It's the definitive book of all time. Generation after generation has regarded it with awe and reverence. It's the perennial bestseller, with close to 100 million new copies printed and snapped up each year.
It's the Holy Bible, the 66-book, almost 800,000-word document that has formed the fountainhead of faith for nearly half of the world's population and is the basis for their ethics, moral code and laws.
For centuries, denizens in far-flung countries have believed that the Bible contains "the sacred word of God." According to Judeo-Christian beliefs, God wrote the Bible through chosen scribes, from Moses through the Prophets to the writers of the Gospels.
Religious beliefs aside, just who took down the words found in the Bible? A three-hour documentary, "Who Wrote the Bible?"--which premieres Sunday on A&E--endeavors; to examine that thorny topic.
Filmed on location throughout the Middle East, "Who Wrote the Bible?"--part of A&E;'s "Mysteries of the Bible" series--is hosted by Richard Kiley and features Jean Simmons reading from the Scriptures.
"This is by no means a religious show," Kiley said in a phone interview from his home in Warwick, N.Y. "It's not a proselytizing show at all. If it were, I would not have anything to do with it.
"It's a detective story. If you approach it in that way, it doesn't matter if you believe in the Bible or not. It's simply, as they say, a very good mystery."
"Who Wrote the Bible?" presents comments from a plethora of scholars, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, theologian John Dominic Crossan and Rabbi David Wolpe of the University of Judaism in Bel Air.
One theory presented in "Who Wrote the Bible?" is that a number of different individuals could have written the Old and New Testaments. Several scriptural theorists advance the idea that four people possibly wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Other experts question the conventional belief that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned the Gospels, suggesting that instead they are the works of others.
Isn't it almost sacrilegious to dissect this most holy book in this manner?
Not so, insisted writer/producer Lionel Friedberg. "The scholarly analysis of the Bible--by looking at who and when and where and why and what--actually gives us more respect for it," he contended.
"It makes it more special than if we knew nothing about its origins. It gives the Bible back to you in a way that you can understand it better. If (the Bible was recorded by) the hand of God or the hands of an angel or the hands of some scribe sitting under a brick wall, no matter who it was, these words are eternal."
This is the first time the subject of who drafted the Bible has been attempted on such an ambitious scale for television, according to Bram Roos, president of FilmRoos Inc., which produced the three-hour TV special in association with A&E.;
FilmRoos also produces the one-hour "Mysteries of the Bible" series, which airs as part of A&E;'s "Ancient Mysteries." Since its premiere in September, 1993, the show has done such programs as "Moses at Mt. Sinai," "King David: Poet Warrior," "Apocalypse: The Puzzle of Revelation," "Scarlet Women of the Bible" and "Cities of Evil: Sodom & Gomorrah."
Upcoming "Mysteries of the Bible" installments include "The Execution of Jesus" on April 14, a two-hour biography of Jesus on April 16 and "The Shreds of Evidence," about the Shroud of Turin, alleged to be the burial cloth of Jesus, on April 21.
The emphasis on history and archeology rather than religion made it possible to sell the series, Roos said.
"It amazes me how successful we've been in appealing to the complete spectrum, from fundamentalists to complete agnostics and atheists," he marveled.
Upon viewing a tape of "Who Wrote the Bible?," Rabbi David Baron, founder of Temple Shalom for the Arts, said the program contains a good mix of religious and scholarly points of view.
"What impressed me the most about this show was that it allows for the continuing mystery of the Bible's origins," Baron observed.
And that uncertainty is just fine, agreed Rabbi Wolpe of the University of Judaism. "In some sense, who wrote the Bible is less important than who reads it and what it can mean to our lives," he explained. "Authorship is impossible to know, but the effect of the Bible on people's lives is immeasurable and profound."
* "Who Wrote the Bible?" airs at 5 and 9 p.m. Sunday on A&E.; "Mysteries of the Bible" airs Fridays at 7 and 11 p.m. on A&E.;