus. "When I say eyes, I mean multi-spectral infrared eyes," he adds.
Just west of the Nile lies an ancient ruin called Oxyrhynchus. The trash heaps of that ancient city have produced 70 percent of ancient papyrus scientists have recovered, including the Gospel of Thomas, poetry by Sappho, and plays by Sophocles and Euripides.
Yet, most of the papyrus scientists uncovered was so blackened with soil and ash that the text was lost completely.
Now, Merris and other scientists have used infrared cameras originally developed at Mississippi's Stennis Space Center to read those texts at last.
"We've found Greek music, astrology, diagrams, even food recipes. We actually tried making one of the recipes, for a chick pea soup, and it was excellent," Merris said.
Controversy has surrounded other texts recovered by archaeologists, however, especially new sections of Revelation, Romans and Matthew. Leaks have made their way onto the Internet and been widely circulated through Christian Web sites and e-mail.
The most controversial passage deciphered so far comes from Oxyrhynchus 943, which includes an alternate version of Matthew 19:24. The alternate version reads, "I say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Go then and build great needles, 80 cubits long, buried in the ground, with eyes large enough for even the largest camel to pass."
Biblical expert David Hollinger, an author of popular biblical studies, doubts the authenticity of the passage.
Others, like the Rev. Winston Dupre, owner of the Holy Roller Coaster Bible Park outside Odessa, Texas, says he feels vindicated by the so-called "krounos aphros" passage.
"I may not be able to pronounce it, but I know it means I was right to put this 'eye of the needle' up on the south side of the park," Dupre said, nodding at the occupants of a white Lexus SUV squeezing through the fiberglass eye Dupre constructed in 2004.
Dupre said he has plans to build another needle matching the dimensions discovered in Oxyrhynchus as part of a $3 million improvement to the north gate. The needle will descend 70 feet into the Earth, and the eye will be wide enough to accommodate Escalades and the Ford Excursion.
"The good Lord made the rules," Dupre said, flashing a toothy smile, "and it's up to us to make the most of them."
Meanwhile, Merris and other scientists work double shifts to decipher additional pages, which may contain new surprises.
"I'm pretty sure they're going to find some stuff in there about homosexuality," Dupre said. "With all of them Roman sex orgies going on all the time, Jesus must have noticed. He must have said something. Right?"
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