Friday, November 15, 2013

So I Actually Watched The First Episode Of "Bible Secrets Revealed"

I didn't learn anything new about the Bible from this episode, which is not to say that nobody would learn anything from it. But the question is, how much misinformation would they get from the show which would stick, and how many erroneous preconceptions which they had would the show confirm? "Bible Secrets Revealed" has a very impressive array of talking heads on hand, including some bona-fide experts in Biblical studies such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, some others in the grad-student-to-Associate-Professor range who made few egregious blunders, and, at least in the first episode, "Lost in Translation," only a couple of dingbats. A very low proportion of dingbats for a show on the so-called History Channel. Unfortunately, very poor use was made of the academic talent on hand. (Why, oh, why do Ehrman and Pagels and other real historians continue to work with the so-called History Channel, giving it what little credibility it has?) The narration, the most dominant voice in any documentary on an historical subject, was written by a dingbat. All those competent scholars got just a few seconds at a time on the audio track, and over and over, just about when they were going to get to something interesting, the narrator broke in and said something vapid or downright stupid. For example, in my previous blog post on this series, I speculated:

"It will be interesting to see whether this series addresses misconceptions about the Bible, such as the very widespread one about the Bible having been written and/or re-written and/or edited and/or altered in any other way at the Council of Nicea. It would be very impressive if the show addresses the way in which that particular misconception has been perpetuated by the so-called History Channel."

They did not address that popular misconception directly. The narrator did strongly, erroneously imply that Constantine wrote or re-wrote the Bible, and flatly, erroneously stated that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

So many people competent on the subject of the history of the Bible were around this time, in the making of this particular series, but as usual it is obvious, both that none of them had a say in the final draft of the narration, and also that whoever did write the narration wasn't listening at all closely to that unusually-large collection of experts and competent non-nincompoops, which was an unusually-large waste of brains, even for the so-called History Channel.

Maybe the narration was written by Reza Aslan, one of the unusually-few dingbats among the talking heads. Aslan, who toward the end of the episode rhapsodized about the stories in the Bible having been around for "5000 years." (Try roughly half that, Sparky. Theories about the composition of the Bible more than about 2500 to 3000 years ago are quite speculative.) The plot of the narration began with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls -- but no mention was made of Nag Hammadi or Oxyrhynchus -- which Bart Ehrman called "beyond a doubt the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century." But surely, Bart, you meant to say the most significant biblical find of the century, not the most significant find of any kind. Right? And surely you have to mention Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus in the same breath. Right? Even though Oxyrhynchus began to be excavated in the 19th century. Well, very possibly Ehrman did mention those sites, and still others, in the same breath, and quite possibly he did qualify his remark about the Dead Sea Scrolls, calling them the most significant 20th-century-find having to do specifically with the Bible, or perhaps he was more specific still and called the Scrolls the most important 20th-century find having to do with the Old Testament. We may never know, what with the so-called History Channel's ADD-afflicted style of editing which gives us 4 or 5 seconds of talking-head commentary at a time, between longer stretches of dingbat-written narration.

It'd be nice to have the full interviews with the talking heads -- with some of them, I mean, of course. I could live quite comfortably without Aslan's full contribution. But some of the others might have mentioned, in this early part of the episode, when they were discussing how certain parts of the New Testament were altered, their best guesses about when during the first three centuries of Christianity these changes were made, and with the approval of which leaders of the early Church. (But who wants to hear a bunch of dates and names in a program on a historical subject, right?)

But no. And the episode leaps from this spotty coverage of pre-Nicene times and some of its Biblical-textual problems to late-Medieval England, and John Wycliffe. The Vulgate is mentioned only in passing in reference to the English bible translations of Wycliffe and Tyndale and the King James Version. Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Syrian, Gothic, French, Slavonic, German (Luther, hello!) and other Bible translations are mentioned not at all, and apparently the English translations are only mentioned because it takes us to the USA. Apparently God is still a God-fearing English-speaking Amurrkin at the so-called History Channel. A mention of the Jefferson Bible, the book of Mormon, pro-slavery bible readings in the Confederacy, some video montage of international scenes in place of any mention of non-English versions after Antiquity, and the so-called History Channel calls it a wrap, thinking, yes, this will do as a representation of the entire subject of Biblical textual criticism.

It won't do. People who know better need to speak up louder about the shoddy nature of the so-called History Channel. (And I'll say it again, specifically to Ehrman and Pagels: they need to stop appearing on it! How badly will their contributions have to be mangled and distorted before thay say Enough?) Competent historians should receive more support from other media. From outlets like the television channels from National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution, which seemed at first like they might be a breath of fresh air, but instead have decided that the viewing public needs to be inundated with shows about aircraft crashes and survivalists.

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