The Bible's Buried Secrets
TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: November 18, 2008
In this landmark two-hour special, NOVA takes viewers on a fascinating scientific journey that began 3,000 years ago and continues today. The film presents the latest archeological scholarship from the Holy Land to explore the beginnings of modern religion and the origins of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.
This archeological detective story tackles some of the biggest questions in biblical studies: Where did the ancient Israelites come from? Who wrote the Bible, when, and why? How did the worship of one God—the foundation of modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—emerge?
"'The Bible's Buried Secrets' is both a scientific detective story and dramatic adventure that digs deeply into the Bible and the history of the ancient Israelites through the archeological artifacts they left behind," said Paula S. Apsell, NOVA Senior Executive Producer. [Hear more about NOVA's approach to covering the subject in this FAQ].
NOVA travels to several excavations of ancient cities in the Near East, filming newly discovered remains and interviewing leading archeologists and biblical scholars. These in-depth interviews—along with historic works of art, ancient artifacts, animations of biblical passages and scenes, and dramatic recreations—provide the latest account of the ancient Israelites and how they found their one God, the God not only of modern Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam. [Read related expert interviews online, including Writers of the Bible, Moses and the Exodus, The Foundation of Judaism, and Archeology of the Hebrew Bible.]
"To this day, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is a sacred text for more than three billion people throughout the world," said Gary Glassman, the program's writer, producer, and director. "The film's international team of archeologists and scholars researches biblical texts and examines artifacts and ancient manuscripts to illuminate how the concept of one God emerged to later form the foundation of the three great monotheistic religions."
The film's investigation of biblical archeology reveals provocative new insights. One vital clue to the past is an inscription discovered at Tel Dan in Israel that refers to the "House of David"—the first text outside the Bible to confirm that King David actually existed. Another important find is a carved Hebrew alphabet—in fact, the earliest complete Hebrew alphabet—at Tel Zayit, an excavation site southwest of Jerusalem. This alphabet suggests the existence of a literate royal court at the time of David and Solomon, the 10th century B.C., raising the possibility that scribes could have written portions of the Hebrew Bible at that time. [Explore a time line of Archeological Evidence, including these and other finds.]
Perhaps most extraordinary, the discovery of pagan idols at dozens of archeological sites throughout biblical Israel challenges old assumptions about the rise of monotheism. The idols prove that some ancient Israelites continued to practice polytheism until the time of the Babylonian Exile around 586 B.C., centuries later than previously thought.
Filmed on location throughout the Middle East, the film transports viewers into the world of the Old Testament through guided explorations of ancient ruins and advanced digital animation techniques, which bring sacred places, including the long-lost Temple of Solomon, to life. As part of the project, NOVA commissioned a hand-crafted, illustrated Bible—a bound collection of artwork featuring images of ancient frescoes, illuminated medieval manuscripts, and paintings by European masters. These striking visuals evoke memorable scenes from biblical literature, such as God speaking to Moses from the burning bush and David as he slays the giant Philistine warrior, Goliath.
According to Apsell, "In addition to exploring the historical authenticity of the biblical narrative, this powerful intersection of science, scholarship, and scripture also provides a unique insight into the deeper meaning of biblical texts and their continuing resonance through the centuries."
PBS Airdate: November 18, 2008
NARRATOR: God is dead, or so it must have seemed to the ancestors of the Jews in 586 B.C. Jerusalem and the temple to their god are in flames; the nation of Israel, founded by King David, is wiped out.
WILLIAM G. DEVER (University of Arizona): It would have seemed to have been the end, but it was, rather, the beginning.
NARRATOR: For out of the crucible of destruction emerges a sacred book, the Bible, and an idea that will change the world, the belief in one God.
THOMAS CAHILL (Author, The Gifts of the Jews): This is a new idea. It was an idea that no one had ever had before.
LEE I. LEVINE (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Monotheism is well-ensconced, so something major happened which is very hard to trace.
NARRATOR: Now, a provocative new story from discoveries deep within the Earth and the Bible.
EILAT MAZAR (Shalem Center): We wanted to examine the possibility that the remains of King David's palace are here.
WILLIAM DEVER: We can actually see vivid evidence here of a destruction.
AMNON BEN-TOR (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Question number one: "Who did it?"
NARRATOR: An archaeological detective story puzzles together clues to the mystery of who wrote the Bible, when and why.
GABRIEL BARKAY (Bar-Ilan University): And it was clear that it was a tiny scroll.
RON E. TAPPY (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary): I immediately saw very clear, very distinct letters.
P. KYLE MCCARTER (Johns Hopkins University): This is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.
NARRATOR: And, from out of the Earth, emerge thousands of idols that suggest God had a wife.
AMIHAI MAZAR (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): We just found this exceptional clay figurine showing a fertility goddess.
NARRATOR: Powerful evidence sheds new light on how one people, alone among ancient cultures, finally turn their back on idol worship to find their one god.
CAROL MEYERS (Duke University): This makes the god of ancient Israel the universal God of the world that resonates with people—at least in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition—to this very day.
NARRATOR: Now, science and scripture converge to create a powerful new story of an ancient people, God and the Bible. Up next on NOVA, The Bible's Buried Secrets.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the following:
Well, it might surprise a lot of people that ExxonMobil would be interested in lithium ion battery technology applied to hybrid electric vehicles. Our new battery separator film is a true breakthrough that's going to enable the deployment of more hybrid vehicles, faster. This means a tremendous reduction in greenhouse gases, the equivalent of removing millions of cars from the road. I think this is the most important project that I've worked on in my career.
And David H. Koch. And...
Discover new knowledge: HHMI.
Major funding for The Bible's Buried Secrets is provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Righteous Persons Foundation. Additional funding for this program is provided by the Skirball Foundation and by the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation.
Major funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: Near the banks of the Nile, in southern Egypt, in 1896, British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, leads an excavation in Thebes, the ancient city of the dead. Here, he unearths one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology. From beneath the sand, appears the corner of a royal monument, carved in stone.
Dedicated in honor of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses the Great, it became known as the Merneptah Stele. Today it is in the Cairo Museum.
DONALD REDFORD (Pennsylvania State University): This stele is what the ancient Egyptians would have called a triumph stele, a victory stele, commemorating victory over foreign peoples.
NARRATOR: Most of the hieroglyphic inscription celebrates Merneptah's triumph over Libya, his enemy to the West, but almost as an afterthought, he mentions his conquest of people to the East, in just two lines.
DONALD REDFORD: The text reads, "Ashkelon has been brought captive. Gezer has been taken captive. Yanoam in the north Jordan Valley has been seized, Israel has been shorn. Its seed no longer exists."
NARRATOR: History proves the pharaoh's confident boast to be wrong. Rather than marking their annihilation, Merneptah's Stele announces the entrance onto the world stage of a people named Israel.
DONALD REDFORD: This is priceless evidence for the presence of an ethnical group called Israel in the central highlands of southern Canaan.
NARRATOR: The well-established Egyptian chronology gives the date as 1208 B.C. Merneptah's Stele is powerful evidence that a people called the Israelites are living in Canaan, in what today includes Israel and Palestine, over 3,000 years ago.
The ancient Israelites are best known through familiar stories that chronicle their history: Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath.
It is the ancient Israelites who write the Bible. Through writing the Hebrew Bible, the beliefs of the ancient Israelites survive to become Judaism, one of the world's oldest continuously-practiced religions. And it is the Jews who give the world an astounding legacy, the belief in one God.
This belief will become the foundation of two other great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam.
Often called the Old Testament, to distinguish it from the New Testament, which describes the events of early Christianity, today the Hebrew Bible and a belief in one God are woven into the very fabric of world culture. But in ancient times, all people, from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Babylonians, worshipped many gods, usually in the form of idols. How did the Israelites, alone among ancient peoples, discover the concept of one god? How did they come up with an idea that so profoundly changed the world?
Now, archaeologists and biblical scholars are arriving at a new synthesis that promises to reveal not only fresh historical insights but a deeper meaning of what the authors of the Bible wanted to convey.
They start by digging into the Earth and the Bible.
WILLIAM DEVER: You cannot afford to ignore the biblical text, especially if you can isolate a kind of kernel of truth behind these stories and then you have the archaeological data. Now what happens when text and artifact seem to point in the same direction? Then, I think, we are on a very sound ground, historically.
NARRATOR: Scholars search for intersections between science and scripture. The earliest is the victory stele of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, from 1208 B.C. Both the stele and the Bible place a people called the Israelites in the hill country of Canaan, which includes modern-day Israel and Palestine. It is here, between two of history's greatest empires, that Israel's story will unfold.
PETER MACHINIST (Harvard University): The way to understand Israel's relationship to the super powers—Egypt and Mesopotamia on either side—is to understand its own sense of its fragility as a people. The primary way in which the Bible looks at the origins of Israel is as a people coming to settle in the land of Israel. It's not indigenous; it's not a native state.
NARRATOR: The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of Israel's origins. The first is Abraham, who leaves Mesopotamia with his family and journeys to the "Promised Land," Canaan.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible, "Revised Standard Version," Genesis 12:1 and 2): The Lord said to Abraham, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you. I will make your name great."
NARRATOR: According to the Bible, this promise establishes the covenant, a sacred contract between God and Abraham. To mark the covenant, Abraham and all males are circumcised; his descendents will be God's chosen people. They will be fruitful, multiply and inhabit all the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In return, Abraham and his people, who will become the Israelites, must worship a single god.
THOMAS CAHILL: This is a new idea. It was an idea that no one had ever had before. God, in our sense, doesn't exist before Abraham.
NARRATOR: It is hard to appreciate today how radical an idea this must have been in a world dominated by polytheism, the worship of many gods and idols.
The Abraham narrative is part of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, along with Noah and the flood, and Adam and Eve. Though they convey a powerful message, to date, there is no archaeology or text outside of the Bible to corroborate them.
DAVID ILAN (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion): The farther back you go in the biblical text, the more difficult it is to find historical material in it. The patriarchs go back to Genesis. Genesis is, for the most part, a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that, and to find a historical core there is very difficult.
NARRATOR: This absence of historical evidence leads scholars to take a different approach to reading the biblical narrative. They look beyond our modern notion of fact or fiction, to ask why the Bible was written in the first place.
WILLIAM DEVER: There is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical writers were telling stories. They were good historians and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.
NARRATOR: So what was their objective? To find out, scholars must uncover who wrote the Bible and when.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible, "Revised Standard Version," Exodus 34:27) And the Lord said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I make a covenant with you and with Israel."
NARRATOR: The traditional belief is that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, the story of creation; Exodus, deliverance from slavery to the Promised Land; Leviticus; Numbers; and Deuteronomy, laws of morality and observance.
Still read, to this day, together they form the Torah, often called the "Five Books of Moses."
MICHAEL COOGAN (Stonehill College): The view that Moses had personally written down the first five books of the Bible was virtually unchallenged until the 17th century. There were a few questions raised about this, for example, the very end of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, describes the death and burial of Moses. And so, some rabbis said, "Well, Moses couldn't have written those words himself, because he was dead and was being buried."
NARRATOR: And digging deeper into the text, there are even more discrepancies.
MICHAEL COOGAN: For example, how many of each species of animals is Noah supposed to bring into the ark? One text says two, a pair of every kind of animal; another text says seven pair of the clean animals and only two of the unclean animals.
NARRATOR: In one chapter, the Bible says the flood lasts for 40 days and 40 nights, but in the next it says 150 days. To see if the floodwaters have subsided, Noah sends out a dove. But in the previous sentence, he sends a raven. There are two complete versions of the flood story interwoven on the same page.
Many similar discrepancies, throughout its pages, suggest that the Bible has more than one writer. In fact, within the first five books of the Bible, scholars have identified the hand of at least four different groups of scribes, writing over several hundred years. This theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis.
MICHAEL COOGAN: One way of thinking about it is as a kind of anthology that was made, over the course of many centuries, by different people adding to it, subtracting from it and so forth.
NARRATOR: But when did the process of writing the Bible begin?
NARRATOR: Tel Zayit is a small site on the southwestern border of ancient Israel that dates back to biblical times. Since 1999, Ron Tappy has been excavating here.
It was the last day of what had been a typical dig season.
RON TAPPY: As I was taking aerial photographs from the cherry picker, a volunteer notified his square supervisor that he thought he had seen some interesting marks, scratches, possibly letters incised in a stone.
NARRATOR: Letters would be a rare find, so when he kneeled to look at the marks, Tappy got the surprise of a lifetime.
RON TAPPY: As I bent down over the stone, I immediately saw very clear, very distinct letters.
