by Christine Dao and Beth Mull*
On November 18, 2008, publicly-funded PBS stations aired a two-hour NOVA special titled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” that attempted to find the “true” history of the origins of the Israelites, their sacred Scripture, and their revolutionary belief in a single God.
The show—composed of expert interviews, actor dramatizations, computer-generated imagery, and some on-location video clips—suggested that the ancient Israelites were actually displaced, lower-class Canaanites who took over the land after the collapse of their former city states. Joined by liberated Canaanite slaves from Egypt and nomads, these people sought to forge a new collective identity, which led to the birth of Israel and, eventually, monotheism.
Using a “convergence” of science and Scripture to reveal the “real” story of the Bible, the program also suggested Abraham didn’t exist, only a small contingent of ex-Canaanite slaves came out of Egypt instead of the millions of Jews as told in Exodus, and that the one God Yahweh (YHWH) was an Israelite invention inspired by the Shasu god Yahu (YHW).
The show’s producers based their investigation on two main assumptions: the documentary hypothesis and that archaeological evidence (or the lack thereof) is some kind of absolute proof. The documentary hypothesis proposes that the first five books of the Old Testament are a compilation of writings from at least four separate sources. United by the central theme of freedom, different groups of scribes collected and composed the stories and poems that eventually made up the Torah, which was then attributed to Moses. The manuscript was completed by exiled Israelite priests in Babylon, then brought to Israel and publicly presented by Ezra, as told in the book of Nehemiah. In short, the Hebrew Bible was an invention, not a remembrance, of their history.
The problem is, however, that both assumptions are weak, as they can be used to explain away just about anything in the Bible’s historical accounts. It’s no surprise that the first five books of the Old Testament should contain different writing styles. In Henry M. Morris’ The Genesis Record, he proposed that the manuscripts were written by contemporary eyewitnesses, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and even Ishmael, whose writings were then compiled and edited by Moses.1
And archaeological evidence, like the fossil record, has to be taken with a grain of salt. It presents an incomplete picture of the past, and the evidence that is discovered is open to interpretation. For example, radiocarbon dating, which measures the ratios of carbon-14 to carbon-12 to estimate an age, cannot be used on the pottery found at the ruins of different cities. An unearthed building in Jerusalem has been dated to the time of David based on the pottery fragments found at its level. The monumental size of the building suggests that its occupants would have been part of a substantial, organized kingdom, which would confirm the biblical account of David as a significant king.
But when olive seeds found near the pottery pieces were radiocarbon dated, the results placed them 75 years after King David’s reign, which suggested that he didn’t rule over a mighty kingdom and that his royal Jerusalem was little more than a “cow town.” Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University concluded:
So David and Solomon did not rule over a big territory. It was a small chiefdom, if you wish, with just a few settlements, very poor, the population was limited, there was no manpower for big conquest, and so on and so forth…These are the results of the radiocarbon dating. He or she who decides to ignore these results, I treat them as if arguing that the world is flat, that the Earth is flat. And I cannot argue anymore.
Finkelstein reflects the mindset of many close-minded scientists who have founded their reasoning on fiat rejection of the historical veracity of Genesis. Radiocarbon dating has its uses in forensic investigations, but its data is also open to interpretation. The only way to truly verify its accuracy would be to know what the carbon isotope ratios were when the artifact was first made, and to have a continuous stream of data from then until now. Finkelstein’s comment was quickly, though briefly, followed by the narrator saying:
How can this discrepancy be explained? The problem is that these radiocarbon dates have a margin of error of plus- or minus-30 years, about the difference between the two sides. Pottery and radiocarbon dating alone cannot determine if the Kingdom of David and Solomon was as large and prosperous as described in the Bible. Fortunately, the Bible offers clues of other places to dig for evidence of this kingdom. The Bible credits David with conquering the kingdom, but it is Solomon, his son, who is the great builder.
And it was under David and Solomon, the show suggested, that the Israelites were united as a people, not by God in the wilderness and under the direction of Moses. The program also questioned the strength of pre-exilic Israelites’ belief in one God, since many idols have been discovered at ancient Israeli sites. It proposed that after the Assyrian invasion and the exile to Babylon, Israelite priests attributed their misfortunes to God’s wrath at their idol worship. Only in exile did the Israelites, desperate for hope and unity, go from a “cult” to a truly monotheistic religion.
Paula Apsell, the show’s executive producer, said on the PBS website that NOVA had not set out to disprove the Bible or “denigrate anyone’s religious convictions. Our approach is simply to present the results of mainstream, peer-reviewed biblical archeology and let viewers draw their own conclusions.”2 In its defense, the show did provide historical evidence that King David really did exist and stated the fact that many of the “artifacts date to approximately 600 B.C. underscores the antiquity of the Hebrew Bible.”
But despite that evidence, the show concluded that the Hebrew Bible was still just a contrived story, not necessarily history. “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” was another secular attempt to refute the historical accuracy and undermine the authority of the written Word of God. By drawing conclusions based only on the assumptions of the documentary hypothesis and variously interpreted archaeological finds, the show’s producers ignored the growing body of evidence that upholds the truth of the whole Bible, even Genesis 1-11. And since the Bible is the living Word of God, the show’s conclusions also ignore its present influence in spurring great scientists, innovators, artists, and others to make beneficial and lasting impressions on the world as a whole.
The show’s transcript and clips can be viewed at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bible/.
- Morris, H. M. 1976. The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 26-30.
- A Q&A with Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. Posted on the Bible’s Buried Secrets page at pbs.org.
* Ms. Dao is Assistant Editor and Ms. Mull is Managing Editor.
Article posted on November 25, 2008.