The Listener: In the footsteps of the forefathers

As a hostage in Beirut, John McCarthy spent much time reading the Bible. It brought him solace, and it also educated him in suffering. In this week's selection from the best of BBC Radio, he returns to the Middle East, and explores with the experts the many ways of interpreting the book
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Journalist and former hostage in Beirut


Former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury and former hostage in Beirut


Theologian and broadcaster


Professor for the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University


President-Elect of the Old Testament Society


Spokeswoman for Jewish settlers in the West Bank


American-born settler in the West Bank


Muslim journalist working in Hebron

JOHN McCARTHY: Here I am in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport. I am on time for my flight, which is a relief. I get anxious in airports, maybe because 13 years ago I missed a flight from Beirut in Lebanon. The journey I didn't make because I was kidnapped was the start of a different sort of a journey for five years which involved fear and great friendship, introspection and a great deal of enforced idleness.

When we were locked up in small cells, deprived of normal stimuli, books became very cherished, dreamt-of things. Our captors were Islamic fundamentalists, religious men, and the first book they let us have was the Bible. They were men of faith and assumed we were men of faith - we would need our book. It was a great source of solace: so many people in the Bible suffered so greatly, and yet they seemed able to move on. It made me think: to what degree is the Bible true? Is there any historical value in it?

So now, eight years since I left the region, I am going back for the first time. I want to explore some of those questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible, and about its value for people as a work of faith, as a supposedly holy book. Now I've the chance to read it again, and this time, rather than read it in isolation, I have the opportunity to take my questions to some of the world's great experts and to the place where biblical events happened, the Holy Land. In captivity, I remember picking up the Bible tentatively, almost as if it might evaporate. Slowly turning the pages, I began to read every word, even savouring the name and address of the printer. I was relishing the prospect of great entertainment, of fabulous stories. Many I knew I would remember from childhood, a comforting thought that brought me closer to home. Although I had no great faith, my Anglican upbringing had left me with a great respect for the Book - a half-remembered notion that this was the "Word of God". Yet starting at Genesis, and working my way through to the end, I found it quite a disturbing book. Mixed in with moments of illumination there was much confusion. Mentioning this to my friend and fellow hostage, Terry Waite, I found he'd felt something similar.

TERRY WAITE: I got my Bible, a modern translation, when I was above ground, somewhere in the middle of Beirut. There was heavy shelling, and it got so bad that bits of the ceiling fell down, and things like that are reasonably unnerving when you are chained to the wall. I started to read it from cover to cover. Of course, what I was reading about was warfare. They were knocking the daylights out of each other. I wanted comfort, and thought to myself, "What's changed? Here I am, a few miles down the road from the so-called Holy Land. It's been in turmoil ever since the days of Christ - long before - and what's changed?"

JM: Brian and I got a King James Bible first off. I remembered being locked up with Brian Keenan and various Americans in one of the those underground prisons. I was reading Zachariah, Chapter 11, Verse 1, and the doors were banging. We were in a terrible panic, thinking we were going to be moved again. And suddenly there was this chapter which said: "Open thy doors, oh Lebanon." I thought, this has got to be a good omen - and happily it was. One of the Americans, David Jacobson, was released.

TW: It was extraordinary - there was that temptation to treat the book as a magic book, a book that would bring you instant comfort, instant revelation. And of course, as one grows up, one recognises that's the wrong way to treat it. I've studied theology, but that doesn't get rid of my naive understandings as a human being. It ought to, but in situations of crisis you revert to rather primitive ways of trying to get through the experience. I wanted to be relieved of that constant pressure and misery and unpleasantness - physical, spiritual and mental. I didn't find it in the Bible in the way I wanted it. But that doesn't mean to say I didn't value the Bible. It simply made me more able to accept the reality of the human condition and of my own condition, rather than letting me live in a fantasy-land. I suppose the great point that came out of all this was that suffering need not destroy, that it can be creative.

JM: There was one question I put to all the people I met during the making of this series: "What is the Bible?" And I found I got a different answer almost every time. For some, it's the Book, The Word of God. Others point out that it's not so much one book as a library of 66 books, written by different authors at different times - possibly divinely inspired. Some approach it scientifically, as an interesting archaeological text, while others say it's just an ancient storybook, full of myths and legends. And everyone seemed equally convinced that they were right. The Bible demands that you get off the fence and decide for yourself whether you believe in it or not.

