Saturday, April 16, 2011

PBS Nova: The Bible's Buried Secrets (a review)

This is must-see TV for Christians, not just because it's about the Bible, but because critical thinking and the scientific method and *gasp* evidence are weighed against the stories of the Bible.  Brilliantly, they take up leads that seem to confirm Biblical stories then look for further confirmation.  Often they find interesting disconfirmation.

Right off the bat, they dismiss Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers as myth.  They also point out that they are so full of discrepancies that they  couldn't have been written by one person (i.e., Moses), more likely five.  Not to mention, Moses couldn't have described his own death.  Incredibly, nobody pointed this out (publicly at least) until the eighteenth century.  They do get back to these books at the end, which I found to be a kind of cool denouement to the story.

They confirm what I've seen on atheist sites, that there's no evidence of Israelites being enslaved in Egypt.   They find that there were indeed people who had been enslaved in Egypt, but they were Canaanites, not Jews.  They returned to Canaan as refugees, and the theory is that these people hooked up with people who had escaped from  slavery in deteriorating city-states in Canaan, and together these cultures became Judaism.  The population in the few settlements in Canaan, ca. 1200, would have been from 3,000 - 5,000.  After the collapse of the city-states there are more sites and the population could have been as much as 45,000.  Sites now have "israelite" houses in egalitarian societies.

Interestingly, the Canaanite earth-mother goddess is Asherah, God's wife.  A gajillion statuettes of her are found in the area.  She has ginormous tits and sometimes is portrayed with a baby on her knee.  Kind of spooky after seeing so many Mary images with the baby Jesus on her knee.  Mary's tits have never been anywhere near as impressive as Asherah's.   She was one impressive fertility goddess.

The show goes to the digs that may have been Solomon's palace, and they theorize about the extent of the Jewish kingdom based on some six-chambered gates (as described in the bible).  Some of the virtual architecture is really impressive and well done.  I appreciate the imagination of it all.

Some things I take exception to:  A Babylonian king who bragged that he'd "killed the king of the House of David" is taken to be proof that David existed.  No, it proves that the expression "House of David" was in use by that time.  The discovery of that phrase would still be significant.  I don't know why they feel they have to take that leap.

In the end, the Babylonian captivity after a humiliating defeat is the catalyst for Judaism to take its final form.  Exiled communities figure out how to practice their religion without a temple to take burnt offerings to, resulting in synagogues.  And the writings that had been rescued from the destruction of the Temple were put together as the Bible by Josiah.

This is where the show takes a crazy turn:  the destruction of Israel and the Temple threw the people into an existential crisis.  Why had their god not protected them?  Rather than adopt the god of their captors (a tradition amongst captives-turned-slaves at the time) they decided to dump Asherah and obey the one-God rule.

Now comes the Torah, a.k.a. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy.  Other than a brief prayer found in a grave, there's no evidence of any of these texts until about this time.  If they were cobbled together from folk tales during captivity, that would explain the angry God of these books.   It would also explain the picky-picky god that has hundreds of rules to follow.

The result is a two-part bible:  The Torah, which is myth and morals, and the historical Bible, which starts with David (if he really existed).  This is the other reason I wish all Christians would watch this.  The stupid fundamentalists who want to believe in an six-day creation and a worldwide flood could take this division as evidence that it's not historical.  I don't see why they would find that so threatening.  If Josiah was as infallible as the Council of Nicea, then does it really matter if the Flood never happened?   Christians are powerful rationalizers.  They believe God's ways are mysterious, he has his reasons, blah blah blah.. why can't God have his mysterious unknowable reasons for putting fairy tales in his holy book?

The timeline of Judaism turns out to be much briefer than I would have expected.  The Canaanite settlements that may have marked the beginning of a Jewish identity dated to ca. 1200 B.C.  The Torah dates to 800-900 B.C. 

The show seems to go backward and forward in time, which makes it a little hard to put together a timeline.  It's based on a book, which makes me want to check out the book.  The book may lay things out in a more linear way.  The book won't have the cool interviews and virtual architecture, though.  So... it's the kind of thing that a book *and* a DVD would be necessary to fully comprehend.

My biggest problem with the whole thing is that the starting point is always the written word.  I wonder what they would conclude if there were no words leading them toward specific conclusions.  For example, they find a huge palatial building just where you'd expect to find Solomon's palace.  I don't think that makes Solomon real.  Imagine someone going to the ruins of Atlanta in 3,000 years, finding evidence of a fire, and then concluding that "Gone with the Wind" was a true historical document.  They would also find several mansions outside of Atlanta that could have been "Tara" too.   At least this shown seems to look at the Bible as the work of human hands rather than divine intervention, but I wish there had been a little more skepticism about the findings.

Except for that, it's fascinating and worth a look-see.  You can see it online here:


Keet said...

Your statement about discovering the "truth" of Gone with the Wind is one of the many arguments I've had with a friend (who also believes the flood story simply because they found sea shells on mountains).

2-3k years from now, Dan Brown could be a prophet with all his landmarks and people that existed.

Physical evidence is not story/character evidence.

LadyAtheist said...

I think we will have Elvisonians in 2-3k years. Stories about how he was seen walking around after his death will get conflated with stories about the World Trade Center and weeping office building windows. Some Paul type fellow will cobble it all together into an appealing fairy tale and spread the "good news" that Elvis never left the "building."

T. Ray said...

This was a great show. Credible sources on the matter come to roughly the same conclusions in roughly the same ways.

But the origins of the Hebrews seemed to be some Canaanite slaves (or bottom-class) left Canaanite civilization to do better on their own. They took their gods with them. And, as Egypt conquered much of the region at roughly the same time, they may have been escaping Egyptian enslavement. However this part of the story played out, they probably no longer wanted to self-identify as Canaanites.

The Nova show suggests there was also a second set of people fleeing Egyptian oppressors who credited their escape to YHWH. The Egyptians were probably in Judea, not Egypt.

Clerics struggled for the prominence of their preferred deity. Eventually the yahwehists won out and made yahweh's prominence retroactive by editing their written history (like Texas) and inflating their importance.

The narrative is supported by evidence and accepted by the most credible archeologists and Torah scholars, secular and otherwise. Opponents of the narrative have faith and loud voices on their side.

This is a fascinating and credible account of early Hebrew culture and the origins of the Old Testament. I recommend it to anyone with even a mild interest in these or related topics.

Anonymous said...

Lady who the fuck ever a ur going to hell b if god didn't make us who the fuck put us here .c read revaluation n tell me that anit true or want happen . N four when it does i bet my life u will run to church.n five it will be to late six god son died on a cross for us n thats true they got proof seven if u would ready all of the bible n see how it all goes togather from story to story if ur not that dumb to know how to read it .n 8 u probably to weak to post what I've said but u will see it so n nine I just want u to know when ya go to hell n the world is ending u think bout me telling u so .