The BBC’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets with Francesca Stavrakopoulou: Will she find remnants of Goliath?

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.


22 thoughts on “The BBC’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets with Francesca Stavrakopoulou: Will she find remnants of Goliath?

  1. How come they never (or hardly ever) show religious documentaries of this caliber in NZ? Surely the public interest would be equal to that of the UK (as in, lousy)…


    • I don’t know if interest would be the same. The average Brit usually has a broad basic knowledge of Christianity, whereas the average NZer doesn’t.


  2. Good stuff. Dr Stavrakopoulou interviewed Walter Moberly for the beeb a few weeks ago – I’m really interested to know what went on in that interview, since it pits a “genuine Biblical Studies scholar” (in your terms) with a “dogmatic theologian posing” as one. My one quibble is with the idea that Biblical Studies can be reified. Like you, I’m dead against people using historical criticism disingenuously to prop up their poorly examined confessional assumptions – but I fail to see how the opposite of this is “genuine Biblical Studies scholarship,” which is far more precarious, and in fact I’m not sure what it is. It look to me, at the moment, like a gigantic fruit salad of methods, ideologies, confessional commitments, rejections of confessional commitments, reading strategies, etc., converging on a “bible” whose borders are contested. You can’t come up with a “genuine Biblical Studies” out of that. I would tend to see Chessie as a historian of ancient Israelite religion, and you as a palaeogigantologist, but neither of you as a “genuine Biblical Studies scholar,” because such a thing doesn’t exist. Btw, I notice this is tagged “Ann Widdecombe” – are there lots more blog posts about her? Scary.


    • Sure, there are lots of different methodologies involved in biblical studies. I’ve got no argument there. Some are more interested in historical background, some in the bible as literature, some in its ideologies, some in its history of effects, etc, etc.

      There is also no clear border between what is properly critical in methodology, and therefore genuine scholarship, and what is uncritical and out. And inevitably, biases, situation, interests, one’s own ideologies, etc, get in the way of the object (the Bible and its use). Every criticism is to some extent uncritical. But there is a proper distinction to be made between the two. Among the various approaches to the Bible, there are some who are more interested in defending existing ideologies or positions by using the Bible to that end, and there are some more interested in reading the Bible says or determining its history of use. Sure, every approach is tainted by bias. But some seem to relish this bias and even aim for it, while others do not, or at least not to the same extent. Although the distinction is always gray, one approach is properly termed critical, and the other is not. That is why a “theological approach to scripture” which claims to be doing biblical studies is not genuinely biblical studies, and also why Wellhausen’s setting out of the lateness of the Levitical priesthood, despite its evolutionary-developmental bias and anti-Semitism, was genuine (critical) biblical studies. What was needed was more criticism, not less.

      Sure, biblical studies is not so clearly like chemistry where we can compare it with alchemy, or astronomy where we can compare it to astrology, and say without fear of contradiction (except by nutters) that one is critical and the other is utter nonsense. But you don’t need clear distinctions to make distinctions. ‘If I tear out the pages of my Bible to wrap my pipe tobacco in them, I am using this Bible, but it would be daring to call me a textualist’ (an Italian semiotician).


  3. How very typical of the BBC to support, finance and disseminate anti-Israel propaganda, under endless guises. How easy to to wipe out the legitimacy of Jewish history, rights, legitimacy.
    Stavrakopoulou is honest enough or naive enough to state on film that she set out from the perspective of disbelieving the historical evidence of a Jewish state, or of a state of David. And being a scholar, she most certainly proves her hypothesis. She reinforce her evidence by latches on, again and again to one revisionist Israeli archaeologist, and simply not finding evidence.
    According to Stavrakopoulou, no archaeologist has found anything. Like so many young lecturers these days, she considers her own scepticism sufficient evidence of scholasticism and estuteness.
    So when is Stavrakopoulou checking out about some mohamad who rose to heaven, on a donkey, from Jerusalem? But then again, perhaps Stavrakopoulou will not wish to chance of fatwah, or possible lynching. And were she to enquire, she is unlikely to find a muslim archaeologist who will say a word against that dasterly book his brethren believe true in the twenty-first century.
    Quite clearly, the BBC -radio and TV- is systematically and relentlessly, creating and disseminating more anti-Jewish / anti-Israel propaganda than did the Germans.