NARRATOR: Tappy excavated the rock and brought it back to his lab at the nearby kibbutz. It was only then that he realized he had more than a simple inscription.
RON TAPPY: Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet...I realized that this inscription represented an abecedary, that is to say, not a text narrative but the letters of the Semitic alphabet written out in their correct order. Nun, pe and ayin are difficult to read but they're out here.
NARRATOR: This ancient script is an early form of the Hebrew alphabet.
KYLE MCCARTER: What was found was not a random scratching of two or three letters, it was the full alphabet. Everything about it says that this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.
NARRATOR: The Tel Zayit abecedary is the earliest Hebrew alphabet ever discovered. It dates to about 1000 B.C., making it possible that writing the Hebrew Bible could have already started by this time. To discover the most ancient text in the Bible, scholars examine the Hebrew spelling, grammar and vocabulary.
KYLE MCCARTER: The Hebrew Bible is a collection of literature written over about a thousand years, and, as with any other language, Hebrew, naturally, changed quite a bit over those thousand years. The same would be true of English. I'm speaking English of the 21st century, and if I were living in Elizabethan times, the words I choose, the syntax I use would be quite different.
NARRATOR: Scholars examine the Bible in its original Hebrew in search of the most archaic language, and therefore the oldest passages. They find it in Exodus, the second book of the Bible.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible, "Revised Standard Version," Exodus 15:4) Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea. His picked officers are drowned in the Red Sea.
NARRATOR: This passage, known as the "Song of the Sea," is the climactic scene of Exodus, the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt and how Moses leads them to freedom. In all of the Bible, no single event is mentioned more times than the Exodus.
With the development of ancient Hebrew script, the "Song of the Sea" could have been written by 1000 B.C., the time of Tappy's alphabet. But it was probably recited as a poem long before the beginning of Hebrew writing.
LAWRENCE STAGER (Harvard University): It's very likely that it was a kind of story, told in poetic form, that you might tell around the campfire. Just as our poems are easier to remember, generally, than prose accounts, so we generally think that the poetry is orally passed on from one to another, long before they commit things to writing.
NARRATOR: Because the poetry in Exodus is so ancient, is it possible the story has some historical core?
Here, in the eastern Nile Delta of Egypt, in a surreal landscape of fallen monuments and tumbled masonry, archaeologists have uncovered a lost city. Inscribed on monuments throughout the site is the name of Ramesses II, one of the most powerful Egyptian rulers. It is Ramesses who is traditionally known as the pharaoh of the Exodus.
Ancient Egyptian texts call the city Pi-Ramesse, or House of Ramesses, a name that resonates with the biblical story of Exodus.
MICHAEL COOGAN: The only specific item mentioned in the Exodus story that we can probably connect with non-biblical material is the cities that the Hebrews were ordered to build, and they are named Pithom and Ramesses.
NARRATOR: Scholars agree that the biblical city Ramesses is the ancient Egyptian city Pi-Ramesse. Its ruins are here in present-day Tanis.
MANFRED BIETAK (Austrian Academy of Sciences): Most of the Egyptologists identified Pi-Ramesse, the Ramesses town, with Tanis, because here you have an abundance of Ramesside monuments.
NARRATOR: This convergence between archaeology and the Bible provides a timeframe for the Exodus. It could not have happened before Ramesses became king, around 1275 B.C., and it could not have happened after 1208 B.C., when the stele of pharaoh Merneptah, Ramesses the Second's son, specifically locates the Israelites in Canaan.
The Bible says the Israelites leave Egypt in a mass migration, 600,000 men and their families, and then wander in the desert for 40 years. But even assuming the Bible is exaggerating, in a hundred years of searching, archaeologists have not yet found evidence of migration that can be linked to the Exodus.
WILLIAM DEVER: No excavated site gives us any information about the route of the wandering through the wilderness. And Exodus is simply not attested anywhere.
NARRATOR: Any historical or archaeological confirmation of the Exodus remains elusive. Yet scholars have discovered that all four groups of biblical writers contributed to some part of the Exodus story.
Perhaps it is for the same reason its message remains powerful to this day: its inspiring theme of freedom.
CAROL MEYERS: Freedom is a compelling notion, and that is one of the ways that we can understand the story of the Exodus: from being controlled by others to controlling oneself, the idea of a change from domination to autonomy. These are very powerful ideas that resonate in the human spirit, and the exodus gives narrative reality to those ideas.
NARRATOR: Following the Exodus, the Bible says God finally delivers the Israelites to the Promised Land, Canaan. Archaeology and sources outside the Bible reveal that Canaan consisted of well-fortified city-states, each with its own king, who in turn served Egypt and its pharaoh.
The Canaanites, a thriving Near Eastern culture for thousands of years, worshipped many gods in the form of idols.
The Bible describes how a new leader, Joshua, takes the Israelites into Canaan in a blitzkrieg military campaign.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Joshua 6:20): So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat.
NARRATOR: But what does archaeology say? In the 1930s, British archaeologist John Garstang excavated at Jericho, the first Canaanite city in Joshua's campaign. Garstang uncovered dramatic evidence of destruction and declared he had found the very walls that Joshua had brought tumbling down.
And at what the Bible describes as the greatest of all Canaanite cities, Hazor, there is more evidence of destruction.
Today, Hazor is being excavated by one of the leading Israeli archaeologists, Amnon Ben-Tor, and his protégé and co-director, Sharon Zuckerman.
AMNON BEN-TOR: I'm walking through a passage between two of the rooms of the Canaanite palace of the kings of Hazor. Signs of the destruction you can still see almost everywhere. You can see the dark stones here and, most important, you can see how they cracked into a million pieces. It takes tremendous heat to cause such damage. The fire here was, how should I say, the mother of all fires.
NARRATOR: Among the ashes, Ben-Tor discovered a desecrated statue, most likely the king or patron god of Hazor. Its head and hands are cut off, apparently by the city's conquerors.
This marked the end of Canaanite Hazor.
AMNON BEN-TOR: Question number one: Who did it? Who was around, who is a possible candidate?
So, number one: the Egyptians. They don't mention having done anything at Hazor. In any of the inscriptions at the time, we don't see Hazor.
Another Canaanite city-state could have done it, maybe. But who was strong enough to do it?
Who are we left with? The Israelites. The only ones about whom there is a tradition that they did it. So, let's say they should be considered guilty of destruction of Hazor until proven innocent.
NARRATOR: And there's another Canaanite city-state that Joshua and his army of Israelites are credited with laying waste. It's called Ai, and has been discovered in what is now the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
Here, archaeologist Hani Nur el-Din and his team are finding evidence of a rich Canaanite culture.
HANI NUR EL-DIN (Al-Quds University): The village first appears and developed into a city, and then there was a kind of fortification surrounding this settlement.
NARRATOR: These heaps of stones were once a magnificent palace and temples, which were eventually destroyed. But when archaeologists date the destruction, they discover it occurred about 2200 B.C. They date the destruction of Jericho to 1500 B.C., and Hazor's to about 1250 B.C. Clearly, these city-states were not destroyed at the same time; they range over nearly a thousand years. In fact, of the 31 sites the Bible says that Joshua conquered, few showed any signs of war.
WILLIAM DEVER: There was no evidence of armed conflict in most of these sites. At the same time, it was discovered that most of the large Canaanite towns that were supposed to have been destroyed by these Israelites were either not destroyed at all or destroyed by others.
NARRATOR: A single sweeping military invasion led by Joshua cannot account for how the Israelites arrived in Canaan. But the destruction of Hazor does coincide with the time that the Merneptah Stele locates the Israelites in Canaan.
So who destroyed Hazor?
Amnon Ben-Tor still believes it was the Israelites who destroyed the city. But his co-director, Sharon Zuckerman, has a different idea.
SHARON ZUCKERMAN (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): The final destruction itself consisted of the mutilation of statues of kings and gods. It did not consist of signs of war or of any kind of fighting. We don't see weapons in the street like we see in other sites that were destroyed by foreigners.
NARRATOR: So if there was no invasion, what happened? Excavations reveal that Hazor had a lower city of commoners, serfs and slaves, and an upper city with a king and wealthy elites.
Zuckerman finds, within the grand palaces of elite Hazor, areas of disrepair and abandonment, to archaeologists, signs of a culture in decline and rebellion from within.
SHARON ZUCKERMAN: I would not rule out the possibility of an internal revolt of Canaanites living at Hazor and revolting against the elites that ruled the city.
NARRATOR: In fact, the entire Canaanite city-state system, including Hazor and Jericho, breaks down. Archaeology and ancient texts clearly show that it is the result of a long period of decline and upheaval that sweeps through Mesopotamia, the Aegean region and the Egyptian empire around 1200 B.C.
PETER MACHINIST: And when the dust, as it were, settles, when we can begin to see what takes the place of these...of this great states system, we find a number of new peoples suddenly coming into focus in a kind of void that is created with the dissolution of the great state system.
NARRATOR: Can archaeologists find the Israelites among these new people?
NARRATOR: In the 1970s, archaeologists started wide-ranging surveys throughout the central hill country of Canaan, today, primarily, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN (Tel Aviv University): I was teaching at that time. We used to take students and go twice a week to the highlands, and every day we used to cover between two and three square kilometers. And this accumulates, very slowly, into the coverage of the entire area.
NARRATOR: Israel Finkelstein and teams of archaeologists walked out grids over large areas, collecting every fragment of ancient pottery lying on the surface. Over seven years he covered nearly 400 square miles, sorting pottery and marking the locations of where it was found, on a map.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: In the beginning, the spots were there on the map and they meant nothing to me. But later, slowly, slowly, I started seeing sort of a phenomena and processes.
NARRATOR: By dating the pottery, Finkelstein discovered that before 1200 B.C., there were approximately 25 settlements. He estimated the total population of those settlements to be 3,- to 5,000 inhabitants. But just 200 years later, there's a very sharp increase in settlements and people.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: Then you get this boom of population growing and growing. Then we are speaking about 250 sites. And the population grows, also, 10 times, from a few thousand to 45,000 or so. Now this is very dramatic and cannot be explained as natural growth. This rate is impossible in ancient times.
NARRATOR: If not natural growth, perhaps these are the waves of dispersed people settling down following the collapse of the great state systems.
Then, more evidence of a new culture is discovered, a new type of simple dwelling, never seen before. And it's in the exact location where both the Merneptah Stele and the Bible place the Israelites.
AMNON BEN-TOR: The sites in which this type of house appears, throughout the country, this is where Israelites lived. And they are sometimes even called the Israelite house or Israelite-type house.
The people who lived in those villages seemed to be arranged, more or less, in a kind of egalitarian society because there are no major architectural installations. If you look at the finds, the finds are relatively poor. Pottery is more or less mundane—I don't want to offend the early settlers or the early Israelites—very little art.
NARRATOR: Curiously, the mundane pottery found at these new Israelite villages is very similar to the everyday pottery found at the older Canaanite cities like Hazor. In fact, the Israelite house is practically the only thing that is different. This broad similarity is leading archaeologists to a startling new conclusion about the origins of the ancient Israelites.
WILLIAM DEVER: The notion is that most of the early Israelites were originally Canaanites, displaced Canaanites.
PETER MACHINIST: The Israelites were always in the land of Israel. They were natives, but they were different kinds of groups. They were basically the have-nots.
WILLIAM DEVER: So what we're dealing with is a movement of peoples, but not an invasion of armed hordes from outside, but rather a social and economic revolution.
NARRATOR: Ancient texts describe how the Egyptian rulers and their Canaanite vassal kings burden the lower classes of Canaan with taxes and even slavery.
A radical new theory based on archaeology suggests what happens next. As that oppressive social system declines, families and tribes of serfs, slaves and common Canaanites seize the opportunity. In search of a better way of life, they abandon the old city-states, and head for the hills. Free from the oppression of their past, they eventually emerge in a new place as a new people, the Israelites.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: In the text, you have the story of the Israelites coming from outside, and then besieging the Canaanite cities, destroying them and then becoming a nation in the land of Canaan, whereas archaeology tells us something which is the opposite. According to archaeology, the rise of early Israel is an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite society, not the reason for that collapse.
NARRATOR: Archaeology reveals that the Israelites were themselves originally Canaanites. So why does the Bible consistently cast the Israelites as outsiders in Canaan: Abraham's wanderings from Mesopotamia; Moses leading slaves out of Egypt and into the Promised Land; and Joshua conquering Canaan from outside?
The answer may lie in their desire to forge a distinctly new identity.
PETER MACHINIST: Identity is created, as psychologists tell us, by talking about what you are not, by talking about another. In order to figure out who I am, I have to figure out who I am not.
