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Theologians ought to love this BBC series on the Bible. Too bad it gives in to Dan Brown-style silliness

In its closing moments the episode last night gave up fact for opinion

By on Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, presenter of The Bible's Buried Secrets (Photo: BBC)

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, presenter of The Bible's Buried Secrets (Photo: BBC)

The Bible’s Buried Secrets, now in its second episode, is the sort of television programme that theologians ought to cherish. Or so it seems at first sight. In an age that loves simplification and dumbing down, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the programme’s presenter – and an absolute natural in front of the camera, by the way – does not shy away from asking some weighty questions. Last week, for example, she made us confront the uncomfortable truth that King David, a huge Biblical presence, has left only a minor archaeological footprint, compared to King Omri, one of the villains of the Old Testament, who is passed over in just a few lines.

This week, she turned her attention to the origins of monotheism – again, a worthy subject for enquiry, and it was certainly encouraging to watch a television programme that did not hesitate to use abstract nouns of more than two syllables. But, and sadly it is a huge but, the producers decided to sex the whole subject up by entitling the programme “Did God have a wife?” One can imagine how this happened – a conference in a smoke-filled room, the realisation that religion does not sell, the search for the sensational angle, and lo and behold, a serious scholar made to sound like a Da Vinci Code-style mountebank. If it were not for the fact that Dr Stavrakopoulou looks perfectly capable of fighting her own corner, I could almost feel sorry for her.

The doctor showed in the course of an hour that Israelite monotheism developed slowly over the centuries; she hinted that the concept of Abraham as the first monotheist was a theological reading back to a realisation that might have come many centuries after Abraham. There were, to put it crudely, other gods around at the time, and many of the Israelites may have followed these gods as well as the God of Israel. This is not in dispute, and an attentive reading of the Bible makes this clear. (Have a look at the strange story contained in Genesis chapter 31, for instance, which was not mentioned in the programme.)

The entire Old Testament is the history of a struggle between strict monotheists and syncretists, those who wished to follow the Gods of Canaan as well as the God of Israel. Where Stavrokopoulou pushed the boat out, I found, was in her assertion (without any evidence that I could see) that polytheism was the norm for the Israelites until the Babylonian captivity.

But it was in the closing moments of the programme that scholarship seemed to be given up in favour of what was, in fact, mere opinion. First, the doctor suggested that the cult of the angels and the saints in contemporary Christianity was a hangover from polytheism. This is completely false. The Blessed Virgin is not some sort of lineal descendant of Asherah. The Blessed Virgin is a human being, not a goddess; she represents all that humanity is called to be; if she loses her humanity, she would have no appeal to her fellow human beings. But Mary is one of us – that is the whole point of her. Second, the doctor suggested that monotheism presents God as exclusively male, and men thus like God, which leads to the marginalisation and repression of women.

With a charge like this, where can one start? The polytheistic Greeks and Romans denied females all political rights, despite the fact that Athens was under the protection of the goddess Athene, and Rome under the protection of Juno. The Julio-Claudian rulers claimed descent from Venus, but were not noted for their feminism. The idea that polytheism is more friendly to women is simply unsupported by the facts. It is easy to claim and sounds good, but as a serious thesis, it deserves to be dismissed. How on earth did it find itself in what purported to be a serious programme about the Bible?

Dr Stavrakopoulou wants us to see that the Bible and history are not necessarily the same thing, and that is a worthy task; she does have some thought-provoking things to say about modern Israeli claims to the land of ancient Israel; but her programme was undermined by the sheer silliness of trying to beat Dan Brown at his own game.

  • Fr Stephen Smuts

    It must be Easter soon… Bible-bashing time.

    This is an old subject (some 20 years old now). The truth be told, there is really nothing textual or iconographic that warrants us to interpret or force the relationship between Yahweh and Asherah (a cultic Canaanite goddess) as spousal (or sexual for that matter). Of course, the mere notion of such is enough to capture popular imagination… and that to be well exploited by self-admitted atheists such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou.

  • PhilipH

    My reaction when the program was announced was – yet another “controversial” documentary on the Bible? Yawn – I have heard it all before. Perhaps if they went for a serious documentary that stuck just to the facts, that might be more interesting – and quite surprising to some viewers. But I’m sure some high up in the TV business has decided that wouldn’t be “cool”.

  • Memory-of-Forever

    does anybody know where I can find a good link to archaeological evidence of King David? indeed I only know about the Tel Dan stone with the name “house of David” on it… anybody know anything else? thank you

  • Vikram Singh

    What I found strange was how swiftly the BBC programme dealt with ‘goddess’ worship in the Catholic Church.

    Forget the early Christian pantheon of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, every Catholic I know spends most of their ‘spiritual’ time praying to Mary, ‘Mother of God’.

    How weird is that?

