The Riddle of Barbara Thiering

Having offended Moslems by taking the unusual step of stocking The Satanic Verses in its bookshops, the ABC has taken on another of the world’s major religions by screening The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls on Palm Sunday, April 8. That leaves just Judaism and Buddhism—so watch for documentaries which claim that Buddha was just an overweight incense salesman, and that Moses (whose real name was Chris) lived in the 5th century AD and wrote the entire Old Testament to justify his dislike for sweet and sour pork.

The Dead Sea Scrolls documentary, which features the work of Australian scholar, Barbara Thiering, has received plenty of media attention. This is hardly surprising, since it has ‘news value’ written all over it: it has controversy; it has conflict with tradition; and it provides journalists with food for their scepticism.

There is no room here to deal with the content of the documentary, other than to say that from an historical and scholarly point of view, Dr Thiering’s theories are fanciful. As Rob Forsyth put it on an ABC talk back show, the difference between Salman Rushdie and Barbara Thiering is that Salman Rushdie knew he was writing fiction.

Of more interest than the actual content of the documentary, is how such a seemingly intelligent and persuasive woman can arrive at a theory so at odds with the plain facts as we have them. Why dream up such a complex and tenuous theory to explain such a simple set of facts? I can only think that Dr Thiering is suffering from two common diseases that do the rounds of university faculties: Appleby’s Syndrome and Academic’s Chorea.

Appleby’s Syndrome draws its name from Sir Humphrey Appleby of the television series Yes, Prime Minister. In one episode, Sir Humphrey is advising PM Jim Hacker about who to appoint as a new Church of England bishop. The following conversation ensues:

PM: Humphrey, what’s a modernist in the Church of England?

HUMPHREY: Ah. Well, the word ‘modernist’ is code for non-believer.

PM: What? You mean an atheist?!

HUMPHREY: No, no, Prime Minister. An atheist clergyman couldn’t continue to draw his stipend, so when they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists … Theology is a device to allow agnostics to stay within the Church …

Dr Thiering has this one bad. To claim, as she did, that much of Christianity is false and misguided (including belief in the resurrection and divinity of Christ) and yet still call herself a ‘Christian’, shows the disease in an advanced stage. No longer able (or willing) to believe in a divine, resurrected Jesus, she is obliged to come up with an alternative explanation.

Academic’s Chorea is a related disorder which displays itself in an urge to publish papers, articles or books. It is an occupational hazard, since publishing scholarly works is virtually a requirement for most academics. Those who get ahead in the academic world are those who publish, and publishers are far more interested in a new and controversial treatment of Jesus than in another orthodox work.

In order to justify their existence, therefore, academic theologians come under some pressure to devise new interpretations or theories about the Bible. It also makes their lives more exciting. Who wants to spend their working life re-iterating a 2000-year-old truth? It’s much more interesting to think up something original.

One can only pray that Dr Thiering will soon recover from Appleby’s Syndrome and Academic’s Chorea, and hope that not too many people will become infected through contact with her work.

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