Buried secrets—or hidden assumptions?

Last night was the second episode of the BBC’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Go here for my comments on the first programme. This one covered different areas, but for me was more disappointing.

Once again, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou (whom I will call FS for short) set up from the outset a sharp dichotomy between religious and ‘objective’ views.

Although FS presents her conclusions as arising from the text, in fact her approach is based on two methodological approaches, source criticism and history of religions, which make very large assumptions about belief, religion, the text of the Bible and the role of the reader.

1. Source criticism…
This is the name given to a process by which the critical reader believes that they can reconstruct the written (or possible oral) traditions behind one or more texts. It was developed in response to the questions about the inter-relation between the different gospels (where we can see that the writers were working with some previous source, not least because some of them tell us so). But this was then carried over to the single text of the OT.

This is when the problems arise. How can I tell when something originates from a different source? The usual answer is on the basis of vocabulary, and this is the clue for FS. The use of ‘El’ as a name for the god of Israel, rather than the unique ‘Yahweh’, tells us that the biblical writers were in fact borrowing from Canaanite religion—or rather, they were (inadvertently) recording traditions of practice which were shared with Canaanite religion.

At the level of language, you can see the problems here simply by reflecting on the use of the English generic word ‘God.’ Does it mean the same in all places, in all usage? At the level of the study of religion, this whole argument seems very odd. How can you say anything about religious practice or systems of belief without reference to the shape of practice set out in the relevant religious documents? Did the Israelite response to ‘El’ bear any resemblance to Canaanite response to the god they called ‘El’? The answer is clearly not, but this does not appear to be of interest to FS.

(The most significant use of source criticism in the study of the OT was the development of the ‘Documentary Hypothesis‘, which argues that the OT is compiled from four different documents, edited at different times. Whilst it gives some insight into different strands of OT thought, it is not widely adhered to in contemporary scholarship.)

There are wider problems with this approach to any text, and FS makes these clear (inadvertently!). At the beginning of the programme, she comments on her application of ‘rigorous analysis’:

There’s something about this world that the Bible isn’t telling us…Hidden in its pages is its secret…Scribes did their best to conceal this, but not altogether successfully.

In other words, she is superior not only to earlier generations of scholars, but to those who originally pored over, wrote out and copied these texts. In fact, she is clever enough to see where they went wrong, and the inconsistencies and is able to see to the world behind the text to explain them. Now, of course it is possible to see something in the Bible no-one else has spotted (I have done it myself!); but I think that this elevation of the modern mind as an element of method is not much more than intellectual arrogance.

2…Inconsistently applied
But what is really odd is the inconsistent way that FS applies this.

A close reading of the Bible shows that people found it hard to stick with monotheism.

Hmmm. I think I learned that in Sunday school; perhaps I was just well taught! The programme repeatedly juxtaposes evidence from a plain reading of the Bible, with a highly sceptical reading which distrusts the text altogether. The most striking example comes at around half-way through the programme. FS comments:

If you examine the Biblical texts, you find evidence that many Gods were worshipped here in Jerusalem.

She then goes on to cite Ps 82.1 and Ex 15.11 and concludes

In other words, the religions of the Israelites was polytheistic, just like the Canaanites.

Of course, the only problem with this conclusion is that there is no actual mention of worship of the other ‘gods’ in the assembly here. Undeterred, she brings on expert Herbert Niehr who contrasts this scenario with traditional monotheism.

As we now know it was quite different. There are many texts referring to the divine council.

This is followed with the non-sequitur: ‘Israelite and Canaanite religion were one and the same.’ But the strangest thing is the conclusion to this interchange:
For me, they undermine the monotheism. The Bible is an unreliable source; it is not telling us the truth about these ancient people.

But she has just built this section of argument on the text of the Bible itself—so which is it? Insightful or unreliable?

3. Evolution of belief
The picture which emerges is of the development of a sophisticated monotheism relatively late, which arises from a succession of historical events, and in particular the crisis of the destruction of the temple and the Exile. This is presented as a conclusion from the careful (and critical) reading of the text. But in fact it is an assumption brought to the text, and it has been around for nearly 200 years. It belongs to an approach called History of Religions, which arose in Germany in the nineteenth century, partly arising from the thinking of Hegel, but finding a happy home within the new thinking about evolution. It depicted religion as evolving with human culture, from primitive polytheism to ethical monotheism.

