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Bible gets a reality check

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 6:44 PM by Alan Boyle

Providence Pictures
Biblical archaeologist Ron Tappy examines the Tel Zayit abecedary, a 2,900-
year-old alphabet stone that suggests King Solomon was a real historical figure.
Tappy's findings figure in "The Bible's Buried Secrets," a PBS documentary.

"The Bible's Buried Secrets," premiering tonight on PBS, presents archaeological findings that will annoy believers as well as skeptics - which suggests the TV documentary just might be on the right track.

At least that's the view of William Dever, a world-renowned archaeologist who worked on the show and calls it "the first honest film that's been made" about the first books of the Bible. For Jews, those books make up the Torah and other early scriptures, while Christians would call them the early part of the Old Testament.

The two-hour show has already stirred up a backlash among some believers. For example, the program airs archaeologists' assertions that:

  • The Bible's first books have been traced back to multiple authors writing over a span of centuries.

  • There's no evidence for the actual existence of patriarchs such as the biblical Abraham.

  • Some ancient adherents of Yahweh also worshiped his "wife," a fertility goddess named Asherah.

  • The Exodus appears to have involved just a small segment of the Jewish population rather than all Jews.

  • The Land of Canaan was not taken over by conquest - rather, the Israelites actually might have been Canaanites who migrated into the highlands and created a new identity for themselves. "Joshua really didn't fight the Battle of Jericho," Dever said.

That kind of talk has spurred the American Family Association to start up an online petition urging Congress to cut off federal funding for PBS. But Dever maintains that it's not a biblical archaeologist's job to demonstrate the truth of biblical stories, despite the many TV specials of the past about the real Christmas story, the lost tomb of Jesus and other claims.

"Archaeology certainly doesn't prove literal readings of the Bible," he told me. "It calls them into question, and that's what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible. No archaeologist thinks so."

David and the disbelievers
Disbelievers may be discomfited as well: "The Bible's Buried Secrets" includes a segment highlighting the work of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary's Ron Tappy, who is part of a team studying an inscription at Israel's Tel Zayit archaeological site. The inscription hints that a well-organized state was functioning in the 10th century B.C., with Jerusalem as its seat.

Yet another inscription at Tel Dan, from the ninth century B.C., appears to refer to the "House of David" - although that interpretation is disputed. Such evidence suggests that King David and King Solomon were historical figures who matched up with the biblical accounts.

Dever said still more evidence may be coming to light with the discovery of a ceramic shard inscribed with Hebrew writing from the 10th century B.C. The shard was found amid the ruins of a fortified settlement south of Jerusalem, and the inscription appears to include words meaning "judge," "slave" and "king."

"That's dynamite," Dever said, "because if there's a small fortress where people were able to keep records, on the way to Jerusalem, there's a king up there. I don't care if you name him Solomon or Fred, it doesn't matter to me."

The way Dever sees it, "The Bible's Buried Secrets" plays it straight down the middle, and that may raise unsettling questions for literalists as well as those who see the Bible as a collection of fairy tales.

"The film's going to get it from both sides," Dever said.

Reality check for the reality check
Dever would be expected to feel that way, since he's so closely associated with the film. But Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, agreed that there's nothing shocking in "The Bible's Buried Secrets" - that is, if you've been following the field closely.

"When you know a lot about something, it always appears that the media make mistakes," Shanks told me. "The scholarly experts can find emphases that they would disagree with. Biblical archaeology is a field that is riven [by such disagreements]. But overall, I think it's a fine production. It is very basic, for people who don't know much about it."

Those who believe in the literal truth of every word in the Bible aren't going to be happy, he said. "There's a question of what it means to be 'literally true,'" Shanks said, "whether you're talking about spiritually, or in terms of the lessons being taught, or whether you're talking about factual historicity."

Sometimes it's a matter of emphasis - for example, in the debate over how many Israelites (or would those be Canaanites?) took part in the Exodus, versus how many were in Canaan to start with. "If I were saying it, I would put more emphasis on the crew that did come from Egypt," Shanks said. "Nobody who deals with the Bible critically would say that there were 2 million or 3 million people moving across the desert. But that doesn't matter. We're talking about a group. How large, we don't know."

Once those sojourners arrived in the land of Canaan, it would be "perfectly normal and understandable" for other Canaanites to head into the highlands where the crew from Egypt had settled, Shanks said.

