What did the ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ Unearth?

Last Wednesday saw the first of three programmes, ‘The Bible’s Buried Secrets’, in which Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University looked at what archaeology tells us about the Old Testament. This first episode explored whether there was evidence for King David’s ’empire.’

What did we learn?

1. Subjective Bible versus Objective History?
From the opening, Stavrakopoulou and other commentators draw a sharp distinction between the Bible as subjective, with an inherent bias because of its interests, and ‘objective’ (even at one point ‘scientific’) history and archaeology. Within the first few minutes, she comments:

Can we trust that the biblical story of David’s kingdom is historically accurate?

and she goes on to contrast ‘incontestable divine truth’ with her ‘more objective view as a historian’ and that the evidence would be ‘analysed dispassionately’. This process would evaluate the

best evidence for and against the biblical David…his united kingdom and the existence of David himself.

I don’t in fact think the programme goes on to do this, but the main problem is in the assumption itself. There is no doubt that those writing the biblical text had a clear aim in view, and it is also true that many Bible readers have assumed a sense of ‘objectivity’ for the Bible which (in modern terms at least) it does not claim for itself. But even modern history lacks the ‘objectivity’ claimed for it. Historians all have a certain perspective, often shaped by their own context and intellectual heritage, and usually write with the aim of demonstrating a thesis. (See the current controversy around a book like The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.)

Another dimension to this is the use of sources. It always seems strange to me that the Bible is dismissed as a source for historical investigation, when other, similar, ancient documents are held up as showing insight. Later in the programme, another archaeologist Israel Finkelstein comments:

You cannot use the Bible text to guide you around Jerusalem.

There is a fair criticism of a naive use of the Bible in this, but there is a deeper question about the status of the Bible as an ancient text which can in fact tell us about the world of its time.

2. The Bible and its popular use
Stavrakopoulou often conflated things the Bible depicts with popular use of it. The most striking example was the idea that the Bible depicts the Philistines as ‘barbarians’, in the sense of uncultured, so that the discovery of sophisticated weaponry and cultural artefacts shows the Bible is wrong.

But in fact the Bible does not suggest that the Philistines were at a primitive stage of technological or cultural development—it depicts them as the opponents of God’s people. It is quite widely recognised now that in fact Israel was itself not very highly developed, which is what makes its victories in war all the more remarkable. One of the recurrent themes in Deuteronomy is that God has chosen Israel even though they were the smallest and least impressive of nations (Deut 7.7), and the text almost expresses exactly the contrast archaeology confirms: ‘You are about to…dispossess nations larger and mightier than you…’ (Deut 9.1–3).

There is an important lesson here, particularly for readers of the Bible, to read what is there and not what we think it there or what we would like to be there. But to undermine popular misreadings of the Bible is not the same as showing the Bible to be mistaken.

  • It is worth noting that although, in English Bibles, these texts are grouped in a section called ‘history’, in the Jewish Bible they are called ‘the former prophets.’ The clear purpose of Joshua-Kings was to understand why the judgement of God, in the form of the destruction of the temple, happened. Within this, kings are assessed not according to their military and economic success, but according to whether they kept God’s law. Omri, who features in the programme, is a good example. He is judged negatively in 1 Kings 16.21-28 even though he appeared to be a successful king and even found a dynasty. The fact that he is mentioned more in archaeology does not prove anything particular about the Bible—though the fact that he lived around 150–200 years later than David makes it significantly more likely that there is more evidence for his reign. Interestingly, he has been reclaimed as a ‘national hero’ by secular Zionists, and ‘Omri’ is a common name in modern-day Israel, something unthinkable for traditional religious Judaism.

3. Complexity of the arguments
At times there were hints in the programme of the complexity of the arguments about Old Testament. We heard about the claims of Yigael Yadin, the counter-claims of Israel Finkelstein, the discoveries of Yosefl Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa that would overturn Finkelstein’s theories, and other discoveries in Jerusalem. But overall the presentation was of a confident, convincing consensus view presented by Stavrakopoulou.

In fact, most things in this area are in dispute, and scholarly opinion changes every decade or two. Even now, the thing which provides the basic backbone to chronology in Ancient Near East studies—the dating of the successive Egyptian pharoahs—is still a matter of debate, with two main theories fighting it out.

There were again only hints at another important dimension of this debate—the question of how much evidence we should expect to find. When at Khirbet Qeiyafa, Garfinkel comments:

Normally you would need to excavate 10 other layers before we get to the 10th century

In other words, we are going back to some of the earliest evidence of settled civilisation, and digging back through sites which have often been continuously occupied for 3,000 years, with each generation demolishing and rebuilding on top of what went before. In other words, evidence of any sort is often hard to come by.

  • It is worth reading through the Wikipedia entry on Khirbet Qeiyafa for two reasons. Firstly, many of the arguments about David not being a significant king are necessarily arguments from silence—there is not much evidence uncovered. Since archaeology is always making new finds, these are the ones that are most vulnerable over time. In other words, if this is your approach, you will inevitably need to become less sceptical as time goes on—which in itself challenges this method. No-one appears to dispute the date for Khirbet Qeiyafa, and you only need to find one significant, developed city like this in order to demolish Stavrakopoulou’s approach. (It is not surprising there are not others; most will have been built on in following generations, so the evidence will have gone.) But Khirbet Qeiyafa is also significant for a pottery ostracon with writing on, which could indicate that texts from the Hebrew Bible were written down as early as the 10th Century BC, a time when few people were literate.