NARRATOR: Conspicuously absent from Israelite villages are the grand palaces and the extravagant pottery associated with the kings and rich elites of Canaan.
AVRAHAM FAUST (Archaeologist, Bar-Ilan University): The Israelites did not like the Canaanite
system, and they defined themselves in contrast to that system. By not using decorated pottery, by not using imported pottery, they developed an ideology of simplicity which marked the difference between them and the Egyptian Canaanite system.
NARRATOR: If the Israelites wanted to distinguish themselves from their Canaanite past, what better way than to create a story about destroying them?
But the stories of Abraham, Exodus and the Conquest serve another purpose. They celebrate the power of what the Bible says is the foremost distinction between the Israelites and all other people, their God.
In later Judaism, the name of God is considered so sacred it is never to be spoken.
MICHAEL COOGAN: We don't know exactly what it means and we don't know how it was pronounced, but it seems to have been the personal name of the God of Israel, so his title, in a sense, was "God," and his name was these four letters, which in English is "YHWH," which we think were probably pronounced something like Yahweh.
NARRATOR: But Yahweh only appears in the Hebrew Bible. His name is nowhere to be found in Canaanite texts or stories. So where do the Israelites find their God?
NARRATOR: The search for the origins of Yahweh leads scholars back to ancient Egypt. Here in the royal city of Karnak, for over a thousand years, Pharaohs celebrated their power with statues, obelisks and carved murals on temple walls.
DONALD REDFORD: Here on the north wall of Karnak, we have scenes depicting the victories and battles of Seti the First, the father of Ramesses the Great.
Seti, here, commemorates one of his greatest victories over the Shasu.
NARRATOR: The Shasu were a people who lived in the deserts of southern Canaan, now Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, around the same time as the Israelites emerged.
Egyptian texts say one of the places where the Shasu lived is called "Y.H.W.," probably pronounced Yahu, likely the name of their patron god. That name Yahu is strangely similar to Yahweh, the name of the Israelite god.
In the Bible, the place where the Shasu lived is referred to as Midian. It is here, before the Exodus, the Bible tells us, Moses first encounters Yahweh, in the form of a burning bush.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Exodus 3:5 and 15): Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, YHWH the God of your ancestors... has sent me to you: This is My name forever, and this My title for all generations."
MICHAEL COOGAN: So we have, in Egyptian sources, something that appears to be a name like Yahweh in the vicinity of Midian. Here is Moses in Midian, and there a deity appears to him and reveals his name to Moses as Yahweh.
NARRATOR: These tantalizing connections are leading biblical scholars to re-examine the Exodus story. While there is no evidence to support a mass migration, some now believe that a small group did escape from Egypt; however, they were not Israelites but, rather, Canaanite slaves. On their journey back to Canaan they pass through Midian, where they are inspired by stories of the Shasu's god, Yahu.
AVRAHAM FAUST: There was probably a group of people who fled from Egypt and had some divine experience. It was probably small, a small group demographically, but it was important at least in ideology.
NARRATOR: They find their way to the central hill country, where they encounter the tribes who had fled the Canaanite city-states. Their story of deliverance resonates in this emerging egalitarian society. The liberated slaves attribute their freedom to the god they met in Midian, who they now call Yahweh.
CAROL MEYERS: They spread the word to the highlanders, who themselves, perhaps, had escaped from the tyranny of the Canaanite city-states. They spread the idea of a god who represented freedom, freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor. This was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity.
NARRATOR: The identity of "Israelites." They are a combination of disenfranchised Canaanites, runaway slaves from Egypt and even nomads, settling down. The Bible calls them a "mixed multitude."
WILLIAM DEVER: According to the Hebrew Bible, early Israel is a motley crew. And we know that's the case, now. But these people are bound together by a new vision, and I think the revolutionary spirit is probably there from the beginning.
NARRATOR: The chosen people may actually be people who chose to be free. Their story of escape, first told by word of mouth and poetry, helps forge a collective identity among the tribes. Later, when written down, it will become a central theme of the Bible: Exodus and divine deliverance, deliverance by a God who comes from Midian—exactly where the Bible says—adopted by the Israelites to represent their exodus from slavery to freedom.
So is this the birth of monotheism?
MICHAEL COOGAN: The common understanding of what differentiated the ancient Israelites from their neighbors was that their neighbors worshipped many different gods and goddesses, and the Israelites worshipped only the one true god. But that is not the case.
NARRATOR: This bull figurine, likely representing El, the chief god of the Canaanite deities, is one of thousands of idols discovered in Israelite sites.
MICHAEL COOGAN: The Israelites frequently worshipped other gods. Now, maybe they weren't supposed to, but they did. So at least on a practical level, many, if not most, Israelites were not monotheists.
NARRATOR: The Bible's ideal of the Israelite worship of one god will have to wait.
NARRATOR: About two centuries pass after the Merneptah Stele places the Israelites in Canaan. Families grow into tribes; their population increases. Then about 1000 B.C., one of the Bible's larger than life figures emerges to unite the 12 tribes of Israel against a powerful new enemy.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," First Samuel 17:49): David put his hand into the bag; he took out a stone and slung it. It struck the Philistine in the forehead; the stone sank into his forehead and he fell down on the ground.
NARRATOR: The Bible celebrates David as a shepherd boy who vanquishes the giant Goliath; a lover who lusts after forbidden fruits; and a poet who composes lyric psalms still recited today. Of all the names in the Hebrew Bible, none appears more than David.
Scriptures say David creates a kingdom that stretches from Egypt to Mesopotamia. He makes Jerusalem his royal capital. And in a new covenant, Yahweh promises that he and his descendents will rule forever. David's son Solomon builds the Temple where Yahweh, now the national God of Israel, will dwell for eternity.
The Kingdom of David and Solomon: one nation, united under one god, according to the Bible.
WILLIAM DEVER: Now, some skeptics, today, have argued that there was no such thing as a united monarchy. It's a later biblical construct and, particularly, a construct of modern scholarship. In short, there was no David. As one of the biblical revisionists have said, "David is no more historical than King Arthur."
NARRATOR: But then, in 1993, an amazing discovery literally shed new light on what the Bible calls ancient Israel's greatest king.
Gila Cook was finishing up some survey work with an assistant at Tel Dan, a biblical site in the far north of Israel, today. The excavation was headed by the eminent Israeli archaeologist, Avraham Biran. It was near the end of the day, and Cook was getting her last measurements, when she hears a yell from below.
GILA COOK (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem): And it was Biran, in his booming voice, yelling "Gila, let's go." And so I waved to him, "Hold it," and continued working.
NARRATOR: After being summoned by Biran a second time, Cook had her assistant load her up, and she started down the hill.
GILA COOK: So I get there, and I just drop my bag and drop the board, and I set my stuff down.
NARRATOR: But something catches her eye: a stone with what appeared to be random scratches, but was actually an ancient inscription. This time she yelled for Biran.
GILA COOK: And he looks at it, and he looks at me, and he says, "Oh my god!"
NARRATOR: Cook had found a fragment of a victory stele, written in Aramaic, an ancient language very similar to Hebrew. Dedicated by the king of Damascus or one of his generals, it celebrates the conquest of Israel, boasting, "I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David."
Those words, "the House of David," make this a critical discovery. They are strong evidence that David really lived.
Unlike Genesis, the stories of Israel's kings move the biblical narrative out of the realm of legend and into the light of history.
WILLIAM DEVER: The later we come in time, the firmer ground we stand on. We have better sources, we have more written sources, we have more contemporary eyewitness sources.
NARRATOR: When the biblical chronology of Israel's kings can be cross-referenced with historical inscriptions, like the Tel Dan Stele, they can provide scholars with fairly reliable dates. King David is the earliest biblical figure confirmed by archaeology to be historical. And most scholars agree he lived around 1000 B.C., the 10th century.
Could any of the Bible have been written during David's reign? The earliest Hebrew alphabet discovered by Ron Tappy carved on a stone at Tel Zayit provides an enticing clue.
RON TAPPY: The stone was incised with this alphabet, the stone was then used to build the wall, and the structure itself suffered massive destruction by fire sometime near the end of the 10th century B.C.E.
NARRATOR: The find is even more significant because Tel Zayit was a biblical backwater, on the fringes of David's kingdom.
KYLE MCCARTER: Surely, if there was a scribe that could write this alphabet that far away, way out in the boondocks, at the extreme western boundary of the kingdom, surely if there is a scribe that could do that out there, there were scribes, much more sophisticated scribes, back in the capital.
NARRATOR: Could these scribes have been in the court of King David and his son Solomon? Could they have been the earliest biblical writers?
In the 18th century, German scholars uncovered a clue to who wrote the Bible, hidden in two different names for God.
MICHAEL COOGAN: According to one account, Abraham knew God by his intimate, personal name, conventionally pronounced Yahweh.
NARRATOR: Passages with the name Yahweh, which in German is spelled with a J, scholars refer to as J
MICHAEL COOGAN: But according to other accounts, Abraham knew God simply by the most common Hebrew word for God, which is Elohim.
NARRATOR: So the two different writers became known as E, for Elohim, and J, for Yahweh. Most likely based on poetry and songs passed down for generations, they both write a version of Israel's distant past, the stories of Abraham in the Promised Land, Moses and the Exodus.
MICHAEL COOGAN: The earliest of these sources is the one that is known as J, which many scholars dated to the 10th century B.C., the time of David and Solomon.
NARRATOR: And because the backdrop for J's version of events is the area around Jerusalem, it's likely he lived there, perhaps in the royal courts of David and Solomon.
NARRATOR: For over a hundred years, archaeologists have searched Jerusalem for evidence of the Kingdom of David, but excavating here is contentious because Jerusalem is sacred to today's three monotheistic religions.
JOAN R. BRANHAM (Providence College): For Christians, Jesus comes in his final week to worship at the Jerusalem temple. He's crucified, he's buried, he's resurrected in the city of Jerusalem. For Islam, it is the site where Mohammed comes in a sacred night journey; and, today, the Dome of the Rock marks that spot. In Judaism the stories of the Hebrew Bible, of Solomon, of David, of the temples of Jerusalem, all of these take place, of course, in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is a symbol of sacred space today, important for all three traditions.
NARRATOR: Despite the difficulties, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar went digging in the most ancient part of Jerusalem, today called the City of David.
EILAT MAZAR: We started excavations here, because we wanted to check and to examine the possibility that the remains of King David's palace are here.
NARRATOR: But because this area has been fought over, destroyed and rebuilt over thousands of years, it was a long shot that any biblical remains would survive. But then...
EILAT MAZAR: Large walls started to appear, three meter wide, five meter wide. And then we saw that it goes all directions. It goes from east, 30 meters to the west, and we don't see the end of it yet.
NARRATOR: Such huge walls can only be part of a massive building, and Mazar believes her excavations, to date, represent only 20 percent of its total size.
EILAT MAZAR: Such a huge structure shows centralization and capability of construction. It can be only royal structure.
NARRATOR: This huge complex may be evidence of a kingdom, but is it David's kingdom? For these walls to be David's palace, they would have to date to his lifetime, around 1000 B.C.
The problem is stone walls can never be dated on their own. Biblical archaeologists date ruins based on the pottery they find associated with those ruins. Pottery dating is based on two ideas: pottery styles evolve uniformly over time, and the further down you dig, the further back in time you go. If pottery style A comes from the lowest stratum, then it is earlier than pottery style B that comes from the stratum above it.
By analyzing pottery from well-stratified sites, excavators are able to create what they call a relative chronology. But this chronology is floating in time, without any fixed dates. To anchor this chronology William Foxwell Albright, considered the father of biblical archaeology, used events mentioned in both the Bible and Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts to assign dates to pottery styles.
Albright's chronology, slightly modified, is what Mazar uses to date her massive building and what most archaeologists use today.
EILAT MAZAR: What we found is a typical 10th century pottery, meaning bowls with hand burnish you can see from inside, together with an import, a beautiful black-on-red juglet. What is so important is that this is a 10th century typical juglet.
NARRATOR: So has Mazar discovered the Palace of David? She adds up the evidence. The building is huge, it is located in a prominent place in the oldest part of Jerusalem, and the pottery, according to Albright's chronology, dates to the 10th century B.C., the time of David. Mazar believes she has indeed found the Palace of David.
But that evidence and, indeed, the kingdom itself rest on the dates associated with fragments of pottery, and some critics argue the system for dating that pottery relies too heavily on the Bible.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: Archaeologists in the past did not rely too heavily on the Bible, they relied only on the Bible. We have a problem in dating. How do you date in archaeology? You need an anchor from outside.
