The History Channel’s new miniseries, Bible Secrets Revealed, covers a lot of fascinating material. Or, rather, it references a lot of fascinating material before flitting off to the next topic. It’s a fun, but frustrating show.
History’s lineup of biblical scholars is impressive, and on one level it’s marvelous to see these folks on TV discussing this material. They bring up many really interesting topics and address them with a forthrightness that’s sadly forbidden in too many church settings. Anyone who’s studied the Bible seriously will be pleased to see some of these open secrets discussed openly rather than as secrets. Consider Peter Enns’ thoughtful posts on this duplicitous arrangement, such as “‘If They Only Knew What I Thought’: The Sad Cycle of Evangelical Biblical Scholarship.” All that stuff your pastor knows from seminary, but is afraid to talk about openly lest it be misunderstood as some kind of “liberal” attack that would incur the wrath of donors and other gatekeepers — those kinds of “secrets” get aired out and mentioned in this program.
Mentioned, but not really dealt with. This is the History Channel, after all, and when the History Channel addresses biblical scholarship, much of the result is to aggravate and annoy biblical scholars in the same way that the channel has long aggravated and annoyed historians. Bible Secrets Revealed isn’t as egregious as some of the tawdriest tabloid shows on the basic-cable channel — it’s nowhere near any of that “ancient astronaut” nonsense, or the shows on ghosts and bigfoot. But it is sensationalistic, filled with overwrought rhetorical questions from its not-quite-Avery-Brooks narrator — questions it fails to consider in much detail, let alone tries to answer.
History’s response to such complaints from biblical scholars would likely be the same as its response to historians who complain about the channel’s frequently sensationalistic approach to their discipline. It’s trying to present history/biblical scholarship to a popular audience, and to do that it must first attract a popular audience. I might think it’d be a great idea to just stick a camera in David Blight’s face and ask him to talk about Reconstruction for an hour, but the folks who run the History Channel are convinced that no one else would watch that show. They do this for a living, they say, and they’ve learned that’s not an effective way to attract a popular audience to explore history. Trust us, they say, all this hype and sensationalism is necessary to get people to watch. What good would it be to produce a substantive, thoughtful, responsibly in-depth exploration of a subject if no one ever watches it?
The result, then, is frustrating programming like Bible Secrets Revealed, which references a lot of terrific stuff, but then just leaves it hanging — often in an irresponsibly misleading way that suggests its breathless narrator is saying something truthful with all his kooky rhetorical questions.
Consider, for instance, the first episode’s discussion of the end of Mark’s Gospel. That’s a fascinating and important topic that’s too often glossed over by our English translations of the New Testament. The oldest, most reliable manuscripts of Mark end with verse 8:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Everything in the final chapter of Mark that comes after this was a later addition. We can’t say for sure where it comes from — it may be a restoration of an original lost ending, it may be a replacement for such a lost ending, or it may be that there was no longer ending to be lost, and this is how the Gospel originally ended. We don’t know for sure.
Bible Secrets Revealed deserves some credit for mentioning this mystery, but it does so in a reckless way that’s really kind of dumb. The show frames this discussion by establishing that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels and that it served as a source for the authors of Matthew and Luke. That’s true — but the narrator gets the last word on the subject, and that last word is sensationalistic, misleading, and incoherent. He raises the possibility that this longer, more recent ending to Mark’s Gospel was a much-later “editing” of Christian belief, somehow responsible for inventing the idea of the resurrection generations later.That much-later invention would require that Matthew and Luke were also “edited” — with new endings written for both of those Gospels as well, which we know isn’t the case. But the bigger problem is that this whole segment treats Mark as though it were not just the earliest of the Gospels, but the earliest text of the entire New Testament. And that’s just not true. Paul’s epistles were all written earlier. We don’t know precisely when any of the New Testament writings were written, but the earliest educated guess for Mark’s Gospel is later than the latest educated guess for 1 Corinthians, in which Paul wrote:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
My point here is not to defend the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, but only to point out the historical fact that it was something Paul and other Christians already believed before the Gospel of Mark was ever written. In that passage, Paul isn’t telling the Christians in Corinth anything new — he’s reminding them of what he and they and all the other Christians they knew already believed to be true. It’s a bogus anachronism to suggest that this claim recorded by first-century Christians in the first-century was somehow a later invention. That’s not a claim that any of the scholars interviewed in the show would make, so it was kind of infuriating to hear the narrator suggesting it seemingly on their behalf.
(That whole segment also wasn’t helped by having Reza Aslan discuss Mark 16:8 despite his apparently never having read Mark 16:1-7.)
There are things to like in Bible Secrets Revealed. The first episode does a nice job tracing the history of our English Bibles, retelling stories everyone should know of Wycliffe and Tyndale, and providing some helpful political context — the translation of the Bible was, and still is, inextricably bound up with questions of control, and therefore of power, and therefore of politics. And when the show’s frenetic short attention span allows for it, the scholars interviewed are able to offer some fascinating insights and overviews.
Overall, though, one gets the sense of flipping randomly through the pages of an encyclopedia but not being allowed to remain on one page long enough to read anything meaningful. The show’s producers keep cutting away from topics just when they’re getting interesting. Ever watch Red Zone on the NFL network? That’s the nearly live highlight show that switches from game to game on Sundays to show every touchdown and every big play from every game across the league. Bible Secrets Revealed is like watching the opposite of Red Zone. It’s like you’ve got this fantastic satellite TV system that lets you watch every NFL game, but the guy sitting next to you with the remote switches away from every game just before anybody scores. And then he turns to you and says, in his best Avery Brooks impression, “Is it possible, then, that they never scored at all? Could it be that no team has ever scored?”
Not only is that frustrating, but it could leave you with a really distorted view of where things stand in the NFL. You’d probably conclude, rightly, that you’d be better off waiting until the next day and buying a newspaper to read for yourself about what really happened without all the editing and sensationalist suggestions.