Bible Secrets Revealed Episode 3: The Forbidden Scriptures

The third and fourth episodes of Bible Secrets Revealed finally saw broadcast in Canada over the weekend. I am particularly interested in these episodes as they focus their attention on non-canonical texts, including 1 Enoch, the Life of Adam and Eve, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and a few others. Though often the discussion of CA in television documentaries leaves much to be desired, BSR deserves credit for their informative and evocative presentation of the material. Of course, it wasn’t perfect.

Episode three, “Forbidden Texts” (a summary from Robert Cargill available HERE), concentrates on two interrelated themes: the political motivation for the selection of texts for the canon (both HB/OT and NT), and the suppression of feminine imagery and figures in early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. The show opens with mention of the variety of canons (e.g., the 81 books of the Ethiopic church, the expanded OT of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity); this is a favourite topic of mine and I am pleased to see it discussed. However, there was some imprecision in the delineation of “Apocrypha” (as the term for the Deutero-canonical texts but the narration and accompanying images roughly seguéd into Christian Apocrypha), and the repeated statement that texts were “removed” from the Bible, rather than not selected, was misleading (though perhaps the topic is even more nuanced than that—if a group valued 1 Enoch and then is told that it is not authorized Scripture, then I suppose they would feel that their text was “removed”).

The “forbidden texts” of the Hebrew Bible featured in the episode are 1 Enoch and the Life of Adam and Eve (though the latter is likely a Christian composition). The discussion about these texts focused on why they were “removed”; so, there is much speculation that 1 Enoch presented a God that was too compassionate and that the Life of Adam and Eve gave too much attention to Eve. As support for these views, BSR gives much screen time to Kathleen McGowan, author of The Magdalene Line series of novels. McGowan’s comments tend to be rather provocative (texts which prominently feature women are said to “threaten the church” or are “absolutely terrifying to the church”) and sometimes even just plain wrong (there are “many many references” in gnostic texts to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ “beloved” and their relationship is “referred to in a sexual manner in the gnostic gospels; so not only was Jesus married, he was married to Mary Magdalene”). Given that BSR opens with a declaration that the series aims to present the views of scholarship on the Bible, McGowan is an odd choice for its panel of “experts.”

The panel also features Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, whose expertise on (some of) these texts goes without question. But why not other North American scholars of the Christian Apocrypha? Stephen Shoemaker could discuss Mary, Brent Landau works with infancy traditions, Lee Martin McDonald with canon formation, and I could go on. I realize the filmmakers want to keep their panel an efficient size, but is Kathleen McGowan really a better choice than these scholars? The lack of scholarly expertise on the CA is particularly apparent in the discussion of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas from episode four, “The Real Jesus.” In a discussion about the lost years of Jesus, Infancy Thomas is brought forward as a fanciful effort to reveal what Jesus was like as a child. Bart Ehrman, who should really know better, says the text “claims to be written by Thomas, who was Jesus’ own brother” (in fact, the text was anonymous until around the tenth century) and that it was “excluded” (the narrator’s choice of words) from the Bible because “the church fathers thought some of the stories in it were somewhat scandalous” (there is no evidence they did so; the only commentary we have objects to the text because it contradicts John’s claim that Jesus’ first miracle was at the wedding in Cana). I know that they have to keep the discussion relatively brief and simple, but far more interesting, I think, about Infancy Thomas’ portrayal of a cursing Jesus is that likely it would have been considered an acceptable depiction of a holy man in antiquity. Oh, and by-the-way, I supplied the producers with the image of the manuscript of Infancy Thomas. Just sayin'.

My criticism about the first episode of BSR—that scholars’ comments are sometimes edited to fit the filmmaker’s narrative—is less apparent in these two episodes. However, there are a few occasions when editing obscures some of the facts. For example, Robert Cargill mentions that Mary is portrayed in the New Testament as a prostitute, which is patently untrue, but I can imagine that a preceding statement of “many people think” ended up on the cutting room floor; also, the discussion of the Peter-related texts is edited in such a way as to suggest that the Apocalypse of Peter (the one with the gruesome tour of hell) was found at Nag Hammadi; and splicing McGowan’s comments in with those of Ehrman and Pagels makes it look like the three are in agreement on the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Mary (including that "Mary emerges as a successor of Jesus").

All told, these two episodes of BSR are useful and entertaining entry points for the exploration of apocryphal texts. The visuals are captivating, the issues discussed are topical, and the scholars’ commentary (for the most part) is reflective of the variety of perspectives in scholarship and popular thought on the texts. I particularly liked Robert Cargill’s discussion of the famous “Yahweh and his Asherah” potsherd from Kuntillet Ajrud; it was an effective way of relating the texts to artifacts and to practice (for fun, go see Michael Kruger's poorly-informed RESPONSE on this point). I will certainly use BSR in my classes relating to these texts and add it to my resource page on CA-related documentaries (HERE, but desperately in need of an update).

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One Response to Bible Secrets Revealed Episode 3: The Forbidden Scriptures

  1. I’ve been preparing reviews/responses of/to “Bible Secrets Reviewed,” episode by episode. The most recent one, a review of episode 3, is at

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLEZkXXhWVg

    Any comments or suggestions you could give are welcome.

    James Snapp, Jr.

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