History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts

In lieu of writing a much longer piece for an online journal, I have thought it useful to open up some to a conversation concerning the History Channel’s ‘The Bible’.  Recently lots has been made about the inaccuracies of the miniseries, as well as Glenn Beck’s (racist?) comments about how similar is their Satan character to “that guy”.  But not much has been said in its defense.

This is problematic; while there are inaccuracies, I am not sure that it diminishes from the quality or historical contexts that are present.  Before Jim West gets flustered (don’t hate me Jim), let me explain my meaning.

As students of the past, there is one constant fact to all of our ancient literature that I’m sure many of my readers will already know: they contain elements of what some would call ‘truth’ (in a philosophical or theological sense), elements of cultural memory/social memory (historical or otherwise), and lots more mythological constructs–fictions, to be blunt about it.  In the Gospels, this is probably the most clear-cut.  We have four canonical Gospels and dozens of noncanonical Gospels, some contain similar elements between each other (Matthew and Luke contain something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel with their own additional, unique content).

I often wonder how early receivers of these Gospels understood them.  As a literary critic at heart, reception history is an important function of any text; yet somehow I don’t think that Luke’s first readers grumbled on about how little it matched up with Matthew’s accounts.  I mean, you don’t generally find early Christian apologists complaining about how much Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives contradict each other. (critics of Christianity certainly did, but not generally the believers–which is telling)  Somehow four Gospels were, for the most part, accepted into a canon and appreciated as they were–with all of their complexities and nuance, with their competing theological narratives, with their chronological disparities.

Kind of like these discrepancies.

Now not everyone appreciated this, and we have examples of some later scribes attempting to unify the four versions (i.e., they attempted to ‘correct’ the disparities). But these attempts were widely unsuccessful (so far as we know); we still have four Gospels in the canon, contradictions and competitive elements included.  So at some point, along the line, these were still appreciated for what they were: rewritten narratives, tradition ‘history’.  Most of my readers who are academics themselves will undoubtedly be aware of all of this.  And in many respects, probably still accept the Gospels–begrudgingly or otherwise–with their many challenges and puzzling alterations.

But isn’t it interesting that when a miniseries does the same thing as the Gospel authors, many of us just cannot deal with it?  So the producers have a square script in the wrong period.  So what?  Matthew includes a scene where Herod goes about ordering the killing of a bunch of infants (which never happened).  Luke feels it is completely acceptable to add a census at the wrong time.  And lest we forget, Josephus and Philo were quite capable of rewriting the Bible in bizarre and inaccurate ways; Josephus has Alexander the Great reading the book of Daniel for goodness sake; a book which at that time would not be inked for another 160 years or more!  Philo has Heraclitus stealing philosophical ideas from Moses; if you want to talk about inaccuracies and historical improbabilities, look no further than the first century CE.

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“Look at this book which conveniently fits right into the theme of my narrative (that hasn’t been written yet)!”

Many have had a (understandable) problem with how white Jesus is portrayed in the film.  But Jesus has been portrayed as white for generations–not that this is an acceptable argument, because it isn’t–but he has not only ever been portrayed this way.  Some of the very first depictions of Jesus are him as a Greek (as Orpheus) or as a Roman (on a Roman sarcophagus where he is portrayed with no beard, a tunic of high quality, and thick, curly hair).

Certainly some early depictions of him appear closer to what one might imagine; painted on a catacomb wall, there stands Jesus–unbearded, olive-skinned though still clearly Caucasian, and in the desert near a tomb–with a magic wand conjuring up a dead Lazarus, for example.  But isn’t that just another example of an artist taking a personal liberty in their own portrayals of Jesus?

JRaiseLazarus

Expecto patronum!” or something.

Let’s be plainly honest: There is no way to know what ethnicity Jesus had been; one might like to imagine him as an approximation of what the popular concept of ‘Jewish’ was like in antiquity, but as Thomas L. Thompson has aptly pointed out, “Jewish” is not an ethnicity.  He may have been a black man, he may have had a Greek ancestry, he may have been an Egyptian, he may have been something else entirely–he just shows up out of nowhere in Mark with no birth narrative or discussion of ancestry (and Luke and Matthew included ancestry for theological reasons–not historical reasons).  Paul may or may not suggest that he was from the line of David (I tend to think not), but even so that does not ipso facto mean every descendent of his was ethnically tied to the region.  Some scholars would like to think so; but this is really sort of a moot point in some ways, isn’t it?  The earliest Christian communities didn’t care about Jesus’ racial background and portrayed him as whatever they saw fit for their communities.  After all, God does not have an ethnicity (nor a gender, for that matter).

Does History’s ‘The Bible’ contain errors, contradictions, inaccuracies, etc…?  Yes, absolutely.  But look at the material from which it is drawing inspiration.  When your actual source material is conflicting, inaccurate, vague, or diversely interpreted, any retelling or rewriting of that narrative will contain those elements.   It is patently unfair to criticize the miniseries for being ‘untrue to the source material’ when even our earliest interpreters were unconcerned with such anachronistic notions.  ‘The Bible’ is a modern day retelling, in the same vein as Josephus or Philo, of any of the Gospel authors, any of the apologists and scribes of antiquity.  Do you understand what it is you are watching?

