I’m continuing my observations about ETS and SBL, though not in chronological order.
Yesterday, November 24, SBL had a special screening of The Bible’s Buried Secrets, the NOVA documentary first aired on PBS on Tuesday, November 18. After the screening of the two-hour documentary and a short break, the panel members took turns offering five-minute comments about various aspects of the film and then all took questions from the audience.
Introducing the film was Joan Branham, the wife of the film’s producer, Gary Glassman, who is the head of Providence Pictures. Branham is an art historian at Providence College. Both, of course, are based in Providence, Rhode Island, where ironically ETS (but not SBL) happened to meet last week. Branham made sure to include in her introduction a disparaging remark about the “right-wing fundamentalists” (as opposed to the left-wing fundies, I suppose) who criticized PBS for funding the documentary before they (the crazed critics) had seen it. This got some laughs from the audience, but the fact is that Providence Pictures had shown a trailer to select media and released information as to the conclusions defended in the film. Anyone could see from this information that the documentary was a one-sided attack on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). PP let the public know through its pre-release media campaign that the film would disclose (among other things) that the Israelites did not become monotheists until the Exile or afterward and that in its earlier years Yahweh had a “wife.” It would not be unreasonable to think that PP wanted to incite a reaction from conservative Christians—which has historically been good publicity for these types of ventures. It seems to have worked, since Branham reported that two million people watched the film when it originally aired. And as a matter of fact, the conservatives who criticized PBS were right about the film’s contents.
For those who haven’t seen it, the main claim of The Bible’s Buried Secrets is that the hallmark doctrine of Judaism—monotheism, the belief in only one God—did not arise until the time of the Babylonian Exile or shortly thereafter (that is, in the sixth century BC). Prior to that time, the film’s scholars claim, Israel was polytheistic, and even worshiped a female deity named Asherah alongside Yahweh as his consort. Somehow in the painful crisis of faith engendered by Jerusalem’s conquest, the Temple’s destruction, and the apparent discrediting of Yahweh’s promises to Israel, the Jews were led for the first time to embrace the belief that Yahweh was the only God.
Along the way, the film claims that the Israelites did not leave Egypt in a mass exodus (though a few runaway slaves in Egypt, not necessarily Hebrews, may presumably have escaped to Canaan), did not conquer Canaan in a series of military campaigns led by Joshua, and were themselves actually Canaanites. It also explains that Moses did not write the Pentateuch (or even any appreciable part of it), that various sources for the Pentateuch may have been written during the time of the monarchy, and that the Pentateuch as a whole was put together after the Exile (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, or JEDP theory). This theory of the Pentateuch’s literary origins is essential to the thesis that monotheism arose at the very end of the Old Testament era, since of course the Pentateuch teaches monotheism. On the bright side, the film highlights recent archaeological evidence supporting the existence of David and his kingdom, casting Israel Finkelstein (who thinks David was at most a local tribal chief) as the extremist on the skeptical or minimalist side.
Hence William Dever, without any sense of disingenuousness, could assert that the film is “fair and balanced” (like Fox News?!) while implicitly excluding conservative scholarship (which doesn’t fit Dever’s definition of what he called “mainstream” scholarship). I say “implicitly” because neither Dever nor anyone else on the panel represented, or even mentioned, the considerable body of conservative scholarship that does not agree with the film’s perspective. No such scholar is ever seen, heard, or even mentioned in the documentary, except for references to William Foxwell Albright’s dating of pottery. Albright, who died in 1971, held to a moderately conservative view of the historicity of the Old Testament, but no mention is made of this fact in the film. No conservative scholar was mentioned during the panel discussion, and no conservative in the audience offered any comment. I sure would like to have seen some of the leading evangelical Old Testament scholars there raising a voice in protest, but none did.
The panelists, in addition to Branham, Glassman, and Dever, included Michael Coogan (Stonehill College), Shaye Cohen (Harvard), and Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina). Dever described the film as “the first honest, critical documentary” on the Bible and expounded on the film’s revisionist view of biblical history: “You all know that the Bible doesn’t have to be literally true to be metaphorically true.” Coogan admitted that there has been a “meltdown” of the twentieth-century “critical consensus” in support of the JEDP theory, a fact that the film did not acknowledge. (In fairness, the so-called “mainstream” scholarship on the question may be changing, but it’s not moving back toward a more traditional view of Pentateuchal origins.) He lamented the fact that biblical scholars have so far not been successful in changing the general public’s perception of the nature of the Bible. Cohen agreed with Coogan regarding JEDP (noting that there is no agreement as to whether “P” dated from before or after the Exile). He focused his comments on the film’s claim, which he supported, that Judaism did not begin until the end of the Biblical (Old Testament) period. Magness was the only person to take serious issue with any aspect of the film’s reconstruction; she expressed surprise that the film seemed to endorse the Marxist peasant-revolt model of Israelite origins. Dever denied that this was the film’s perspective, but I would tend to agree with Magness that this did seem to be the model favored in the film. The documentary even refers to the early Israelites as “egalitarians,” an anachronistic description if there ever was one.
During the Q&A period, one audience member demurred from the film’s repeated assertion that the Egyptian chronology was well established or even firmly established. The panelists agreed that overstatements on the matter should be avoided. It’s too bad this caution is not taken more seriously in Old Testament scholarship, because assumptions about Egyptian chronology may be at the root of the problem with regard to the alleged lack of evidence for the Exodus in Egyptian sources.
Another audience member expressed the opinion that the film’s conclusions were salutary because they eliminate the biblical notion that the Israelites had carried out an order from God to exterminate the Canaanites. Some of the panelists agreed with this opinion; since the Israelites were themselves Canaanites, according to these scholars’ conclusions, they obviously did not wipe out the Canaanites. The panelists’ explanations as to how this “insight” could actually enhance respect for the Bible were quite contorted. Somehow, from the premise that the Bible is supposedly wrong in its claim that the Israelites wiped out whole Canaanite cities, they drew the conclusion that the Bible is easier to accept and revere. Is this anything like Thomas Jefferson saying that the Gospels are much easier to accept once you cut out all the passages that contain miracles?
This PBS film demonstrates the pressing, crucial need for conservative scholarship to ratchet up a few notches and offer a comprehensive, coherent response to the liberal and skeptical revisionism now dominant in Old Testament studies. Our evangelical universities, colleges, and seminaries need to invest significant funding into biblical archaeology, into research to explore responsible alternatives to this revisionism, and into media productions that can effectively inform the public about these issues in a truly “fair and balanced” manner.