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


  1. I really do enjoy your approach to this topic. What comes to mind almost immediately is the modern-pop author Anne Rice (Interview With a Vampire, and most recently, The Wolf Gift)and how her off-on-off again view of Christianity is seen in her writing.

    Personally, I see two approaches to biblical referencing in writing. The first is one, when reading "for enjoyment" (often is the case with Fiction) where a reference might be used as a method of "aiding in the telling of a story." I take no real offense to this approach, nor to it's lack of proper identification of passages.

    The second, however is much more critical, when specific reference is made to influence an opinion. Whether is be for advancing political agendas, gaining monetary support, or just the peddling of "divine inspiration" - all deserve a critical eye.

    But the real difficulty in either (again, personally) is when using the Bible as an interpretive source. Having a predominantly Protestant background, I always struggled with the underlying question "...why is our Bible different?" Seeing some of the newer adaptations of the Bible (such as "adaptive retelling" seen in the Unvarnished New Testament(1991)) just spurs this controversy further.

    One can argue that even with fictional writing, accuracy matters, when one takes into account that many readers will assume that authors references are actually truthful as well as accurate. In my opinion, this is how a populist book compares to that of one worthy of perhaps a Pulitzer. A good author is accurate in referencing, as are his/her supporting cast of copy editor(s), and accountable researching staff (and the Publisher).

    I also have to ask this in the scope of my reading (whether it be fiction or non-fiction): Is the author approaching biblical reference as "Divinely Inspired" and thus truthful, Accurate Historical Documentation, Satire (written by the various authors over the time span that the Bible was written), or even as a form of "Populist Self Help Personal Accounting"?

  2. Thanks Owen!I do admit that I continue to read "the Dark Monk" and enjoy it, just as you say in your first approach above. I know about these errors, but as a novel, I am engaged with the story and the mystery at the heart of it. I think most writers want to get things right, as do their editors, but it is more significant in a book or story where there is more on the line. I do agree with you on this, where authors might "use" the Bible to push an agenda, this becomes a difficult question. Is it sloppy, ill-informed or just a genuine difference of opinion in how they use the Bible?

    Your comment raises so many good questions. I suppose something like "The Left Behind" series creates more issues in which fictional narratives are also intended as genuine interpretation of the Bible and as theology and could be used to tell people: this is more than a story, this is how it is. On the other end of the ideological spectrum would be "The Da Vinci Code" in which Dan Brown makes it clear this is fiction, but drops lots of hints about how accurate he is historically (most of which he gets wrong).

  3. John,

    Part of the problem any postmodernist author faces is that one construct of reality is as good as any other. This then leaves the reader faced with the question when critiquing the work of sometimes using a pile driver to squash a gnat.

    Is this necessary? Perhaps. Sometimes the "utter falseness perceived by the reader" is the clue how to contend with it. Most readers just do not bother.

    It's interesting that you mentioned both the "Left Behind" series, as well as work by author Dan Brown. Having read both myself, I liken them to other pop culture works of print and film media (ie. The Omen and The Exorcist in film).

    In any of these works, it seems that pop culture's acceptance of willful distortions are the key.