My answer at the moment is a very English "Don't know". I want to find out more, before deciding what its message might be for me. So where should I begin? Perhaps the simplest thing is to do what both Terry and I did in Beirut and to start at the very beginning - Genesis: Chapter 1, Verse 1. But is that the beginning? The theologian Karen Armstrong doesn't think so...

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The first chapter of the Bible is in fact quite late, written in about the 6th century BC. The earliest parts of the Bible actually come in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Judges. They're war-like songs about Yahweh, the warrior God, rescuing his people from the sea. But in Genesis we have four different sources identified by scholars; some that could be as early as the 8th century BC and the latest being 5th or 6th century BC.

JM: So if The Beginning is not the beginning, so to speak, what is? John Barton is Professor for the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford.

JOHN BARTON: The first thing you need to have in writing is the laws of the community, and I would guess that the legal material in the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, is probably some of the oldest material that we have got. Other things that are written down at a very early date in the ancient Middle East are collections of proverbs and sayings - we have many collections of proverbs which go back into the second or even the third millennium BC from Egypt and Babylonia. So it is quite likely that the Book of Proverbs is among the earliest material in the Old Testament. What we don't know is how old the narrative books of the Old Testament are - the histories. They are arranged in the order of the events they narrate, so the first book is Genesis, because it tells us about Creation, and the last is II Kings, which is about the Jewish exiles in the 6th century BC. That's unlikely to be the order in which the books were written.

JM: If one thinks of the Bible as a single, linear book, by people who were there, issues of authorship and editorship seem less important, and it's not so difficult to think of the Bible as divinely inspired - the Word of God. But as soon as one becomes aware that each book was written in a particular time and context, with a particular purpose in mind, one is driven to find out who wrote and edited what, where, when, why? Take the opening chapters of Genesis, for example. Michael Goulder believes that they actually tell us more about the authors, who were writing in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC, than they do about the origins of the species.

MICHAEL GOULDER: The Israelites in exile are asking themselves this nasty question: "Why is it that God promised us the land and has taken it away?" And the answer comes: "Well, it happened at the very beginning. Adam and Eve were told quite clearly by God, `Don't touch this tree,' and they were disobedient, and God had to drive them out to punish them and that's what has happened with us. God gave us Palestine, we've been disobedient because we've worshipped other gods, so God has had to punish us." And there are some hits against the Babylonians. For example, it says, "He made the stars also." The Babylonians thought the stars were very important gods, so they've been downgraded. And the whole story is very much set out with a view to giving Israel self-confidence once more.

JM: For me, Genesis poses a far greater challenge to belief when it moves on from cosmic mystery to personal history, with the story of Abraham and his family. Abraham's life-story is told, quite deliberately, in terms of realistic details and real places. So, does that mean it's true?

MG: Abraham is first referred to in the 47th Psalm, which is probably 800 and something - quite early. Abraham would be a historical character. He is probably 13th century BC, from the time when the Israelites were little clans, and Abraham will have been a chieftain. There is a feeling quite early on - in 800 or 900BC - that God made a threefold promise. One: the land of Israel is yours. Two: you will have an enormous family of descendants, who will be strong and run the place. And three: I will never desert you. Now those three things are put together in what the Israelites call the Covenant. But if you said to any Old Testament scholar, "What do we know about Abraham?" - well, we know his name.

JB: The names are ancient names and that makes it rather unlikely that anybody invented these characters and wrote them back into antiquity. But we couldn't write a biography...

JM: For many believers, the Bible offers all the biography of Abraham we need, as I discovered on my first morning in Israel, when I drove with Yehudit Taya - the American-born spokesperson for Jewish settlers in Israel's disputed territories, from Jerusalem to the ancient city of Hebron. On the way, I had a peculiar sense of moving closer to the ancient world. I'd always considered the landscape of the Bible as exotic and remote, but suddenly it was real, and I began to see how powerful an influence this historical immediacy might have on a religious mindset. As Yehudit's conversation flitted from the Holocaust to the age of the Patriarchs, over 3,000 years ago, I also saw how a particular religious and political agenda might tempt people to reshape the past.

