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The Bible: A History

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The story of the most influential book ever written, interpreted by seven prominent figures from different walks of life

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The story of the most influential book ever written, interpreted by seven prominent figures from different walks of life

Series 1 Summary

The Bible: A History tells the story of the most influential book ever written: a collection of over 60 books which tell the story of the creation of the world, the birth of mankind, the promise of a homeland for the Jewish people and the remarkable life of Jesus Christ, before culminating in a terrifying vision of the end of the world.

Since its origins thousands of years ago in the Middle East, the Bible has crossed continents, created and healed divisions and ignited controversy.

This series explores the origins, ideas and influence of seven sections of the Scriptures, tracing how they came into existence and how they have shaped the world we live in today.

Each film is written and presented by a prominent figure with a particular interest or experience relevant to the part of the Bible being examined. They offer a personal interpretation of some of the best-known aspects of this ancient book, which still guides the lives of millions of believers across the globe.

  • Howard Jacobson

    Episode 1

    Leading British novelist Howard Jacobson tries to find a path between religious and atheistic fundamentalists.

    Jacobson describes himself as a 'non-practising Jew who fears all fanaticism bred by faith'. Yet he is moved to fury by what he calls the 'New Atheists', whose most vocal cheerleader is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

    Not only, in Howard's view, do they oppose fundamentalist certainty with a no less intolerant certainty of their own, but they misunderstand the nature of religion, in particular the function of the Creation Myth. On the other hand, he is disturbed by creationists who believe in the literal truth of the Creation story and try to use science to support their faith.

    Today there is a raging battle between the two camps, those who believe that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is a true account of how life began, and those who dismiss it as childish nonsense.

    Jacobson sets out to find a path between the fundamentalisms of religion and atheism and to reach a way of reading the Creation story that explains why it continues to stir the imagination even of unbelievers like himself.

    Jacobson talks to fervent believers, including his own Orthodox Jewish relations, and has a lively exchange with the atheist Professor A C Grayling. He meets an archaeologist who describes for him what the latest discoveries in Israel tell us about the historical origins of the Creation story, and consults scientists, philosophers and Bible scholars for their interpretations of the Creation Story.

    Howard's journey takes him from the Dead Sea to the Natural History Museum in London, a temple to Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection did so much to undermine traditional religious belief.

    At the end of his exploration Howard delivers his conclusions as to why the sublimely simple opening words of the Bible 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth...' still have the power to move, and still 'do our hearts good to hear'.

  • Rageh Omaar

    Episode 2

    War correspondent Rageh Omaar, who was brought up as a Muslim, examines Abraham, one of the most revered patriarchs of both the Jewish and Christian Bible and of the Muslim Holy Qur'an.

    According to all three faiths, he was the first man to worship one God - and one God alone - and all three religions claim him as an ancestor.

    He's often cited by world statesman as a unifying figure for all the three religions, yet today many of the 'children of Abraham' are locked in conflict.

    Omaar travels to Israel, the West Bank and Iraq to investigate the story of Abraham, and ask whether his legacy is a source of great division or if the great patriarch holds the key to peace and reconciliation.

  • Ann Widdecombe

    Episode 3

    Conservative MP and Christian Ann Widdecombe goes in search of the law of Moses, tracing the historical origins of the Ten Commandments and their profound influence on British society for over two millennia.

    She has robust encounters with scholars, and with leading atheists Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, who reject some of her most deeply held beliefs. Fry informs her that her 'damn Commandments have suppressed, tyrannised and bullied'. But Ann passionately argues that we 'would have happier, more fulfilled lives today if we still followed biblical law'.

  • Bettany Hughes

    Episode 4

    Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes meets the feisty women figures of the Bible.

    It's fashionable to dismiss the Bible as a manifesto for misogyny. Undeniably, many of its pages are rank with sexism: the proud Queen, Jezebel, is fed to the dogs, the teenage girl, Salome, is used as sexual bait.

    But Hughes argues that the Bible is a window on the Bronze Age, a time when women had more power. She introduces a dazzling cast of female characters: warriors, adulterous wives, mothers and 'good' women: all daughters of Eve who speak volumes about their world, and our own.

  • Gerry Adams

    Episode 5

    Gerry Adams, politician and supporter of the IRA throughout years of sectarian conflict and the subsequent peace process, investigates the life and death of Jesus Christ, against the backdrop of his own life and career.

