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Hunt for truth

21 February 2014

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A MAGNIFICENT irony energised the heart of Bible Hunters (BBC2, Thursday 13 and 20 February). The 19th- and 20th-century search to discover the oldest scriptural manuscripts was an attempt to lay to rest the faithful's doubts, raised by the scientific discoveries of that era.

If geology proved that the earth's origin was far older than 4004 BC, and biology showed that all species, instead of being unique and all formed at exactly the same time, are instead related by evolution to one another, then how can the Bible be trusted? Let us at least ascertain the original, inspired word of God, whose historical accuracy is proved by archaeological evidence, and then we will have a solid rock on which to build our faith.

This was essentially a Protestant quest. Roman Catholics located authority in the Church and pope; so, for them, scripture was far less significant. But it all went badly wrong. The older the manuscripts that were discovered, the more they diverged from one another. Variant readings multiplied. Worse, manuscripts of other writings showed that the books that form the canon of scripture were far less unique (sorry about that) than had been assumed.

The evidence indicated that there were several Christianities - that varieties of faith in Jesus were hammered into a single orthodoxy only by the Roman state. To crown it all, the more that key sites were subjected to scientific archaeology, the more significant biblical events and movements evaporated into thin air. All this is first-year-biblical-studies commonplace, but we seem poor at communicating such material to the world at large.

It is taken for granted that the default position of a faithful Christian must be more or less verbal inerrancy, flying in the face of all that science might prove. For that reason alone, this two-part documentary is to be welcomed. It presents a tale of the courage of those who sought the oldest biblical manuscripts.

I found serious confusion, however, in whom exactly it was aimed at. There were too many images of the presenter, Dr Jeff Rose, speeding on a motorbike, buying a camel, and striding through bazaars. All this suggested anxiety that we might be bored by the serious matter in hand. But it was good to be reminded of the work of Tischendorf, Flinders Petrie, and Agnes and Margaret Smith.

More could be said about the excitement of the study of textual variation - how, for example, early translations can help establish a probable original reading; and, above all, how, for many of us, the variety of early Christianities reinforces rather than undermines faith.

Inside No. 9 (BBC2, Wednesdays) is a new comic series of magnificent quality. Thirty-minute dramas present immensely subtle, lunatic situations that develop into scenarios of destruction and death. Last week's was close to sublime: an extended dumb show, with only a handful of spoken words, of inept burglars' blundering into a marriage breakdown, twist after twist ratcheting up the tension.

Both have been, if anything, even more satisfying in retrospect: the climactic denouement linked tiny clues scattered throughout.

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