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Phoney Secrets of the Bible

 The other night I had the astonishing experience of viewing a television program called "Ancient Secrets of the Bible." The manifest goal of this show was to disarm skeptics and irreligious carpers and vindicate the historical accuracy of the Bible. But the funny thing was, this was not a Pat Robertson production. Rather, this piece of clumsy propaganda was on CBS. Maybe Jesse Helms is getting some control there after all.

There was a pretense to objectivity on the program, an attempt to create the illusion that it was an unprejudiced National Geographic or Discovery Channel type of program. Maybe this is why they had as host an actor who plays some adulterer on a nighttime soap opera: no religious bias in the selection of a host! And they had numerous spokesmen on behalf of scriptural accuracy who were supposed to be noted Bible scholars, archaeologists, and linguists. I had never heard of a single one of them. Further, I would bet my reservations at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb that all these guys were faculty flunkies at Jerry Falwell's or Jack Hyles's colleges.

The set-up of the show was to explore a supposed controversy over the accuracy of the Bible. There are, it seems, some pesky doubters here and there, but, luckily, scholars like those on the show (for whom no institutional affiliations were supplied--though of course there aren't in The National Inquirer, either, are there? "Top Psychics Predict...!") are willing to take time out of their busy studies to refute the doubters. And who ­are­ these troublemaking hooligans, disturbers of the peaceful dogmatic slumber of the faithful? The writers carefully picked their bad guys. There was Zecharia Sitchin, erudite but delusional author of The Twelfth Planet, a book that argues that human life was created by space colonizers, and that the Bible and ancient Assyrian tablets prove this. Yeah, right.

Then there was Austin Miles, former Jim Bakker crony and teller of tall tales (in his interminable and self-serving autobiography Don't Call Me Brother, he hints at vague "inside info" about Marilyn Monroe's death at the hands of the Kennedys). Miles, depending on the market he is selling to today, may appear as a chastened born-again Christian, an agnostic, you name it. This time, he was a Bible doubter. Again, easily dismissed. This guy was a circus ring master. How are you supposed to be able to take his village atheist objections seriously when put up against supposed Bible scholars?

And finally there was Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism. Let's not be naive: don't tell me they didn't pick this man (whose every word I agreed with) to give Christian viewers an easy target, inviting them to view Rabbi Wine as a Jew trying to destroy Christian faith. Reprehensible.

Had the program bothered to show any of the very many Christian scholars who reject belief in the historical accuracy of the Bible, it would not have appeared as a life and death struggle for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

But the very idea that there is a blazing controversy over the accuracy of the Bible is itself highly misleading. The mythic and legendary character of most of the Bible narrative has been axiomatic for serious Biblical scholarship for generations. Sure there are sectarians who resent it, like Scientific Creationists and Flat Earthers, but to depict them as the mainstream of scholarship as this program did is the wildest kind of distortion. It is not hard to detect whose hand was at the tiller writing this show. I haven't seen a more blatant case of network TV making an apologia for fundamentalism since the TV schlockudrama Fall From Grace, in which Jim and Tammy Bakker emerged smelling sickeningly sweeter than Tammy's dime store perfume.

"Ancient Secrets of the Bible" demonstrated several of the illogicalities and ironies of fundamentalist apologetics. First was the use made of archaeology. One of the talking heads gravely noted that we find the name Sodom included in a list of cities on trade records from the Ebla Empire. Indeed we do; unlike the subsequent appeal to the ambiguous Ipuwer Papyrus, claimed falsely by eccentric Immanuel Velikofsky to be an eyewitness account of the plagues of Exodus, this was not a total fabrication.