  • Djohnadams

    Just curious PhilipH. What ‘facts’ do you think the documentary should have ‘stuck to’ ? Perhaps just ‘the facts’ that Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith (or even Ann Widdecombe ) approved of !!!


  • Tiggy.

    BBC-style silliness would be more like it.

  • Martin

    Here’s a start:

    I have found this a very good site for information, up to you if you accept it or not.

    It mentions the Tel Dan stone plus another.

    Hope it helps

  • Memory-of-Forever

    yes, thank you very much Martin! :D

  • Dorothy

    Really? How many do you know?

  • Sebastian

    Fr Alexander, “methinks thou dost protest too much”. Perhaps not surprisingly, given your theological provenance. However, to assert that the Virgin Mary isn’t the “lineal descendant” of Asherah (and suchlike arguments) is completely to miss the point.

    The point that’s being made is that the Catholic church has, over the centuries, been extraordinarily successful at subsuming elements from other religions that predated it (or predated its arrival in a particular country) as a way of making it easier for people to convert. (A simple instance is the amount of Saxon and Norman churches that were built on the sites of holy places of other religions, such as Druidical and other pagan sites. It obviously makes it much easier for the “new faithful” — probably the wavering — to have something familiar to cling on to, such as worshipping in the same place that they have traditionally worshipped at.

    Similarly, it’s not such a huge leap in the theological dark to worship one God if there are what one might loosly term “divine” elements that are familiar from one’s previous beliefs: in this case, served by the substitution for the old religious personifications — be they Gods, fairies, sprites or whatever — by the new idea of angels, saints, the Virgin Mary, and so forth.

    Whether they are, in your view, comparable directly to a female God and a pantheon of lesser gods is utterly immaterial. The point is that they are an effective substitute, and smooth the path for the newly converted by not appearing too radically different to what they previously knew and believed in.

    (Incidentally, although you are quite correct in your assertions that such figures, although regarded as holy, are not to be worshipped by Catholics or other Christians, a visit to a country parish in Ireland is something I’d recommend to you as a salutary lesson in just how effective the Church is in putting such a message across. )

    Anyway, | long since made my own transition: I used to be a Catholic and am now a Quaker.

  • Guest

    I found your programmed is lies and conspiracy anti- Christ you shouldn’t be allowed to broadcast on National television your dodgy film it is shamed on you and the BBC. A lot of people like me we know only few people in this country believed in God. Why don’t you go to America to broadcast your dirty film? if they will allowed you You’re stupid political propaganda, fabrication you must stop broadcasting your foolish ideology programmed.

  • SittingOnTheSand

    I watched last nights program as well as the first one.

    I wouldn’t mind so much that she is making huge leaps of supposition from bible verses taken out of context (after all there are a lot of Christians out there who do exactly the same) Its poor practice but sadly common. No, it is the whole methodology that gets to me. It would seem that anything that might challenge her view (presented as a voyage of discovery in the programme but evidently well held beforehand) is either dismissed – “I don’t think that there is suffieicent evidence for that” – or ignored entierly.

    An example of that would appear to be only using a short passage from Chronicles when talking about Omri in the first programme. The show stated he only had a couple of lines in scripture but this is not correct. He has quite a bit of 1 Kings 16 which describes him pretty well in the context of the archeological evidence on the show. Were it anyone but a ‘Bible Scholar’ you could ignore it but this is meant to be her area of specialisation.

    Investigative research especially in fields where your conclusions have the potential for global exposure should be about exploring every possible avenue to the limit of practicality before declaring a conclusion. It is NOT about deciding what you want to prove and judging conflicting evidence against your own hypothosis to determine its credibility.

    Unfortunatly an attractive presenter and some stunning scenery do not make up for flawed methodology and the continuous condecending / patronising comments regarding the bible throughout – as if it was a big conspiracy to hide the truth and to which she has the answer.

    Ahh… rant over – I feel better now.

    Will I watch the third one? Yes of course – between her and the scenery it is very relaxing to watch. With the sound turned down.

  • Guest

    If she, suggesting that Moses did not exist and almighty God did not exist who is her creator? She is wasting the space satan

  • Simon

    Such nonsense alienates as many people as it attracts.
    For that reason I did not watch the programme.

  • Anonymous

    what gives you a right to an opinion on it if you did not watch it?!

  • David Lindsay

    The BBC seems to have discovered some 15 or 20-year-old academic niche material that was always highly contentious in its field, and has decided to turn it into a television series, beginning tomorrow evening.

    But it is in fact necessary to confound Biblical criticism by reference to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and to all that it represents. The Authorship of God’s Written Word is, like the Person of His Incarnate Word, both fully human and fully divine, so that its canonical and ecclesial, allegorical and typological, tropological and moral, anagogical and eschatological senses are integral to its literal (i.e., authorial) sense.