Debating the evidence, or lack thereof
That doesn't mean archaeologists are fully in agreement: For example, Dever and Anson Rainey, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, have long been locked in a big argument over the Israelites' origins. (You can read Rainey's latest volley in Biblical Archaeology Review.) But Shanks said believers shouldn't feel threatened - even though some of the claims in the show may seem to equate the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

"Anybody who says that Abraham never existed has no archaeological proof for that," Shanks said. "That's a matter of faith and an understanding of the way stories developed. But if someone wants to say we have no proof that Abraham existed, that's true."

You could even argue that it wouldn't make much of a difference even if every Bible story were proven true. In fact, that's exactly the argument made in Luke 16. You can also find biblical evidence to back up claims from "The Bible's Buried Secrets" that may seem controversial at first blush - for example, the claims about goddess worship among the Jews.

The fact that PBS is setting aside two hours of prime time to focus on the Bible's early books demonstrates that those ancient texts can still stir the soul - and stir the blood as well. The film's writer, director and producer, Gary Glassman, said that's why he spent the past six years raising money for the documentary, and the past two years making it.

"The testament to the fact that the Bible has great ideas in it," Glassman told me, "is that we're still wrangling over it today."

Update for 12:45 p.m. ET Nov. 19: In case you missed the program, or even if you just want to see it again, the entire show has been posted online at the PBS Web site, broken up into 13 video "chapters."

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I will take the bibles word over any archeologist's theory.  Keep in mind over a hundred years ago all archeologist claimed that the Hittite empire did not exist.  Well, they proved themselves wrong so I will take the word of God over any Human any day!

Laudatory work! The whole purpose of ALL the Scriptures (Hebrew, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, etc.) is to foster thought, reverence and commitment.
Interesting article, and an intereesting field of study. The worship of Asherah throughout the Jews' history is well documented in the Bible and in non-Biblical texts. The presence and worship of foreign gods was the main reason given for destroying all the inhabitants when the Jews entered the promised land. They chose to disobey God (or not trust Him sufficiently to bring it off) and were thus religiously polluted in the ensuing generations.

I find it interesting how non-believers will hang their hat on one piece of evidence that appears to demonstrate that something did not occur or someone can't be proven to have existed, at the same time that some believers froth anytime a Biblical accoount is called into question.

It is important to remember that archaeologists make their liveing by creating epic stories about the past by studying very small pieces of information. Most archaeological theories undergo enormous change or outright abandonment over a period of time as new evidence and understandings come to bear, much like we see occurring with the theory of evolution in the biological sciences.

Integrity, patience, and tenacity are (or should be) the hallmarks of science; it would be a more pleasant world if the consumers of science had the same traits.
I am 50 years old; never seen something more precise than the Bible. I went to Israel; everything is there according to the Bible. Just remember, people, during the last days (years) people will be deceived by others. No one has to tell me that Jesus Christ lives because my spiritual eyes seen him in each instant of my life.
It is extraordinarily annoying when news outlets like MSNBC and others interview folk like Shanks about biblical studies related matters when Shanks is neither an archaeologist nor a biblical scholar.  He is a lawyer/ publisher.  You would be better served, and so would your readers, if you took the time to interview people like Aren Maeir or Eric Cline or Philip Davies; persons actually engaged professionally in the fields under discussion.

Interviewing Shanks for this topic is like interviewing Bill Dever for a beauty contest.
It may prove to be an interesting program.  I am struck by the fact that some people so desparately cling to the notion that the Bible is literally true that they become unbalanced about it.  As far as I can tell, the Bible is a collection of stories that may or may not have an basis in factual evidence, but may provide object lessons nonetheless.  Yet there are situations described in the Old Testament in particular that I would hope would never be the norm in our society.  I'll probably watch the program.
I love how Mr. Dever says, "Archaeology certainly doesn't prove literal readings of the Bible," he told me. "It calls them into question, and that's what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible. No archaeologist thinks so."

It is so very telling where the folks who participated in the making of this show are coming from. Ha, ha. I'm sure I won't waste my time on another bias presentation of discrediting something that really can't be honestly determined.

Whether David and Solomon or Joshua and Jericho, no one was there so they take their little fragments and inscriptions and make up a likely scenario to fit what they would like to say is a reasonable conclusion. What a joke! Why not stick your finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing?
Let those who have eyes,see; let those who have ears, listen.  

