*** DEBUG END ***

Hunt for truth

21 February 2014


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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM: 

Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Church Times/Canterbury Press:

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

Early bird tickets available



The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)