Sunday, November 17, 2013

(Photo credit: History Channel)
This week I watched the premiere of a new History Channel series, “Bible Secrets Revealed”. Although Isaac always reminds me that I shouldn't spend time on any show this channel presents, I decided to give it a chance, even though I knew Dr. Bart Ehrman was the one who first spoke in the sneak preview. Also, the series announcement was posted in several blogs I follow, and I noticed in their comments that several scholars I know were looking forward to watch it. I know, just looking at the show’s title should make anybody who studies the Bible seriously scoff with skepticism, but since this is a TV program oriented to “average people” (as they kept saying in the show), I decided to ignore the title for the duration of the presentation.  

Here are my impressions of the first episode “Lost in Translation” (feel free to insert more scoffing at the title’s cheesiness here).

Production – 8.5

This has to be a pretty expensive production. No old lame pictures or grainy videos from the 80’s and 90’s of archaeologists bossing around poor volunteer students or corny poses for the cameras (at least not in this episode). On the contrary, we find very recent footage and constant on-location photography, beautiful backgrounds, appealing transitions and great quality sound. If this continues in the same way many people will follow the series at least for the next couple of episodes.

Scholars and authors – 8.9

I was surprised of the amount of well-known scholars and authors the producers interviewed in this episode: Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan, Robert Mullins, David Wolpe, Candida Moss, Elaine Pagels, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Dale Martin, Jeffrey Geoghegan, Lori Ann Ferrell, Chris Keith, Mark Goodacre, Peter Lanfer, Bradley Hale, Jennifer Wright-Knust, Jonathan Kirsch, Joel Hoffman, Pnina Shor, and Yuval Peleg. Robert Cargill seems to be the one leading the comments; he definitely speaks more than the other academics and I am not shocked. Producers always prefer the better looks and the more eloquent and articulate people, no matter how smart or knowledgeable they are. Anyway, having all these personalities on board (according to the list I saw in one blog, there are more scholars interviewed in the coming episodes) was the reason I remained watching the episode until the end.

 Content – 6.5

Here is where I find many shortcomings and imprecisions in the show’s premiere, and to some extent, to the detriment of the reputation of some of its participants.  The episode begins with the overstated and apocryphal bedouin boy story of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) discovery. When do people finally are going to acknowledge that Bedouins had access to those caves and their contents before the strayed goat climbed up there? I guess that doesn't sell as much as having a small boy chasing his pet and accidentally making the most important discovery of the twentieth century. To me this shows lack of respect to the memory of Yigael Yadin, Fr. Roland De Vaux and others and of their efforts collecting as many stolen and dispersed DSS fragments and whole scrolls as possible.

The concepts of history and truth as they were conceived by the biblical authors and the early readers/hearers of both the Old and the New Testaments are never defined: just a vague mention that the scripture writers were theologians and that they had an agenda. This is one of the two ideas that would get “average people” who watch the show confused and apprehensive. Everything is valued according to the idea of what ‘history’ means to the Western, secular, twenty-first century mentality. Therefore, for the show, the Bible appears now full of inaccuracies and contradictions that need to be cleared out for the unsuspecting readers who had believed these stories as factual truth for millennia.  From trying to find out who really killed Goliath to making a guest list of those present at the birth of Jesus, there was a total absence of discussion on the history of sources and traditions. Moreover, I am almost convinced that Bart Ehrman will never acknowledge the difference between the terms 'pseudoepigraphy' and 'forgery'. The "anonymous authors lie", he says, by attributing to famous personalities what they have written. More of the same thing… Now, the other idea that would confuse the audience is the subject of inspiration. It was never mentioned or developed by anyone (at least it wasn't included in the episode if the scholars ever spoke about it). Therefore the Bible is treated as little more than an average romance. 

I find interesting how Francesca Stavrakopoulou justifies the reason why the New Testament was written in Greek and not in Aramaic: the missionaries needed money to continue their job. They wrote in Greek, she claims, because “they were interested in money for their journeys”. Therefore “they were not interested in the Jews”. Even if money is one of the reasons, how do we explain then Paul’s writings to the Christian communities of Corinth and Rome? She also treats Isaiah 7:14 as a misogynistic mistranslation from the Hebrew. I thought that translation was never an issue and if it was, it was cleared out centuries ago. 

Even though there are several Roman Catholic scholars interviewed, the Evangelical approach to the history of the interpretation of the Bible has the leading and the judging voice here. It is “obvious” (they say), that the Church did not want the Bible read by the “average person” for reasons of power and money (here they have it again, Catholics rulers were the only ones seeking money and power).  However, they later acknowledge that after the English separation, every monarch wanted their own translation.  Nonetheless, I also think some academics should give the early Reformation rulers some credit: that they did this as leaders having some faith and looking for the well-being of their subjects and not only as egomaniacs seeking for power.  I found hilarious how Cargill states that Henry VIII wanted “the blessing of the Pope to get a divorce”. He really needs some extra reading done, pronto.  Maybe he will finally understand Clement VII’s main position on the matter.

I think you get the idea how the rest of the episode went. However, showing clips here and there from one author, then inserting a snippet now and then from another scholar in the middle of a developing topic, made many true statements about the history of the composition and translation of the Bible sound unappealing and confusing, like constantly blaming the authors/editors of the Bible of “tampering” with the original texts. There is something I need to say on behalf of the colleagues who contributed in this episode. Producers got what they wanted, not necessarily what many of these scholars needed to convey. So as Isaac told me: If you want something studied and treated seriously, don’t spend time watching any show about it on that channel.

 Juan Miguel Betancourt
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  1. Regarding that episode: you're welcome to watch and listen to my review, at .