The path to truth is fueled by science. Some prefer faith to truth. That is their choice. My question is: where does faith and truth coincide?
Anything is accurate if you don't question it.  
I am a devout Christian.  I am also well educated.  I find history and archeology to be fascinating.  I think, however, it is the heighth of hubris for Christians to state that God has given us all the knowledge we need in the Bible.  A God as infinite as I believe in could not possibly fit into such a small book.  Why is it so hard to believe that it is simply one message meant to show us how to live?  It does not have to be historically accurate-that's not it's main importance.  For example, I happen to believe that the entire world was not covered by a great flood.  More likely, a smaller geographical area was affected.  In that context,I read the story of Noah: a man's relationship with God and God's relationship with man. I just don't get why Christians are so threatened by Science, archeology and history.  One is science, subject to the proofs of scientific theory and one is faith, subject to one's understanding and relationship with the divine. I for one laud the archeologists who search for truth in helping us understand the people who wrote the Bible and their journey and understanding of God.
I don't even think about proving the bible wrong. It can't be done.
Sorry you're annoyed, Jim. Sometimes it's tricky for me to get in touch with folks on the other side of the Atlantic, due to the West Coast time difference. But I'd love to check with these folks, and particularly with Eric Cline, whose book I loved:


I'll see what I can do about getting in touch with these folks and reducing your annoyance. By the way, if I'm not mistaken, you can find out what Jim *really* thinks by visiting his blog:

It is good for people to realize that maybe the Bible isn't true after all.  I love science and research.  I'd much rather trust modern scientists than those that wrote the Bible.
Everybody has a right to an opinion, even archaeologists. If you do not believe in the Living Word, then that's your decision. The Bible is one of the oldest literary works known to man. And it's historically accurate on many levels. I will continue to put more faith in that than the work of any human being, no matter how intelligent they may be.
Good old PBS:  they always seem to find new ways to discount and belittle the Scriptures.  I agree that Congress should cut off their funding.  If they wish to pick at and chip at and discount the Bible, they should stop feeding and funding at the public trough and seek help from the agnostics and atheists.
Oh my, proof. That's right, proof. The bible is a fictitious story and it's about time people realize this. There is more proof that the bible is wrong than that it's right. Archaeologists dig up and find the truth, they have tangible proof. The bible treats readers to flights of fancy where bushes burn and snakes talk to people. No one has a right to take bits and pieces of the bible as truth and the rest as the old ways. Yet religion does that to the Nth degree. Everyone's preference of faith is right and all others are false gods. Tell me how that works. Are the Catholics right and Jews wrong? By the way all you people that get irked by my words, remember I have a right to voice my opinion.
For all the folks claiming the Bible is all truth and for those claiming science will always reveal the absolute truth, I'd like to point out that in BOTH cases we imperfect humans are the ones responsible for the information being disseminated.  As imperfect humans, we skew the info to fit our own beliefs in whatever direction they lay.  The Church concocted the history that is supposed to exist in Israel and scientists misread information because of their desire to disprove religion.  It'll be refreshing to (hopefully) see something with some balance to it.
so what I want to know is what kind of dinosaur Jesus liked to ride.
All the evidence in the world will not convince the religious minded to believe in reality.
Almost every bit of the Bible was written hundreds of years after the alledged events and conversations found within. And you base your entire religious beliefs on this?  Wake up people, it's a fairy tale, and has caused more misery, torture, and death than any other book in existence.  
Well, the dogmatic believers have weighed in; now let's have some objectivity, shall we?  Much of what is called "Scripture" is muddled and self-contradictory.  That's why I'm amazed when people say, "The Bible is all accurate."  Which part?  The part that says one thing or the part that says the opposite?
Californians just voted to restore government-sanctioned bigotry with Prop 8, based on one line in Leviticus.  "It's the word of God," the bigots thunder.  Then what about the part of the Old Testament that says that a disobedient son should be stoned to death, or that children may be sold into slavery by their parents?  Isn't that also the "word of God?"  Of course it isn't, and neither is Leviticus; the entire Bible is the word of MEN.  There's no Supreme Being with a long white beard inscribing stone tablets with a fiery finger; there's just men, and how they chose to explain the unexplainable, and to oppress the stranger, with words that are deemed to be "Holy."  Words aren't holy; only loving deeds are holy -- and if you practice hatred and bigotry based on your Faith, it's not holy or devout, no matter how many prophets you can quote.
I laugh at the feeble intellect of humanity.  Its like watching a dog pour perfume on a pig.
Once again the "Believers" are ignoring all of the other completely different religions/belief systems of the world. The complete indifference and intolerance to other belief systems on its face, makes the Christian belief system just one of thousands in the world, not the only one. Religion follows culture and the explorers that brought that culture to the New World. Does anyone really think that the Belief systems of Native Americans was just another form of Christianity? Christianity did not precede the New World Explorers. Let's just view religion as a characteristic of culture. The world would be a better place if this was realized. Religion has been used as a cover to kill more "godless savages" then any other reason yet invented.
I love how so-called Christians who haven't even seen the show are already here denying it :)