There is a rather large unanswered question hidden here: why should such a crisis like the Exile lead rather arbitrarily to monotheism? Other religious traditions which have faced crisis haven’t sacked their second-rate divine councils, so why did Judaism?

But worse than that, this thesis does not fit the evidence very well. For a start there are examples of much earlier written texts, such as the ostracon at Khirbet Qeiyafa that I mentioned in my last post. But neither does it fit the text of the Bible well, either. Take a verse like Gen 4.7:

But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

This is a remarkably sophisticated religious idea: sin is personified as a wilful opponent whom Cain must strive to master. This is a very early text which bears striking resemblance to much later ideas like the yetzer hara, the ‘evil inclination’. (Walter Brueggemann‘s Interpretation Commentary on Genesis highlights the developed nature of religious ideas here rather well.)

4. Feminism and monotheism
FS’s conclusion to the programme is striking. Monotheism is hard to enforce; after all, look at the persistent recurrence of the worship of a female ‘deity’ within Christianity itself, in devotion to the Virgin Mary. And perhaps polytheism is not such a bad thing. After all, monotheistic religions are so masculine.

Scratch the surface of modern day monotheism and you find polytheism…As a result of monotheism, these religions have become very masculine…God is exclusively male; to be like God is to be male.

Earlier, she explores the question of the appeal of polytheism, and notes what a thrusting and virile god Baal is. Yes, it is clear why he is appealing! But there are several ironies at work here. The first is that the variety of Christianity she has identified which includes a female ‘god’ is of course Roman Catholicism, not known for its welcome of feminism. And it is true that many forms of Christian monotheism look very masculine. But the reason for this is not that they follow the Bible’s commitment too strongly; they do not follow it strongly enough. The belief in one god means quite clearly (as Walter Moberly points out) that the God of Israel is ungendered. It is only when you think Yahweh must be married to Asherah that your god becomes male.

FS’s call is for us to reconsider a return to fertility religion—and I am not sure that tradition has such a great track record of female emancipation either.

I hope that, up till now, my comments have been reasonable and responsible. But this is where I get cross. I don’t mind having a good debate about academic matters with other academics, and I understand that FS is an engaging person who has lively debates with colleagues with whom she disagrees within the faculty at Exeter University.

But what I object to is the unashamed power play that she makes in this programme. She is quite clear—she says it with some glee—that her academic ideas will ‘rock the foundations of monotheistic faith’. I wonder by what right she decides to do this—faith that is important to all sorts of people, to those facing persecution for their belief, for those facing umemployment, or disability, or perhaps even death. I wonder by what right she thinks she can do this?

The imbalance of power is evident in the programme’s presentation. She contrasts her academic views primarily with the faith of a rabbi, not an academic. When she does bring on a Christian academic, she gives no right of reply, and we have no idea whether he might be able to offer a response to her theories—because he is not invited to. So we here FS’s great sweeping conclusions, and never find out whether those she disagrees with actually have a good reasons for their commitments. I wonder why?

It seems rather like a waste of a good education.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

27 thoughts on “Buried secrets—or hidden assumptions?”

  1. “A close reading of the Bible shows that people found it hard to stick with monotheism.”

    “Hmmm. I think I learned that in Sunday school; perhaps I was just well taught!”

    It seems you’re not the only one who was well taught, so was I!

    I don’t think there is any denying that the Israelites struggled with monotheism. It didn’t help that they intermarried with the Canaanites against God’s instruction:

    Deuteronomy 7:1-4
    When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

    God was pretty clear to the Israelites with what was needed, but they didn’t listen fully to what He said and of course there was intermarriage and people turned to Caananite Religions

    I felt the programme was very much FS saying – The Bible says this, my opinion is better suited to what point i want to put across, so if my opinion is correct then….

  2. The points you make in this blog are exactly what I was thinking while I was watching it. The inconsistent way she kept using then ignoring the bible text, and the mention of God being ungendered but her totally ignoring this. It reminded me of the way i wrote essays in the first year, ignoring anything that didn’t fit and refusing to look at information critically.