Related to all this is the matter of the vested interests of academics themselves. I have no doubt that, when this series was produced, Stavrakopoulou herself will have been considering questions such as ‘How will this programme affect recruitment to my department? How will it affect my standing in the academic community? How will it help book sales?’ This is not to be cynical, but just to be realistic about the reasons why people get involved in these projects. (They are questions I would ask!) In fact, there is strong evidence that commercial concerns are corrupting the work of archaeology generally. If you find an inscription in Israel, and you know there are competing parties who are willing to pay good money for such evidence, what would you do? (For an example of a recent case still in dispute, look at the ‘James ossuary.’)

In the end, I didn’t think that Stavrakopoulou’s arguments sounded very convincing.

This anti-northern spin tells me that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were never united at all

This is a long way from the idea of ‘objective analysis’ of the evidence from David, and sounded much more like the view of someone with an academic, theological and ideological axe to grind. And the idea that the post-exilic writers would create a story of David uniting the two kingdoms as a model of the ideal king seemed like palpable nonsense to me; it would make much more sense to have simply portrayed the southern kingdom he ruled as superior.

The final conclusion, that religion (which ‘deals with the mysterious and unexplainable’) and politics should be kept separate, is at best naive and at worst a power-play to marginalise religious views.

The programmes will of course be interesting as a window on some of the issues. But a much better format would have been to present a range of different possible views, including those with a more positive view of the role of the Bible, and then reflect on the issues arising.

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20 thoughts on “What did the ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ Unearth?”

  1. I agree: am enjoying the whole debate but I can’t believe the whole idea of ‘objective history’ is still floating about. No one has ever written an objective history of anything.

  2. Interesting!
    I read an interview the presenter did and decided not to watch the programme for all the reasons you just describe. I guess that shows a lack of interest on my part and a lack of imagination on the part of the programme makers!

  3. Need to return to the works of historians such as FF Bruce – or perhaps he also let his faith overide is judgement as a historian.

  4. Jenni, of course worth noting that Stavrakopoulou was trained at that centre of progressive and forward-thinking theology, University of Oxford!

    Jonathan, what is interesting is that the consensus of biblical scholarship is moving back in the direction of F F Bruce, for good, thought-through reasons.

  5. I watched this, and have also just finished watching Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe.”

    What interests me about both programmes is their use of rhetoric and unsubstantiated leaps of logic. So Stavrakopoulou can draw out her conclusion that “Israel and Judah were rival Kingdoms”, while Cox proclaims that “Gravity is the great creator” without ever explaining why gravity is there.

    I’m not interested in provoking a sterile science vs faith debate, but I am interested in the way this popularizers of complex subjects use their language. Any thoughts?

  6. I think Cox is a strange case, in that he does not appear to realise that ‘wonder’ is not a scientific category, but primarily a religious one. From an existential point of view, the idea that we are made of stars is nonsense. As Christina Patterson in the Telegraph wonders: ‘Do stars weep?’

    I think for both there is a real difficulty stepping out of their specialisms into a wider arena when neither has worked out their epistemology ie the question ‘how do we know anything it true’?

  7. Jeremy, thanks for your comment. I think I would want to respond ‘Yes and no.’ If there is no evidence of something the Bible mentions at all, and you might reasonably expect to find evidence, then the absence of evidence might tell you something.

    But the $64,000 question is: what would you reasonably expect to find? And this is where it gets complicated. The discovery of Khirbet Qeiyafa seems to me to raise big questions of method, because up till now you have the argument ‘There is no evidence for David’s kingdom’, and then we find a massive, developed urban centre never previously known.

    This does suggest that, whilst there are famous examples of archaeological over-statement, in the main current discussion is far too sceptical about the Bible’s historicity because expectations of evidence are far too high.

  8. I for one, never really thought David was a successful king or founded an empire in the way these words are normally used. The Biblical evidence itself shows that he was a freedom fighter (terrorist?) and any success he had in uniting the rival tribes of Israel/Judah was tenuous at it’s best, and soon collapsed after his charismatic leadership. As for the stories of Goliath etc., it is the same old hero-stories – you must have been a beautiful baby, cos baby, look at you now!

  9. Thanks for opening up this discussion. I only managed to catch half the programme, but I, too, was struck by the over use of the word ’empire’ by Stavrakopoulou in relation to the Davidic kingdom. She presented the biblical picture as one of an impressive empire, then proceeded to demolish that picture on the basis of a lack of evidence of such an empire. Maybe that’s because it was never described in such terms in the Bible. Impressive in its own limited context, yes, but in global terms, hardly.

    I’m sure the Welsh would be delighted to think that a country the size of theirs constitutes an empire!

  10. Alan and Tony, I think your comments relate mostly to my point 2 above…thanks for contributions… There was a strange sense of glee in the programme when it was shown that a popular idea was not well-founded…

  11. It is unfortunate that Stavrakopoulou short-circuits all sorts of questions about chronology and context to present her own highly tendencious viewpoint as supposedly ‘objective. She seems to be motivated by a love-affair with Omri and the Northern Kingdom, and — that does not put it too strongly, as she herself acknowledged.
    She makes enormous leaps, largely based in this programme on Finkelstein, to assert that David and and Solomon never existed. Finkelstein is a heavy-weight figure, but as in all things, it is not so much the evidence he has collected but the framework in which he seeks to present it that is questionable.

  12. I think this program had all the intellectual rigour of a sixth form debating society. If u want to undermine the bible assume that it holds to a naive fundamentalist position then attack that. This is what Dawkins does. Yesterdays program was about El was just as jejune. I stopped listening to it half way through.


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