“Bible’s Buried Secrets” – BBC

Archaeology is a surprisingly modern practice. The word was first used by Thucydides in the 5th century B.C. where he warned future historians against underestimating the importance of Sparta if all they did was to look at the evidence that Sparta left behind. It wasn’t until 1738 though that we first began to study ancient remains, when the digs at Herculaneum and then at nearby Pompeii were begun. But it was only with the advances made in the 20th century that Archaeology began to be practiced in a consistently scientific manner.

The only way to ever discover anything is by using the scientific method. You look at an event or phenomenon and suggest an explanation for all those sorts of things. Then you devise experiments to test your ideas, which you modify subsequent to the results that you get, when at last you can produce a theory. This is then examined and tested by your peers, who evaluate the tests you used and your interpretation of the results, until hopefully a consensus is reached as to the validity of your ideas.

So, in archaeology, you gather what evidence you can find, bits of pottery, rock, seeds, pollen, bones, and, if you are very lucky, texts, and you test them to see what information you can extract. For anything up to about 40-50,000 years old for instance, radio carbon dating can give you a very good idea as to what time frame you are looking at, and the more recent it is, the more accurate the reading. Alternatively, you might look at the use of grammar in a text to compare it with already established literary norms from other texts, to see whether what you have belongs to this or to that tradition.

Eventually you publish your conclusions, which are then careful pored over by your peers. What you cannot do, ever, is to begin with your conclusions, and then go about searching for evidence that supports them. This though is precisely how “archaeology” was conducted in the Middle East during the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The starting point from where they all began was, the bible is an historical document. Any evidence that was then unearthed that didn’t support that was, at best ignored, at worst destroyed. In any other part of the world, this sort of behaviour would have been deemed beneath contempt, and wouldn’t have lasted a week. But such were (and of course are) the sensitivities around the nascent Israel, that these incredibly un-scientific practices were left unchallenged for an entire generation.

Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s superb first episode in the BBC’s the Bible’s Buried Secrets charts this misuse of pseudo-science, and examines the copious quantities of actual archaeological evidence that the region has produced. The bible isn’t a factual document, and anybody who tries to read it as such is doing it a massive disservice. You’re meant to learn from its stories, morally. Its permanence and depth derive from its moral truth, not from its historical accuracy.

It’s a concise and confident introduction to terrain already covered by William Schniederwind (http://www.amazon.com/How-Bible-Became-Book-Textualization/dp/0521829461), and Thomas L. Thompson (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/sep/02/historybooks.nicholaslezard). The former is the easier read, the latter the more relentlessly scholarly.

 

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