  3. Dr. Francesca is an academic and I only have 2 ‘o’ levels. Her first prog featured Prof Finklestein who could not find any empire of Israel in the appropriate soil levels. In 10 minutes on the internet I discovered that Prof Finklestein uses a dating concept that was developed in 1912 by a German archeologist using the rising of the star Osiris – known as the ‘sophic’ method. Trouble is it is a matter of great debate in archeology and the sophic method. Finklestein’s problem is that Egyptian chronology dates are not established.The ‘sophic’ method which was strongly promoted in Chicago in the 1940’s is now not used by main stream archeology I understand. Now why could Prof Frances not have saqueezed a fraction of time into her programme to enlighten me of this fact. It would have informed my opinion, but it might have run contrary to her ideas.
    I was also surprised that in the second prog when the carved stone was found in Syria as her cameras were running, that she showed a more than academic fawning as the god Baal was revealed. ‘Oh, it’s baal’ she said sounding as if it was her long lost best friend.
    But what really gets me is the whole construct of the prog and the way it presents facts, information and opinion. I am not convinced Frances, sorry. I see a prog construct that goebbles would be proud of.
    But then I only have 2 ‘o’ levels, what do I know?

  4. Really interesting comment John–thanks. What you say highlights some key issues in the discussion, and again raises issues of information and power that I comment on in my conclusion. There are so many contentious issues in this kind of discussion, and I don’t see that it helps anyone to present these things as ‘facts’—except perhaps to someone wanting to sell their book…?

    (Btw, your 2 O-levels were obviously very good ones…)

  5. Thanks for the review and your comment on my earlier review. Have also reviewed it and put a link in to your review. Like you now reviewed both of them on my blog: willcookson.wordpress.com . Must admit it really is rather tabloid in its presentation and style and content. Keep up the good work

  6. I found the programmes rather faith affirming. The archeology seems to back up the bible’s historicity and her version of events seems more far fetched. My issue is for those who haven’t read or studied the bible. They might just lap it all up or worse simply glance at the headlines.

  7. That’s interesting, Robin, thanks. I think I share with you the concern for those who are less familiar with the Bible and so might not have the resources to draw on in their own critique.

  8. Thanks Ian,

    I have just watched it and I was very disappointed. It was a very unbalanced and unsophisticated presentation. As you say, the Bible itself makes no attempt to hide the fact that oftentimes ancient Israelites did indeed worship Baal and Ashera. What’s new?

    Part of the problem is an anachronistic understanding of monotheism such that the divine council can be set up as “polytheism.” But in the biblical texts the divine council is seen as perfectly compatible with the uniqueness of Yhwh. The members of the council were not the objects of worship—they were gods created by Yhwh to do his bidding (the rabbi got that bit right). So how is this polytheistic? WELL, in a superficial way. It probably reflects the development of an idea with polytheistic roots but the finished result is not polytheistic.

    I have no doubt that Israelite religion drew on Canaanite religion but it reshaped it in seismic ways!

    Most frustrating was the monster theory built upon hair-thin evidence. So one ref to “Yhwh and his Ashera” (which, by the way, scholars still debate over whether “Ashera” refers to a goddess) now demonstrates what (all?) Israelites really thought? Really? We know some Israelites thought that kind of thing (the Bible says as much) but . . .

    Oh, I give up. I am supposed to be working. Must go.

  9. ‘I wonder by what right she decides to do this—faith that is important to all sorts of people, to those facing persecution for their belief, for those facing umemployment, or disability, or perhaps even death. I wonder by what right she thinks she can do this?’

    Freedom of speech?

  10. Thanks for comment Colin. But freedom of speech is always curtailed by a sense of responsibility, and I think the programme illustrated very clearly FS’s misuse of intellectual power by her uneven engagement with her conversation partners. I know Walter Moberly will have had a view on her view, but there was no chance to hear it.

  11. Oh dear, another use of selective evidence to prove a theory / belief. This approach seems as old as mankind itself – funny that. Trouble is, it’s an approach used by both sides. FS may be guilty of it – and so, for example, was the rabbi who tried to refute her arguments. Notice he didn’t actually say she was wrong, only that “was not what Juadaism believes”. So who’s omitting evidence now?

    What it comes down to is this … as the earth’s population grew, it became increasingly difficult for men to control other men with “multiple Gods” in existence. With multiple gods, you can always have the debate “my god’s stronger than your god”. Now, if you can create one all powerful God to the exclusion of others, then you can use this to influence behaviour … “the supreme god will punish you”. Similar to the way “like” and “cool” now pervade our language, humans are supremely good at picking up on trends / “memes” and there must have been a selective advantage to monotheism (perhaps polytheists were knocked off!).

    Ultimately, this is a study of ancient politics and sociology and has nothing to do with supernatural gods. The sooner we all wise up the better.