    Likewise, just as Jesus of Nazareth must be a factual historical figure, so also the Salvation History recorded in and as Scripture must be no less historically factual than it is doctrinally, morally and eschatologically significant.

    Anything else is no less a ‘faith position’, but it is not the ‘faith position’ that defined the Canon in the first place.

  • Lamentabili Morris

    It is areal tragedy thar no TV channel will broadcast serious religious programmes…they are either of the ghastly saccharine “Songs of Praise” type,or pseudo-controversial cod-history of the Holy Blood Holy Grail type.A central subject of human concern is absent,and most people are quite abysmally ignorant of the basic facts of religion.

  • Kyriakos

    Singhji Namaskar! have you heard of Holy Mass Catholics go to every Sunday. Well it is the ultimate worship we offer to God. It is the memorial and ‘Qurban’ (sacrfice) of Jesus for us to the Father in heaven.Well Singhji things seem to be weird to you because you do not know about Catholic faith and you seem to have the semi-educated knowledge of Catholic faith like a fundamentalist Christians.

  • Nikola

    I completely disagree with the comments of this article. Francesca’s work has some insightful claims in an area many claim to be untouchable. The bible is a historical document which should be open to historical and archaeological critique. What she does in her research is far from the notions of silliness and perhaps people should look into her work rather than brand it based on one programme.

  • Ian G

    What puzzled me was the good doctor’s constant phrase “this undermines the whole foundation of monotheism”. I would not imagine that many people’s monotheism is based on their perceived understanding oof the Patriarch Abraham. Second, her view of ‘monotheism’ did not seem to differentiate between the Judaic and Muslim ‘solitary’ monotheism and the Christian Trinitarian belief. If anyone cares to read the books of Dr Margaret Barker (eg. Great Angel: Israel’s second god) they will find much scholarly food for thought about the understanding of the Hebrew god in pre-exilic Temple religion which relates to the early Church’s rapid acceptance of the Holy Trinity.

  • Norman Dunbar Capgemini

    You found “Answers In Genesis” a good site? God help us!

  • Nikola

    Perhaps you should in so many words…get over the fact that she is an atheist and concentrate on the fact that she is a Biblical scholar who has years of experience through careful research. She is not Bible bashing she is simply exerting an alternate opinion, to liken her work to this is somewhat juvenile.

  • Samantha

    Perhaps you should keep comments like this to yourself and leave it up to those who have studied and taught for years. Faith is something which historical investigation should not shatter, if you feel threatened by this material maybe your faith is not as strong as you once thought.

  • moff

    I have to say, this comment is ludicrous! Francesca may well publicly be an atheist, but she is a good deal more knowledgeable about the Bible than most Christians I know, especially since she has studied Biblical Hebrew. She is not trying to be controversial or invent history, but merely treating the Bible as a historical document, which is essentially the most human concern – if more people started to formulate their own opinions about biblical history through Bible study, rather than feed off the myths and legends of faith, then perhaps we could all be a little bit more sensible about this and stop trying to slate someone who is extremely good at her job. And for the record, I’m not an atheist and I am robustly faithful, so I’m not just ranting because I agree with her religious angle.

  • Nikola

    I completely agree with your comments regarding this issue, more so as you recognise the fact that she is not merely an atheist presenting a documentary, which apparently not a ‘serious religious programme’. Under the definition, a programme such as this would take years of careful study, dedication and motivation, not merely a whim on a Sunday afternoon. To liken a series of this educational prestige to ‘songs of praise’ is quite frankly depreciative of any intellectual substance.

  • Jacob

    “an area many claim is untouchable”. The bible has always been open to textual criticism, and since the enlightenment people have engaged in investigating the historical accuracy of the bible, (unlike the Koran, where academics questioning the historic Mohammed receive death threats.) – the fact is that all the theories Dr Stavrakopoulou claims are so ground breaking, have been circulating in the academic world for the last 30 years (But have never made any real impact on Christianity because they have little basis.).

  • Edmund Marriage

    The Garden of Eden has been found in the Rachaiya Basin, Southern Lebanon by exploration geologist and multi disciplined researcher Christian O’Brien CBE, who recorded the facts on this discovery in his book, co-authored with his wife Barbara Joy, the Genius of the Few in 1984.

    Up to date translations of Genesis, the Books of Enoch and the crucial Sumerian Kharsag cuneiform records from the Nippur library, re-write our secular history without religious bias.

    A raft of supporting evidence is available, which features this site as the source of the domestication of crops and animals (plus technologies) from 9,400 BC, at the start of the Holocene warming, following the Great Younger Dryas cataclysm generated ice age. Together with site survey report and records, photographs, and video presentations, much more is available on our secular history on the Golden Age Project website.

    An, the leader of the small advanced group who re-started agriculture and civilised living following this global catastrophe, was later deified as the earliest monotheistic God. Yahweh in fact translates as leader of this group, in Hebrew described as the Elohim. The Qur’an translates as the readings and recitations of An, although the contents were recorded some 9,800 years later.

