Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is snapped while casually reading BHS during a walk in the park
Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is snapped while casually reading BHS during a walk in the park

An exciting three-part BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets will have its first airing at 9:00-10:00pm, on Tuesday 15 March.

The show clearly aims to disseminate recent findings about the Bible and religion in ancient Judea, most of which will be well-established and well-known to scholars in the field of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. It is to be presented by senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Her excellent work on cultic child sacrifice to Yahweh, and more generally on the diversity of religious practices in ancient Judea, appears to inform much of the content of the television series. Episode one includes a look at the legendary kingdom of David and the legendary Giant, Goliath:

In episode one, Dr Stavrakopoulou goes on the trail of the Biblical King David and his fabled empire. A national hero and icon for the Jewish people, and a divine king for Christians, David is best known as the boy warrior who defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. As King he united the tribes of Israel. But did he really rule over a vast Israelite kingdom? Dr Stavrakopoulou visits key archaeological excavations where ground-breaking finds are being unearthed, and examines evidence for and against the Biblical account of King David. She explores the former land of the Philistines, home of the legendary giant Goliath, and ruins in the north of Israel and in old Jerusalem, itself purporting to be remains of David’s empire.

(Unreality TV)

Although critical scholars have long accepted the doubtful historicity of all or much of the ‘kingdom of David’ mentioned in 2 Samuel, and acknowledged the gradual development of “monotheism” in the Persian Period, these aspects are inevitably bound to astound and shock some viewers – especially if some of the early reactions to the show’s publicity are anything to go by. The Mail sensationalized the fact that Yahweh had a divine consort or “wife”, in an article whose tone bordered on the snide. Yet the fact that Yahweh once shared a bed with Mrs Yahweh (“Asherah”) is widely accepted by mainstream scholars as a part of “orthodox” religious belief and temple worship in places like Judea, in the centuries before the development of the Hebrew Bible in its current form. 

The fact that Stavrakopoulou does not believe in the existence of the ancient Semitic deity she studies (she is an atheist) was also a cause for sensationalism and consternation. The Mail further reports the response of former English MP, Ann Widdecombe, who spluttered: “I would guess that most other theologians will demolish her theory in three seconds flat.” However, what should be noted is that Widdecombe is no expert in biblical studies and she offers no reason for rejecting Stavrakopoulou’s claims, but in classic knee-jerk fashion imagines that some expert, somewhere, must be able to provide a counter-argument that will allow Widdecombe to rest easy in her Roman Catholic faith. Now that’s just appalling journalism. It is true that some of the more dogmatic theologians posing as biblical scholars today would give about 3 second worth of consideration to the type of Old Testament scholarship that Stavrakopoulou practices on a day-by-day basis… and then dismiss it out of hand. But the BBC has made precisely the right move in picking a genuine biblical studies scholar, rather than one of the host of  theological apologists whose natural response is to avoid rather than engage with these facts, speciously side-stepping the issues involved.

It’s also very good to see a shift away from the usual “middle-aged, bearded men”  usually consulted as biblical scholars, and even better to see somebody of Stavrakopoulou’s academic credentials rather than the faithful propagandists frequently wheeled out for comment. And, lastly, hopefully this series will reach the Antipodes some time soon…

Update: See all three episodes of The Bible’s Buried Secrets here.