NARRATOR: Today, there is a more scientific method to anchor pottery to firm dates, radiocarbon dating. It is a specialty of Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute.
ELISABETTA BOARETTO (Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel): The first step is, of course, in the field, which relates this sample material like olive pits or seeds or charcoal to the archaeological context.
NARRATOR: If an olive seed is found at the same layer as a piece of pottery, the carbon in the seed can be used to date the pottery.
When the seed dies, its radioactive carbon-14 decays at a consistent rate over time. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12, Boaretto can determine the age of the olive seed, which, in turn, can be used to date the pottery.
Boaretto has meticulously collected and analyzed hundreds of samples from over 20 sites throughout Israel. Her carbon samples date the pottery that Albright and most archaeologists associate with the time of David and Solomon to around 75 years later.
For events so long ago, this may seem like a trivial difference, but if Boaretto is right, Mazar's Palace of David and Tappy's ancient Hebrew alphabet have to be re-dated. This places them in the time of the lesser-known kings Omri, Ahab, and his despised wife Jezebel, all worshippers of the Canaanite god Baal.
With no writing or monumental building, suddenly the Kingdom of David and Solomon is far less glorious than the Bible describes.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: So David and Solomon did not rule over a big territory. It was a small chiefdom, if you wish, with just a few settlements, very poor, the population was limited, there was no manpower for big conquest, and so on and so forth.
NARRATOR: This would make David a petty warlord ruling over a chiefdom, and his royal capital, Jerusalem, nothing more than a cow town.
ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: These are the results of the radiocarbon dating. He or she who decides to ignore these results, I treat them as if arguing that the world is flat, that the Earth is flat. And I cannot argue anymore.
NARRATOR: But it's not so simple. Other teams collected radiocarbon samples following the same meticulous methodology. According to their results, Mazar's palace and Tappy's alphabet can date to the 10th century, the time of David and Solomon.
How can this discrepancy be explained? The problem is that these radiocarbon dates have a margin of error of plus- or minus-30 years, about the difference between the two sides.
NARRATOR: Pottery and radiocarbon dating alone cannot determine if the Kingdom of David and Solomon was as large and prosperous as described in the Bible.
Fortunately, the Bible offers clues of other places to dig for evidence of this kingdom. The Bible credits David with conquering the kingdom, but it is Solomon, his son, who is the great builder.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," First Kings 9:15): This was the purpose of the forced labor which Solomon imposed. It was to build the House of YHWH ... and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.
NARRATOR: Here in Hazor, Amnon Ben-Tor, director of excavations, believes this may be evidence of Solomon's building campaign.
Archaeologists call it a six-chambered gate, a massive entryway, fortified with towers and guard rooms. Ben-Tor's predecessor, Yigal Yadin first uncovered this structure.
AMNON BEN-TOR: It turned out to be a six-chambered gate, and Yadin immediately remembered that a very, very similar gate was excavated at Gezer, and then Chicago University excavated this gate, here at Megiddo.
NARRATOR: Stunned by the similarity of these three gates, Yadin recalled the passage in the Bible.
AMNON BEN-TOR: Here we have a wonderful connection of the biblical passage as it shows up in archaeology.
NARRATOR: Three monumental gates, all based on the same plan, would seem to be powerful evidence not only of prosperity, but also of a central authority. Throughout its history the Israelites had been divided into tribes, then into kingdoms, north and south. The locations of these strikingly similar gates in both regions suggest a single governing authority throughout the land.
But how can we be sure this is the Kingdom of David and Solomon? The answer, once again, lies in Egypt.
DONALD REDFORD: The head-smiting scene, which you see on this wall, commemorates a military campaign conducted by Pharaoh Shishak, or Sheshonk, the founder of Dynasty 22, in Egypt.
NARRATOR: The Egyptian pharaoh Shishak invades Israel, an event the Bible reports and specifically dates to five years after Solomon's death, during the reign of his son, Rehoboam.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," First Kings 14:25–26): In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem and carried off the treasures of the House of YHWH and the treasures of the royal palace. He carried off everything.
DONALD REDFORD: The importance of this, in fixing one of the earliest dates, specific dates, in which Egyptian history coincides with biblical history is really startling and has to be taken note of.
NARRATOR: This stunning convergence between the Bible and Egyptian history gives a firm date for the death of Solomon. Shishak's campaign, according to the well-established Egyptian chronology, dates to 925 B.C. And the Bible says Solomon dies five years earlier, which means 930 B.C. This is further evidence that David and Solomon lived in the 10th century, but there's even more hidden in these walls.
These ovals, with their depictions of bound captives and city walls, represent places Pharaoh Shishak conquered in Israel. One of those places is Gezer, where archaeologists find the hallmark of Solomon's building program, a six-chambered gate.
Bill Dever directed the excavations in the late 1960s.
WILLIAM DEVER: We can actually see vivid evidence here of a destruction. Down below, we have the original stones, pretty much in situ, but, if you look in here, you see the stones are badly cracked. You can even see where they're burned from the heat of a huge fire that has been built here. And then, up in here, you see the fire had been so intense that the soft limestone has melted into lime, and it flows down like lava. This is vivid evidence of a destruction, and we would connect that with this well-known raid of Pharaoh Shishak.
NARRATOR: And if the gate was destroyed by Shishak, in 925 B.C., then it must have been built during the lifetime of Solomon, who died just five years earlier.
WILLIAM DEVER: Surely this kind of monumental architecture is evidence of state formation, and if it's in the 10th century, then...Solomon.
NARRATOR: Although a minority of archaeologists continue to disagree, this convergence of the Bible, Egyptian chronology and Solomon's gates is powerful evidence that a great kingdom existed at the time of David and Solomon, spanning all of Israel, north and south, with its capital in Jerusalem.
But Jerusalem is more than a political center, it is the center of worship.
SHAYE J. D. COHEN (Harvard University): The magic of Jerusalem is the magic of the Temple, one temple for the one god. The result is that Jerusalem and the Temple emerge as powerful symbols, not just of the oneness of God, but also the oneness of the Jewish people.
NARRATOR: The worship of the ancient Israelites bears little resemblance to Judaism today. It centered around the Temple, built by David's son Solomon, and seen as Yahweh's earthly dwelling. To understand how the ancient Israelites worshipped their god, scholars must discover what the Temple looked like and how it functioned. But, although archaeologists know where its remains should be, it is impossible to dig there. It lies under the third holiest site in Islam, which includes the Dome of the Rock.
Not a stone of Solomon's Temple has ever been excavated, but the Bible offers a remarkably detailed description.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," First Kings 6:2, 23 and 28): The house which King Solomon built for YHWH was 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim...each 10 cubits high. He overlaid the cherubim with gold.
NARRATOR: The Bible's description suggests a floor plan for Solomon's Temple, and it is strikingly similar to temples built by neighboring peoples who worship many gods. The closest in appearance is a temple hundreds of miles to the north of Jerusalem, at Ain Dara, in modern-day Syria. They have similar dimensions and the same basic floor plan. Guarding both temples are sphinxes or "cherubim," as the Bible calls them. Unique to the temple at Ain Dara are the enormous footprints of the god who lived here. They mark his progress as he strode to his throne in the innermost sanctuary.
LAWRENCE STAGER: If we take the details that we find of Solomon's Temple in the Book of Kings and compare it with the Ain Dara temple, we can piece together a fairly good picture, I think, of what this temple might have looked like in the age of Solomon.
NARRATOR: Now it is possible to reconstruct, with some confidence, how Solomon's Temple may have looked and how the ancient Israelites worshipped their god.
JOAN BRANHAM: Out front was an enormous altar. Beyond that was a porch area that led into the inside of the Temple. There was a room, the holy place, and then beyond that the most sacred room, the holy of holies where tradition says the Ark of the Covenant held the tablets of the law. And this room was considered to be the most sacred site on Earth, because it is the room where God's presence could be found.
NARRATOR: And the ancient Israelites believed their god demanded a very specific form of worship. Evidence of this survives today, on Mount Gerizim, in Palestine. The Samaritans, who live here, claim direct descent from the ancient tribes of Israel. According to their tradition, for over 2,500 years, they have been practicing the ancient Israelite form of worship, animal sacrifice.
JOAN BRANHAM: The primary function is to make a connection between our mundane world and the divine world, and the means, for the ancient Israelites, is embodied in blood. Blood is the most sacred substance on the altar, and blood is the substance that embodies life. So it is the most precious substance in the human world.
NARRATOR: But while the priests were offering sacrifice to Yahweh in the Temple, many Israelites were not as loyal. At Tel Rehov, archaeologists are digging at an Israelite house that illuminates the religious practices of its ancient inhabitants.
AMIHAI MAZAR: Well, we just found this beautiful, exceptional clay figurine showing a goddess, a fertility goddess that was worshipped here in Israel. Here, in this case, she is shown holding a baby.
NARRATOR: Who is this fertility goddess? And what is a pagan idol doing in an Israelite home? Dramatic evidence as to her possible identity first surfaced in 1968. Bill Dever was carrying out salvage excavations in tombs in southern Israel, when a local brought him an inscription that had been robbed from one of them.
WILLIAM DEVER: When I got home and brushed it off, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Executed in clear eighth-century script, it's a tomb inscription, and it gives the name of the deceased, and it says, "Blessed may X be by Yahweh"—that's good biblical Hebrew, but it says—"by Yahweh and his Asherah." And Asherah is the name of the old Canaanite mother goddess.
NARRATOR: More inscriptions associating Yahweh and Asherah have been discovered and thousands of figurines unearthed, throughout Israel.
Many scholars believe this is the face of Asherah.
Dever concludes God had a wife. Even hundreds of years after the Israelites rise from their Canaanite pagan roots, monotheism has still not completely taken hold.
WILLIAM DEVER: This is awkward for some people, the notion that Israelite religion was not exclusively monotheistic. But we know, now, that it wasn't.
NARRATOR: The Bible admits the Israelites continue to worship Asherah and other Canaanite gods, such as Baal. In fact, the prophets, holy men speaking in the name of God, consistently rail against breaking the covenant made with Moses to worship only Yahweh.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Hosea 11:2): The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols.
MICHAEL COOGAN: The Israelites had made a contract with God. If they kept it, God would reward them. If they broke it, he would punish them. He would punish them by using foreign powers as his instruments.
NARRATOR: Events seem to fulfill the prophets' dire predictions. Soon after Solomon's death, the 10 northern tribes rebel and form the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Then a powerful new enemy storms out of Mesopotamia to create the largest empire the Near East had ever known, the Assyrians.
PETER MACHINIST: The Assyrians were the overpowering military force, and Israel and Judah, the two states that the Bible talks about as the states making up the people Israel, fell under the sway of the Assyrian juggernaut.
NARRATOR: Numerous Assyrian texts and reliefs vividly document their domination of Israel and Judah.
NARRATOR: In 722 B.C., the Assyrian army crushes the Northern Kingdom. Those who escape death or exile to Assyria, flood south into Jerusalem, where the descendents of David and Solomon continue to reign.
One of them, Josiah, according to the Bible, finally heeds what the prophets prescribe.
MICHAEL COOGAN: We are told, in the Book of Kings, that King Josiah, in the late 7th century B.C., was told that a scroll had been discovered in the Temple archives. The scroll was brought to him, and as the scroll was being read, Josiah began to weep, because he realized that it was a sacred text containing divine commands which the people had been breaking.
NARRATOR: Scholars believe that the lost scroll is part of the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, a detailed code of laws and observance. It inspires another group of scribes, in the seventh century B.C., whom scholars call the D writers.
According to the Documentary Hypothesis, after J and E, D is the third group of scribes who write part of the Hebrew Bible. D retells the Exodus story and reaffirms the covenant Moses made between God and the Israelite people.
MICHAEL COOGAN: "You should love the Lord, your God, because he has loved you. He has loved you more than any other nation." So the divine love for Israel requires a corresponding loyalty to God, an exclusive loyalty to God. And Deuteronomy, more than other parts of the Bible, is insistent that only the God of Israel is to be worshipped.
NARRATOR: To enforce the covenant, Josiah orders that idols and altars to all other deities be destroyed. The book of Deuteronomy contains the clearest prohibition of the worship of other gods, the Ten Commandments.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Deuteronomy 5:6–9): I am YHWH, your God, you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
NARRATOR: The Ten Commandments appears in two books of the Bible, in Deuteronomy and in Exodus. It is not only a contract with Yahweh, it is also a code of conduct between people.