If you truly do not like what the program offers, don’t watch it.  Or, better yet, watch it and use it in your classrooms.  Use it in your presentations and lectures to show, through example, how a text can be reinterpreted to fit a modern, synchronized world–but also how it was reinterpreted in the past.  Use it, don’t just thump your chest and brow-beat it.  We get it; you went to Seminary or a research institution and you want to prove you know what you’re talking about.  We know you’re smart.  So use that intellect and turn ‘The Bible’ into a learning tool, rather than shunning it.

The tools have changed, but the process is essentially the same; it just takes less time to achieve the same result.

Just my two-cents.  More to come.

‘The Bible’ Series and the History Channel

So the History Channel is going to air a new ‘The Bible’ series.  What does this mean?  What is it exactly?  What are the implications?

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“History”

As you all know, I’m not a fan of the History Channel.  It often airs an overabundance of crap (Swamp People?  Really?  That is what you’re going with?), conspiracy theory nonsense (UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens, shows about secret government takeovers etc…); I mean I remember a time when the history channel aired programs about Nazi’s and WWII all the time.  It was crap back then too, but at least it was about history.  Now what is their excuse?  (Ratings, I know…it was a rhetorical question)  Over the years I’ve learned to live and let live; I don’t bother the History Channel (most of the time) and the History Channel stays off my ‘suitable network television’ list (except American Pickers and Pawnstars…. I admit, they’re guilty pleasures).  Yet when the History Channel sets out to make anything related to the Bible and history, it seems like the producers get together and conspire on ways just completely screw it up.    I mean statistics dictate that they could not possibly produce so many terrible ‘history and the bible’ programs that just suck so bad; at this point, they just have to be doing it on purpose.   There is no other logical scenario (but then, look at their target audience, so I guess that explains some things).

But on occasion, sometimes, the History Channel produces some real gems.  Their miniseries on the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s for example, just outstanding.  Also their miniseries on the Civil War, also very well done.  So what am I expecting–and what should you expect–from this new Bible miniseries?  Let’s get into some specifics.

“The Bible” sounds better than “a collection of random narratives that have been thrown together, then edited, copied, and redacted over a period of hundreds of years in order to make it appear to read like a chronological history”.

First and foremost, (and please repeat this to as many of your friends) this miniseries is not an attempt to be historically accurate.  That is to say, the History Channel is not presenting this new series as historical fact.  It is a dramatization.  Essentially, they are taking some of the really entertaining and interesting parts of the Biblical narratives and turning them into live-action mini-movies.  Remember the movie ‘Jason and the Argonauts?’  It is essentially the same thing, but instead of basing their series on Greek mythology or an ancient Greek epic like Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautika, they’re using the Bible.  I hope that was clear enough.  In short ‘The Bible’ miniseries :: the movie ‘Troy’.

‘Why is this so important?’, you may ask.  Why make such a distinction?  This may sound crazy to all you sane and rational readers of my blog, but there are people out there who cannot really understand the distinction between myth and fact.  Mel Gibson made a movie called the Passion of the Christ which based on a narrative that is both contradictory and highly mythologized–and Mel Gibson made it even more disgusting, more dramatic, and added all sorts of fictional elements (like Jesus making a modern day table in a carpentry workshop–because Mel Gibson doesn’t know Greek and thinks that τέκτων has only one meaning).  And people believe it represents a historical event.  People left the theater in tears, so emotionally distraught that some could not bear it.  Why?  Because they could not separate reality from the fiction they were seeing.  And this is the trouble with dramatizations.

Even as an academic, a student of history, I get annoyed with dramatizations.  I can’t help it, factual inaccuracies drive me

They’re essentially just doing this.

completely bonkers (as do ‘certainty statements’ in portrayals of events).  It will be a real challenge watching the exodus occur on television without thinking “Oh, now come on! There is absolutely no way this happened.”  Though I will say, I’m looking forward to this.  Mark Goodacre had a hand behind the scenes as an adviser and I can’t help but appreciate that fact.  If a scholar as stable as Mark can deal with helping to produce this dramatization, then I suppose I can deal with it too.  But I won’t let the chance to express my fears over the possible backlash that this program may produce.

After all, Mel Gibson’s Passion movie will influence more Americans than the Gospels; most laypeople will see the Passion before ever going to a bookstore to read what actual scholars have to say about it.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the same problems scholars faced during the showing of Gibson’s movie will follow this dramatization.  Undoubtedly, certain religious groups will not understand that what they’re seeing is not ‘history’.  Some who actually believe the History Channel produces history might not know that this is not history.  So the implications here are quite clear: people will undoubtedly believe what they’re seeing because it reenforces certain preconceived ideas about the past.

And don’t tell me it won’t happen.  I have people searching out ‘Discovery Channel Mermaids’ every day…hundreds of people every day keep falling for a fictional documentary…ON MERMAIDS.  And some even accuse me in comments of being on the government payroll to coverup the facts (i.e., that I’m writing to cover up the fact that mermaids actually do exist).  I wish I was making this up.  So if a show on mermaids, which was clearly fiction (and they even stated it on their website and during the airing of the program), can be taken at face value as fact, the Bible is not a stretch considering most Americans believe it to be historical anyway.

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