13 August 2008

The bible, PBS and fundamentalism

On 18 November, PBS will air a documentary entitled The Bible’s Buried Secrets as part of the Nova series. The documentary will deal with the TANACK, the Hebrew version of the bible. Three months before it is to air, it has already angered the fundamentalists. Why, you ask? It seems that this documentary challenges many cherished concepts about the bible.

According to archaeologist William Dever, whose specialty is Israel’s history,

It challenges the bible’s stories if you want to read them literally, and that will disturb many people.

But it explains now and why these stories came to be told in the first place, and how and why they were written down, and why they continue to resonate with us. So it’s a very controversial film.

Nova producer, Paula Apsell, believes that the biblical literalists and revisionists both will probably hate the film.

When I set out to do this, I very explicitly did not want to make a program that was proving or disproving that things happened in the bible.

According to the documentary, the bible was written in the sixth century BCE. “At least the first five books of the bible came together during the Babylonian exile,” said programme director Gary Glassman. Carol Meyers, a religion professor at Duke University said

The number of authors ranges from the hundreds to the thousands. There are bits and pieces of stories here and there that, over centuries and centuries – like tributaries to a river, tiny little streams upstream, and then they came together and became a couple [of] larger streams, and then you’ve got the mighty Mississippi, which is the Bible.

The visual image of that is incredible! If the hypothesis is correct, I think it makes the bible even more remarkable.

The program claims to converge science and history “to create an extraordinary new story of an ancient people – a new story of the Bible.”

According to the trailer now available on YouTube,

An archaeological detective story pieces together clues that paint an extraordinary picture of who wrote the Bible, when, and why.

The trailer begins:

In 1896, near the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt, one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology is unearthed.

Even the Los Angeles Times has weighed in on the documentary. William S. Dever, who specialized on the history of Israel, wrote that the documentary is ‘a shocking film in many ways, but it is truth, revolutionary, and it’s as fresh as yesterday.’"

The two-hour PBS special attempts to delve into the origins of the Israelites to explore their gradual transformation into a monotheistic people. It attempts to uncover who wrote the Hebrew Bible and whether it is history or parable. Producers of PBS's science series Nova say the film has “new discoveries that shake the foundation of biblical archaeology.”

Included in these “new discoveries” is the fact that that many Israelites believed that God had a wife – and disputes literal readings of the text.

Meyers adds

These stories are unlikely to represent real historical events, but rather there's some kernel of ancient experience in there which has survived and which helps give identity to the people at the time the Bible finally took shape centuries and centuries later.

There's no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, either, Meyers said. "It doesn't mean that there's no kernel of truth to it.

Apsell said she found it "extremely shocking" to learn that monotheism was a process that took hundreds of years.

I was always brought up to believe that the minute Abraham and the patriarchs came on the scene, the Israelites accepted one God and there was just always one God and that was it. I think people are going to really be stunned by that.

Apsell said the film has been six years in the making and that it was a science film. The important issue for her: What are the writers trying to tell us about their beliefs?

To many people of mainstream religious backgrounds, this will enrich our understanding of what our ancestors went through to give rise to the beliefs that many people hold today. That was their legacy to us: our God, one humanity and a code of ethics that had to accompany those beliefs.

The American Family Association, a fundamentalist organization sees the documentary as blasphemous.

PBS is knowingly choosing to insult and attack Christianity by airing a program that declares the Bible isn't true and a bunch of stories that never happened...

The AFA has a petition and urges signers to “declare to members of Congress.” [Sic]

Dever, who has participated in two dozen films about the Bible, predicted that there would be those who “are not going to like this film.” In an interview in the Orlando Sentinel he said

It’s a waste of time to argue with fundamentalists. And this film doesn’t do it. It’s designed for intelligent people who are willing to change their mind.

You may watch the trailer here

A few months ago, I watched a documentary The Exodus Decoded by The Naked Archaeologist, Simcha Yacobovicki, a two-time Emmy Award winning producer and director. The documentary examined the Exodus story and gave very plausible explanations for each of the plagues. He showed how a volcanic eruption could have caused each of the plagues and each plague contributed to the cause of the next plague.

The Ten Plagues, regarded by many as the miraculous centerpiece of the pre-Exodus narratives, did indeed happen, but that they were the result of a geological event, the Santorini volcanic eruption. The plague of the rivers turning to blood was a natural gas leak causing the water to be red-tinted; the pollution of the water caused all the fish to die and the frogs to hop out to safety, because they were the only ones who could; that led to pestilence, etc.

Yacobovicki also showed that if the date of the Exodus is moved slightly from the accepted date, the right Pharaoh was on the throne to make the story "work." This included the Pharaoh's name which meant "Moses' brother." Changing the accepted date by a few years coincided with that volcanic eruption. I was thunderstruck. Every “explanation” was so logical! Then he moved on to the actual Exodus itself even using the bible to pinpoint the probable location of Mt. Sinai. A seven minute clip of the Exodus documentary is here.

Instead of shattering my faith, the documentary actually made my faith stronger. For me, it is more miraculous that God’s creation “converged” to make the Exodus possible.

I feel sorry for people who cannot have their view of the bible challenged. They miss seeing so many miracles.

What do you think? Would archaeological evidence disproving some biblical event shake your faith?