The Bible's Buried Secrets

Professor Alan Millard critiques the BBC series The Bible's Buried Secrets.

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou presented three BBC TV programmes (15, 22 & 29 March 2011) with energetic excitement.

Senior Lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, she presented herself as "an atheist with a huge respect for religion ... a biblical scholar" who thinks that an academic should "leave faith at the door". Her message, she asserted repeatedly, is that the Old Testament is fictitious religious literature which conceals ancient realities.

David and Solomon

The first programme ['Did King David's Empire Exist?'] was about David and Solomon. In the 1950s, the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin excavated a town gate at Hazor in the north of Israel which he dated to the tenth century BC, the time of Solomon. He noted gates of similar design had been uncovered at Gezer and Megiddo and deduced that they were Solomon’s work, in the light of 1 Kings 9:15. Many competent archaeologists accepted that.

Then, in 1996, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University argued that the date, based on styles of pottery, should be lowered by as much as a century. It was not Solomon who built the gates and other structures, but Omri and Ahab! Further, he claimed, no remains of monumental buildings from David and Solomon’s time had been found, nor any sign of the extensive realm the Bible says they ruled. The biblical accounts could not be truly historical.

her dismissal of the ‘House of David’ in an inscription of the late ninth century BC ignores ancient ways of naming dynasties

Dr Stavrakopoulou talked with Israel Finkelstein and followed his opinions wholeheartedly. Excavations at Samaria have revealed parts of major buildings from Omri’s and Ahab’s days, with signs of wealth (carved ivory furniture decoration, see 1 Kings 10:18; Amos 6:4). Should not the powerful kingdom of David and Solomon have left comparable relics? She concluded there was no united kingdom under David and his son. Scribes in Judah, 300 years later than David’s time, moulded him to make a fictional story of a charismatic founding figure.

Her presentation aligns her with scholars who take a very negative attitude to the Bible, yet numerous highly reputed biblical scholars and archaeologists disagree. Despite her claims to academic scholarship, she completely failed to tell viewers that Israel Finkelstein’s views are widely contested. In fact, he has recently altered his position to an extent which allows a tenth century date for the gateways! Only an inscription in its original position can prove who built an ancient wall. No inscriptions of David or Solomon have come to light, but that cannot show they did not exist or did not erect grand buildings. No inscriptions of king Herod have been found in the Holy Land, but no one concludes he was fictitious or did not build! (There are wine jars labelled for him and coins bearing his name; coinage did not exist in David’s day.)

Dr Stavrokopoulou showed a broken Aramaic inscription from Tel Dan which mentions "the house of David". Engraved 150 years or so after David’s death, she suggested it came from a time when a fictional story of a founding father had been constructed. That flies in the face of well-known ancient practice. A dynasty was named after its founder, a real man. The stone does not disclose anything about David except that. Yet she did not report that hardly any scholar today doubts his existence.

The first programme exhibited a strong bias against the biblical record and utter failure to recognise other interpretations.

Old Testament Polytheism?

‘Did God have a Wife?’ was the provocative title of the second programme. Again, to start with, Dr Stavrokopoulou characterised the Old Testament as unreliable. She said that rigorous analysis of the Hebrew shows beliefs in many gods. Certainly a few verses refer to "gods" (eg. Exodus 15:11; Psalm 82:1), without proving Israelites revered them. They say that even if other gods exist, Israel’s God is supreme and they can be ignored.

She described relics of polytheism in Israel without revealing the many biblical texts that acknowledge it.

Canaanite beliefs in a supreme god El and his wife Asherah, as well as Baal and many other deities, are illustrated by finds from Ugarit, near Lataqiyah in north Syria, actually outside Canaan. In the Bible God is sometimes referred to as El, eg. in the name Israel. What she did not explain is that El is the common Semitic word for ‘god’. Israelites might use the same word without meaning the same divinity. (We say ‘Sunday’ without implying we worship the sun.) Many small metal statues of gods were flashed across the screen, all of them belonging to Canaanites, before Israel occupied the land.

The most striking discovery is of writings in ancient Hebrew which name Israel’s God, Jehovah or Yahweh, and his Asherah. They reveal that some Israelites about the time of Elisha thought God had a wife, Asherah! They do not prove every Israelite believed that. It is notable that there are hundreds of ancient Hebrew personal names in the Bible and in ancient inscriptions which involve God’s name, as in Jehonathan, Hezekiah, or El, as in Samuel, Elkanah, whereas only a tiny number involve the name of Baal – and Asherah does not appear. If she had been popular, people might have named their children to honour her. Pottery figurines of women with extended breasts are often found at sites of ancient Judah. They were identified in the programme as images of Asherah. Many scholars agree. However, equally careful studies contest their identity. They bear no emblems of divinity, they are not like the Canaanite figures of Asherah. They are better described as good luck charms for nursing mothers where the infant mortality rate was very high.

