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.
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.
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.