THOMAS CAHILL: The revelation of the Ten Commandments is an ethical revelation. And that's where the idea of justice comes in, because that's the most important thing about the way in which we treat one another. We will not kill him, we will not steal from him and we will not lie about him. We will abide by the commandments. The commandments, as God, himself, repeatedly says through the later prophets, are already written on the hearts of human beings.
NARRATOR: By associating the belief in one god with moral behavior, the Ten Commandments establishes a code of morality and justice for all, the ideal of Western civilization.
Despite Josiah's reforms, the ancient Israelites continue to worship other gods. Their acceptance of one god and the triumph of monotheism begins with a series of events vividly attested through archaeology, ancient texts and the Bible. It starts with the destruction of Yahweh's earthly dwelling, Jerusalem Temple. In 586 B.C., after defeating the Assyrians, a new Mesopotamian empire invades Israel: the Babylonians ransack the Temple and systematically burn the sacred city.
Before his eyes, the Babylonian victors slay the sons of Zedekiah, the last Davidic king, then blind him. The covenant—the promise made by Yahweh to his chosen people and to David that his dynasty would rule eternally in Jerusalem—is broken. After 400 years, Israel is wiped out.
ERIC M. MEYERS (Duke University): The destruction of Jerusalem created one of the most significant theological crises in the history of the Jewish people.
NARRATOR: The Babylonians round up the Israelite priests, prophets and scribes, and drag them in chains to Babylon. Babylonian records confirm the presence of Israelites, including the king, in exile.
WILLIAM DEVER: In every age of disbelief, one is inclined to think God is dead. And surely those who survived the fall of Jerusalem must have thought so. After all, how could God allow his temple, his house, the visible sign of his presence among his people to be destroyed?
NARRATOR: Without temple, king or land, how can the Israelites survive? Their journey begins with the ancient scrolls, which, some scholars speculate, were rescued from the flames of the destruction.
MICHAEL COOGAN: Among the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon were priests from the Temple, and they seem to have brought with them their sacred documents, their sacred traditions.
NARRATOR: According to the widely accepted Documentary Hypothesis, it is here in Babylon, far from their homes in Israel, that priests and scribes will produce much of the Hebrew Bible, as it is known today. Scholars refer to these writers as P, or the priestly source.
MICHAEL COOGAN: It was P who took all of these earlier traditions, the J source, the E source, the D source and other sources, as well, and combined them into what we know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
NARRATOR: But more than just compiling, P edits and writes a version of Israel's distant past—including the Abraham story—that provides a way for the Israelites to remain a people and maintain their covenant with God.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Genesis 17:11): You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
SHAYE COHEN: When Genesis 17 attributes a covenantal value to circumcision, it's not really talking about Abraham. It is really talking about the exiles of the sixth century B.C.E., who, far from their native home, were desperately trying to find a way to reaffirm their difference. Therefore they began to look at circumcision as, not simply another practice, but rather as the marker of the covenant and they attributed this view back to Abraham.
NARRATOR: To the exiles, the Babylonians are the new Canaanites, the idol-worshipping, uncircumcised peoples, from whom they must remain apart.
But the Abraham story, with its harrowing tale of a father's willingness to sacrifice his own son, is also about the power of faith. It is no coincidence that the exiled P scribes place Abraham's origins in Ur, just down the river from Babylon. Perhaps with the same faith as Abraham had, so, too, will the exiles be returned to the Promised Land.
MICHAEL COOGAN: One of the pervasive themes in the Torah is the theme of exile and return: Abraham goes down to Egypt and comes out of Egypt; the Israelites go to Egypt and get out. For the exiles in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., that theme must have resonated very powerfully. God, who had acted on their behalf in the past, will presumably do so again.
NARRATOR: The Israelites still have a problem. How, in a foreign land without the Temple and sacrifice, can they redeem themselves in the eyes of Yahweh?
MICHAEL COOGAN: To assure that divine protection, the P tradition emphasizes observances, such as the Sabbath observance. You don't need to be in the land of Israel to keep the Sabbath.
ERIC MEYERS: And we have allusions in the biblical writings and the prophets to the fact that the exiles also learned to pray in groups, in what was to become the forerunner of the synagogue.
SHAYE COHEN: It is during this period, through the exile, that the exiles realized that, even far away from their homeland, without a temple, without the priesthood, without kings, they are still able to worship God, be loyal to God and to follow God's commandments. This is the foundation of Judaism.
NARRATOR: The experience of the exile transforms ancient Israelite cult into a modern religion. By compiling the stories of their past—originally written by the scribes J, E and D—the exodus from slavery to freedom, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Abraham's journey to the promised land, P creates what we know today as the first five books of the Bible.
Though this theory is widely accepted, physical evidence of any biblical text from the exile or earlier is hard to come by.
The most celebrated surviving biblical texts are the Dead Sea Scrolls. First discovered by accident, in 1947, the scrolls represent nearly all 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, at least in fragments. They survived because they were deposited in the perfect environment for preservation, the hot, dry desert. Archaeologists suspect there were at least hundreds more scrolls throughout Israel, but because they were written on papyrus or animal skins, they have long since decomposed.
JODI MAGNESS (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): Even though the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls date to the third and second centuries B.C., that doesn't mean that they're the first copies or examples of this work that were ever written. It means they already stand in a line of tradition that had been established by the time the scrolls were written.
NARRATOR: Still, the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls dates to at least 300 years after the Babylonian exile. In the absence of proof of earlier text, some scholars claim the entire Bible is pious fiction and even doubt whether Israel and the Israelites ever existed.
WILLIAM DEVER: For many of the revisionists, these extreme skeptics, there was no ancient Israel, Israel is an intellectual construct. In other words, these people were not rethinking their past, they were inventing their past. They had no past, so the Bible is a myth, a foundation myth, told to legitimate a people who had no legitimacy.
NARRATOR: The legitimacy of the Israelite past hinges on finding a piece of evidence to prove the ancient origins of the Bible.
What would be the discovery of a lifetime, starts outside the walls of Jerusalem, in an old cemetery.
GABRIEL BARKAY: We came here and excavated seven of these burial caves. The burial caves date back to the seventh century B.C., somewhere around the time of King Josiah. But the caves were found looted, so we didn't anticipate too much.
NARRATOR: Gabriel Barkay instructed a 13-year-old volunteer to clean up a tomb for photographs.
GABRIEL BARKAY: Instead of that, he was bored, he was alone, and he had a hammer, and he began banging on the floor.
NARRATOR: But the floor turned out to be a fallen ceiling, and beneath it were some artifacts that had escaped the looters.
Among the hundreds of grave goods, one artifact stood out.
GABRIEL BARKAY: It looked like a cigarette butt. It was cylindrical, about an inch in size, about half an inch in diameter, and it was very clear it is made of silver. It was some kind of a tiny scroll.
NARRATOR: A second, slightly smaller scroll was also found and both were taken to the labs at the Israel Museum. But unraveling the scrolls to see if they contain a readable inscription could risk destroying them completely.
Andy Vaughn was one of the epigraphers on the project.
ANDREW G. VAUGHN (American Schools of Oriental Research): Archaeology is basically a destructive science. In order to learn anything, you have to destroy what's there. Gabriel Barkay and his team had to make a decision: does one unroll these amulets or does one preserve them? They decided that it was worth the risk, and hindsight would tell us that they could not have been more correct.
NARRATOR: Through painstaking conservation, technicians devised a special method for unrolling the scrolls and revealing their contents.
GABRIEL BARKAY: I went over there, and I was amazed to see the whole thing full of very delicately scratched, very shallow characters.
The first word that I could decipher already, on the spot, was YHWH, which is the four-letter, unpronounceable name of God.
NARRATOR: Further investigation revealed more text and a surprisingly familiar prayer, still said in synagogues and churches to this day.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Numbers 6:24–26): May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
ANDY VAUGHN: There is no doubt at all that these two amulets contain the Priestly Benediction found in Numbers, 6. These inscriptions are thus very important because they are the earliest references we have to the written biblical narratives.
GABRIEL BARKAY: The archaeological context was very clear, because it was found together with pottery dating back to the seventh century B.C. Also, the paleography, the shape of letters, points towards somewhere in the seventh century B.C., beyond any doubt.
NARRATOR: The silver scrolls with the Priestly Benediction predate the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years. It is an amazing find, proving that at least some verses of the Bible were written in ancient times, during the reign of King David's descendents.
By giving us text from before the Babylonian exile, the silver scrolls confirm that the Hebrew Bible is created from poetry, oral traditions and prayers that go back to the time of Josiah's D writer and likely beyond, to writers E and J.
As modern scholars suspect, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, takes its final form during the Babylonian exile. But dwarfed by the mighty temples and giant statues of Babylonian gods, the Israelites must also confront the fundamental question: why did their God, Yahweh, forsake them?
MICHAEL COOGAN: In the ancient world, if your country was destroyed by another country, it meant that their gods were more powerful than your god. And the natural thing to do is to worship the more powerful god, but the survivors continued to worship Yahweh and struggled to understand how this could have happened.
PETER MACHINIST: They resort first to a standard form of explanation, which is found elsewhere in the ancient Near East: "We must have done something wrong to incur the wrath of our God."
WILLIAM DEVER: It's out of this that comes the reflection that polytheism was our downfall; there is, after all, only one God.
NARRATOR: The Israelites abandon the folly of polytheism, monotheism triumphs, and the archaeological evidence proves it.
EPHRAIM STERN (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Before the destruction of the First Temple, wherever we dig, in whatever part of the Judean country, we find sanctuaries, and, more often, we find hundreds and thousands of figurines, even in Jerusalem itself.
NARRATOR: But after the destruction there are none.
EPHRAIM STERN: We are speaking about thousands before and nothing—completely nothing at all—after.
LEE LEVINE: Monotheism is well-ensconced, firmly ensconced, so something major happened which is very hard to trace. But that was a searing experience, that time in the exile.
NARRATOR: Through the experience of the exile and writing the Bible, the concept of God, as it is known today, is born.
KYLE MCCARTER: In a way, P created something that was much greater, because it was greater than any individual land or kingdom. It was a kind of universal religion based on a creator god, not just a god of a single nation, but the God of the world, the God of the universe.
CAROL MEYERS: This moves Yahweh into the realm of being a universal deity who has the power to affect what happens in the whole universe. This makes the god of ancient Israel the universal God of the world that resonates with people—at least in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition—to this very day.
NARRATOR: In 539 B.C., the Babylonian empire is toppled by the Persians. As written in the Bible, Yahweh, in his new role as the one invisible God, orchestrates a new exodus. Among one group of returning exiles is the prophet Ezra. Back in Jerusalem, he gives a public reading of the newly written Torah to reestablish the covenant.
VOICEOVER (Reading from the Bible "Revised Standard Version," Nehemiah 8:1–3): All the people gathered together...They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel...He read from it...from early morning until midday...and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
ERIC MEYERS: To me, it's one of the most moving moments in the whole Bible. Ezra returns with the Bible in his hand, so we have the feeling that the process begun in the exile is finally finished, and Ezra has a copy.
NARRATOR: The scrolls that chronicle the Israelites' relationship with their god is now the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, a sacred text for over three billion people. Through its writing, an ancient cult becomes a modern religion, and the Israelite deity, Yahweh, transforms into the God of the three great monotheistic religions.
Through its teachings, the Bible established a code of morality and justice, aspirations that resonate through the ages. More than fact or fiction, at the intersection of science and scriptures, is a story that began over 3,000 years ago and continues to this day.
On NOVA's Bible's Buried Secrets Web site, share your thoughts on the program, ask questions of biblical scholars, explore a timeline of archeology and more. Find it on PBS.org.
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The Foundation of Judaism
When did Judaism as we know it today—devoted to one God and the teachings of the Torah—really take root? How did the religious practices of the earliest Israelites differ from Judaism? In the following interview, Shaye Cohen, the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University and author of The Beginnings of Jewishness, addresses these and other questions.
Editor's note: Shaye Cohen, like other academic scholars, uses the term B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of B.C. (Before Christ).
The forefather of the Jews
Q: Was Abraham the first Jew?
Shaye Cohen: The biblical narrative gets going with Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. Abraham in turn Isaac, in turn Jacob, in turn Joseph and the twelve tribes, this brings us directly to the people of Israel and the covenant at Sinai. So Abraham is thought of as the first Jew, the archetype.
Historically speaking, of course, this doesn't make much sense. It's hard to talk about Jews living around the year 1800 B.C.E. or anytime near that. We don't have any of the institutions, beliefs, social structures in place that will later characterize Jews and Jewishness. So in a mythic kind of way we can say that Abraham recognizes God and that Abraham launches the process—biological and social and cultural—that will culminate in the people of Israel, who in turn will become Jews and the purveyors of Judaism. But to call Abraham Jewish simplifies things very dramatically.
