As would be expected of Channel 4, they chose primetime on Christmas Day to show a documentary, that to some parts of the Church would be regarded as particularly controversial, with Dr Robert Beckford, a Christian, and also Director of the Centre of Black Theology at the University of Birmingham. The topic of the two hour film, was to explore who actually wrote the Bible and why.
Alongside trying to answer the question, you also saw Beckford, brought up as a Christian, trying to relate what he discusses in his film to his own Christian beliefs. From the point of view of a Christian this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects, how in the face of much of the evidence in the film, he is still a Christian.
As with any film that is attempting to cover a subject as broad as this, it is very much a high speed summary of many aspects of research. He begins at the beginning of Genesis, with the first of the obvious issues, that there are two creation stories, one in chapter one, then again in chapter two. The film uses this as a lead in to a discussion on the hypothesis that the first five books of the Bible are drawn from four distinct sources. He then goes through other aspects of the old testament, including how archeology has disproved parts of the old testament – the irony being that the original aims of some of the archeology was to prove the Jewish claim on the Holy Land.
The film moves on to look at how the Gospels came to be written, also highlighting that there were many Gospels, over and above the four that we have now in the New Testament. Rather than focusing on Thomas, which is perhaps the best known of the additional gospels, the programme looks at the Gospel of Mary, perhaps because the authorship and content of Mary, and how it was excluded is more interesting in the context of the current debates in churches over the role of women.
The final section of the film looks at how we recieved an English Bible, examining how the Bible was translated first into Latin, then from Latin into English, and then at Tyndale who translated the Bible from the original languages into English in exile in Germany, and was ultimately executed for doing so.
As I have said, by attempting to squeeze so much into only two hours, the film could only scratch the surface, for example the sections which covered areas that I have come across and read about before seemed fairly shallow, but that is purely because all of the areas in the film are each so complex in their own right. Looking at translation, the problems of multiple differing source manuscripts were not even mentioned. The difficulty in translating ideas and expressions into ways that can be understood today (and one of the reasons behind some of the more radical translations available today) was skipped over quickly. As mentioned above, only one of the additional Gospels was discussed, Thomas only recieves a mention in a list of gospel authors without any particular explanation.
At the end of the film Beckford still regards himself as Christian, despite his statements during the film of how some of the discoveries affect faith. His conclusion is that if we accept that the Bible is messy and human, and was written for faith communities with specific needs in mind, then we will discover it to be a book that will feed our own faith in God. Says Beckford: ‘If we can find God in the imperfections of our lives, then maybe we can find him in the messiness of the text.’ The key message of the film is that the answer to the question posed is not black or white. Whilst the evidence points to the Bible having been written, and rewritten, at it’s heart is still the truth of the many authors and their communities relationships with God.
In conclusion the film is well worth watching. If you missed it on Christmas Day, Channel 4 are showing it again in the early hours of Wednesday morning, between 1.25am and 3.25am on 29th December, so something to set your video for!