    • Dear Orange,

      Let’s be clear about separating the modern state of Israel from the ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman province of Judea, which came to think of itself religiously as the remnant of a people called Israel.

      The modern state of Israel, by contrast, was set up on the basis of the wishes of modern Zionist Jews (and not all Jews are Zionists!), as supported by the backing of Christian Zionists in Britain and the US – the timing of the founding of the state prompted by the terror of the Shoah. While the modern state of Israel has consistently misused archaeological findings to support its existence (as Nadia Abu el-Haj’s excellent sociological study shows), there is no necessary connection between the fictitiousness of biblical claims about “Israel” and the justification or not of a modern state called Israel. That is, when a biblical scholar shows that ancient “Israel” does not exist, this has no significance for the modern state of Israel. Same name, different beasts.

      If there is any problem here it is due to the Zionist desire to name the new state “Israel”, and to rename the local towns and districts with biblical names. The Israeli state attempted to reinscribe the geography with biblical names, to claim it for one people and to deny it to the others. This is modern myth-making. If the myth falls apart on examination of the facts on the ground, it is really the fault of the Israeli state for constructing such mythic foundations for the modern state of Israel in the first place.


  4. What annoyed me is she tried to show Israel as some sort of fairy tale state that was actually set up by Caananites. Has she not herad of the Merneptah Stele which mentions Israel and is dated round about 1203BC. It also mentions the Caananites separately.

    How does she explain this and fit it into her her ISrael didn’t exist before 600BC theory?


    • Dear Darth Obvious,

      Well, there’s “Israel” and there’s “Israel”. I haven’t viewed the tv programme, but when Old Testament scholars say there is no Israel before the Old Testament invented it, they generally mean that there is no Israel in terms of the biblical conceptions of it – such as, an entity united in the worship of Yahweh, stretching from Dan to Bethsheba. Yes, Merneptah tacks on a mention of an “Israel”, but seems to locate this people somewhere near the Megiddo Valley. Israel may have been little more than a city state in Merneptah’s view, although very little can be said about what it means precisely from such a brief mention. And such a people or place called “Israel” may well have existed in that region for 1000 years or so before that, we don’t know. At some later point, some followers of Yahweh used the term to refer to a people chosen by God – but the Merneptah stele provides no support whatsoever for this (later, biblical) conception.

      An analogy may be made with the figure of “Arthur” in British history. There is a fully developed set of stories about Arthur by the time you reach the middle ages, such as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History. So what about a single mention of Arthur several centuries earlier in, say, Gildas? Should we understand “Arthur” in Gildas to refer to the same character about whom, centuries later, the many dozens of stories and legends were later told? Most Arthurian scholars would say definitely not!


      • Exactly, Tyrone, and this highlights a serious problem in the way some of the more fragmentary evidence archaeology has thrown up can be used. The Merneptah stele can’t be used to substantiated anything more than that there was probably an entity of some sort that some people in the thirteenth century BCE called “Israel,” and that they could be distinguished from other people groups in the area. That hardly suggests this “Israel” could be identified in toto with the Israel of, say, Joshua to Kings, though that is exactly how the stele has been used be those with a vested interest in showing that the biblical texts are substantiated historically by other forms of contemporary evidence. What is closer to the truth is that (a) the Hebrew language is so close to other dialects around what the Tanakh calls “Canaan” that it can be regarded as a Canaanite dialect; and (b) there is no clear evidence of a radical break in material culture that suggests a divide between “Israelite” occupation and whatever is supposed to have preceded it.


    • Lawrence – I strongly suspect that Dr Stavrakopoulou has weighed all the evidence, going from the meticulous nature of her research in her books.

      Have you heard of “transference”?


  5. Oh, the subtlety of it! Little views of the wall and comments on whether Israel has legitimacy or not in believing in King David. The BBC is getting ever better at undermining Israel in this stealthy way.

    She was posing for the camera throughout the programme and whilst I’m sure she is very clever and beautiful, there was just too much of her, from the right, the left and dead centre.


