However, as archaeology matured as a discipline it was clear that things were not as simple as they had first appeared. If the early pioneers had dug where they thought Jericho was, and found a city whose walls had indeed been destroyed, then that had been taken of proof of the accounts in Joshua of Jericho's destruction. But when evidence started to emerge that this had perhaps occurred around 1550BCE rather than significantly later, what then? What do we make of the biblical accounts of what happened?
Such is the question at the heart of Gary Glassman's documentary The Bible's Buried Secrets. Running at close to two hours it looks at the historicity of the Old Testament in the light of the findings of archaeology and textual criticism. Even before it aired on PBS last week certain groups had sought to protest about it, refusing to listen to the evidence it presented before making their judgement.
The programme itself focuses on two main parts of the Bible - the Torah and the conquest under Joshua; and the joint kingdom of David and Solomon when the glory of Israel was said to be at its peak. It then goes on to address some secondary issues such as the movement from polytheism into fully fledged monotheism.
Historical evidence relating to the earliest part of the Bible is fairly scant, however. As the programme rightly says, there's nothing at all that helps us corroborate the Abraham story. But there is the Merneptah Stele (c.1208BC), perhaps the first piece of evidence aside from the Bible which confirms Israel's existence, not to mention the discovery of the Zayit Stone which suggests that the written Hebrew alphabet goes back to at least 950BC. Both get a good airing here. There's also passing mention of the lack of evidence (thus far) of hundreds of thousands of people wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years, but, surprisingly no mention of the various inscriptions mentioning the Habiru/Apiru.
All of which brings us to the evidence of Joshua's conquest. As noted above, there's evidence of a destroyed city wall at Jericho, and the programme also tells us about similar findings at Ai and Hazor. But, as the programmes talking heads tell us, the dating of these walls is 1550 BCE, 2200BCE and 1200BC respectively, meaning that, at best, only one of these destructions can be credited to Joshua (although personally, I find it strange that anyone would be keen to 'credit' such atrocities to one of God's followers anyway).The programme puts forward an alternative theory; since the evidence from Hazor suggests that it fell not because of outside sources but from internal revolt - the have-nots deposing their overlords in the upper city - and there is good reason to think that this was not just happening in Hazor but all over Canaan, perhaps it is these proletariat Canaanites who ultimately became the Israelites. But it's a little unclear, however, whether the evidence really supports such a theory or whether this is just a convenient story to fill in the gaps in the archaeological record.
The documentary then turns its attention to the question of how these freshly liberated Canaanites happened upon their monotheistic beliefs. Citing evidence of a God YHW from Midian, the theory is put forward that a group of Canaanites escaped from Egypt, got converted into followers of YHW and travelled through Midian, and, in turn, became the greatest exponents of their new found religion. But as a theory it raises more questions than it answers. Why did the Canaanites go to Midian in the first place instead of straight 'home'. And, having settled in Midian long enough to adopt their religion, why did they then move on? And how did they escape from the Egyptians? And how is this any better as a theory than the one where a charismatic leader returns from Midian because he thinks his new found God has told him to lead his people to freedom?
There significantly less such speculation in the second part of the documentary which jumps to the time of David and Solomon. First up is the 1993 discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, an inscription referring to the house of David (making David the earliest Biblical character to have been mentioned outside of the Bible). There's further finds relating to David as well. Eilat Mazar is interviewed about her claim to have discovered David's palace. It proves to be the film's most controversial moment as it unpacks the basis of Mazar's claim (based on Albright's dating methodology), but then turns to carbon dating to debunk her theory, before ultimately stating that the majority of archaeologists support Mazar's claims.Such disagreements are largely absent from this documentary, indeed not one of the talking heads attempts to assert the infallibility of the Bible, or attempts to dispute the fact that much of the Old Testament narrative in uncorroborated. Whilst, I suppose, that leaves it open to a charge of being one-sided, it actually proves to be a wise choice. Liberated from having to devote valuable screen time from such debates it's able to lay out the evidence its audience to consider, rather than having everything bogged down in arguments that are rooted in theology rather than archaeology.
With the debate over whether or not Mazar has found David's palace left up in the air, The Bible's Buried Secrets moves on to look at Solomon. It establishes that three matching gates houses probably were built during his era and discusses the significance and design of his temple. There's a brief mention of the Israelites worship of idols alongside the worship of God before it's time to move on to Solomon's descendant Josiah. Having previously introduced us to the "J" and "E" sources, we're now told about the discovery of Deuteronomy and the "D" source.
Yet strangely, the programme informs us, it was not the rise of piety under Josiah's reforms that ushered in a more faithful period of monotheism, but a time of national disaster - the destruction of Solomon's temple in 586BCE. This caused a reform of Judaism and the realisation that it was the Israelites polytheism that had lead to their downfall. In one of several dramatisations, we're shown Ezra, less than 50 years after the fall of the temple, reading the Torah to his people and instructing them to follow it as their ancestors never did. The dramatisations are actually fairly few and far between. Visually speaking the film much prefers turning classic illustrations of the biblical stories and sliding different elements of them around to give the impression of a 3D image. But the film's real triumph, visually at least, is the range of on-site footage taken from the very sites that are being discussed. This really gives a feel for the subject matter being discussed and brings it home far more.
There's also a great range of experts on show - 28 by my count (not including the unlikely choice of Liev Schreiber as narrator)1, and the different excerpts are kept fairly punchy without things feeling too rushed. In fact Glassman's directing is well disciplined, never allowing one section of his ocerall narrative to outstay its welcome. Instead subtitles point those viewers wanting to find out more in the direction of the official website where more detailed articles await them.
Not everything is quite as rosy. The dramatic reconstructions never seemed, to me at least, particularly believable, and, at certain points, as is inevitable with a project with such a large scope, some of the more complex issues were over simplified. And of course, occasionally, though to its credit it is only occasionally, the film sensationalises things a little too much - after all much of this information has been around for decades now.But of course, to many of the film's viewers, much of this will be new. And for a mainstream documentary aimed at non-experts The Bible's Buried Secrets does a commendable job exploring the historical evidence behind part 1 of the world's number 1 best seller.
The Bible's Buried Secrets is currently available to view online.
1 - The 28 are - William G Dever, Peter Machinist, Thomas Cahill, David Ilan, Michael Coogan, Ron E Tappy, Lawrence Stager, Manfred Bietak, Carol Meyers, Amnon Ben Tor, Hani Nur El-din, Sharon Zuckerman, Israel Finkelstein, Avraham Faust, Donald Redford, Gila Cook, Amihar Maza, Elisabeth Boaretto, Gabriel Barkai, Jodi Magnus, Eilat Mazar, P. Kyle McCarter, Joan Branham, Eric M Meyers, Andrew Vaughn, Shayne JD Cohen, Lee I Levine and Ephraim Stern