The Bible does not hide the fact that Israelites worshipped Baal and Asherah and other gods. The prophets condemned them for doing so (eg. Jeremiah 19:4-5; Hosea). It agrees, therefore, with the archaeological evidence! The Bible does not misrepresent the past in that respect, nor does this evidence undermine the Bible’s record that Israelites believed in a single, unique God.

Adam and the Garden

The Garden of Eden was the inside of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and Adam was the last king of Judah, concluded Francesca Stavrokopoulou in her third programme ['The Real Garden of Eden']. She noted the traditional interpretation of the Fall as marking human nature as bad, so justifying the need for a Saviour, but treated the narrative as a scribal invention of the sixth century BC. So she sought a real figure in a particular place. The ‘real’ Eden should be a man-made garden, such as those that the Assyrian carvings in the British Museum portray. Royal gardens were artificially watered and planted with fruitful trees, similar to gardens in the Moorish Alhambra of Granada, Spain, intended to represent paradise.

her conclusions about the Garden of Eden rest more on supposition than fact

Ancient people believed the gods had homes on earth and lived in gardens where kings were their gardeners, as was Adam in Eden, representing their people to their gods, and an Assyrian relief apparently shows a king in a garden. The Genesis narrative should reflect ideas of its time, Dr Stavrokopoulou asserted and proceeded to seek them.

Earlier than Genesis 2, the book of Ezekiel identifies the "holy mountain of God" (that is, Mount Zion) with Eden, where the king of Tyre is associated with a guardian cherub (Ezekiel 28). With its entry guarded by cherubim, Eden was like Assyrian temples and palaces, their doorways guarded by stone figures of lions or human-headed bulls. However, Eden was not in Assyria or Babylonia, for one of the rivers flowing from it was the Gihon. That is the name of a spring in Jerusalem (1 Kings 1:33, 38), therefore Eden should be located there. Now a temple unearthed in north Syria (Ain Dara) had guardian figures standing at its entrance as in Assyria. In dimensions and architecture that temple shows a "remarkable correlation" to Solomon’s temple. Within temples and palaces were paintings or carvings of palms and other trees and protective creatures. The walls inside Solomon’s temple were adorned with carvings of cherubim, palm trees and flowers, making it ‘Eden’. It was where heaven and earth became one; stepping into it was "nothing less than stepping into heaven".

Adam was banished from Eden. That was an historical event, which Dr Stavrokopoulou identified as the capture of king Zedekiah when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem in 586 BC. The king had sinned, so everything went wrong: the king was dethroned, the link between God and people was lost, the cosmic order was disturbed. Well after the sixth century BC the account of these events was placed in the book of Genesis with its meaning changed, introducing as evil the snake which had been revered (cf. Nehushtan), the punishment of Eve and giving rise to the concept of original sin.

Links between Eden, the Temple and Mount Zion in the Bible are well known (see T. D. Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 2008), but Dr Stavrokopoulou’s way of explaining them ignores many aspects and forces them to fit her ideas. Beside the Gihon, from Eden there flowed the Tigris, Euphrates and Pishon, which do not suit the Jerusalem location and would hardly have been mistaken for local rivers. Apart from Genesis 2:13, Gihon is never called a river, so it need not be the same. The Assyrian relief actually shows a monument depicting a king in the garden, not the king himself. Throughout the programme it became clear that Dr Stavrokopoulou wanted to discredit the doctrine of original sin and the supposed condemnation of women through Eve’s behaviour.

What ‘Buried Secrets of the Bible’ did Dr Stavrokopoulou uncover? Her claim that there is no trace of great buildings from the days of Solomon is widely contested and her dismissal of the ‘House of David’ in an inscription of the late ninth century BC ignores ancient ways of naming dynasties. She described relics of polytheism in Israel without revealing the many biblical texts that acknowledge it. Finally, her conclusions about the Garden of Eden rest more on supposition than fact. As a collection of ancient religious writings, the Old Testament presents a certain point of view, but that does not make it unreliable and no discovery has proved it to be so beyond doubt. It is regrettable that the BBC should broadcast programmes that are so lacking in balance, in objectivity and in logic.

© 2011 Evangelicals Now
This item was originally published in the May 2011 edition of Evangelicals Now. It is published here by the kind permission of the editors and the author. For a free sample issue or to subscribe to Evangelicals Now, click here.