A Response to the History Channel’s “Bible Secrets Revealed”

bible_secrets_revealedOn the evening of November 13, 2013, the History Channel debuted a new series entitled “Bible Secrets Revealed” co-produced by noted scholar of Second Temple Judaism Robert Cargill of the University of Iowa. The episode may be viewed here.

Anticipation ran high. The program was supposed to be a hard and honest look at the Bible from some of the most notable (and notorious) figures in Biblical scholarship such as Bart Ehrman, Mark Goodacre, Candida Moss, and Reza Aslan. The disclaimer at the beginning of the program promised a fair presentation of multiple view points, stating, “This program explores the mysteries of the Bible from a variety of historical and theological perspectives which have been debated for centuries.” Such a disclaimer, usually alerting viewers to graphic violence and sexual content not suitable for children, should have warned the unsuspecting public that the content to be presented was anything but “a variety of historical and theological perspectives.” In fact, the program revealed a heavily anti-religious and specifically an anti-Christian bias, where a multiplicity of view points was exchanged for a singular ideology aimed at discrediting religious faith in the Bible. It soon became apparent that what was supposed to be a presentation of the best of objective, secular biblical scholarship was anything but objective. Leading questions suggested the most absurd conclusions, and half-truths masked the real objectivity found in secular scholarship, which is capable of being fair and respectful of religious faith.

In what follows, I will examine many of the claims made by the first episode of “Bible Secrets Revealed” and then discuss a particular Orthodox Christian response.

The program begins with a leading question, “Has the Bible been translated, edited, and even censored so many times that its original stories have been compromised by time?” At the outset, we find the ideological stance of the program, a notion that pervades secular views of religion as well as many of the religious themselves, namely that the only truly legitimate and valuable stories of the Bible are “original,” untouched by redactor or cleric. It is assumed that any “story” which has lost its supposed “original” historical accuracy is not valuable to the person of faith. In other words, the only value the Bible could possibly offer is what is original and untouched by later religious ideology. Furthermore, the narrator asks the leading question, “Is the Holy Bible the inspired word of an almighty God, or a collection of stories authored by a number of largely anonymous men?” Such a statement unfairly assumes that divine inspiration must involve verifiable authorship. While a segment of religious persons may indeed believe this, it is by no means shared by others who have no problem with divinely inspired, anonymous authors.

The program continues by offering the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran as proof that such “original” content of the Bible has been lost, edited away, and covered up. A leading question by the narrator suggests that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained information “of great religious consequence” and contained “contradictions, discrepancies of detail, and language that have left theologians and Bible scholars scratching their heads.” This sort of hysteria, common to contemporary media treatments at the time of the scrolls’ discovery, has shown to be empty hype. In fact, the biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls largely confirm the readings of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, and many of them confirm readings of the the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint. Nothing in the non-biblical manuscripts found among the Scrolls has drastically changed the way we view the history of early Christianity or its claims. The Scrolls merely give us a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the Jewish world immediately preceding the coming of Christ.

In this first episode, entitled “Lost in Translation,” several examples of supposed mistranslations are offered in order to show that what the Bible really says has been altered by later revision and mistranslation. Some of the examples they give, however, are presented as half-truths and distortions of reality. For example, it is noted that the Hebrew word adam, usually translated as “man” is actually a word encompassing all of humanity, a general word for “human person.” This is true to a certain extent, except for the fact that adam is used in the narrative to refer to a specific male person; the Hebrew ‘ish (“man”) is juxtaposed with his wife (‘ishah). So, contrary to the statement of Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, the Hebrew word adam carries with it both a general sense of human kind as well as a specific male person who has the name Adam. Such practice is in keeping with ancient Near Eastern mythology, which typically names mythological figures after the natural elements they represent such as the Canaanite gods yam (“Sea”) and mot (“Death”). Adam, the person, represents and embodies adam “human kind” in himself, a point that St. Paul takes up in Romans 5.

Similarly, Cargill explains that the Aramaic term bar enash (“son of man“) used by Jesus in Mark 2:23 is simply a term for “a dude” or anyone. In other words, as Jesus explains that the Sabbath was made for the service of people, people are lords of the Sabbath. While it is true that the term bar enash is used in Aramaic as a general word for “man” or “person,” it is also generally recognized by scholars that the term is elevated to a messianic term in the portions of 1 Enoch known as the Similitudes and is used by Jesus to refer to himself in numerous places.

A well-known case of supposed mistranslation is taken from Isaiah 7:14, the famous quotation in the Gospel of St. Matthew that “Behold, a virgin will give birth…” (1:23). This verse in the Septuagint uses the word parthenos (“virgin”) which translates the Hebrew word almah, meaning “a woman of marriageable age.” It is often said that the Greek parthenos is a mistranslation of almah, but this is not technically a “mistranslation” but a sharper translation, a term of more specific meaning for a term with more general meaning. A young woman of marriageable age would have been a virgin until her marriage, at which point she would then be called ishah (“woman” or “wife”). The Septuagint translators were applying a keen understanding of Hebrew social terminology, which were not easily translated into Greek. They chose to preserve in their Greek translation what was to them the most striking feature of the Hebrew text, “A young woman (understood to be unmarried or newly married and a virgin) will give birth.” If there is any “mistranslation,” it is the failure of scholars such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University to account for the full import of the Hebrew term almah.