At the plains of Mamre, suddenly, without interrupting the flow of our conversation, Yehudit produced a pistol from under her seat and cocked it. It seems that Mamre today is a place where even angels would fear to tread. Hebron is mainly under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

We'd come to see the supposed burial place of Abraham and his family, a vast edifice built by King Herod in the late 1st century BC. Nowadays the building is divided in two: on one side, a makeshift synagogue is built around the twin mausolea of Abraham and his wife, Sarah; on the other, a mosque is built around the mausolea of Abraham's son and daughter- in-law, Isaac and Rebecca. These are not graves; if any bodies are here, they are buried beneath. The two sides have been sealed off from one another since 1994, when a local Jewish doctor called Baruch Goldstein walked into dawn prayers at the mosque during Ramadan and shot 29 Muslims, before being killed by worshippers. To some, Goldstein's actions were an overdue reprisal for the murder of 67 Jews by Muslim rioters in the same city in 1929. Both sides use their victimhood to justify hard-line positions, as if any gesture of conciliation or compromise would betray not only the dead, but God himself.

I asked David Wilder, an American-born settler, what the place means to him.

DAVID WILDER: When you are in the tomb of the Patriarch, and you start your prayers, saying "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob", you're praying in the tomb where they are. It's different to praying in a synagogue in Brooklyn. The Caves of Machpela go back to the days of Adam and Eve; according to Jewish sources, these caves were dug by the first men. King David lived here in Hebron for seven and a half years before he went to Jerusalem. So our entire history, our being, our culture is all here.

JM: Clearly the Bible and the Caves of Abraham are of huge significance to the Jewish people, and of great significance to the Muslim faith, too, but there is an element of "Who can control it?" If the soldiers guarding the site were to go away, would it be possible for the two faiths to return to that period in the early Nineties where people were moving amongst one another?

DW: The Arabs say that if and when they control the site, it will be off-limits to anybody who is not Muslim. Unfortunately, Muslims believe that the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a mosque and should be open only to Muslims, as it was for 700 years. We believe that the entire building should be open and accessible to anyone.

YT: Peace means exactly that: an intention to co-exist. I don't mind sharing Abraham with the Arabs and the Christians. I do mind the situation where we are not allowed to have Abraham at all.

JM: Is there a sense that you would feel the Jews have been pushed out too many times, that it is now your responsibility to stay here for good?

DW: There is a neighbourhood in Hebron where, a year ago, a 63-year- old rabbi was murdered in his bedroom. An Arab came through his window and stabbed him to death. And then he threw a fire bomb inside the room. This isn't peace. This isn't a person I can live next to. If my choice is between that person living next to me or not, I would choose to have him not live here.

JM: It's a short walk to the Palestinian side of the shrine, but it might be a different world. As I remembered from my days in captivity, Muslims revere Abraham, or Ibrahim, as one of the five great prophets, and the father of Ishmael, founder of the Arab nations. But, as I learnt from Khaled Amayreh, a Muslim journalist working in Hebron, they also deeply resent any Jewish attempts to lay claim to the Patriarch.

KHALED AMAYREH: Abraham was not Jewish; he existed before the Torah and before Moses. And the Koran says: "Abraham was neither a Jew or a Christian. He was a man upright in faith, who surrendered himself to the Almighty." In other words, he was a Muslim. By definition, a Muslim is one who submits himself to God.

I think that we transgress on religion, on faith and on God when we present God as a biased real-estate dealer. God is not like that. God deals with people, not in accordance with their sex, race or colour, but according to their righteousness, their faithfulness.

JM: Having spoken to a couple of West Bank settlers, they are adamant that they wish to live in peace with their Palestinian, Muslim neighbours, but that against them is arrayed this determined view of a jihad that must destroy them.

KA: This is not true. This is public relations. Many settlers do not do what they do because of faith, they do it because of territorial greed. Those people consider not only Palestine as the great land of Israel; they consider Egypt, Iraq, Syria, parts of Turkey, Cyprus as constituting Greater Israel. How can you live peacefully with those people? These things have nothing to do with genuine Judaism. The real Judaism had always been universal and integrationalist.

JM: It's now late afternoon in Hebron, and I am looking at a huge stone edifice, surrounded by barbed wire, and at every entrance there are armed guards. I have been hearing from Jews and Muslims how inspired they are by this place, how proud they feel to be able to come here and worship, and yet my reaction to hearing them speak separately is one of sadness. This place that is so holy to both Muslims and Jews actually keeps them apart. It seems a bitter irony that a site that is deemed holy can be the cause or focus of essentially unholy attitudes and actions, and I wonder whether, by calling a place "holy", you actually deny its ability to maintain holiness - that, it becomes divisive and dangerous rather than unifying and uplifting.

`John McCarthy's Bible Journey', a four-part series, starts on Radio 4 tomorrow at 11am.