Bible Secrets Revealed: Does it do biblical scholarship more harm than good?

The much-talked about (on certain biblio-blogs, at least) new documentary series Bible Secrets Revealed finally aired in Canada this past weekend. I may be a bit late to the party on this but, with an episode due December 15 on the Christian Apocrypha, I thought it would be helpful to my readers to bring some attention to the series. While such programs are helpful for bringing scholarship on biblical and nonbiblical texts to a broader audience, I worry, after watching the first episode, that these documentaries are now doing more harm than good. 

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I am involved in a documentary that is due to air in November of next year. So I am fully aware that I may be part of the problem. However, my issues with BSR are not with the scholars involved in the program, but with the narrative imposed upon the scholars’ contributions by BSR’s producers.

Bible Secrets Revealed is the creation of Promethus Entertainment, a supplier of a host of docudramas (including Ancient Aliens and America’s Book of Secrets) to the History Channel and other providers. The titles and airdates of the six scheduled episodes of BSR are:

“Lost in Translation” – November 11, 2013 (re-airs in Canada December 13 and 14)“The Promised Land” – November 18, 2013 (December 6 and 7 in Canada)
“The Forbidden Scriptures” – November 25, 2013 (December 15 in Canada)
“The Real Jesus” – December 2, 2013 (December 15 and 16 in Canada)
“Mysterious Prophecies” – December 16, 2013 (no scheduled airdate in Canada)
“Sex and the Bible” – December 23, 2013 (no scheduled airdate in Canada)

The first two episodes can be viewed on the History web site (but not in Canada). The series is written and co-produced by Kevin Burns (IMDb bio) and Robert Cargill (University of Iowa; administrator of the XKV8R blog), served as consulting producer. The scholars involved in the series include Bart Ehrman, Candida Moss, Elaine Pagels, Reza Aslan, and Mark Goodacre (full list available HERE).

The strength of biblical documentaries is measured in their pedagogical value. I watched the first episode of BSR with my History of the Bible class last night. I thought it would serve as a useful bookend to the course, since the episode discusses not only “problems” in the Bible, such as contradictions and manuscript variants, but also the history of significant translations, such as the Bibles of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the KJV.

The students characterized the episode as “sensational,” which came as no surprise, particularly given the bold claim at the start that, “Now for the first time, an extraordinary series will challenge everything we think, everything we know, everything we believe about the Bible.” We discussed the aesthetics of the show: the narrator’s “voice of doom,” the impressive re-enactments (including the battle between David and Goliath, and the American Civil War), and the imposing, ever-present soundtrack. There were concerns about the amount of material that was squeezed into the episode, how the narrative leaped large spans of history—from Constantine to Wycliffe to John Smith—and its narrow western Christian focus. But of most importance was how the sound bites from the scholars often poorly fit with the narrative. In one scene, the narrator mentions the creation of the KJV and then cuts to Bart Ehrman discussing scholars’ conclusions that the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery is not original to the Gospel of John. That determination was only made in the last few centuries and, though the KJV translators were unaware of manuscripts of John that did not contain the story, no other translators, before or for a few centuries after, knew of them either. Also, the episode begins and ends with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, stating that these manuscripts left scholars “scratching their heads” at the differences between the Hebrew Bible text as we knew it and these much-earlier manuscripts; but the Dead Sea Scrolls actually surprised scholars by how close the biblical texts of the DSS are to the standard Hebrew text. And it seems that none of the scholars involved in the program believed differently because the following statements from the scholars say nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls. In sum, the show tries very hard to be provocative, but the statements from the scholars are, for the most part, rather banal. The narrative focuses on uncovering “Secrets” in the Bible, but nothing discussed in the episode was  really a secret (though calling the series “Little-known results of scholarship on the Bible” is admittedly less intriguing).

I shared with the class some of my own concerns about the show’s claims: that the virgin birth of Jesus is based on a “mistranslation” from the Hebrew almah (young woman) to the Greek parthenos (virgin) (a translation choice certainly, but not really a “mistranslation”), that Mark’s abrupt ending at 16:8 led other writers (Matthew, Luke, the authors of additional endings to Mark) to construct the concept of Jesus’ resurrection (they created resurrection appearance stories, yes, but the notion of Jesus’ resurrection is still part of Mark’s story and existed decades earlier in the letters of Paul), that the story of the Curse of Ham was the “catalyst for the bloody Civil War” (it contributed to North American views on slavery, sure, but it hardly can be blamed for the Civil War). Not all of these, and other, problems are the fault of the scholars; indeed, they may have been as surprised as I was to see how their comments were twisted and recontextualized by the BSR editors. And some of the scholars have commented online that they did not expect to show up in this episode at all.  

And here, finally, I come to my argument. What is the value of these documentaries for biblical scholarship if the results of such scholarship are communicated so poorly? Does it really help our efforts to encourage biblical literacy to have a discussion, for example, of the Aramaic substratum of Mark 2:27-28 framed by the voice of doom, asking, “is it possible that the stories of Jesus, like many other Bible stories, have been told and retold, translated and retranslated so many times that the historical accuracy has become muddled, lost to time?” Or to state that the addition of the Woman Caught in Adultery to John necessarily means that the story never happened? The end result of this approach is that viewers will be alienated by, not attracted to, biblical scholarship. And much of the online discussion of the series indicates that many viewers did react negatively to the ideas presented in the show, though I suspect that at least some of them would have found the ideas more palatable if they were presented in a less confrontational way. It is important to inform viewers about challenging viewpoints but the approach should be more gentle. For my part, I typically state in my classes that it is the problems we encounter in the texts (contradictions, questions of authorship, etc.) that make them come alive. I should acknowledge also that the episode does try to end on a more irenic note (with appropriately softer musical accompaniment), stating that perhaps the “ultimate secret” of the Bible is how it continues to be so valued by believers.

