Saturday, April 16, 2011
PBS Nova: The Bible's Buried Secrets (a review)
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.
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.
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: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/bibles-buried-secrets.html