Want to know the truth behind the “Devil’s Bible”? Or the Dead Sea Scrolls? How about one of the Old Testament’s two famous arks? Curious about UFOs, Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle?
If so, you’re not alone. This week the website Decider.com drew attention to the popularity of the Nat Geo show “The Truth Behind” on Netflix. Each 45-minute episode offers a varying blend of history, legend, speculation and innuendo, brought to life with a combination of location shooting, historical recreations, computer imagery and talking heads ranging from serious scholars to conspiracy theorists.
The episode on the “Devil’s Bible” or Codex Gigas — reputedly the physically largest extant medieval European manuscript, noted for its unique full-page portrait of Satan — is currently the most popular episode, according to InstantWatcher.com.
Laced with Dan Brown-ish flourishes, from ominous Latin chant to lurid, sometimes misleading attempts to make the manuscript’s history and contents sound sinister and occult, the episode leans heavily on a legend that the Codex was written in a single night by a monk aided by the devil sentenced to be walled up alive.
Watching the episode, you’ll learn about the manuscript’s formidable weight and dimensions, the different types of inks used by medieval monks, and how long it probably took to create; you won’t ever quite learn that the contents of the Codex include the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish historian Josephus’s two chronicles of the Jewish people, a collection of medical texts, texts on penitence and exorcisms, and another historical work called the Chronicle of Bohemia.
Not until the episode’s final minutes will you learn that the portrait of the devil appears opposite a full-page illustration depicting the heavenly city.
The episode on the ark of the covenant offers a similar blend of sobriety and loopiness, with a somewhat breathless rehearsal of the ark’s origins and history in the sacred history of the Old Testament to speculations of the ark’s fate ranging from reasonable (did Temple authorities hide the ark before the Babylonian conquest?) to far-fetched (did Knights Templar bring it to Europe?) to downright nutty (were the ark’s contents radioactive?).
As you might expect, Indiana Jones shows up a few times in this episode, although the theory linking the ark’s disappearance to Pharaoh Shishak and the city of Tanis is quickly dismissed as contrary to the biblical record.
The episode spends some time following a convoluted trail of clues proposed by the British author Graham Phillips — not unlike the trail leading to the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — involving a stained glass church window and an arched brick fountain in Warwickshire, England, before eventually admitting the implausibility of Phillips’ case.
Although “The Truth Behind” seldom if ever goes full Dan Brown, whatever actual information it has to offer is laced with the same appeal to the desire for the esoteric — the desire, not for the truth, but for “the truth behind.”
Whether rooted in distrust of the establishment, fear of being fooled or left out of a secret or simply a desire for novelty, suspicion of accepted wisdom and the allure of secret knowledge remains a powerful force today. From anti-vaccine activism to excessive preoccupation with Marian apparitions and prophecies, from the legend of Pope Joan to the latest claims about Jesus’ wife, the allure of “the truth behind” has a way of obscuring the truth itself.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.