The Bible's Buried Secrets is the latest in a long line of modern BBC documentaries about the Bible going back to Son of God a decade ago. Like the 2001 series The Bible's Buried Secrets has been produced by Jean-Claude Bragard who also worked on The Miracles of Jesus, Moses and Mary.
This series starts with David and Solomon and presenter Francesca Stavrakopoulou starts off by asking "Can we even talk about a historical David at all?" There are a few introductory preview clips before Stavrakopoulou sums up what the programme will be about. "Is the biblical account of King David true, and what are the consequences if it isn't?"
As usual with this type of documentary the presenter tours round the relevant locations switching between speaking to experts and monologuing into the camera. Thankfully though Stavrakopoulou avoids the all too typical manner of presenting the programme as if she hadn't a clue about what she's just been told. Just as well given Charlie Brooker scathing dismantling of the modern day documentary in last Tuesday's final instalment of "How TV Ruined Your Life". Instead she played it smart, allowing the archaeologists to speak for themselves and then discretely offering her disagreements once they were off camera.
Such an approach typifies the technical quality of the programme. It was nicely shot, clearly argued and well structured, working through the different historical layers of archaeologists before Stavrakopoulou delivered her own conclusion.
Stavrakopoulou's journey starts in Gath in conversation with Aren Maeir. The Philistines he tells us weren't barbarians they were actually very cultured and we have found remains of their cities. If the Bible's history is correct then we would expect similar finds in Israel.
This is followed by a summary of the work of Yigael Yadin whose work in the middle of the last century concluded that biblical archaeology confirms the narratives found in the Hebrew Bible. Yet whilst Yadin's view were dominant going into the 1970s, his work was eventually re-evaluated, and shown to be rather limited. Israel Finkelstein takes up the story from there. Yadin's finds were significantly later than he calculated. The film rather skims over things here, and it leaves me with more questions than answers, which I suspect might pass many other viewers by.
Stavrakopoulou alternates between experts in and out of agreement with a simple reading of the texts. After Finklestein comes Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa which he describes as "biblical Pompeii". The large city gates are an indicator of some form of semi-complex statehood. But there are questions about the dating and so Stavrakopoulou investigates the evidence that it was Omri, not David, who was responsible for much of the building in the region from that time. This section includes discussion of the Tel Dan Stele which refers to the "house of David" but she remains rather sceptical.
After that diversion it's back to Jerusalem where Doron Spielman claims to have found David's fortress after taking a closer look at 2 Samuel 5:17. Finkelstein dismisses Spielman's whole approach but doesn't offer a great deal of evidence to explain why the site definitely isn't related to David.
Stavrakopoulou's penultimate interview is with Baruch Halpern. Halpern is clearly of great importance. Not only does he get to have a nice meal at the King David Hotel (geddit?) rather than having to explain his theories in a dusty archaeological site, but we also see Stavrakopoulou getting dolled up beforehand. It's the most disappointing moment in the whole programme and undermining her credibility as a scholar. We never saw Robert Beckford doing his hair or Jeremy Bowen trimming his moustache, so why this? We get that Stavrakopoulou is far better looking than the average Biblical Scholar; there's really no need to show us her doing her make-up. Doing so just gives further support to what many will have suspected: that she was chosen to front the series primarily because she's good looking. It's a shame to undermine her academic intelligence and skills as a presenter in such a, well, pre-historic fashion.
That said, interviewing Halpern inside does make a modicum of sense, as he discusses how to read the texts rather than simply deal with the archaeological evidence in a black and white fashion. Halpern's argument is that the type of warts-and-all material we have on David seems unlikely to be entirely fabricated. It's unlikely that someone would make a mythical character quite so flawed.
Ultimately things conclude rather disappointingly. Stavrakopoulou dismisses Halpern's theories, preferring to advance her own. The Mesha Stele tells us about the exploits of the Israelite king Omri, almost entirely ignored by the biblical authors. It was he, not David, that expanded the kingdom and built many of the structures we find in Northern Israel (though the identity of builder of the Jerusalem structures is not explained). It was the southern nation (Judah) that wrote the history and they largely expunged the prowess of Omri and invented a series of myths about their own great, expansionist king - David. As a theory it's not entirely satisfying to me. Why was the builder of Jerusalem's fort not named in the Bible and elevated to mythical status? Isn't it likely that the now carbon dated seeds found at one of the structures simply show that the site was still in use a century or so later?
This being the BBC things have to end on an ambiguous note, and as usual there are comments (this time from Yonathan Mizrachi) about how the archaeological evidence or lack thereof shouldn't be used to stake a political claim for the land and Stavrakopoulou concludes rather weakly that what's important is that its the "meaning of the story that has proved so resilient" and so on. It feels very token, somewhat like the unconvincing endings to various production code era Hitchcock films.
Whilst, based on the evidence I've seen here, I disagree with the film's conclusions, it's nevertheless one of the better made and better presented religious documentaries I've seen in recent years, and, aside from that one particular disappointing moment it respects its audience and doesn't talk down to them, covering a good deal of ground in just under an hour. Next week Stavrakopoulou will explore the possibility the God may have been assigned a wife.