I’m not suggesting that scholars should refuse to participate in documentaries. They have their value, not only for bringing scholarship to the masses, but also for increasing scholars’ profiles—which may seem somewhat self-serving, but I don’t see anything wrong with using television and other media (hello! I don’t blog for fun, you know) for career development and marketing. But perhaps we need to be more cautious in making choices about the projects in which we agree to participate, so that the finished result does not end up doing more harm to our work (and images) than good.

For additional discussion of Bible Secrets Revealed see Anthony LeDonne’s interview with Mark Goodacre on the Jesus Blog, Michael J. Kruger’s ongoing review of the series on Canonfodder, Eric Jobe’s comments on Orthodoxy and Heresy, and Robert Cargill’s behind-the-scenes perspectives on XKV8R.

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5 Responses to Bible Secrets Revealed: Does it do biblical scholarship more harm than good?

  1. TXSCHOLAR says:

    You present many well thought out arguments here that can be analyzed. It may be best to tackle this in sections. First, I have been involved in education for quite some time and also have some dabblings with film. That being said, let’s begin by looking at the sensationalism and “first time” claim.

    Many people who do not like the show will come out and complain about the “now for the first time” comment. However, if you watch the episode again you will FIRST see a black screen that says these issues have been debated for thousands of years. I believe even the narrator makes comment to that. The point is…we can’t hear what we want and leave out the rest. It does after all make mention of the debatable issue.

    Also, most people who have no dealings with the film world will truly understand this but, there is immense competition for airtime. If you want your show to get aired it has to be visually captivating no matter what or your message, however intriguing, will never make it. That being said, there are plenty of pro bible shows that do the same song and dance. I can recall doom and gloom voice overs and troubling re-enactments of the apocalypse. I can also recall highly sensationalized portrayals of Jesus. The point for Scholars is the overall message. Besides, most intellectual people will not be swayed either way by any theatrics and I fear for those who are. If you are planning on making a documentary by the way, you will have to make it edgy as well…remember hundreds if not thousands of people are trying to do something very similar to you..what makes yours different and interesting enough to spend the time and money for a network. Likewise, if you’re not doing it for public broadcast, then it’s a moot point.

  2. TXSCHOLAR says:

    The translation issue gets really hairy for so many people. I am one of the responders on another blog and this becomes one of the big beefs. What the show perhaps does is point out a two fold problem with the Bible. First, the bible we read today and believe as the word of God may be quite flawed by translations. Indeed, if there was one word of God written in the Bible, why do we have or need so many versions? Also, why so many denominations? Can you tell us which is the correct version? Therein, the point about human fingerprints becomes evident.

    I have some knowledge of Hebrew, and though I don’t claim be an expert, there are those who can read/speak the language available to me. The name can be applied to a woman of marriable age or a woman not yet married. The problem is that this term does not mean VIRGIN either. The other problem occurs with our suppositions. We want Mary to be a virgin, pure and full of miracle. However, what is the punishment for bearing a child out of marriage during those times? If you are under the impression Joseph and Mary were married at Jesus conception, then you have to reassert your challenge to the Hebrew claim which came first (that becomes problematic). Also, it is very unlikely mortal married couples would not have sex. Talk about sensationalism.

    Perhaps that is why the Bible is so compelling. It asks us to put aside logic, our experience with reality, our scientific truths, and simply agree with whatever stories we are being told. To our credit, years before our Bible people believed just as strongly in Hercules and Perseus running around out there doing battle with monsters and mixing it up with the Gods in Olympus. I suppose they never fought over what was truth and what was fiction in their “Bible”

  3. TXSCHOLAR says:

    The Bible is indeed filled with contradiction, political agenda, failed logic, and translational issues. The documentary asks to observe these with an open mind. Unfortunately, most people go into “attack” mode as the watch because they want to believe the Bible is untouchable.

    I agree and appreciate that you think they should be challenged. Stories told way after the fact or way before the fact become a point of manipulation and change. Whatever the word of God may be, we can’t rely on the Bible to truly convey it.

    Finally, it is good that the scholars bring these points up. You might be right about the scholars, but I find most academics care more about sharing their knowledge than fame. In fact most academics joke that anyone following in their footsteps should make a career change if fame and fortune is what they seek.

    All in all, this is an interesting examination into the show. Don’t let the packaging take away from the challenges presented. It happens in most all cases. Name any historical documentary that doesn’t have a captivating voice or re-enactments. People get bored just watching a person sit in front of a camera while a monotone narrator talks. Shows like that don’t make it because we, the viewers, won’t watch.

  4. Tony says:

    Thanks for your comments, TXSCHOLAR. I agree with much of what you say here. Indeed, I have no problem with BSR’s re-enactments (which I think I compliment) or with trying to make the material exciting. My issue is only with the disconnect between what the scholars say and what the narrator says–that is the sensationalism that I take issue with. And I hope I didn’t come across as suggesting that the scholars’ appearance in documentaries such as BSR is entirely self-serving, because I do believe that they participate in such projects in order to reach out to popular audiences and draw them into the discussion. As I said, I, too, am involved in a documentary project; so, I include myself among this group.

  5. TXSCHOLAR says:

    Tony, not a problem. I enjoy interacting with others and in these discussions. I tend to rally for this show because it is highly successful in its two main goals: to challenge the Bible and to get people talking. I tend to speak extensively (although debate might be a better term) with Bible advocates. My concern is to challenge this book because it is dangerous to consider this literature the truth when so many flaws seems present. Look forward to chatting with you.

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