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Bible gets a reality check

Providence Pictures
Biblical archaeologist Ron Tappy examines the Tel Zayit abecedary, a 2,900-
year-old alphabet stone that suggests King Solomon was a real historical figure.
Tappy's findings figure in "The Bible's Buried Secrets," a PBS documentary.

"The Bible's Buried Secrets," premiering tonight on PBS, presents archaeological findings that will annoy believers as well as skeptics - which suggests the TV documentary just might be on the right track.

At least that's the view of William Dever, a world-renowned archaeologist who worked on the show and calls it "the first honest film that's been made" about the first books of the Bible. For Jews, those books make up the Torah and other early scriptures, while Christians would call them the early part of the Old Testament.

The two-hour show has already stirred up a backlash among some believers. For example, the program airs archaeologists' assertions that:

  • The Bible's first books have been traced back to multiple authors writing over a span of centuries.
  • There's no evidence for the actual existence of patriarchs such as the biblical Abraham.
  • Some ancient adherents of Yahweh also worshiped his "wife," a fertility goddess named Asherah.
  • The Exodus appears to have involved just a small segment of the Jewish population rather than all Jews.
  • The Land of Canaan was not taken over by conquest - rather, the Israelites actually might have been Canaanites who migrated into the highlands and created a new identity for themselves. "Joshua really didn't fight the Battle of Jericho," Dever said.

That kind of talk has spurred the American Family Association to start up an online petition urging Congress to cut off federal funding for PBS. But Dever maintains that it's not a biblical archaeologist's job to demonstrate the truth of biblical stories, despite the many TV specials of the past about the real Christmas story, the lost tomb of Jesus and other claims.

"Archaeology certainly doesn't prove literal readings of the Bible," he told me. "It calls them into question, and that's what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible. No archaeologist thinks so."

David and the disbelievers
Disbelievers may be discomfited as well: "The Bible's Buried Secrets" includes a segment highlighting the work of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary's Ron Tappy, who is part of a team studying an inscription at Israel's Tel Zayit archaeological site. The inscription hints that a well-organized state was functioning in the 10th century B.C., with Jerusalem as its seat.

Yet another inscription at Tel Dan, from the ninth century B.C., appears to refer to the "House of David" - although that interpretation is disputed. Such evidence suggests that King David and King Solomon were historical figures who matched up with the biblical accounts.

Dever said still more evidence may be coming to light with the discovery of a ceramic shard inscribed with Hebrew writing from the 10th century B.C. The shard was found amid the ruins of a fortified settlement south of Jerusalem, and the inscription appears to include words meaning "judge," "slave" and "king."

"That's dynamite," Dever said, "because if there's a small fortress where people were able to keep records, on the way to Jerusalem, there's a king up there. I don't care if you name him Solomon or Fred, it doesn't matter to me."

The way Dever sees it, "The Bible's Buried Secrets" plays it straight down the middle, and that may raise unsettling questions for literalists as well as those who see the Bible as a collection of fairy tales.

"The film's going to get it from both sides," Dever said.

Reality check for the reality check
Dever would be expected to feel that way, since he's so closely associated with the film. But Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, agreed that there's nothing shocking in "The Bible's Buried Secrets" - that is, if you've been following the field closely.

"When you know a lot about something, it always appears that the media make mistakes," Shanks told me. "The scholarly experts can find emphases that they would disagree with. Biblical archaeology is a field that is riven [by such disagreements]. But overall, I think it's a fine production. It is very basic, for people who don't know much about it."

Those who believe in the literal truth of every word in the Bible aren't going to be happy, he said. "There's a question of what it means to be 'literally true,'" Shanks said, "whether you're talking about spiritually, or in terms of the lessons being taught, or whether you're talking about factual historicity."

Sometimes it's a matter of emphasis - for example, in the debate over how many Israelites (or would those be Canaanites?) took part in the Exodus, versus how many were in Canaan to start with. "If I were saying it, I would put more emphasis on the crew that did come from Egypt," Shanks said. "Nobody who deals with the Bible critically would say that there were 2 million or 3 million people moving across the desert. But that doesn't matter. We're talking about a group. How large, we don't know."

Once those sojourners arrived in the land of Canaan, it would be "perfectly normal and understandable" for other Canaanites to head into the highlands where the crew from Egypt had settled, Shanks said.

Debating the evidence, or lack thereof
That doesn't mean archaeologists are fully in agreement: For example, Dever and Anson Rainey, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, have long been locked in a big argument over the Israelites' origins. (You can read Rainey's latest volley in Biblical Archaeology Review.) But Shanks said believers shouldn't feel threatened - even though some of the claims in the show may seem to equate the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

"Anybody who says that Abraham never existed has no archaeological proof for that," Shanks said. "That's a matter of faith and an understanding of the way stories developed. But if someone wants to say we have no proof that Abraham existed, that's true."

You could even argue that it wouldn't make much of a difference even if every Bible story were proven true. In fact, that's exactly the argument made in Luke 16. You can also find biblical evidence to back up claims from "The Bible's Buried Secrets" that may seem controversial at first blush - for example, the claims about goddess worship among the Jews.

The fact that PBS is setting aside two hours of prime time to focus on the Bible's early books demonstrates that those ancient texts can still stir the soul - and stir the blood as well. The film's writer, director and producer, Gary Glassman, said that's why he spent the past six years raising money for the documentary, and the past two years making it.

"The testament to the fact that the Bible has great ideas in it," Glassman told me, "is that we're still wrangling over it today."

Update for 12:45 p.m. ET Nov. 19: In case you missed the program, or even if you just want to see it again, the entire show has been posted online at the PBS Web site, broken up into 13 video "chapters."

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