Keep up the good work, Anna and Roger. Comments like yours only serve to make you look like fanatics and drive people away from your religion.
Typical of these fairy-talers... Bible is a tool for manipulation.  God does not exist, never has, never will.. You cannot see "God" because there is none.  Read a book and not one having to do with the Bible or any testament for that matter and you'll see how silly the argument for "God" really is.
Need help putting that saddle on a dinosaur?  'Cuz if you believe in the Bible then humans and dinos co-existed!
Jack Cain: Sure, let's cut off funding for PBS because YOU don't like what they have to say about religion.  So much for the First Amendment, eh?  And while we're at it, let's take away the tax-exempt status of all churches -- including yours.  Why should I have to pay more taxes to make up for the lost revenue from granting tax-exempt status to religions I don't follow?

PS - PBS gets something like less than 20% of its funding from the federal government (see the Annual Report):


- think of it as what pays for Sesame Street or Jim Lehrer or whatever you religious types find acceptable.

"I will continue to put more faith in that than the work of any human being, no matter how intelligent they may be."

Sorry, dude, but in fact the bible was written by HUMAN BEINGS - many of them - over a period of about 100 years. The first new testament text was written at least 30 years after Jesus' supposed death. So historical accuracy goes right out the window right there.
Naomi: You're partially right; science is based solely on that which can be proven, whereas religion is based on that which can be neither proven nor disproven, but which must be accepted on faith alone.  As Bill Maher pointed out, if you were brought up to believe that the Brothers Grimm were the word of God and the Bible was a bunch of fairy tales, that's what you'd believe now.
Im sorry but anyone who blindly believe without doubt the Bible is true, that god exist, and that they are going to heaven when they die is indulging in self deseption.

Just because you have been preched to from birth that the bible is true, does not make it so. Very large parts of it cannot be proven, others have been disproven, and very little from the bible is reguarded as fact in any well educated circle thats not influeneced by the church. Of course the church is going to claim its all true... religion is a multi billion dollar a year industry, and if you stop believeing, there is no cash flow.

I think it is arrogant of any finite human being to claim that they can prove or disprove what is written in God's Word through scientific evidence. As long as we continue to seek concrete evidence, we will find nothing except the eternal empty gulf of self. It is through faith that the Lord can speak to us if he so chooses. Only the Lord's Holy Spirit can speak to our hardened hearts. However, our heads often get in the way.
I believe in the space man theory these days. I think people read too much into books and mis-interpid it. Then people go out and try to interpid their own version of the bible. Sooner or later the messages will be to far fetched to understand anymore.
It really is interesting to me how a Book, that humans have tried to destroy for thousands of years is still the most widely sold book in the world. It has survived more than ANY other book in the world. We as humans cannot begin to fathom the true meaning of life and it's existance whether it be spiritualy based or based around something like the "big bang". I personally believe in God and believe the Bible is like an instruction manual for life. However, I can't prove it historically nor will I try. My life is based on faith, and that is all I need. However, faith is not always enough for others.
Oh yeah, if born again believers are wrong, they have lost nothing... if non believers are wrong.... they have lost everything, doomed to eternal suffering. Which would you rather be? And I will agree on one point...christians are NOT perfect, we are all tempted. The difference? Forgiveness....
Whenever this type of discussion starts, I always wonder "which" bible are they referring to? When I worked in a bookstore, the way a manager let you know that she was displeased with something that you did was to assign you to alphabetizing the section on bibles. Yes, plural, bibles. So, again I have to ask, which bible??
All religions were orginally invented by the philosophers in the old days to keep human from killing each other like lower animals. But, now, with the shrinking world, human of all faiths are doing just that.

