The BBC’s latest religious documentary is a two-part series, The Bible Hunters.
Jeff Rose, an American archaeologist, takes us on a tour of Egypt following a quest for early Bible manuscripts. Riding his motorbike through barren desert scenery, there were times when it felt closer to an episode of Top Gear. Why did he not just save the fuel and ride with the camera team in their car? But more pertinent questions are raised by the programme’s narrative. The selected scholars who are interviewed for their sound-bite opinions are all carefully chosen, or their words edited, to contribute to the general impression that the biblical text is unreliable.
The filmmakers should be complimented for accurately retelling some fascinating and historically accurate stories of discovery. Egypt has the right dry, desert, environment to preserve ancient manuscripts. Many have turned up there. The first episode included the story of the Smith sisters and their discovery of an early Syriac edition of the four Gospels. The second episode gave another platform for the usual quasi Da Vinci Code conspiracy nonsense about the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi, in Egypt.
Earliest complete NT manuscript
The documentaries helpfully cover the discovery by Tischendorf in 1859 of the Codex Sinaiticus at St Catherine’s monastery. This includes the earliest complete Greek New Testament, dating to c.350 AD. It was an astonishing discovery. It helps us to compare the New Testament manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible with those written 1000 years before. I have only ever heard Christians give a positive appraisal of this discovery. But in the hands of this BBC documentary the manuscript is spun as ‘a discovery to shake the core of Christianity.’ A great aid to apologetics is apparently ammunition for the critics!
Rose informs us that ‘Christians believe that the Bible is the unchanged and unchangeable Word of God.’ Therefore, these manuscripts pose a problem. There are many scribal notes of minor changes throughout the text. Our host conspiratori-ally tells us that the longer ending of Mark, found in the King James Version, is missing from both the Codex Sinaiticus and the Syriac Gospels. Of course, his charge is weak. Christians believe that the Bible, as originally given, is the Word of God. No Christian scholar ignores the need to root out errors that may have crept in during the process of transmission or translation. Even the translators of the King James Version knew of manuscript variants. Rose defeats nothing more than a straw man.
The general claim of the documentaries is simply untrue. The discoveries of early manuscripts did not ‘shock the faithful’. The opposite happened. Prior to their discovery, the critical tradition had already emerged, giving us theoretical reasons for not trusting the transmission of the Bible. The documentaries cover only a handful of the ensuing discoveries. There is no mention of the Codex Vaticanus, the Chester Beatty Papyri, the Bodmer Papyri and the countless much earlier fragments such as the John Rylands fragment held in Manchester. Even Oxyrhynchus only gets a mention because we are told the Gospel of Thomas turned up there. The documentary fails to mention the large number of New Testament fragments found at Oxyrhynchus!
In the light of these many discoveries, scholars became confident that we could reconstruct the New Testament to within a whisker of what was originally written. All modern translations reflect the best of this scholarship. Many of the sceptical theories of a couple of hundred years ago have found not a scrap of material support for their claims.
Reactions to the documentaries have been mixed. Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan enthused, ‘it was wonderful’. The Daily Express review described it as ‘a brilliant story … to thrill and delight.’ But I prefer the observation of Larry Hurtado, one of the scholars interviewed in the programme. Of the finished product, he wryly commented: ‘Seems that TV people find fiction more watchable than facts’.
Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.