  12. Penny, thanks for your comment.

    I am not sure I am using the same approach as FS–I would like all the evidence to be considered fairly. What I did not like was FS interacting either with non-academics who would not be able to offer a critique of her view, or academics like Walter Moberly to whom she gave no opportunity.

    Your theory is interesting, but you appear, on the one hand, to rule out the possibility of the supernatural as an assumption, and on the other to apply a version of social Darwinism to the development of religion, which is a close parallel to the ‘History of Religions’ approach.

    I would be happy to go with this, if it fitted the evidence. I think my comment is that it doesn’t, unless you are selective. I think it might well do in other religious traditions, but the Judeo-Christian tradition has an uncomfortable habit of bucking the trend here.

    As a small example, it is quite difficult to explain why David became such an important figure within Judaism when the record of his reign is so mixed. Are there any parallels to this in the ANE? I don’t think so.

  13. Dude, am loving your blog. “What I did not like was FS interacting either with non-academics who would not be able to offer a critique of her view, or academics like Walter Moberly to whom she gave no opportunity……” I thot I was the only person who noticed this. You speak my mind. So, I have been looking for FS’s email or phone number so I can respond to some of her claims. I completely agree that she seems to have an agenda and sets out to look for evidence to support that. You need to watch the latest episode. But I am glad for the programme. It has made me go back to those parts of the Bible I never really read properly. Thanks for your blog. More power….

  14. I’ve enjoyed the progs but found the Adam and Eve one a bit vague and less focused than the other two.
    I was interested to hear her declare that Christians believe that the reason that the couple were driven from the Garden of Eden was to punish them for their disobedience. Reading Genesis carefully I find that is not the case – although it’s a common misunderstanding that the church does little to rectify(Surprise, surprise!).
    The text says that they were punished in other ways for their disobedience (painful childbirth for her; heavy farming duties for him – Genesis Chap3 vs16-19)), but that the reason for their exclusion from the garden was to prevent them eating “of the tree of life”, ie. another tree, becoming like gods and living forever. (Genesis chap 3 vs 22-23)
    Not a lot of people know that.

  15. Al, glad you found it useful. The easiest way to talk to FS about her ideas would be to attend an academic conference she is at…

    Stephen, I am sorry to hear that the programme has helped you away from faith. The purpose of my comments is to show that she is not offering a coherent argument on any reasonable terms. So I hope you might reconsider.

    Steve, I agree about the third programme…do look at my reflections on it.

  16. Now, of course it is possible to see something in the Bible no-one else has spotted (I have done it myself!)

    May I ask what? 🙂

    [ Nice reviews, by the way. Thanks! ]

  17. FA I found that the odd phrase ‘its/his place was no longer found’ in the Greek of Rev 12.8 was exactly the same as the phrases in the Greek OT (LXX) at Dan 2.35 (the vision concerning the statue representing kingdoms) and Ps 37.36, which in Qumran is interpreted as a prophecy of the Wicked Priest. In other words, Rev 12 follows a trajectory of reading this Psalm through Daniel’s ‘apocalyptic’ vision.

    To my knowledge, no-one had spotted this before. I found it by working through all the phrases in Rev 12 and searching for them in the LXX.

  18. No academic, or even a simple, competent reader of the Bible would be deceived by FS’s wicked (I’m not sorry, it is the best word to describe the structure of her thought) arguments, so I remain unconcerned in those spheres. However, to England’s poorly educated, while highly propagandized, agnostic and atheistic citizens, this misinformation really does have the potential to mislead. This sort of patently false information has been put forth by many other sources, all of whom share the credibility of FS, so uneducated viewers of these programs will view FS’s work as confirming and solidifying the lies they’ve internalized as truth. This is very dangerous and shows that the Jezebel spirit is growing stronger, day by day, to the point that on a national television show, the narrator would fawn over an idol of Baal. It is amazing to see this in my lifetime.

    I give thanks to YHWH and all of the men and women who have worked so hard to put the Word of God before my eyes, it is so easy to be deceived, but if you have the Word, everything suddenly makes sense, and characters like FS can be seen for what they are.

  19. Competent reader..my thoughts exactly..viewing these FS programs for first time on Netflix. I found the “objective” analysis anything but objective and researched her name to find this site. Thrilled to discover that my instincts and insight into these programs are shared. Jezebel spirit indeed.


Leave a comment