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Who wrote the Bible?

Channel 4 website
December 2004

When George W. Bush was sworn into office in January 2001, he placed his right hand on an old copy of the Bible used in the same ceremony by George Washington in 1789. This says a lot about the authority and influence of the Bible in western culture, but it's also a reminder of the links between Bush and Bible. The President is said to be up before dawn each day to study the scriptures, and his recent re-election is widely credited to the millions on the religious right who wanted him back in the White House precisely because of his commitment to the Good Book.

It's with images of George Bush – and Osama Bin Laden – that a two-hour Channel 4 special on the Bible opens this Christmas. The Bible, holy books and the religious faith they inspire are on the news agenda as they've rarely been before, and the presenter of the programme, Dr Robert Beckford, is looking for good answers to what sounds like a simple question: Who wrote the Bible?

It's a question that has preoccupied biblical scholars for several generations, but Beckford, who is director of the Centre for Black Theology at the University of Birmingham, forsakes the library and takes to the road in a journey from Jerusalem to Rome and on to the USA (with a stopover in Walthamstow). On the way, he talks to American pilgrims shouldering crosses on the streets of Jerusalem, to the head of the Pope's Bible Institute, to a former criminal and boxing promoter in East London, and many more. Beckford must be the only theologian in the UK who has his own Saturday night radio show, so he looks perfectly at home in the open top, electric blue fin-tail car he drives on the US leg of his quest.

Sitting on a pew with a Baptist minister in Georgia, USA, he hears the most direct answer to his question of who wrote the Good Book: ‘Gaaad said it; that settles it; I believe it!’ says the minister, Dr Richard Land, who is an adviser to President Bush and has the presidential cufflinks to prove it. Dr Land then goes on to take George Bush to task for not sending more troops into Iraq, which gives a chilling glimpse into the way the Bible's more militaristic books might be fuelling the conflict. ‘I would have sent 500,000 troops,’ he declares.

That revealing episode is just one jolt among many in the programme, showing us that the Bible is not some dusty old tome, locked in the past. The ancient texts still have power, for good and evil. For Beckford, the most memorable moment during filming comes when he talks to a Jewish settler in the Palestinian town of Hebron. ‘We're surrounded by soldiers, he is armed and there are a couple of tanks making sure we are not attacked. I ask the settler what it means to be in Hebron and there is a sparkle in his eye as he says, 'This is our land, given to us by God.'‘

The answer to ‘Who wrote the Bible?’ turns out to be complex. For a start, the Bible isn't a single book, but contains 66 separate books which were collected over something like a 1200-year period. Christians and Jews have usually been careful to say that the scriptures weren't delivered from a passing cloud, but were, they believe, written, edited and compiled by human beings under the inspiration of God. Even so, what Robert Beckford discovers on his biblical road trip is much more complex than anything he learned when he was in Sunday school.

Take the five Books of Moses, which open the Bible and include the world-famous stories of the creation, the Garden of Eden and Noah's flood. Known as ‘the Torah’, these are foundational books for Judaism and Christianity. It turns out that the Books of Moses weren't written by Moses at all, but by four anonymous writers, each with his own particular view to promote. These writings were only brought together when an Israelite king found them useful to promote his political agenda, many centuries after the time of Moses. Says Beckford: ‘King Hezekiah turned the Bible into a party political manifesto for monotheism. He definitely knew something about spin.’

The same goes for the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Beckford dives down into the ancient catacombs beneath a church in Rome to discover why Mark, the first Gospel writer, started to write about Jesus in the first place – as an encouragement to the first generation of Christians, who were facing persecution. He discovers that although the Gospel writers seem to be giving us direct reportage from the life of Jesus, each of them actually had his own spin on the story. While Matthew was keen to show how Jewish Jesus was, for the Jewish wing of the early church, Luke pushed the Roman angle. He packaged the teaching and miracles of Jesus to show that even civilised Roman citizens could believe in him.

There have been many TV programmes which have tried to bury the Bible – but this is no hatchet job. We get a clue about this when we see Robert Beckford at the tomb of Christ, inside Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As he stoops to leave the tomb, he wipes tears from his eyes. ‘I was really moved by the experience,’ he says. ‘I am a Christian, I believe in the teachings of Jesus, so to be in a holy place, contemplating life, moved me. And I'm sufficiently secure in my African Caribbean maleness to express a full range of emotions without fear of censure!’

Beckford's search for answers is personal and heartfelt, from the first moments of the programme, as he sits in on a Sunday school lesson his mother is teaching about Jonah and the whale. ‘This is important to me,’ he says. ‘The Bible shaped what I thought, said and did. But that simple belief gave way to the realisation that it's not that simple.’

And it concludes with something like a confession of faith: 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 messyness of the text.’

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