And they rehearsed William F. Albright's case for locating the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah beneath the Dead Sea, ignoring the fact that this identification has been hotly debated by scholars for generations. They reprised apologist Clifford Wilson's argument that the Dead Sea Valley is rife with natural gas and bitumen pockets, as well as being subject to seismic disturbances, an ideal recipe for periodic volcanic explosions into the air of molten rock salt. These, incidentally, are all data I always include in my Old Testament courses. But what do they prove? Can they prove that angels visited Abraham and Lot? That Mrs. Lot was magically transformed into a statue for daring to look back at Sodom's doom? It is obvious (to anyone not blinded by the desperate will to believe) that the existence and volcanic destruction of Sodom proves nothing about attendant miracles. In fact, as I understand it, the whole point is that scholars assume the historicity of Sodom's destruction and interpret the legend of Lot and the angels as a subsequent fanciful account of why God must have had Sodom marked for doom. They must have deserved it! And Mrs. Lot, the prototype for the Morton's Salt label? Obviously she is the product of the legend-mongering imagination which sought to "explain" the humanoid shape of a wind-eroded pillar of rock, of which there are several in the area.

But there is a deeper and far more ironic futility in these attempts to prove miracles by means of rationalistic science. If we can make the story plausible to the extent of showing on scientific grounds that Sodom quite likely ­did­ perish by a fiery rain, we have to that extent shown that ­no miracle was required to do the job­! Simple seismic factors would have done it (and the same later in the show where they tried to show that the Red Sea could have dried up and become crossable by means of unusual weather phenomena).

The point is to rub the skeptic's nose in it: "See, heathen scientist? Even you must be forced to acknowledge that the events recorded by the Bible really happened! We can prove it on your own grounds! You need not even resort to faith!" Uh oh! Anything that can be proven by science does not transcend science. It is the product of a purely natural, scientifically explicable process, right? You no longer need a miracle to explain it! As La Place said to Napoleon, "I have no need for that hypothesis."

Remember how every year around Christmas time some one will repeat the business about Matthew being right after all, and that the Star of Bethlehem can now be shown to have been a planetary conjunction or a supernova or whatever? More of the same! If Matthew was right, Matthew was wrong: if it really happened but was non-miraculous, the text is far from vindicated. Rather it has been debunked by its own defense, since it was plainly trying to describe a miracle, a moving star. Novas don't hover over individual stables; at least they didn't when I took college astronomy.

These muddle-headed defenders of the Bible are doing precisely what the 17th-Century Rationalists did when they had Jesus walking not on the water, but on unseen stepping stones in the Sea of Galilee, or having Jesus merely swoon on the cross to revive later in the tomb and appear alive to the 12. The events of the Bible are vindicated! They really happened! But, er, of course, there was nothing ­miraculous­ about them!

Hey, let's not dismiss Sitchin and his buddies Velikofsky and Von Däniken too quickly! Maybe the Nile ­did­ turn Red because Mars swerved too close to the earth one day, or maybe Jesus ­was­ born with no human father because Mary was artificially inseminated by a UFO! Sure, why not? As long as the Bible is historically inerrant! That's all that matters, right?

But there is something yet more ironic about the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, as witnessed by this terrible television show. As Clark H. Pinnock once put it, fundamentalists don't like the Bible they've got. There is often a surprisingly wide discrepancy between what the text actually says and the way they tacitly rewrite it.

Many fundamentalists (including Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible) reread the texts of the gospels as saying that Peter denied Jesus 6, 8, or even 9 times! Where do they get such a notion? Each individual gospel gives 3 denials, but Peter is speaking to different people in different gospels. But since the Bible supposedly cannot contradict itself (or rather, since some people cannot bring themselves to admit that it does), we must make room for each, slightly different denial. By the same logic, Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. Even Bruce Metzger says this! Well, by the same token, I guess Jesus was crucified 4 times, and Paul was converted 3 times!

The classic case of fundamentalists arguing till they're blue in the face (not just the nose) is their devotion to the Living Bible, a bad paraphrase of an English translation of the Bible (the American Standard Version). The Living Bible was done over explicitly from a fundamentalist point of view, to make the Bible sound more like an orthodox American evangelical document. The Bible is inerrant!, they scream, and now that we've got that straight, let's chuck the real Bible out the window and quote chapter and verse of this wanna-be Bible instead!

