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Lee Child “don’t know Jack” (about Revelation)

August 5, 2013

One of my vices is occasionally to read one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.  For those of you not acquainted with them, they’re about a former military police guy who leaves the army to drift around the USA, in the course of which he comes across various “situations” that he takes it upon himself to “sort” (to use a British expression).  Always lots of fisticuffs, intrigue, nefarious guys who deserve to get “sorted”, and always a lovely lady whom Reacher typically beds (but who is always an interesting character in her own right).  As I say, it’s a vice.

One of the impressive things about the novels is that the author (Child) clearly does a lot of research and careful observation.  He gives lots of detailed descriptions of people, places, buildings, rooms, furniture, weapons, organizations  . . . you name it.  He seems to delight in doing so, and he seems to be a careful observer and researcher.

Anyway, over the weekend I finished one in which Reacher comes across a wealthy guy who runs a metal recycling plant (and the town next to which it’s located), and who is also a fanatical “end time” believer and preacher who is trying to provoke the end-time apocalypse with a monstrous action of his own.

In this novel, however, Child seems to betray a curious lapse in his usual effort for accuracy.  In the course of the story, hitchhiking across Colorado, Reacher encounters a priest who describes himself as an “Anglican,” the first mistake.  In Canada it’s the Anglican Church, but in the USA it’s the Episcopal Church, and our priest would say that he’s Episcopalian (or an Episcopal priest).

But, more seriously, in the immediate context of this conversation there’s an even greater and more annoying lapse in Child’s usually careful work that I suspect betrays his own prejudice, and it’s not a pretty sight.  Reacher asks the priest about the book of Revelation, and the priest replies as follows:

“The correct title is the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.  Most of the original is lost, of course.  It was written in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Koine Geek, and copied by hand many times , and then translated into Latin, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Elizabethan English and printed, with opportunities for error and confusion at every single stage.  Now it reads like an acid trip.  I suspect it always did.  Possibly all the translations and all the copying actually improved it.”

Well, to use a colloquial expression, I have to say that on this topic “Lee Child don’t know Jack!”  To put it more genteel, he’s clearly not done his usual work of research.  The original title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (the opening words of the book).  More importantly, there is no basis for saying that Revelation was written either in Hebrew or Aramaic, and nobody (such as the priest in the novel) with any education in biblical studies would say so.  No textbook asserts this.  What is meant by “most of the original is lost” escapes me.  As with all ancient literary texts, the original copy is lost . . . entirely, and all we have are copies.  But scholars tend to judge that we have pretty much the book as written by John, not simply remnants of the text.

And yes, with the other NT writings, it was copied frequently across time, and translated into Latin (and other languages), and eventually into “Elizabethan English” (by which I presume Child means the KJV).  But the KJV was hardly the first or last English translation, and it wasn’t made from the Latin.  So, quite what he’s on about in this paragraph escapes me.

Now Child’s novels are hardly great literature, but they can be a diverting “beach read” or keep you occupied waiting for a flight in an airport.  Actually, I find his writing style fun and engaging usually.  And, as I said, he’s also done his homework on pretty much everything he addresses, whether the way a roadside diner looks or the muzzle-velocity of a given rifle round.  So what led him to betray his own method in this matter of the book of Revelation?

I regret to say that I can only assume that the source of all his nonsense about Revelation is simply blind, arrogant prejudice.  Child apparently doesn’t think that biblical texts are worth researching, and his own ill-informed prejudice will serve.  Indeed, he appears to be so arrogant as to think that his bizarre views of Revelation would be echoed by an “Anglican” priest as factual.

There’s a larger observation to make.  It’s this sort of arrogance that leads to such stupidity about biblical texts that one sees all too often, e.g., in the news media.  People just think they know (e.g., that the biblical texts are all a bunch of nonsense) and so don’t have to consult, read, investigate, or learn anything.  So, Child is mentioned here more an example than whipping boy.

You don’t have to believe the ideas in texts such as Revelation, any more than you have to like Lady Macbeth.  But, whether Shakespeare or Revelation, one should aim for accuracy and fairness.   And those others who share Child’s apparent disdain for and biblical texts and the faith associated with them should take a lesson as well.

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14 Comments
  1. I’m curious–what if Child knew it was not accurate, it’s just what that particular character believed? I’ve never read any Jack Reacher novels (I have other literary vices). Just thought that may be an option when Child is supposed to be a well-researched writer. Am I being too nice?

    On the other hand, it’s uncanny how wrong “experts” can be outside their own field. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he just took the common narrative and ran with it.

    Are you starting a theme about “non-expert experts” on this blog???

    • Dave, What Child ascribes to this priest about Revelation isn’t any “common line”; it’s totally a bizarre statement, that I suspect simply reflects his own lazy prejudices about the Bible.
      And, no, I’m not starting/inviting some thread on any and all the “non-experts” out there with such ill-informed views. I’m much more interested in drawing positive attention to good scholarship in my field.

  2. We have more than a few Anglican churches in Virginia…USA. We were driving around Charlottesville on Sunday and observed one. Actually there are several around Richmond. They do not call themselves Episcopal and are very serious Anglicans!

  3. Well, as fictional portrayals of biblical history go, it’s hardly danbrownian in its absurdity. There certainly has been speculation (especially in the 19th and early 20th c.) that Revelation was translated from Aramaic, mostly stemming from the…unpolished quality of the Greek. (The theory has seen a resurgence lately in some evangelical circles who seem to have an Aramaic fetish.) I think it’s fair to say the author’s first language was probably not Greek, and there seem to be some Semiticisms clumsily wedged in.

    Perhaps the character in the book wasn’t a very good student, and poorly recalled the details from outdated sources in seminary. Or perhaps Child went no deeper that the Wiki entry (which does mention a possible Hebrew or Aramaic original, citing non-academic sources).

    • Jack: Perhaps Child simply consulted Wikipedia and its daft information. But hardly a decent job of researching a subject that is so crucial in the book. The speculation you mention was never widely accepted, and so it’s again curious that Child (as so many others who choose to remain ignorant of biblical scholarship) should echo this eccentric proposal over what most scholars think. That’s my point.

      • It seems a common enough misconception among people who know just a little (try a Google search!) that I can overlook it. I do agree about the greater issue of disregard for the Bible (and religious literature more generally) as subjects of research, even among scholars in other fields. And lazy research from otherwise-smart authors (I’m looking at you, Neal Stephenson) is always annoying.

  4. Howard permalink

    I have to say that this does not surprise me in the least. I have come across a boat load of people who have displayed this same lack of knowledge regarding the history and transmission of the Bible. From non-religious people to people who have gone to some sort of Christian collage or seminary. So I would like to ask, when does a student of a religious course get this sort of training? Do they all get it, or only the ones who go in for this specific subject?

    Just my observation, but when Child’s says, “Most of the original is lost, of course.” To me it seems like he is referring to John’s original wording, and not the original document. So I think he was saying that most of what we read in Revelation today, is not the original wording used by John. If true, it actually makes the statement even worse.

    • Howard: One would learn about the transmission-history of biblical texts only in courses in which that subject is included, and many “Religion/Religious Studies” courses omit the topic entirely. But a seminary-trained priest would know something considerably closer to textbook opinion than the character in the novel.

  5. I’ve heard similar things said about copying and translating from the LDS (Mormon) “elders” who came to my door. It seems to be their party line and part of the reason they don’t trust our Bible but say the KJV was the best translation available. I was baffled, as this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the text was transmitted.

    I tried to show them how it really happened. I’m not sure if I got through (they are rather young elders), but I hope I planted a seed or left a pebble in their shoe, as it were.

  6. JohnO permalink

    Alternatively, the rest of Child’s ‘painstaking research’ is also suspect. (Not that that diminishes your observation regarding disdain for Biblical texts.)
    I often find such apparently ‘well-researched’ novels fall on their face when they use a subject I have some knowledge of.

  7. Greg permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you for the interesting post, as always, and for the correction of Mr. Child and the general tendency in larger culture’s assumptions of biblical texts. I just wanted to note that there are in fact those who call themselves “Anglican” in the USA. The Anglican Church in North America (http://anglicanchurch.net) includes several dioceses that recently transitioned from the Episcopal Church (USA), and has nearly 1000 congregations in the US and Canada. Priests in the ACNA would certainly refer to themselves as “Anglican” rather than “Episcopal”, although I’m sure none of them would give the strange views of Revelation as on the one in Child’s novel!

    • Jeff Sams permalink

      Thanks for these comments, Greg. You beat me to the observation about the Anglican Church in North America! I would also like to say that I always appreciate Prof. Hurtado’s informative and enlightening posts.

  8. I find Child’s writing very wooden. Have you tried any of Deon Meyer’s thrillers? They are vastly better. Start with one of the recent ones.
    Also, I doubt that Meyer would write nonsense like this about Revelation or any other biblical topic.

    • “Curious Presbyterian”: Could you use your name if you comment on this site? Site policy. I pass on your compliment about Deon Meyer’s novels, but I really didn’t intend my posting to generate comparisons of thrillers. My point was about a certain cultural arrogant ignornance about the Bible, giving one example of it.

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