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 (, and Thomas L. Thomp­son ( The for­mer is the eas­i­er read, the lat­ter the more relent­less­ly scholarly.


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