Blind UT researcher searches for clues about Jesus’ ministry through touch

Austin

When Daniel Smith went blind at age 14, it didn’t stop him from pursuing his fascination with the ancient origins of religions.

His passion led him through college, through a master’s degree and then to a doctoral degree in Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin where he is exploring ancient manuscripts that could hold clues about Jesus’ ministry.

Daniel, now 25, is working with his adviser Geoffrey Smith — no, they’re not related — as well as UT’s Disability Services to examine an ancient manuscript, which details the story of one of Jesus’ exorcisms. 

Daniel was born with one eye blind because of a rare disorder. Then, as a teen, the disorder caused the retina to detach in his other eye. Daniel had to quickly learn the social and physical hurdles that come with being blind. 

Daniel was drawn to the university because of the support he knew he’d receive and because he wanted to study the ancient religious texts UT scholars specialize in. 

The manuscript he is currently studying is written on papyrus and was found in a trash heap in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. To be able to read the manuscript, which is the size of a credit card and frayed around its edges, the university’s disability services made larger versions of this manuscript Daniel can touch, which allows him to feel the handwriting.

They are made with ink that reacts to heat and rises to make these lines touchable. 

In Daniel’s previous research, he’s had to learn Braille in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but he’s never before used these raised “tactile” pages to study ancient texts. 

“The ancient ones are far too brittle and far too valuable for people like me to be putting my hands on,” Daniel explained.

But with the new versions UT has provided for him, he can feel the curves and patterns in the writing. Styles of handwriting, patterns with words, even words cut off on the end of the page tell Daniel things about when this manuscript may have been written. 

UT’s College of Liberal Arts explained that some have argued these pieces of papyrus were written in 175 and 225 AD, if that is correct it would make the manuscripts some of the earliest Gospel fragments. 

Geoffrey, Daniel’s professor, explained the texts could have been composed even earlier than that. He said these writings show front and back pages of a text. One side describes Jesus driving away demons, using similar language to the wording used in Matthew, Luke and other texts. The other side of the manuscript describes Jesus talking about the value of discipleship. 

“And we have several accounts of Jesus doing this kind of work in the canonical gospels, but this text seems to tell the story a little differently, which leads us to believe that it might know more about this event than we find in the canonical gospel and has the potential to teach us more about Jesus’ life and ministry,” Geoff said.

Geoff is hopeful Daniel’s work  makes this type of academic research more accessible to blind students and other students with disabilities. 

“It’s a highly visual field, but it doesn’t need to be,” he said. 

“I really had always thought of this as something sequestered off to people who can see,” Daniel said. “And the fact that I’m able to do it now, is a testament to not only what boundaries are yet to be crossed for people who have disabilities more broadly, but personally I think its a testament to Geoff and the department at UT who have gone over and above to make this happen for me, which I’m really grateful for.”

The actual manuscripts are kept in at the Sackler Library at Oxford University. UT’s Religious Studies department is trying to send Daniel and several other students to the library to learn about the manuscripts in person. If you’d like to learn more look here. 

UT Austin currently provides disability accommodations for around 2,800 students, the most common are note taking and testing accommodations.

Blind or visually impaired students can receive materials they need in an audio or electronic format, some things like maps and diagrams need to be made in a more touchable format for students, like the manuscripts Daniel used.

Disability Services has also provided Brailled music scores for blind music students, hired lab assistants to help blind students or students with limited arm use, and coordinated sign language interpreters for study abroad trips. 

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