    Adams describes himself as an 'Irish Catholic who, despite all the let-downs and scandals that... the Church has been embroiled in, remains a member'.

    Adams sets out to discover the real, historical Jesus, rather than the version of Jesus he was taught about as a child, and to establish who killed him and why.

    Adams explores how Jesus's core message - that of love, forgiveness and advocacy of non-violence - has affected him and other members of his community, both Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Loyalist. Adams examines how these key ethical teachings have impacted upon him and how relevant they have been to him at different times in his life. As someone who has defended the resort to arms by Republicans in Northern Ireland, he reflects on how he reconciles this with the teachings of Jesus.

    On route, Adams consults experts, including the leading Irish theologian Father Vincent Twomey, archaeologists and historians in Ireland and Israel.

    In the Holy Land he is accompanied by New Testament expert Dr Helen Bond from the University of Edinburgh. Together they visit the key biblical sites which mark Jesus's ministry: his supposed birthplace in Bethlehem - a Palestinian town now surrounded by a massive 'security' wall, which cuts Palestinians off from their land and loved ones. They visit the site on the River Jordan where John the Baptist is reputed to have baptised Jesus, and explore the moment at which Jesus must have realised that his public ministry was bound to lead to his death.

    Back in Northern Ireland, Adams meets victims of atrocities on both sides to examine how they have, or have not, managed to apply the lessons of Jesus's teachings in light of their own experiences. He meets Geraldine Finucane, whose husband Pat, Gerry Adams' lawyer, was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1989, and Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the Shankill Road IRA bombing in 1993.

    Equipped with his new knowledge of Jesus, Adams ends by revealing his personal relationship to Jesus's teachings and how they relate to his own life experiences.

  • Tom Holland

    Episode 6

    Tom Holland, historian and award-winning author on the classical world, examines the significance of St Paul.

    After Jesus himself, Paul is the most important person in the story of the origins of Christianity. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, no fewer than 13 are attributed to Paul.

    Even today, at a time when the influence of the Bible seems to be fading, Paul continues to make the headlines. When the Pope objected to the British government's legislation on homosexuality, and when traditionalists at the Church of England synod opposed the proposal to ordain women bishops, both were citing the teachings of St Paul.

    But Tom Holland argues that Paul himself was an altogether more complex and contradictory figure than this might suggest. Liberal suspicion of him as a conservative, even reactionary figure obscures the fact that he was, in the context of his own times, a profoundly revolutionary thinker.

    Much that we take for granted today - the belief that change can be for the best, the notion that equality can be a good - derives ultimately from his letters.

    The irony is that progressives as well as conservatives owe him a profound debt of gratitude. If our own social attitudes today are full of complexities and contradictions, then that is because those of Paul were as well.

    Tom Holland re-traces Paul's footsteps from Syria, where tradition has it the apostle was converted to Christ on the road to Damascus, to Rome, where he's supposed to have died.

    Back in England he visits gay clubs, the church where Tom was married and the hurly burly of Speakers' Corner at London's Hyde Park and concludes that Paul's influence colours the way that we in the West see the world.

  • Dr Robert Beckford

    Episode 7

    Since it was written in the first century AD, the Book of Revelation has been seen as one of the most controversial books in the entire Bible.

    Its narrative circles round and round, layering images and symbols on top of one another to create a text so complex that scholars still debate what it means.

    Is it a literal depiction of what will come at the end time when humanity will face the last judgement? Or is it an allegorical text in which John is calling on the burgeoning Christian church to stand true to their faith in the face of oppression from the Roman Empire?

    These two opposing interpretations lie at the heart of Dr Robert Beckford's journey. He was brought up in the Pentecostal church, which believes in the literal word of the Bible. As a boy he remembers that Revelation was used to frighten him into being 'good'. As a teenager he began to feel that this blind faith was shutting him away from events in the world around him.

    Robert sets out to discover what message really lies at the heart of this book. He explores whether it really is a step-by-step guidebook to the events leading up to the end times when God will return to judge all men. And he investigates the alternative interpretation that that Revelation is a call to arms, proclaiming the revolutionary message that we can create heaven on earth.

The Bible: A History synopsis

The story of the most influential book ever written, interpreted by seven prominent figures from different walks of life

Episode Guide >