Q: In terms of things that characterize being Jewish today, where does Abraham stand?
Cohen: In modern terms, the Jewishness of Abraham fundamentally consists of belief. He communicates with God, and God communicates with him. Now, the rabbis of old imagined that Abraham observed the whole Torah, that Abraham observed all the commandments: He observed the Sabbath, he observed the festivals, he observed the laws of culture and food. He observed everything, not just circumcision, which is attributed to him explicitly in Genesis, but everything else as well. Because how can you imagine our forefather Abraham, the founder of Judaism, not observing the Jewish rules, not observing the Jewish laws? This is a wonderful anachronism, a charming conceit. But historically speaking, how could it be?
Q: Does Abraham discover monotheism?
Cohen: Is Abraham the founder of monotheism? The texts in Genesis simply have Abraham talking to God and God talking to Abraham, that's it. Later Jews could not imagine such events without explaining more fully how it was that Abraham came to recognize God and why it was that God chose Abraham. And one of the most famous of these stories recounts how Abraham, the philosopher, sits and contemplates the natural order and realizes that there must be a first cause, that everything has a purpose. And behind the world that we can perceive, there must be some force that we cannot perceive but whose existence we can infer. That's how Abraham came to believe in God. And he went home to his father, Terah, who in the story is an idol maker, and Abraham then smashed all of his father's idols. And numerous Jewish children are convinced to this day that the story is found in the book of Genesis and are always shocked and amazed to discover that it isn't.
So is Abraham the founder of monotheism? Ancient Jewish storytellers thought the answer was yes, and following them Christian storytellers thought the same. However, reading historically, we realize monotheism is a very difficult and elusive concept to define. Again, it's far too simple to say that Abraham discovers monotheism.
Q: Does the Abraham account in Genesis have a central message, a central purpose?
Cohen: It teaches sacred values, sacred ideas—how to relate to God, to have faith in God. It's also simply a story about our founders. We humans are always curious to know about where we come from. All cultures have stories about their founders or great figures of the past. So here, too, we have stories about our great founder figure, Abraham, who sets the process going that makes us who we are, we meaning the people of Israel, the covenantal people.
Q: Let's talk about the idea of the covenant. Tell us more about its importance.
Cohen: One of the main ideas of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the people of Israel relate to God through a covenant. Now, this is a very remarkable idea, and as far as I know, it's unparalleled anywhere else in the ancient world. This covenant establishes what we might call an invented relationship as opposed to a natural relationship. The Greeks have a natural relationship with their gods. The Babylonians have a natural relationship with their gods. The Egyptians, too. Not so ancient Israel. God enters into a contractual relationship with the people of Israel, they accept this relationship, and in turn they receive a land from God. This is really a remarkable idea.
"The Exile from Judah to Babylon was a major moment in the emergence of the Jewish religion."
Q: One sign of the covenant is circumcision, right? Where does this idea come from? As you mentioned, the Bible says that Abraham is circumcised.
Cohen: Yes. Genesis 17 is the chapter that spells out, repeatedly, that circumcision is the sign of the covenant. Circumcision is the mark of the covenant between God and Israel embodied on the male Jew. The key question is, where does this idea in Genesis 17 come from?
Modern scholars, of course, are not sure. For the believer, the answer is simple: God commanded Abraham, and ever since circumcision has been the mark of the covenant. For the academic historian, the answer is more complicated, because we are not sure that God gave this command to Abraham. We historians imagine this may have been a later development that was projected back onto Abraham as a founding figure of the people of Israel. But we don't know precisely when this development took place.
Q: Does it relate somehow to the Babylonian Exile [586-539 B.C.E.], after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple?
Cohen: Many modern scholars have argued that circumcision takes on its role as a marker of Israeliteness or a marker of Jewishness only in the time of the Babylonian Exile. Here, without a temple, far from their homeland, Israelites would have been looking for symbols of difference.
Circumcision is something that Israelites may have been doing for centuries. It was a common ancient practice among many peoples in the Near East. But the Babylonians are not circumcised. The Israelites may realize that circumcision is something that will set them apart from their neighbors in Babylon, something that will help them retain their distinctiveness even in diaspora, in exile, far from their home, and far from their institutions and the way of life that they had known previously.
In this context, circumcision and perhaps other ritual practices will take on meaning as markers of identity, clear ways of indicating who is in and who is out, who is a member of the covenantal people. This is a very attractive scholarly view. The only problem with it is that it isn't possible to prove.
The emergence of Judaism
Q: Is there consensus among biblical scholars that the Exile was a critical time in the formation of Jewish identity?
Cohen: The Exile from Judah to Babylon was a major moment in the emergence of the Jewish religion. On this point, there can be no doubt. There is a great deal of discussion about the details, but the larger point stands beyond any doubt.
The remarkable thing is that the Judeans return from the Exile. Not all of them. Most of them, in fact, didn't return. But some of them did. They rebuild their Temple. They try to recreate life as it had been before. We don't know of any other exiled people from this period who returned from exile to reestablish traditional institutions and modes of worship. But the Judeans did. So somehow, for 70 years or more, they managed to retain their identity, retain their religion and their values strongly enough to motivate them to return and try to start over.
Q: So was this the period when Judaism as we know it was established?
Cohen: We see the emergence of something we might begin to call Judaism. How so? We have the creation of diaspora Jewish communities, communities living outside the land of Israel with a clear Jewish identity. We have not seen that before. We have the emergence of the Torah and the idea that all Israelites are united by a single public book that all Israelites are to study and whose commandments all Israelites are to observe. We find the emergence of the ideology that we Israelites are to remain distinct from our non-Israelite neighbors. We may not intermarry with them. Many scholars argue that we have the beginnings of public prayer during this period, the earliest versions of the synagogue. I'm not convinced that this is so, but if it is so, it's yet another sign that we have the beginnings of Judaism.
The experience of the Babylonian Exile is the mother of Judaism. It is during this period that the Judeans realize that they can be loyal to God even far away from their homeland. Without a temple, without the priesthood, without kings, without all the institutional trappings they had enjoyed in the old days—without any of that—they are still able to worship God, be loyal to God and to follow God's commandments. This is the foundation of Judaism.
"The Israelites had long debated how to understand God's place in the world. Is God the only god?"
Q: You say that the Torah is a product of the Exile, but was it entirely written in this period?
Cohen: No. Most modern scholars agree that the Torah more or less attained shape in the Exilic Period and the period of the return. We do not mean that the Torah was written from scratch at that point. It was obviously not. Clearly in earlier centuries there were stories, laws, genealogies that were circulating, perhaps in written form. But it is this period, the 5th century B.C.E., when these diverse strands were woven together to create a single book, or in this case, a five-part book, the Torah.
Guided by Scripture, devoted to one God
Q: What are the main differences between Israelite religion and Judaism?
Cohen: How do we contrast Israelite religion with Judaism? We can do it in a number of different ways. We can begin institutionally: Israelite religion has a temple; Judaism has a synagogue. Israelite religion has priests; Judaism has sages or rabbis. Israelite religion has animal sacrifice; Judaism has prayer. Israelite religion is located primarily in the homeland of Israel; Judaism is found in any land. Israelite religion has prophets; in Judaism, prophecy has ceased.
Israelite religion has sacred interpreters, but it's only Judaism that has sacred interpreters, sages, studying a sacred text. And the sacred text is meant to be the property of the entire community. This is a sign of Judaism, not a sign of Israelite religion. Israelite religion, theologically speaking, believes that God rewards and punishes in this world. Judaism develops theories of reward and punishment in the hereafter.
These are some of the contrasts between Israelite religion and Judaism, and the transition from one to another is not an event; it's a process that will take centuries, and the Babylonian Exile and the restoration in the 5th century B.C.E. are important moments in that process.
Q: Is it also in this period, the Exile, when the Israelites come to understand their god as the one God, the universal God?
Cohen: The Israelites had long debated among themselves how to understand God's place in the world. Is God the only god? Is God the chief god of gods? Is God simply our god, and other people have their gods? Some Israelites thought, it's perfectly fine to worship the God of Israel and worship some other gods too, especially gods of neighboring peoples. Other Israelites argued vociferously that this is completely forbidden. Some Israelites thought it was fine to use images, other Israelites thought it wasn't.
The view that triumphs, of course, is that there is only one God. The gods of other nations, if they exist, are entirely subordinate to this one God. This one God is God of the entire world, the entire universe—the creator of everything that we see and all that is within it. This view clearly has roots back in ancient Israelite times, but it comes to the fore in the time of the Exile.
Interview conducted in September 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA Online
Archeology of the Hebrew Bible
William Dever, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona, has investigated the archeology of the ancient Near East for more than 30 years and authored almost as many books on the subject. In the following conversation with Gary Glassman, producer of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," Dever describes some of the most significant archeological finds related to the Hebrew Bible, including his own hot-button discovery that the Israelites' God was linked to a female goddess called Asherah.
Editor's note: William Dever, like other academic scholars, uses the term B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) insted of B.C. (Before Christ).
Proving the Bible
Q: Have biblical archeologists traditionally tried to find evidence that events in the Bible really happened?
William Dever: From the beginnings of what we call biblical archeology, perhaps 150 years ago, scholars, mostly western scholars, have attempted to use archeological data to prove the Bible. And for a long time it was thought to work. [William Foxwell] Albright, the great father of our discipline, often spoke of the "archeological revolution." Well, the revolution has come but not in the way that Albright thought. The truth of the matter today is that archeology raises more questions about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament than it provides answers, and that's very disturbing to some people.
But perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. I have always thought that if we resurrected someone from the past, one of the biblical writers, they would be amused, because for them it would have made no difference. I think they would have said, faith is faith is faith—take your proofs and go with them.
The fact is that archeology can never prove any of the theological suppositions of the Bible. Archeologists can often tell you what happened and when and where and how and even why. No archeologists can tell anyone what it means, and most of us don't try.
Q: Yet many people want to know whether the events of the Bible are real, historic events.
Dever: We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That's a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.
The Bible is didactic literature; it wants to teach, not just to describe. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that's doing an injustice to the biblical writers. They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.
I like to point out to my undergraduate students that the Bible is not history; it's his story—Yahweh's story, God's story. [Yahweh is an ancient Israelite name for God.]
Q: Even if archeology can't prove events of the Bible, can it enhance our understanding of the Bible?
Dever: Archeology is almost the only way that we have for reconstructing a real-life context for the world out of which the Bible came, and that does bring understanding. When you think of how little we knew about the biblical world even 100 years ago and what we know today, it's astonishing.
The faith of Abraham
Q: According to the Bible, the first person to form a covenant with God is Abraham. He is the great patriarch. Is there archeological evidence for Abraham?
Dever: One of the first efforts of biblical archeology in the last century was to prove the historicity of the patriarchs, to locate them in a particular period in the archeological history. Today I think most archeologists would argue that there is no direct archeological proof that Abraham, for instance, ever lived. We do know a lot about pastoral nomads, we know about the Amorites' migrations from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and it's possible to see in that an Abraham-like figure somewhere around 1800 B.C.E. But there's no direct connection.
"It disturbs some people that, for the very early periods, we archeologists haven't much to say."
Are we to become unbelievers if we can't prove that Abraham ever lived? What is the story about? It's a story about freedom and faith and risk. Does it matter exactly how Abraham and his clan left, and when they arrived in Canaan, or where they settled? What really matters is that Abraham is seen later by Jews and Christians as the father of the faithful.
Abraham moves out on faith to a land he has never seen. You have to think of how perilous the journey would have been had it really taken place. We are talking about a journey of several hundred miles around the fringes of the desert. So it's an astonishing story. Is it true? It is profoundly true, but it's not the kind of truth that archeology can directly illuminate.
Q: Why is it difficult for archeologists to find support for the accounts of the patriarchs?
Dever: It disturbs some people that, for the very early periods such as the so-called patriarchal period, we archeologists haven't much to say. The later we come in time, the firmer the ground we stand on—we have better sources. We have more written sources. We have more contemporary eyewitness sources.
For the earlier periods, we don't have any texts. Abraham might have lived around 1800 B.C.E. This is the dawn of written history or prehistory, when the archeological evidence can't easily be correlated with any external evidence, textual evidence—even if we did have it.
Evidence of the early Israelites
Q: The Bible chronology puts Moses much later in time, around 1450 B.C.E. Is there archeological evidence for Moses and the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Israelites described in the Bible?
