NOVA Documentary: The Bible’s Buried Secrets

While I’m finishing the post on Samson, I thought I’d share this very interesting NOVA documentary on Biblical archaeology, the origin of the Israelites, and the Documentary Hypothesis. It has the rather vague title “The Bible’s Buried Secrets.” If you take it with a grain of salt, it’s pretty interesting and informative.

Moving chronologically, it contrasts the (sparse) historical record against the first 11 books of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with the earliest recorded mention of Israel and the first Hebrew inscription. When the Bible is unsupported by any archaeology, it explains possible origins for the myths. When the Bible is kinda-sorta backed up, it sorts out how much truth is behind it.

For instance, did you know that there is one (1) extra-biblical reference to King David? One. We found it in 1992. And what exactly was he king of? I’ve heard theories that his kingship was overblown. Well, this documentary has tentatively convinced me that the Bible is correct when it says David and Soloman ruled over all of Israel and Judah. But not for very long.

Cross-dating with Egyptian sources date Solomon’s death to 930 BCE. We have pretty accurate dates for the time of David’s kingdom. It’s really neat how history starts creeping into the Bible right around the Book of Samuel.

The show’s main theory about the origin of the Israelites is that they were underclass Canaanites who revolted against their rulers… and they mixed with a small group of Canaanites who actually did escape from slavery in Egypt, who had assimilated the local god YHW(H) as they passed through Midian. (Richard Friedman echos some of this theory in passing in Who Wrote the Bible, but just as speculation.) I don’t know if I agree with every detail, but it provides good evidence to the hypothesis that the Israelites were Canaanites. They’re finding plenty of pagan idols in Israelite houses, and inscriptions to YHWH along with Asherah, a Canaanite deity. The Israelites were polytheistic Canaanites. It’s about as obvious as anything.

Side point of interest: There is a temple in Syria that bears an incredibly strong resemblance to the Temple in Jerusalem. (Complete with cherubim!) The Hebrews and their religion sure fit right into the cultural milieu.

The Documentary Hypothesis is somewhat of a secondary topic, but the show ends with P being written by the Hebrews while in exile in Babylonia. It’s a twist on the DH I haven’t heard before. Richard Friedman places P after their return from exile, in the time of the second temple. (He acknowledges exile-era writings in the Bible, like Lamentations and certain Psalms.) The doc says that the exile experience basically turned the Israelites into monotheists, and this is a Big Deal. I guess the switch to monotheism had to happen at some point… but the importance is a bit overblown. This the weakest point in the show.

Overall, I think it’s very well done, and there is a minimum of apologetics or such stuff that would annoy the atheist viewer. While I didn’t learn anything new about the Documentary Hypothesis, it has definitely piqued my interest in “biblical archaeology”, or whatever they call that now.

Readers in the US can watch it free (with lots of ads) on Hulu. PBS’s website has even more information which I have yet to dig into.

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