I hope nobody thinks that my review and criticisms of the History Channel series The Bible are driven by some sense of self-importance or need to nit-pick. Far from it! I doubt the History Channel will ever know I exist, and we’ll both be happier for it. It’s also not about despising attempts to present the Bible in a popular media format. I’m all for that too. Nor is it about persnickety perfectionism. For me, it’s partly about my suspicion of hype, a belief that media, even well-meaning media, must still be held accountable to their own hype, and my concern that Christians can easily be exploited in the name of “getting the word to people who might not otherwise get it.”
The fact is, this stuff is just fun to me. I’m one of those guys whose job is what he’d be doing for fun if he had some other job. I confess to being a complete geek on things related to the Old Testament. Maybe there are OT scholars out there who can step out of the role, take off the glasses, as it were, and see things apart from the vocation of being a scholarly reader of the Bible; but I can’t, and don’t even want to. Drives my family and friends crazy. I just enjoy spotting details, accurate as well as erring, in these mass-media
exploitations of presentations about the Bible.
Of course, it’s important that I not shred every preacher I hear (including me) or intimidate Sunday School teachers or just become an insufferable bully! I cannot, though, just watch Bible-oriented movies, especially those claiming research-based accuracy and authenticity, and just wink at the mistakes. I have no problem when they say up front, hey this is a fictionalization inspired by the Bible. So I loved Prince of Egypt, even misted up at a couple points, found the periodic touch of authenticity exciting… but I find the typical Discovery Channel or History Channel fare, with its veneer of research laminated over a tabloid and sound-bite approach to things to be…well…hard to swallow.
I’ve already whined about the fact that of all the scholarly consultants engaged for the History Channel’s The Bible series, I found no Old Testament scholars though there are five New Testament scholars. Now it’s just possible they tried, but found us a curmudgeonly, surly and unpleasant lot and ran from the room screaming. I know those scholars…I’ve been one of those scholars! I’d sympathize with that. But I suspect they just figured they didn’t need an OT scholar.
There is one almost infallible marker I have found for detecting how serious the producers of a movie featuring Moses are about research and authenticity. It’s something nobody notices, and something most producers think they can fake. Or if they try for authenticity, they never really try hard enough. It’s also just plain old Bible geek fun.
It’s simple. It’s the tablets of the law. The Ten Commandments. Did you know that the phrase “ten commandments” doesn’t appear in the Bible? The Hebrew “ten words” is the closest we get. They are the two tables of the covenant, or testimony. So here are four tests of authenticity when you see the tablets of the law in a Bible based movie. First, size matters. It’s highly unlikely that they were as large as portrayed in any movie. Likely they were smaller than a standard piece of notebook paper. All the ancient covenant documents we have run much, much smaller than the big slabs we see in the movies. Second, the both-sides test. The Bible clearly states that the tablets were written front and back, and ancient tablets, if they were not display inscriptions built into a wall, were indeed written on both sides. Third, the “two-fer” test. My friend, Wheaton professor Dr. Sandra Richter notes this in her book Epic of Eden (page 87). Typically, the “two tablets” usually have Commandments 1-5 on Tablet #1 and then Commandments 6-10 on
Tablet #2. But this is wrong! The OT refers to the tablets as tablets of the covenant. In the ancient world, when two kings made covenant, there were two copies made, each deposited in the respective temples of the two covenanting kings. Of course, the two tablets were mainly identical, except for specific local references! For God and Israel, there weren’t two separate locations, since Yahweh appointed the Hebrew sanctuary, i.e. the tabernacle, then the temple, as his earthly palace. Thus the two identical copies both go in the ark in the innermost recess of the sanctuary.
So…when you watch a Moses movie, if the tablets are smaller, maybe even smaller than a sheet of regular notebook paper, that’s good. And if it’s evident the two tablets are written on both sides and identical, wow that’s even better.
The fourth test is the script test and it’s the one I always enjoy looking for. Look at the script, the actual letters, used to write the commandments on the tablet. Okay, you non-Hebrew readers will not be as slick on this point as those who’ve taken a Hebrew course, but this is not really that difficult. One of the hardest things about learning Hebrew is the script. The letters don’t look like western letters and they’re written from right to left, as you can see in the picture above. What most don’t realize, though, is that the “square” Hebrew letters we learn in Hebrew 101 as well as the “cursive” script we learn for modern Israeli Hebrew are a late innovation, not the original Hebrew script. The earliest alphabetic languages in the Levant (the coastal region on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea) were written in a script that apparently got invented by semitic forced laborers in the Egyptian copper mines of the Sinai peninsula. This “proto-sinaitic” script took a sign that denoted a whole word, but just let it represent the first sound of the word. Thus was born the alphabet. The script spread rapidly and was used in Phoenicia, Moab, Ammon and of course, in Israel. It’s the father of our own western alphabet.
Sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., probably after the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon in 539 B.C., a different script began being used, one that was squarish looking and is called “Aramaic Block” or “Aramaic Square” script. The ancients were painfully aware of this. When the sect called the “Samaritans” tried to assert that their version of Hebrew faith was more ancient than that of the returning exiles in 539 B.C., they produced a copy of the Pentateuch. They knew the script had changed, and knew that to fool everyone into thinking their religion was older, they’d have to produce a text written in the archaic or paleo script. But unfortunately, they’d forgotten what it looked like. But you know religious folks, we can just make it up! So the Samaritans fabricated an almost comically archaizing script.
Think now…Moses and the Hebrews had been in Egypt, were slaves, and they are in the Sinai. Ring any alphabetic bells? And they were there about 1275 B.C. (give or take). Too early for the square script…they’d use some form of the paleo-Hebrew script. So for the first 3 marks of authenticity, I’ll go ahead and tell you nobody gets the size, two-sided or identical copies criterion right. But on script, we have a winner. First, let’s look at the History Channel’s The Bible’s handling of the tablets at the top of this post. At the end of the 2-hour opener, we have a shot of the tablets, and BEHOLD: it’s written in the later square script, and only scratched, not inscribed deeply in the stone.
For the winner, we go back to Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments. Check out those babies Heston is packing, nicely written in a form of the paleo script! Not bad for a movie made at the Dawn of Civilization. When I first saw that as a teen-ager, I thought “What a hokey, phoney looking attempt to reproduce Hebrew!” Little did I know…how the years change a guy! Some even say the reddish tablets reflect a preference for red surfaces for some inscriptions, but I leave that point to others.
Now here’s a puzzle. In the PR for The Bible, a picture was put out portraying the tablets, but the script on them is neither the block used at the end of the opening installment, nor the paleo-Hebrew, but something else. At first I thought “Good grief, they’ve used the Samaritan script!” Then I thought no, it’s “Rashi” script (from the middle ages)…But I’m not sure. It actually looks to me like some kind of runic script, like Ogham or something, but the letters sort of resemble the paleo style. I’m not a paleographer by specialty, so if any of my academic friends who do epigraphy/paleography know what script this is, I’d love to know too! Wouldn’t it be cool beyond words if the producers found some very obscure lapidary script style for Late Bronze Age alphabetic inscriptions? I say, SURE! I’d retract all my other criticisms in tribute to that one piece of brilliance!