Time for something new?
What I have a hard time understanding is people who call themselves Christian's and then in the same breath say they don't believe what the Bible says is true.  The Bible is the only book that has prophesied future events and has been historically 100% accurate.  No other "prophet" can make than claim.  I fully believe that if the Bible said the "whole Earth" was flooded, then the WHOLE EARTH was flooded.  How hard can it be to believe something that was "God inspired" and written by man?
What religion would you be if you were born into a remote island without civilization and never knew of words and writing and books?  Never influenced by what people preach to you?  Chew on that for a minute.

Anyway, history programs about that era are usually entertaining and well thought out.  Hopefully this is a good show.
An excellent article and a show I would watch.  
While I was raised in a Christian family, I've grown to understand the bible as a collection of stories that contain good philosophical lessons; not necessarily factual lessons.  
Over the span of time, mankind has needed guidelines to live in harmony together and the bible provided those guidelines and still does for many.  In the same token, those guidelines have been twisted to the use of cruel and manipulative people throughout history.  Now we have our own democratic system to provide guidelines and provide for those who are unable to live within our societies boundaries.  Thus, reinforcing and many times replacing the bibles doctrine.  Do I believe in god?  No.  Do I believe in the basic philosophies of the bible?  For the most part.  
I think that what Becky wrote (Port Huron, MI) is one of the most honest and intelligent views I have ever read on this subject.  Thank you for providing such a genuine and balanced insight!!
Well put Shannon. I agree wholeheartedly.
ZzZzZz...Man has long known that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of elaborate fantasies based upon half truths and fantastical wishes for decades now. The real shock would be when those who cling to it's ever fraying teethers, let go and accept what they all know deep down.
Whoa, Joe from Italy, You should preface your commit with: "My opinion is:".  Because you simply can not prove your statement.  Some of our greatest thinkers, inventors, scientists and statesmen were devout Christians who certainly believed in God.  To believe in God, does not exclude believing in yourself.
< "Anybody who says that Abraham never existed has no archaeological proof for that," Shanks said. "That's a matter of faith.. >

Faith? Are you kidding?

How do we determine that anything at all really existed in the past without some form of documentation? Disregarding the Bible as documentation is laughable especially when it is compared against the other ancient writings that modern day scholars consider reliable. I guess the stigma will be that the Bible delves into sensitive moral areas of life which causes people to be uncomfortable. It also conflicts with modern scientific beliefs and God knows, we can't have that, can we?

I'll watch this program because it is always fun to see how they subtly undermine a document whose premise is truth while at the same time they claim they're objective. That's OK. Evidence usually shows up later that disputes this type of documentary. Research will continue because the Bible's impact on the world demands it.
I believe the Bible 100%. Try and tell me there isn't something greater. How did u get here Wilfully NOT ignorant? The Big Bang Theory? Honestley i think u are ignorant. Who's to say we didn't co-exist with dinosaurs? They world wasn't covered in humans the day we were created. It takes time. . . I feel sorry for the people who don't belive in God http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piuoGb-Nhfw
Just because scientists don't have evidence from some of the bible doesn't mean it's not true.  Some evidence is too old to be found.
No one really knows whether or not what the Bible is true. You believe what you believe. And if you REALLY do believe the Bible is the truth, why even watch the show? All it will do is upset you even more than you are for now reading the article. IF you really believe in what you believe, then you can't be swayed to not believe.

Give it a rest. Doesn't matter who you are, everyone has the right to voice their opinion. It is THEIR opinion, not yours. Don't judge...
Other than the fact that they are saying they now have proof that King Solomon truly existed I can see nothing else that serves a purpose.

For it to be said that the Jews worshiped other gods including a "wife" means little to nothing if it is not in fact proven to be true. We all know that the Jews were unfaithful before, during and even after they left Egypt.

I for one do not appreciate the bible being subjected to false rulings, but I do understand that this has been and may continue, it neither serves to lessen my faith in God or his word just because a human says they have "proof" one way or the other I KNOW God is and that he has used humans throughout history to display himself, however humans use of God's word to replay history is ALWAYS questionable.

I strongly suggest that ALL be very careful with this especially those that doubt God's word for anything less than truth. We all must accept that there is so much that remain to be UNrevealed both past, present and future and until and unless God allows it to be revealed we will continue to have those in doubt, but that in no way lessen the truth of God or His word, it just mean you, we don't understand it.




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