"Ancient Secrets of the Bible" perpetuated the most flagrant case of this Bible substitution I have ever seen. Mr. Soap Opera Adulterer would ask "Is the Bible story true?" and then we would get a very badly acted mini-movie of the story in question. I was surprised at the liberties taken with the Sodom story, which amazingly omitted the anti-homosexual rereading of the story so common among fundies, but only to replace it with the idea that the folk of Sodom were struck down (in a series of special effects nowhere near as good as in George Pal's Atlantis the Lost Continent) for celebrating a festival dedicated to Astarte.

It was unwittingly hilarious: the Sodomites do nothing more degenerate than laughing, doing cartwheels, making vague nasty comments about Lot, and pretty much just dancing and smooching in public! Ah, the poor fundies! They have to show a depraved Sodom, but they just cannot bring themselves to show depravity! So, as we always suspected, they depict God as damning people to the flames just for having a little innocent fun!

But I really just could not believe my eyes when they got to the Tower of Babel. I groaned at the phony linguists and geneticists explaining with a straight face how all the racial and linguistic differentiation ­could so­ have come about in a single generation after the Tower. But this was a mere bag of shells next to the fact that the CBS version of Babel had nothing whatever to do with the brief nine-verse account of Genesis chapter 11! On TV we saw the evil machinations of the bloated King Nimrod as he bullied his architect into building higher and higher, ordering the sacrifice of 50 infants to persuade the gods to call off the lightning storms which eventually destroyed the Tower. Of course none of this happens in the Bible. In Genesis, Nimrod occurs in the previous chapter and has nothing to do with the Tower. And the Tower is not blasted by divine thunder bolts, but is simply left half-finished once the builders' speech is mixed up. And the TV version does not even show the languages being confused! If this is what happened, the Bible is wrong on all counts! What Bible are they trying to vindicate? 

But for all the incredible distortion, "Ancient Secrets of the Bible" did point to one very well kept secret of the Bible, and that is the unsuspected economic substratum of theology. Can you imagine a commercial TV network presenting a truly scholarly documentary about Bible history and archaeology? PBS, maybe, but the networks? No way! If they deal with religion, it has to be the same way the TV evangelists deal with it.

It has to be religion that sells, pop religion that will only tickle the comforting prejudices of a mass audience attracted to peep shows with lurid titles like "Ancient Secrets of..." and redolent of Jack Palance and UFOs. A really scholarly presentation of the matter would have the audience bristling with boycott threats from Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon. So we get this sort of bread-&-circuses apologetics instead. Keep the customer satisfied. The customer is always right, even when it comes to Bible history, apparently.

The scary thing is: this raises the question of whether the theology of the Bible, which, after all, took shape in a real social world with economic and political forces no less real than today, might itself not be in some measure the product of money-manipulation. In L. Sprague de Camp's wonderful novel The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate, an adventure narrative set amid the exotic glory of the ancient Persian Empire, the heroes find themselves discussing these matters with a priest of Baal as they pass through Palestine on their way to Africa. Times are hard, the priest laments, because the priests of Yahweh have begun aggressively trying to corner the market. All priests made their living by receiving a hefty share of the food and crops they told the people that the hungry deity demanded. And the more cults there were in a society, the less each priesthood would receive. So, de Camp's priest explains, the move towards Yahwistic monotheism in Israel was simply a theologically dignified case of economic monopolism! Is it possible? It is quite clear that the expulsion of other gods from Israel was at least a flexing of muscles by the state, a gesture of the domestic government's control and its freedom from surrounding empires whose gods were also worshipped in Solomon's Temple. When Elijah wants Baal worship to end in Israel, he wants Phoenician and Syrian influence on national affairs to end.

Theology doesn't hover like a mist far above real-world concerns. It never did. It has well-buried roots that may still be visible if you look hard enough for them. Maybe CBS today is just doing what the ancient Aaronide hierocracy did thousands of years ago. Ah, the ancient secrets of the Bible.

Robert M. Price


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