Wednesday, August 8, 2012

This might seem like a minor complaint, but I hope you follow with me to the end of this blog post and give me your feedback. A month or so ago I finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch. I enjoyed the story of the medieval executioner Jakob Kuisl and his daughter Magdalena, so I started to read The Dark Monk: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale. I must say that I am enjoying this story very much as well, but about a quarter of the way through the book this morning I was surprised by a biblical reference and an interpretation of it. Initially in fact, it was the interpretation of the biblical reference that struck me, but when I went back to the passage itself, I had misgivings about the identification of the verses in question. I was right: the passage was misidentified.

I am reading a Kindle edition of the book, but the passage in question is cited in Chapter 5 (24% Kindle edition), though it had been cited earlier in the novel as part of an inscription that no one could identify. On the trail of a Knights Templar mystery, Jakob, his daughter Magdalena and the physician’s son Simon puzzle over a passage. Suddenly Simon identifies it as a passage from the Bible. Here is how the section from the novel reads:

“Here!” he said, pointing triumphantly at a passage. “The Revelation of Saint John, Chapter Four. Here’s the verse!” He began reading out loud: “I will tell my two witnesses to prophesy…” He looked at the two of them excitedly. “The two witnesses are Enoch – the son of Cain – and the prophet Elijah! When they arrive to fight the beast, the day of Judgment is close at hand!” (Kindle Edition, Chapter 5, 24%).

The first thing that grabbed me about the passage is that it does not identify the witnesses anywhere in the book of Revelation. It is true that some Church fathers identified the two witnesses as Enoch and Elijah, because these two men were not said to have died in the Bible. In Genesis 5:24 it says of Enoch, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” Of Elijah it is said in 2 Kings 2:11, “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”

So, there is Church tradition behind this identification, though it is not a necessary identification and not found in Revelation, but then another small detail emerged: if this is Enoch who the Church fathers identified as one of the witnesses, it is not Enoch the son of Cain as stated in the novel. There are two Enochs in the Bible. The first is identified in Genesis 4:17:  “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.” But this Enoch is not the same Enoch as the one who was taken without dying; the second Enoch appears in Genesis 5:18 as the son of Jared: “When Jared had lived one hundred sixty-two years he became the father of Enoch.” This is the Enoch who was the father of Methuselah and was taken up by God and who some Church fathers identified as one of the two witnesses.

Finally, though, the most significant problem appeared to me! The biblical passage is not from Revelation 4, but from Revelation 11:3-12:

3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth." 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6 They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. 7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, "Come up here!" And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. (NRSV)

Now, none of these details are deal-breakers in terms of enjoying the novel and one might say that the only major problem is the misidentification of the passage itself, which is fair enough. But it brought to mind my work on apocalyptic movies, a form of popular culture which continues unabated, and in a number of movies not only were passages misidentified from Revelation or elsewhere in the Bible, but  some were simply made-up, created from chapters or books that did not exist. You can check these out in my book The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television.

Still, it made me wonder. Have any of you run across novels, short stories, movies, or other media where biblical passages (or even figures) have been misidentified?  Was it a more significant error than in this novel (which I am enjoying and will continue to enjoy)? Did it impact your enjoyment of the story or book? I am not talking about “misinterpretation” of biblical passages, on which people might disagree at any rate, but passages, people or events in the Bible that authors have simply gotten wrong or misidentified. Did it have a more negative impact on your ability to continue to enjoy the text you were reading? Is it a sign of biblical illiteracy or just common errors, which everyone makes? As I said, not a big deal, but I would be interested in any feedback you might be able to offer.

A note I should add is that the Internet has made checking biblical passages, people and events an easy process. I almost always link my biblical passages to, which allows you to search names and places throughout the whole Bible in a number of translations and in a number of languages. You can search for "Enoch" for instance and every mention of this name will appear. If you want even more online resources, go to Dr. Mark Goodacre's site It gives you access to translations, ancient languages and all the resources you want.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies