“Bible Hunters” Part 1: Comments from an Interviewee
Well, the first of the two-part “Bible Hunters” programme aired and it was better than one could fear. The approach reflected what now seems the “orthodox” view among TV producers/directors that the public wants to see some guy/gal running around to various places and doing the “golly, gee” bit, with scholars confined to 10-20 second blips on this or that, just to show that the “golly, gee” has some basis. (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?? Seemed to take up unnecessary time, but, hey, “this is TV”.)
It was, of course, TV, but Prof. Mary Beard’s excellent series on Rome shows, contra the “orthodox” view, that a real scholar can present a show, and that it can be both interesting and seriously informative.
In the interviews, I had to work hard to get the “Bible Hunters” people to understand that (contrary to what they seemed to assume) Tischendorf, the Smith Sisters, etc., were devout Christians, and that they didn’t find early manuscripts and the earlier readings they contained a problem at all. Quite the opposite! They were eager to find earlier manuscripts because they saw these as placing them closer to an earlier and more authentic form of what they regarded as the Word of God in written form. That is, these people pursued early manuscripts precisely to obtain the earliest textual form of what was for them sacred scripture, and didn’t find the incidence of textual variants worrying much.
To be sure there were others of the time who found the evidence of early manuscripts unsettling. Among these were some who objected on the basis of “high church” views, reasoning that, to follow the early manuscripts over against the later ones would mean (to them) that for a 1000 years the church had been allowed (by God) to use and endorse a faulty biblical text. This would call into question their doctrine of the church, and so they passionately defended the traditional wording of the biblical text based (based heavily on medieval-era manuscripts).
But, as I say, for the “Bible Hunters” and other (perhaps most) Christians who looked at the question, the discovery of early manuscripts meant a firmer basis on which to establish the biblical text, and so an earlier and more reliable biblical text on which to preach, pray, theologize, etc. That is, the discovery of early manuscripts was seen as great progress, both in scholarly investigation and in practical benefit to Christianity. Contra one voice in the programme (who shall remain unnamed and from whom the TV producers may have got their somewhat sensationalist storyline), the discovery of early manuscripts didn’t actually shake Victorian-era Christianity to the core. Much more troublesome were other developments, such as emergent German higher criticism, Lyle’s geology, and Darwin’s ideas too. But, even in these matters many/most Christians of the time were able to take it all on board without feeling that the ground had been cut from under their faith.
Anyway, I’m glad that the programme featured the Smith sisters. They’re inadequately lauded in the usual histories (typically written by males), and I heartily recommend Janet Soskice’s book on them, Sisters of Sinai.
In the next instalment, I take it, the focus will be on the discovery of various non-biblical texts, such as the Nag Hammadi cache. I expect there’ll be lots of references to “excluded” texts and such (whereas there is scant evidence that the authors of those texts put in this category actually ever wanted to be included in a canon such as the emergent NT).