Two UI faculty members involved in History Channel series


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University of Iowa Assistant Professor Robert Cargill’s office resembles an eclectic mix of religious ideologies. His office has Hebrew writing on papers tacked to the walls, religious scriptures stacked on shelves, and books about religious interpretation spread throughout the room.

Cargill, who is on the faculty of classics and religious studies, and Jordan Smith, a lecturer in religious studies, have been involved in the production of a new History Channel series called “Bible Secrets Revealed,” which aired its first episode Wednesday night. The series, he said, is intended to give the public a look at scholarly understandings of one of the most important documents in the world.

“Through the process of writing it, rewriting it and interpreting it over the course 2,500 years, it’s very difficult to then say that we should base modern law on this ancient text,” he said. “The Bible was written in an ancient context, and it was one interpretation of ancient issues.”

Cargill said the series wanted to show a broad spectrum of scholarly opinions about some of the bible. The documentary features rabbis, Islamic scholars, Christian scholars who teach at conservative Christian universities, Catholics, Protestants, as well as agnostics and atheists.

Beyond teaching at the UI, Cargill said, he aims to create discussion about religious interpretation throughout society as a whole, which is available through documentaries in a broader sense.

“A lot of Christians would rightly criticize the use of the Koran as the basis for modern Islamic states,” Cargill said. “Why should Christians then insist upon their religious scriptures — the Bible — as the basis for our modern laws? To insist that the ancient Bible be the basis of modern civil law is the equivalent of Christian Sharia Law.”

Interviews of both Cargill and Smith for the documentary were filmed in Israel on site of an archaeological dig this past summer in Tel Azekah. The trip also included a number of UI students who helped on the dig. Cargill said he’s been on a number of digs dating back to 1999, and this was by far his favorite.

“What I enjoy the most is taking students to the Holy Land and letting them experience history. To watch the students touch the Western Wall for the first time or to set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the first time is fascinating to me and keeps me young,” Cargill said and chuckled.

Smith said he was unsure what to expect for the archaeological dig but was awed by the experience.

“It’s amazing to be there, to be in the place that you’ve been studying and learning about since you were a child,” he said.

One student involved in the dig, Sanna Miller, said being on site was an invaluable experience.

“It wasn’t an academic or religious interest for me, it was just interest of seeing and experience being in a whole new culture and experiencing that kind of work,” she said.

A critical comment against the series, Smith said, has been that the documentary is trying to convey the Bible as a lie. But Smith argues the meaning they are trying to get across is that the interpretation of what the Bible means today may not have been what it meant in the past. He noted that understanding that people interpret the Bible differently allows for a constructive dialogue about religion.

“I don’t think it should be privileged,” he said. “There are laws in the Bible about slavery. There are all sorts of laws in the Bible that we don’t think of as applicable anymore — that is the way to view it. There is a lot of good info in the Bible, but there are a lot of very disturbing things that are said there that we don’t agree with anymore.”

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