Dever: We have no direct archeological evidence. "Moses" is an Egyptian name. Some of the other names in the narratives are Egyptian, and there are genuine Egyptian elements. But no one has found a text or an artifact in Egypt itself or even in the Sinai that has any direct connection. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. But I think it does mean what happened was rather more modest. And the biblical writers have enlarged the story.
Q: Is there mention of the Israelites anywhere in ancient Egyptian records?
Dever: No Egyptian text mentions the Israelites except the famous inscription of Merneptah dated to about 1206 B.C.E. But those Israelites were in Canaan; they are not in Egypt, and nothing is said about them escaping from Egypt.
Q: Tell us more about the Merneptah inscription. Why is it so famous?
Dever: It's the earliest reference we have to the Israelites. The victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, mentions a list of peoples and city-states in Canaan, and among them are the Israelites. And it's interesting that the other entities, the other ethnic groups, are described as nascent states, but the Israelites are described as "a people." They have not yet reached a level of state organization.
So the Egyptians, a little before 1200 B.C.E., know of a group of people somewhere in the central highlands—a loosely affiliated tribal confederation, if you will—called "Israelites." These are our Israelites. So this is a priceless inscription.
Q: Does archeology back up the information in the Merneptah inscription? Is there evidence of the Israelites in the central highlands of Canaan at this time?
Dever: We know today, from archeological investigation, that there were more than 300 early villages of the 13th and 12th century in the area. I call these "proto-Israelite" villages.
Forty years ago it would have been impossible to identify the earliest Israelites archeologically. We just didn't have the evidence. And then, in a series of regional surveys, Israeli archeologists in the 1970s began to find small hilltop villages in the central hill country north and south of Jerusalem and in lower Galilee. Now we have almost 300 of them.
The origins of Israel
Q: What have archeologists learned from these settlements about the early Israelites? Are there signs that the Israelites came in conquest, taking over the land from Canaanites?
Dever: The settlements were founded not on the ruins of destroyed Canaanite towns but rather on bedrock or on virgin soil. There was no evidence of armed conflict in most of these sites. Archeologists also have discovered that most of the large Canaanite towns that were supposedly destroyed by invading Israelites were either not destroyed at all or destroyed by "Sea People"—Philistines, or others.
So gradually the old conquest model [based on the accounts of Joshua's conquests in the Bible] began to lose favor amongst scholars. Many scholars now think that most of the early Israelites were originally Canaanites, displaced Canaanites, displaced from the lowlands, from the river valleys, displaced geographically and then displaced ideologically.
So what we are dealing with is a movement of peoples but not an invasion of an armed corps from the outside. A social and economic revolution, if you will, rather than a military revolution. And it begins a slow process in which the Israelites distinguish themselves from their Canaanite ancestors, particularly in religion—with a new deity, new religious laws and customs, new ethnic markers, as we would call them today.
"It's interesting that in these hundreds of 12th-century settlements there are no temples, no palaces, no elite residences."
Q: If the Bible's story of Joshua's conquest isn't entirely historic, what is its meaning?
Dever: Why was it told? Well, it was told because there were probably armed conflicts here and there, and these become a part of the story glorifying the career of Joshua, commander in chief of the Israelite forces. I suspect that there is a historical kernel, and there are a few sites that may well have been destroyed by these Israelites, such as Hazor in Galilee, or perhaps a site or two in the south.
Q: Were the people who became Israelites in some sense not "the chosen people" but rather "the choosing people"—choosing to be free of their Canaanite past?
Dever: Some liberation theologians and some archeologists have argued that early Israel was a kind of revolutionary social movement. These were people rebelling against their corrupt Canaanite overlords. In my recent book on early Israel I characterize the Israelite movement as an agrarian social reform. These are pioneers in the hill country who are fleeing the urban centers, the old Canaanite cities, which are in a process of collapse. And in particular they are throwing off the yoke of their Canaanite and Egyptian overlords. They are declaring independence.
Now, why these people were willing to take such a risk, colonizing the hill country frontier, is very difficult to know. I think there were social and economic compulsions, but I would be the first to say I think it was probably also a new religious vision.
Q: Was this an egalitarian movement?
Dever: Some have argued that early Israel was an egalitarian society, that there was no social stratification. I'm not sure any society was ever really egalitarian, but there is a sort of egalitarianism in the Hebrew Bible: "Every man under his own fig tree, equal in the eyes of Yahweh." It's interesting that in these hundreds of 12th-century settlements there are no temples, no palaces, no elite residences, no monumental architecture of any kind. These are farming villages in which every household is independent. I think there is a kind of primitive democracy in early Israel, which is enshrined in the vision of the good life in the Hebrew Bible.
Q: And these settlements grow, right?
Dever: Yes. These settlements are very different from the urban centers of the earlier 13th century. Something new is in the air, and I think this explains why other people join this movement. These villages will develop into the towns and the cities of the later state of Israel.
A United Monarchy
Q: When did Israel become a state?
Dever: According to the biblical scheme of events, there was a United Monarchy for about a hundred years in the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. Then a civil war brought about the division of the country into Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom. Now, some skeptics today have argued that there was no such thing as a United Monarchy. In short, there was no David.
However, in 1993 an inscription was found at Tel Dan. It mentions a dynasty of David. And on the Mesha stone found in the last century in Moab there is also a probable reference to David. So there is textual evidence outside the Bible for these kings of the United Monarchy, at least David.
Most of us mainstream archeologists also have now dated a series of monumental royal constructions to the 10th century—the famous gates at Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer. And we have in the Bible, in First Kings 9:15-17, the famous description of Solomon's construction of gates of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. So I would argue for a 10th-century United Monarchy.
Q: The Bible describes it as a glorious kingdom stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Does archeology back up these descriptions?
Dever: The stories of Solomon are larger than life. According to the stories, Solomon imported 100,000 workers from what is now Lebanon. Well, the whole population of Israel probably wasn't 100,000 in the 10th century. Everything Solomon touched turned to gold. In the minds of the biblical writers, of course, David and Solomon are ideal kings chosen by Yahweh. So they glorify them.
Now, archeology can't either prove or disprove the stories. But I think most archeologists today would argue that the United Monarchy was not much more than a kind of hill-country chiefdom. It was very small-scale.
Q: Does archeology in Jerusalem itself reveal anything about the Kingdom of David and Solomon?
Dever: We haven't had much of an opportunity to excavate in Jerusalem. It's a living city, not an archeological site. But we have a growing collection of evidence—monumental buildings that most of us would date to the 10th century, including the new so-called Palace of David. Having seen it with the excavator, it is certainly monumental. Whether it's a palace or an administrative center or a combination of both or a kind of citadel remains to be seen.
The Israelites' many gods
Q: The Bible would have us think that all Israelites embraced monotheism relatively early, from Moses's time on. Is that contrary to what archeology has found?
Dever: The portrait of Israelite religion in the Hebrew Bible is the ideal, the ideal in the minds of those few who wrote the Bible—the elites, the Yahwists, the monotheists. But it's not the ideal for most people. And archeology deals with the ordinary, forgotten folk of ancient Israel who have no voice in the Bible. There is a wonderful phrase in Daniel Chapter 12: "For all those who sleep in the dust." Archeology brings them to light and allows them to speak. And most of them were not orthodox believers.
However, we should have guessed already that polytheism was the norm and not monotheism from the biblical denunciations of it. It was real and a threat as far as those who wrote the Bible were concerned. And today archeology has illuminated what we could call "folk religion" in an astonishing manner.
"The so-called folk religion even penetrated the Temple in Jerusalem."
Q: One of the astonishing things is your discovery of Yahweh's connection to Asherah. Tell us about that.
Dever: In 1968, I discovered an inscription in a cemetery west of Hebron, in the hill country, at the site of Khirbet el-Qôm, a Hebrew inscription of the 8th century B.C.E. It gives the name of the deceased, and it says "blessed may he be by Yahweh"—that's good biblical Hebrew—but it says "by Yahweh and his Asherah."
Asherah is the name of the old Canaanite Mother Goddess, the consort of El, the principal deity of the Canaanite pantheon. So why is a Hebrew inscription mentioning Yahweh in connection with the Canaanite Mother Goddess? Well, in popular religion they were a pair.
The Israelite prophets and reformers denounce the Mother Goddess and all the other gods and goddesses of Canaan. But I think Asherah was widely venerated in ancient Israel. If you look at Second Kings 23, which describes the reforms of King Josiah in the late 7th century, he talks about purging the Temple of all the cult paraphernalia of Asherah. So the so-called folk religion even penetrated the Temple in Jerusalem.
Q: Is there other evidence linking Asherah to Yahweh?
Dever: In the 1970s, Israeli archeologists digging in Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai found a little desert fort of the same period, and lo and behold, we have "Yahweh and Asherah" all over the place in the Hebrew inscriptions.
Q: Are there any images of Asherah?
Dever: For a hundred years now we have known of little terracotta female figurines. They show a nude female; the sexual organs are not represented but the breasts are. They are found in tombs, they are found in households, they are found everywhere. There are thousands of them. They date all the way from the 10th century to the early 6th century.
They have long been connected with one goddess or another, but many scholars are still hesitant to come to a conclusion. I think they are representations of Asherah, so I call them Asherah figurines.
Q: There aren't such representations of Yahweh, are there?
Dever: No. Now, why is it that you could model the female deity but not the male deity? Well, I think the First and Second Commandments by now were taken pretty seriously. You just don't portray Yahweh, the male deity, but the Mother Goddess is okay. But his consort is probably a lesser deity.
We found molds for making Asherah figurines, mass-producing them, in village shrines. So probably almost everybody had one of these figurines, and they surely have something to do with fertility. They were no doubt used to pray for conceiving a child and bearing the child safely and nursing it. It's interesting to me that the Israelite and Judean ones are rather more modest than the Canaanite ones, which are right in your face. The Israelite and Judean ones mostly show a nursing mother.
Q: This has been something of a lightning rod, has it not?
Dever: This is awkward for some people, the notion that Israelite religion was not exclusively monotheistic. But we know now that it wasn't. Monotheism was a late development. Not until the Babylonian Exile and beyond does Israelite and Judean religion—Judaism—become monotheistic.
The improbable rise of Judaism
Q: Does archeology have evidence of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians?
Dever: When it comes to destructions that might be illuminated by archeology, none would be more important than the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of direct archeological evidence because we have never been able to excavate large areas in Jerusalem. The late Israeli archeologist Yigal Shiloh found a huge accumulation of debris on the east side of the Temple Mount, cascaded down the hill. So there is some evidence, not yet well-published. Of course, the Temple Mount has never been excavated and never will be.
That doesn't mean that that the destruction didn't take place and that it wasn't a watershed event. One would have thought at that time that it was the end of the people of Israel—with elites carried away into captivity and ordinary people impoverished. It would have seemed to have been the end, but it was rather the beginning. Because it was in exile, precisely, that those who wrote the Bible looked back, collected the archives they had, rethought it all, reformulated it, and out of that intellectual reconstruction comes early Judaism.
Q: It seems astonishing that after this defeat the Israelites could stay faithful to their god.
Dever: In every age of disbelief, one is inclined to think that God is dead. And surely those who survived the fall of Jerusalem must have thought so. After all, how could God allow his Temple, his house—the visible sign of his presence amongst his people—to be destroyed? What did we do wrong? It's out of this that comes the reflection that polytheism was our downfall. There is, after all, only one God. And this radical belief in a single God who governs history becomes the heart of Judaism.
Interview conducted in Jerusalem in July 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA Online
Writers of the Bible
Biblical scholars since the 17th century have pointed to evidence that human writers, and in fact a number of different writers, composed the Bible. Mainstream Jewish and Christian organizations, including seminaries and rabbinical schools, generally embrace such scholarship—seeing the voice of God in a text compiled by human hands. In the following interview, Michael Coogan, Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College and Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, offers insights into how scholars today understand how the first five books of the Bible were written.
An anthology of sacred texts
Q: Most people may see the Bible as a single text, but is it?
Michael Coogan: One way of thinking about the Bible is that it's like an anthology of literature made over the course of many centuries by different people. Think of an analogy: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which covers over a thousand years, from Beowulf into the 20th century. The Bible covers a similar span. The earliest texts in the Bible likely date to before 1000 B.C., and the latest texts go at least to the 2nd century B.C., and for Christians, into the 2nd century A.D. So it is an anthology of the literature of ancient Israel and early Judaism, and for Christians, of earliest Christianity, as well.
Like any anthology, it's selective. There were many other texts that the ancient Israelites and early Christians produced that we no longer have. We have reference in the Book of Numbers, for instance, to the Book of the Wars of Yahweh. Yahweh was the name of the God of Israel. And it must have been a wonderful book, but all we have is a kind of learned footnote.