Another rather glaring error becomes apparent if one has access to a Hebrew Bible. During a “who dunnit?” discussion of the real killer of Goliath, the program draws attention to the fact that 2 Samuel 2:19 claims that Elhanan killed Goliath the Gittite rather than David as presented in 1 Kings 17:49-51. The program then shows that 1 Chronicles claims that Elhanan slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite. However, we are led to believe through the graphical presentation that this change is deliberately made in the English translations, not in the original Hebrew text of 1 Chronicles. The program routinely uses Hebrew text dissolving into English to indicate the actual text of the Hebrew Bible, even in the segment about David and Goliath, yet in this instance, only English is used. So we find in these cases, what is presented as mistranslations are not mistranslations at all, but twisted half-truths serving an anti-religious ideology. Moving from translation issues to more general statements about the Bible and some individual books, we find similar, absurd leading questions and half-truths. During a discussion of Constantine, the narrator even asks, “An emperor authoring the Bible?” Elaine Pagels of Princeton University states, “We had Christianity for 300 years before we had a New Testament,” leading one to believe that the New Testament books did not exist for the first three centuries of Christianity. Yet, we know that the epistles of Paul and the four gospels circulated in the early church, were read during liturgical services, and were extensively quoted by the second and third century fathers. While the New Testament may not have been canonized until the Synod of Hippo in 393 CE, the New Testament books themselves did exist and were heavily utilized.

The program draws attention to the widely-known fact that the Gospel of Mark is missing its original ending and that two alternate endings were composed at later times. It is insinuated that, because the Gospel of Mark is missing its original ending, the resurrection of Jesus was made up centuries later. Mark Goodacre states rather curiously, “The story of the resurrection actually emerges as an interesting literary story partially because people are so dissatisfied with Mark’s story.” The narrator then asks, “Is it possible that the resurrection was the consequence of a missing page?” This is the most ridiculous claim made by the program, for the verse immediately preceding the supposed broken off ending of Mark says, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him” (16:6). The program focuses upon the ending of Mark, a red herring, while ignoring the actual text of Mark itself. Furthermore, the undisputed letters of Paul, written decades before the Gospels, contain our earliest witness to the fact that Christians believed in the resurrection. First Thessalonians and Galatians, the two earliest epistles of Paul, demonstrate such belief about a decade after the resurrection would have occurred.

Other questions regarding the text of the New Testament are explored as well, such as the story of the “Woman Caught in Adultery,” also known as the pericope adulterae, found in the King James Bible in John 7:53-8:11. Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame suggests that, because the story is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, it “probably never happened.” Such a sweeping statement skirts questions of orality, i.e., how authentic Jesus traditions may have been transmitted orally without being written down in any particular place. In fact, this story is known as a “floating tradition” because it appears in Luke’s Gospel in some manuscripts. It is also known from the third century Syriac text Didascalia Apostolorum. Such a story may have been authentic, though its place in the written accounts of Jesus’ life was less sure.

Secular scholarship is a valuable enterprise when the bare facts of its findings are presented objectively and without bias. If we believe, as I was taught as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Baptist University, that “all truth is God’s truth,” then Christians need not be afraid of secular Biblical scholarship. Yet such ideologically charged programs as “Bible Secrets Revealed” present secular scholarship in a very negative light that excludes religious faith before the facts may be considered from “multiple perspectives” as the program itself claims. What is not admitted in the program, at least not until the very last line spoken by Cargill, is that religion and faith go far beyond the Bible. Just because the Bible may or may not have said something, or just because someone wrote a biblical text in another’s name, or just because a text was written late, does not a priori invalidate claims of faith. I am horrified, though not surprised, that a sort of sola scriptura hermeneutic has invaded the realm of secular biblical scholarship, whereby religion is invalidated solely because of the findings of biblical scholarship. It is a failure to understand the true complexities of religious faith. Instead, religious faith is presented as a sola scriptura and fundamentalist straw man, easily destroyed by facts about the Bible. (These are not “secrets” as the program claims, but are widely known and accepted even among conservative Christian scholars.) The program tries to clean up its mess in the end with a few bouquets thrown at religion, but it fails to convince after so thoroughly tarnishing the claims of traditional faiths with its odd sola scriptura hermeneutic. Certainly there is room for honest examination of biblical scholarship, but it should be done in a manner that is respectful of religious faith, otherwise such scholarship leaves its own academic boundaries and transgresses in the inter-religious dialogue itself.

As Orthodox Christians, we believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, but we need not put artificial strictures on what this means or how it occurs. In fact, we may recognize the divine energy of inspiration in a more comprehensive manner, from the composition of Scriptural texts, to their redaction, collection, transmission, even through their translation, liturgical reading, and public exposition in preaching. Even private, devotional reading of Scripture brings the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the heart attentive in faith. Yet in all of these instances, inspiration is never mechanical, automatic, or without human interference. The limitations of scribal technology, human culture, and the imperfections the individuals who interpret the text serve to mark the Scriptural texts’ essential, mysterious nature. The divine Spirit is found in the Bible as a mystery; that is a hidden reality, revealed in the hearts of men and women who attend to it in faith. Biblical scholarship may be able to uncover many “secrets” about the history of Ancient Israel and the Graeco-Roman world that contradict certain aspects of the Biblical text, most of which the church fathers have interpreted typologically. It may uncover many aspects of the transmission of the Bible that surprise us and topple our simplistic assumptions of divine inspiration. But, if all truth is God’s truth, nothing can topple or contradict the essential truth of Jesus Christ witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets and proclaimed by the Apostles throughout the world.

Comments

  1. Nick Katich says

    Good article. I gave up on watching the History Channel years ago because the history that I knew and the history it presented were quite different. Regarding the pericope adulterae, I just wanted to comment that Augustine advanced the position that it was in the original but that it was removed by early copyists; hence the existence of early manuscripts with the story missing and that subsequent copyists eventually restored it. His explanation of why early copyists