Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Bible Hunters" With Dr Jeffrey Rose

I'd rather be writing about a TV series having to do with the manuscripts of Livy, but, of course, there are no such TV series. I suppose I will have to make that series myself. So spread the word about me and talk me up so that I can win that Nobel Prize and have the clout to host TV series on previously-obscure topics which deserve broader audiences, k thnx.

This series is okay, not nearly as dumb as some other TV shows covering the same ground, namely, the discovery of early (6th century and older) manuscripts of the Bible, and of manuscripts of New Testament apocrypha. The host and narrator, Dr Jeffrey Rose, is an archaeologist, and his approach is to follow in the footsteps of some of the 19th and 20th century scholars who made major discoveries of manuscripts -- on one occasion going so far to pay homage to his predecessors and re-create their experience as to ride on a camel with Bedouin guides from Cairo to St Catherine's monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai, where the famous 4th century Codex Sinaiticus was found by the scholar Constantin von Tischendorf in 1844, and where many other significant Biblical manuscripts have been found since. Besides the camel ride, Dr Rose's journey's to various Egyptian locations are mostly portrayed by shots of him riding various motorcycles. Larry Hurtado has written 2 excellent blog posts about this series, and in his post on Part 1 he asks the very good question:

Quite why the presenter was filmed motorcycling around places in Egypt, I can’t say. Couldn’t he have simply ridden in the car with the camera-guy . . . who was filming him riding a motorcycle??

I can only hope that it was, as Dr Hurtado surmises, a guy in a car, if not an entire film crew in a van, and not something dangerous like a cameraman filming from the back seat of a 2nd motorcycle, or something even more dangerous, like a cameraman riding a motorcycle solo and filming at the same time. Most likely, of course, it was a cameraman in a car or a whole crew in a van.

And who filmed Dr Rose and his Bedouin guides on their camels -- a lone cameraman on a camel? I'm picturing something much more like a van with a film crew and a well-stocked fridge, just in case Dr Rose -- or the Bedouins, for that matter -- preferred a sandwich or a TV dinner to the bread which the Bedouins cooked on hot rocks and which Rose exclaimed was delicious and "cooked to perfection!" I know that I'm old and out of touch and that technological development keeps racing along, but the images and sound on the road trips were impressive. If a lone camera did that, then I want a camera like that.

Why so many documentaries continue to cling to the practice of presenting the illusion of the intrepid host exploring the world all alone, and cut out any interaction with the camera person and/or crew, I don't know. They should stop. It's as corny as laugh tracks on sitcoms. Wake up and smell the 21st century, documentarians: we're on to you!

Other than that run-of-the-mill technical documentary stuff, "Bible Hunters" is refreshingly free of the huge wince-inducing historical and technical errors of which the typical shows on these texts from the so-called "History Channel" are jam-packed, and of which even most shows from PBS or the BBC or the Smithsonian Channel have a few. ("Bible Hunters" first appeared on the BBC a few years ago, and now it's appearing in the US on the Smithsonian Channel -- in the same form in which it appeared on the BBC, with nothing cut out or added? Good question. I have no idea.)

[PS, 6 June 2016: There is one fairly serious error repeatedly committed by Rose on this show: he often says "text" when he should be saying "manuscript." A text is a series of words, whatever form they are recorded in. For example, "Mary had a little lamb" is exactly the same text whether it is spoken aloud, written on paper or carved into stone. Dr Rose refers to people discovering texts when they discovered manuscripts. If it's a manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew, then the text is already known. A discovery of a text occurs when some previously-unknown collection of words is discovered. And the date of the text is when it was first composed, which, in the case of Biblical and apocryphal texts, has always been different than the date of the manuscript. So for example Rose makes the mistake of referring to "a six-century text" when he should have said " six-century manuscript of a second-century text," if the manuscript is a copy of something first written in the 2nd century. Other than "text' and "manuscript, I didn't notice any technical errors in the show.]

In his post on Part 2 of the series (as it appeared on the BBC), Dr Hurtado says:

I have to say that I found it strange that some really crucial (arguably more important) manuscripts finds were totally ignored.

I agree that it's arguable that Rose left some of the most important manuscripts out of the program. But the series is only a few hours long, and with a series like that, choices have to be made about which finds to include and how long to dwell upon each one. Clearly, Rose loves Egypt. "Bible Hunters" confines itself to Biblical manuscript discoveries made in Egypt (which are huge in the scheme of all such discoveries, to be fair to Rose). If you're curious about the important manuscripts which were left out by the show, by all means follow the link to Dr Hurtado's blog, he gives you a very good overview.

And of course, once again -- if you're into non-Christian ancient literature, you're left totally out in the cold by this series, just as you're left out in the cold by every other series on the great finds of Biblical manuscripts. Dr Rose's show covers Oxyrhynchus, both by commenting on Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt and the huge amount of papyrus fragments they found there,

and also with footage of Rose interviewing Dr Dirk Obbink, the current head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Project, and Obbink showing Rose around the still-active Oxyrhynchus dig sites -- but the show doesn't contain as much as a half-dozen words about the non-Biblical texts found at Oxyrhychus, which have turned the world of Classical Greek studies upside down, and also had a not inconsiderable impact on the world of Classical Latin, and also included priceless treasures for those interested in everyday life in Ptolomaic and Roman Egypt: personal letters, legal documents, shopping lists and so forth -- things which had been almost entirely lacking from the sources available to historians before Grenfell and Hunt thought to look through the ancient trash heaps at Oxyrhynchus. Rose shows the libraries of Egyptian monasteries, but doesn't mention any of the Classical texts in those libraries -- and most of the Classical Greek and Latin literature we have today comes from manuscripts made in Christian monasteries.

And this show says almost exactly squat about all of the Old Testament manuscripts in all of the places Rose goes. Again, that's pretty typical about TV shows about ancient manuscripts: it's pretty much all about Jeebus.

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