Channel 4’s offering for the night when many were celebrating the Saviour’s birth was in keeping with its policy of broadcasting controversial material. It was a programme designed to ‘free’ viewers from the shackles of blind faith by showing the ‘historic truth’ about the Bible’s origins.
This truth, according to the programme, has been known by theologians and academics for many years, but the details have never filtered down to the churches. Thus, we were given two hours of Dr Robert Beckford’s journey from faith to truth, entitled Who wrote the Bible?
Robert Beckford’s name is not unknown in religious circles, and his academic credentials are strong. Calling himself an ‘academic theologian’, Dr Beckford is director of the Centre for Black Theology at the University of Birmingham.
He was raised in a Wesleyan Holiness environment and, by his own admission, accepted the Bible as the literal Word of God when he was a child. But his academic training raised questions as to the validity of that belief.
His studies seemed to show that the stories in the Bible were more symbolic than literal. That being the case, Dr Beckford asked himself,’Why have faith at all?’
Thus began a spiritual pilgrimage to determine ‘who wrote the Bible, who rewrote it and what they were trying to achieve’. The upshot was his attempt on Christmas Day to show that ‘believers have been hoodwinked for centuries’.
Dr Beckford began by ‘finding’ that the Pentateuch did not come from God through Moses but sprang instead from oral tradition produced during various centuries.
He explained what is known as the JEPD theory – the idea that the Pentateuch was derived from different sources classified respectively as Yahwist, Elohimist, Priestly and Deuteronomist. These various sources are betrayed by the names applied to God and supposed differences in the way God behaves, as recorded in the Bible.
All this – together with the belief of some scholars that Genesis contains conflicting accounts of the Creation and the Flood – renders the books of Moses non-historical to Dr Beckford.
He presented these ideas as if it was all new, omitting to mention that these theories of the Pentateuch have been disputed by both conservative and liberal theologians for at least 120 years!
Later Old Testament history meets a similar fate through the findings of liberal theologians and archaeologists. These ‘prove’ that the stories of the Davidic Kingdom are erroneous – findings that Dr Beckford called ‘a bombshell’ against the Bible.
He found ‘more bombshells’ in the idea that archaeology has not only shown that the kingdom never existed, but also that all biblical narration of history is erroneous. ‘Modern archaeology has exploded the idea that the Old Testament is an accurate account of ancient history’, he declared.
The New Testament fared no better in Dr Beckford’s pilgrimage. Differences between the Gospels prove that the writers (whoever they were and whenever they lived) were not eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life. An example was John’s record of the ‘unreal speeches’ allegedly given by Jesus.
The Pauline letters do a bit better, but Dr Beckford noted that Paul’s purpose was not to tell anything of Jesus’ life story but rather to produce a rule book for those suffering persecution.
In Dr Beckford’s thinking, the whole Bible has one purpose – it is a propaganda tool. Many of the stories were pulled together during the reign of Hezekiah to propagate the new idea of one God, replacing the plethora of cult gods that Israel had been worshipping.
Part of this process was to delineate rules of worship, particularly promoting Jerusalem as the seat of worship and power in Israel. Thus, Hezekiah – and later Josiah – produced writings during periods of post-Davidic religious fervour to support and strengthen their political aspirations.
With the reality of the exile, the biblical writers had to adopt a different tone – one that offered hope. Thus Isaiah, for example, looked longingly for the ‘suffering servant’.
In the opinion of a scholar interviewed by Dr Beckford, this ‘servant’ is Israel itself, with Israel even now suffering for the sins of the nations of the world.
It is this theme of suffering that is continued in the New Testament, he added. The concept of suffering is the focus of the New Testament.
Where was God?
And where was God in all this, asked Dr Beckford? He wondered if the Spirit should not have acted more forcefully in the production of the Bible, rather than leaving the entire work in the hands of men!
Concerning the decision as to which books were to be included in the canon of Scripture and which excluded, Dr Beckford asked, ‘Where’s the Spirit in this?’
Summing up, Dr Beckford claimed that his pilgrimage had been an ‘earth shattering journey’ in which the Bible emerged as political writing – propaganda more in keeping with Stalinist Russia than with God-given truth.
He claimed that biblical authorship is ‘messy’ and warned that to have faith is to question; we must not let the wool be pulled over our eyes.
Dr Beckford is right about one thing – we must question and keep our eyes open. But he fails his own test. He closed his eyes to the possibility that his professors might be wrong and that the archaeologists he interviewed might have misinterpreted the data.
Instead, he started his programme with the premise that believers throughout the centuries were deceived, and that those who laboured to produce the Bible were politically motivated, devious and self-serving.
He closed his eyes to the fact that the God in whom he claims to believe actually has the power to work through historical men – moving them to write eyewitness accounts of historical events, overruling their faults and bringing from what might seem to us to be a random, ‘messy’ process, the orderly, self-consistent Word of the omniscient God.
Perhaps Dr Beckford originally began his studies with open eyes, but by the time he went before the camera his eyes – and mind – were completely closed. He began the programme, not with the thought that perhaps the Bible is true, but with the hoary liberal mindset that the Bible is a conglomeration of myths, a book of propaganda.
Starting with such preconceptions, he was always going to interpret everything in a way that supports and strengthens that notion. This is seen only too clearly in the programme.
Dr Beckford presented archaeology as an exact science, which it plainly is not. In selecting archaeologists to interview, he looked to those who would support his claims that the biblical dating is wrong. In doing so, he failed to acknowledge that many thoroughly qualified archaeologists would disagree with him wholeheartedly.
And he failed to mention that even those who reject the biblical account of history often differ amongst themselves as to when to date various finds.
He interviewed only liberal theologians who believe that Genesis 1 and 2 and the Gospels contradict themselves – rather than also presenting academic theologians who can give reasoned explanations as to why the accounts are in harmony.
He claimed to discover a dichotomy between Christian belief and history. On the basis of what his professors taught him, he rejected what he learned as a child. Unfortunately he had neither the courtesy nor the academic objectivity to even mention the fact that other scholars – whose credentials and qualifications in biblical studies often outclass his own – believe the Bible to be absolutely true (and that for historical and evidential reasons).
Channel 4 is free to broadcast whatever it likes, but this programme told only one man’s erroneous view of who wrote the Bible. By implying that anyone with a rational mind and academic training must reject the Bible, it insulted the intelligence of viewers.
The whole programme, of course, was the devil’s lie. The opposing claim, that the Bible is in its entirety the Word of the living God, would never get primetime Christmas airing on Channel 4. Such is the ‘academic’ objectivity and breathtaking arrogance of today’s media.
Let us be clear. The Bible is not propaganda but the infallible record of a real pilgrimage – that of people of true faith. It is a pilgrimage that leads to the pinnacle of history, the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The only ‘Stalinist-Russia-type propaganda’ seen in this programme was the programme itself. It was one-sided to such an extreme that its presenter, who calls himself a scholar and theologian, should be thoroughly ashamed.
At the end of the programme Dr Beckford interviewed an American Baptist pastor who called judging Scripture a ‘theology of death’. The pastor was right. Dr Beckford may well be an academic theologian, but I fear that by the time he realises the error of the theology he so strongly espouses, it will be too late.