    An’s daughter Ninkharsag was the governor of the research establishment based on irrigation agriculture, and later described as the Goddess of Irrigation (or Ceres). Her statue was the central feature in the 200 acre administrative centre of Mari (another name for Ninkharsag) on the Euphrates. On the documentary Dr Francesca came close to this important information and should have done her homework on this crucial subject, which identifies Ninkharsag, wife of Enlil, as the origin of the Mother Goddess, upon whom Ashera was much later based.

    Male and female leaders of communities were described as Yahweh and Asherah. Asherah could be wife or consort, and this formed the basis of the equal male and female administrative roles of Mayor and Mayoress, which still survives, but carrying the religious bias or dogma against the role of women.

    Our first Laws were the Edicts of An and Enlil (El Shaddai or El Elyon) and our first Encyclopaedia of Astronomy was Enuma An and Enlil, factors which would have been well known and understood by Abraham of Ur.

    The origin of Original Sin is set out below by Christian O’Brien from his improved translations of the Book of Enoch in the Genius of the Few.

    [SE XIX:l-S PP] After this, the men brought me to the sixth haven, and there I saw seven groups of Angels, very bright and wonderful, with their faces shining brighter than the Sun. They were brilliant, and all dressed alike and looked alike.
    Some of these Angels study the movements of the Stars, the Sun and the Moon, and record the peaceful order of the World. Other Angels, there, undertake teaching and give instruction in clear and melodious voices. These are the Archangels, who are promoted over the ordinary Angels. They are responsible for recording (and studying) the fauna and the flora in both the Highlands and the Lowlands.
    There are Angels who record the seasons and the years; others who study the rivers and the seas; others who study the fruits of the Lowlands, and the plants and herbs which give nourishment to men and beasts.
    And there Angels study Mankind and record the behaviour of men, and how they live.
    This record of the sixth place to which Enoch was taken within Eden is the fullest statement that we have, anywhere, of the actual daily activities of the Angels/Anannage in the Settlement of Eden/Kharsag. And the extraordinary conclusion, which we find that we cannot avoid, is that these activities appear to be compatible with the scientific interests of an exploration expedition into unknown country. Its members appear to have been studying every facet of science which such an expedition would require – from geology to botany, and from astronomy to anthropology.
    The passage goes even further, and provides a rational explanation for the religious concept of the Recording Angel – and the writing down of the good, and bad, deeds of men. From this account, we can now understand that these angel investigators were only observing Mankind from anthropological, genetic and psychological viewpoints – they were not concerned with ‘guilt’ or ‘original sin: which can now be seen as superimpositions by later, misunderstanding, religious interpreters.
    Kramer may be right when he claims that ‘History began at Sumer’. But Prehistory, and prehistorical science in particular, began at Kharsag in Eden – and for our knowledge of this, we can thank Enoch and the scribes of Sumer.

  • Nik Matheou

    I thought that the documentary series was actually very good, although what is said here about the Virgin Mother is something that struck me at the time. It is unfair to present our saints as a continuation of Israelite polytheism, and the blessed Virgin as a continuation of Asherah, however these shaky contentions aside I found the evidence engaging and somewhat self-conclusive. To liken her to Dan Brown is unfair, and to claim she is a “Bible-basher” I feel is equally harsh. The only times I felt she went to far was to state that her evidence “undermined the basis for modern monotheism”, and this is hardly akin to Dan Brown’s questionable “fact page” etc.

  • Joannamc

    Because the truth is unpalatable, you belittle an academic who’s job is to study the historical accuracy of the Bible without bias! I could see no comparison with Dan Brown who does not claim to write anything but fiction. As for Mary, if she is just like us, why has the Catholic religion become a cult of the Virgin Mary over the centuries? Especially as she barely gets a mention in the Bible, Jesus himself is rude and dismissive towards her and she seems completely astonished at everything he says and does. You would think that a virgin birth and visitation by an angel would stick in the mind, but she seems to have forgotten all about it! Maybe because it never happened.

  • Tobiaslindt

    This must be the epitome of religious bias. The writer of this article shadows pathetic criticism with no backed-up arguments, which is so typical of rreligious bigots. It is crindge worthy to see people still worshiping a “celestial dictator” (as C. Hitchens so elequently puts it) and believing that the bible or the koran are historical texts. Shame on you for undermining human intelligence.

  • Tobiaslindt

    How about a decent documentary supporting the fairy-tales described in the bible for a change? Or perhaps some historical findings and evidence?

  • Christiamaza

    an atheist explaining religion in a historical term. All of it is based on opinion, she even says ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’. Well me as a viewer don’t care or give a damn what you think. All I care about is the  facts not some opinion of someone who sees religion differently.