  6. I’m the physical evidence that they’re looking for cause I am a direct decendent of king David and people should take the words in the bible as literal truth I have a theory that after the crucifiction of christ many jews fled and my ancestors came to Britain like Joseph going to Glastonbury abbey also Isreal was ram sacked by the Egyptians so any artifacts of David were robbed


    • … and the British are Berit ‘Ish? Thank you for speaking up for the rightly marginalized conspiracy-theory point-of-view, Marcel.

      But why did the Egyptians put rams in their sacks?


  7. I watched this programme because I was genuinely interested in what history/archeology could tell us about the biblical David. Unfortunately it just turned out to be gratuitously anti-Israel from the continual allusions to past and present history to the unecessary (to the historical story) shots of the wall, lots of Israeli flags, crossing posts, orthodox jews and so on. Deeply disapointing and upsetting


    • You might have missed the point then, Guy. History and archaeology tells us nothing about the biblical David, because the biblical David is constructed from a largely legendary accretion of stories about a person who – even if he existed – did not possess the fabulous kingdom ascribed to him in these very readable yet almost entirely fictional later stories.


  8. I did not watch the program, but reading the dialogue here I was astonished at how biased this program seems to have been towards there being no evidence of a King David. There is actually some evidence & I qoute,” Then, on July 21, 1993, a team of archaeologists led by Prof. Avraham Biran, excavating Tel Dan in the northern Galilee, found a triangular piece of basalt rock, measuring 23 x 36 cm. inscribed in Aramaic. It was subsequently identified as part of a victory pillar erected by the king of Syria and later smashed by an Israelite ruler. The inscription, which dates to the ninth century bce, that is to say, about a century after David was thought to have ruled Israel, includes the words Beit David (“House” or “Dynasty” of David”). This is from the 4th paragraph of a report by Daniel Gavron on the following web address:



    • Gavin,

      I have no idea how one can be astonished at a programme one did not see, without having significant biases of one’s own. But, if you are really astonished, I will point out that the presence of the words “House of David” on the Tel Dan inscription is far from clear. The words on the inscription have word dividers between each word. One of those words is bytdwd. So, to make this “byt dwd” (House of David? House of the Beloved?), the first hurdle you have to get across is dividing up a single word. Even if you decide to make such an exception for bytdwd, you have to decide what this means in a quite fragmentary text. And then you have a ninth-century inscrption, with no reference to any united kingdom, nor any reference to an individual named “David”, only to a “house”. All this is far from clear. It certainly is not “astonishing” if a scholar concludes it does not provide anything approaching the type of evidence required to support what we find in the biblical texts.


  9. Hi, yes I see your point, although I would add I am not taking sides here, but just trying to establish why the evidence wasn’t mentioned, as it clearly has relevance by nature of the mention of the name David & shouldn’t be dismissed. If a scholar found a small leaf of a dead sea scroll with the name of Jesus of Nazareth on it, he wouldn’t ignore it would he! The author of the report by Daniel Gavron did incidentally state at the end of the paragraph quoted above” It is the first near-contemporaneous reference to David ever found. It is not conclusive; but it does strongly indicate that a king called David established a dynasty in Israel during the relevant period.” So it’s clearly not conclusive, but evidence just the same, & so still a possibility……
    No longer astonished. Gavin.


    • Actually, Gavin, that artifact is mentioned in the programme. But Francesca notes, as Tyrone does, that it’s not indicative of very much, and certainly doesn’t provide evidence of a powerful united monarchy.

      What I found most interesting is that the archaeological evidence thus far points to Omri (who warrants exactly one mention in the Bible) as one of the most powerful kings of Israel. He seems to be almost everything that Biblical literalists wish David were.


  10. I realy disagree with her on every evidance she used to promote her ideology and ideas. She is acting like Johova wittness or the author of Divinchi code. Again Gods or Goddesses are selected by people. There might be members of different believe in different gods from the same family.
    God did not choose a wife Goddess, the people did select her for him as a wife, so it is the work of people not God. For example if a king married a woman from different religion, there is a possible chance that marriage under conditions that their Gods also unite. I will provide more evidance if it is needed.


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