Q: If it's an anthology, what ties the Bible together?
Coogan: More than anything else, the Bible is an account of the actions of God in the world from creation, and especially his dealings with humans, and especially with a certain subset of humans, the ancient Israelites. So it's really the story of God acting in history.
Q: Do you think it has a central theme?
Coogan: That's a difficult question to answer. I think the central message is that there is a God who is deeply and passionately involved in human history, from the scope of empires to the details of an individual's life. Within that larger framework, one of the major themes of the Bible is that of covenant. In Christian tradition, the two parts of the Bible are the Old and New Testaments, and "testament" is just an archaic word for covenant.
Q: Was the Israelites' idea of a having a covenant with God unusual?
Coogan: Well, the word "covenant" in Hebrew, berit, really means contract. It's used in the Bible to describe all sorts of secular agreements. It's used for treaties between one king and another. It's used for marriage. It's used in debt slavery, in which someone would pay off a debt by agreeing to work for someone. Contracts like that are known throughout the ancient world.
The biblical writers used this legal metaphor to describe the relationship between God and Israel, and God and various individuals within the ancient Israelite community. And that seems unique. No other ancient people used that metaphor to describe their relationship with their god or gods.
The Five Books of Moses
Q: The first five books of the Bible, which Jews know as the Torah, are also called The Five Books of Moses. Where did the idea that Moses wrote these books come from?
Coogan: In the Hebrew Bible, Moses is the single most important human character, and more space is devoted to the account of Moses' life and speeches by Moses than to anyone else in the Bible. Moses is also considered closer to God than anyone else in the Bible. And certainly by the 5th century B.C., the idea developed that Moses had written down words that God himself had spoken on Mt. Sinai. Eventually—and this didn't happen until several centuries later—it came to be understood that Moses wrote all of the first five books of the Bible.
Q: What were some clues that led biblical scholars to question this belief?
Coogan: The view that Moses had personally written down the first five books of the Bible was virtually unchallenged until the 17th century. There were a few questions raised before that. For example, the very end of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, describes the death and burial of Moses. So some rabbis said Moses couldn't have written those words himself because he was dead—perhaps Joshua, his divinely designated successor, wrote those words. But other rabbis said, no, Moses was a prophet, and God revealed to him exactly what would happen at the end of his life.
"Underlying the Bible are several different ancient documents or sources, which biblical writers and editors combined at various stages into the Torah."
It wasn't until the 17th century, with the rise of critical thinking in many disciplines—in science, in philosophy, and others—that people began to look at the Bible not just as a sacred text but as they would look at any other book. And they began to notice in the pages of the first five books of the Bible a lot of issues that didn't seem consistent with the idea that Moses was their author. For example, Moses never speaks in the first person; Moses doesn't say, "I went up on Mt. Sinai." There are also a lot of repetitions—the same stories told from different perspectives. And there are also many, many inconsistencies; as the same stories are retold, many of the details change.
So scholars began to think not just that Moses was not the author, but that ordinary men and women (mostly men) had written these pages.
Q: What are some obvious inconsistencies, for instance in the Noah story?
Coogan: In the story of the flood, in Genesis chapters 6 to 9, there seem to be two accounts that have been combined, and they have a number of inconsistencies. For example, how many of each species of animals is Noah supposed to bring into the ark? One text says two, a pair of every kind of animal. Another text says seven pairs of the clean animals and only two of the unclean animals.
Q: Why would the biblical writers compiling the various accounts include such clear discrepancies?
Coogan: Even before the Bible became the Bible, even before these texts became official canonical scriptures, there was an idea of preserving ancient traditions. Preserving ancient traditions was more important than a kind of superficial consistency of plot or detail.
The Documentary Hypothesis
Q: What is the Documentary Hypothesis?
Coogan: The Documentary Hypothesis is a theory to explain the many repetitions, inconsistencies, and anachronisms in the first five books of the Bible. In its classic form, it says that underlying the Bible are several different ancient documents or sources, which biblical writers and editors combined at various stages into the Torah as we have it today.
Q: What's the earliest source?
Coogan: The earliest of these sources is the one known as J, which many scholars initially dated to the 10th century B.C., the time of David and Solomon, or perhaps a bit later, to the 9th century, after the split of the United Kingdom into the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Some scholars today, however, question that dating, placing J as late as the 4th century B.C.
Q: How did it get the name "J"?
Coogan: The J source gets its name because it uses the divine name "Yahweh." In the stories about Abraham, for instance, God is called Yahweh. The German word for Yahweh is spelled with a J instead of a Y. And the German scholars who initially worked on the Documentary Hypothesis called the source "J."
Q: People reading the Bible today in English don't come across the name Yahweh. Why is that? Tell us more about the name.
Coogan: It's a very mysterious name. In Jewish tradition it came to be considered so sacred that it was never to be pronounced. When you ran across this name in the Bible, written with its four consonants, which in English would be YHWH, you never read what that name was, you read some other word, usually a word that means "Lord." The Hebrew word is Adonai. This pious substitution became standard in Jewish tradition and also in Christian tradition. Almost all translations of the Bible say "The Lord."
It's also a mysterious name because we don't know exactly what it means. It seems to have been the personal name of the god of Israel. His title, in a sense, was God, and his name was these four letters, which we think were probably pronounced something like Yahweh.
Q: How does the Bible, in the sections that are attributed to this oldest source, J, depict Yahweh when he first appears?
Coogan: The earliest poems we have in the Bible depict the God of Israel, Yahweh, as a god who comes from the south, surrounded by an entourage of heavenly warriors who fight with him. He appears on mountains with all the accoutrements of a storm—the mountains quake, and the Earth shakes, and the clouds drop down water. He is, in effect, a storm god, like many other storm gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. J uses some of this language, and also, J describes Yahweh as a god personally involved with humans, like deities in myths of other cultures.
The E and D sources
Q: So the J source used the name Yahweh, but other sources used a different name for God. Tell us about the so-called E source.
Coogan: In Genesis, in many passages, God is called not Yahweh but Elohim. And some of these passages were identified in the Documentary Hypothesis as coming from a source called E, for Elohim. The E source is very difficult to characterize. The J source has a fairly coherent narrative, but the E source is extremely fragmentary. Some scholars even wonder if there is an E source.
In the classic understanding, the E source seems to have a northern origin, because the stories in the book of Genesis are frequently set in the northern part of Israel, in what became the northern Kingdom of Israel.
"In the Book of Deuteronomy there seems to be a new understanding of God's relationship with Israel and Israel's relationship with its God."
Q: Does E depict God differently than J does?
Coogan: Yes. In the J source, God appears directly to people. For example, he speaks directly to Abraham—he even comes to visit him and has dinner with him in his tent. In the E source, however, God is more remote. God doesn't appear in person to human beings, but God appears to them in dreams or sends messengers, later to be called angels, or sends prophets, but doesn't deal with human beings directly.
Q: What's the next source, according to the chronology of the Documentary Hypothesis?
Coogan: The third source is called D, and it takes its name from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is found almost exclusively in the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy has a very distinctive style, which is very different from that found in the earlier books of the Torah. It also has important themes that, although found earlier in the Torah, are given special emphasis in Deuteronomy, especially the insistence on the exclusive worship of the God of Israel.
Q: Is it known when this source was written?
Coogan: Many scholars think that it was written in the late 8th century B.C. It was subsequently used by King Josiah, in the late 7th century B.C., in support of his effort to unify the kingdom and to enforce religious observance.
Q: What does the Bible itself—the later books of the Bible—tell us about Josiah and his link to Deuteronomy?
Coogan: We are told in the Book of Kings that King Josiah learned that a scroll had been discovered in the temple archives. The scroll was brought to him and read out loud before him. And the narrative goes on to say that, as the scroll was being read, Josiah began to weep, because he realized that it was a sacred text containing divine commands that the people had been breaking.
After he heard the scroll read, King Josiah ordered a sweeping religious reform throughout his kingdom. And the details of that reform, as described in the Book of Kings, correspond in many details to the divine requirements in the Book of Deuteronomy.
Q: What were some of the requirements?
Coogan: Josiah required, for example, that all of the shrines to other gods and goddesses throughout the land be destroyed. He also forbade the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, at any place other than Jerusalem. The Book of Deuteronomy says, "You shall worship the Lord, your God, only at one place, at the place he will choose."
Scholars have wondered about Josiah's motivation. Was it simply his piety? Or was there a political motivation as well? By requiring that all Israelites worship Yahweh only in Jerusalem, Josiah brought under his direct control the enormous religious establishment of ancient Israel, which up until that time had been scattered in various centers of worship throughout the land.
Q: How does Deuteronomy describe Israel's relationship with God?
Coogan: In the Book of Deuteronomy there seems to be a new understanding of God's relationship with Israel and Israel's relationship with its God. One of the terms that Deuteronomy uses repeatedly is the term "love." "You should love the Lord, your God, because he has loved you. He has loved you more than any other nation." So the divine love for Israel requires a corresponding loyalty to God, an exclusive loyalty to God. And Deuteronomy, more than any other part of the Bible, is insistent that only the God of Israel is to be worshipped.
The final synthesis
Q: What events led to the last major phase of the writing of the Torah?
Coogan: In the 6th century B.C. the Babylonians invaded the Kingdom of Judah twice. In the second invasion, which began in 587 B.C. and ended in 586 B.C., they destroyed the city of Jerusalem. It was the end of a way of life. It was the end of control of the Promised Land by the descendants of Abraham for many, many centuries. It was the end of the dynasty founded by David. The Temple, which was supposed to be the only place where Yahweh was worshipped, was destroyed, and a significant part of the population was taken to exile in Babylon. It was a crisis of enormous proportion.
The great Israeli biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann said it is a watershed, it is when ancient Israel ends and Judaism begins. Amongst the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon were priests from the temple. And they seem to have brought with them their sacred documents, their sacred traditions. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, they consolidated these traditions—they edited them, and they constructed what became the first version of the Torah.
"The priests collected the ancient traditions and shaped them into the Torah."
Q: These last writers, the priestly writers, are known as P, right?
Coogan: Yes. So it was P who took all these earlier traditions—the J source, the E source, the D source, and other sources as well—and combined them into what we know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The P source, in fact, frames the Torah with its own material: The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is from the P source, and most of the last chapter of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, is also from the P source.
Q: After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the Israelites retained their faith. That seems remarkable.
Coogan: Yes. In the ancient world, if your country was destroyed by another country, it meant their gods were more powerful than yours. And the natural thing to do was to worship the more powerful god. But the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. did not give up the worship of Yahweh. They continued to worship Yahweh and struggled to understand how this could have happened.
One explanation was that they were being punished deservedly for their failure to live up to the covenant obligations. Probably one of the reasons why the priests collected the ancient traditions and shaped them into the Torah was so that these covenant obligations would not be forgotten again.
Q: So they kept the faith that, as long as they were loyal to God, God would protect them and return them one day to the Promised Land.
Coogan: Yes. One of the pervasive themes in the Torah is the theme of exile and return. Over and over again, individuals and groups leave their land only to return. Abraham goes down to Egypt and comes out of Egypt. Jacob goes to a foreign land and returns. The Israelites go to Egypt and get out. And for the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., that theme must have resonated very powerfully. God, who had acted on their behalf in the past, will presumably do so again.
To assure that divine protection, the priestly writers stress aspects of religious observance that were not tied down to the land of Israel itself, that were not attached to any particular institution such as the temple, that did not require a monarchy—all of those had ceased to exist. So the P tradition emphasizes observances such as the Sabbath observance, such as dietary observance, such as circumcision. You don't need to be in the land of Israel to keep the Sabbath. You don't need a temple or a king or a priesthood to observe the dietary laws. Any Jew anywhere in the world can do that. So the priestly tradition, writing for these exiles, was teaching them how to be faithful to the covenant.
Interview conducted in September 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA Online
Moses and the Exodus
Even people who know little about the Bible likely can recount the story of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt in an extraordinary exodus. In this interview, Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University, reflects on the significance of the Moses narrative in ancient times, the role it plays in American history, and why it continues to resonate with us today.
Editor's note: Carol Meyers, like other academic scholars, uses the term B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of B.C. (Before Christ).
Beyond fact or fiction
Q: Questions about whether or not events in the Bible really happened evoke strong passions. As a biblical scholar, how do you see the issue of historical authenticity in terms of the earliest biblical accounts—the ones for which there is little archeological evidence?
Carol Meyers: Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It's not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it's a kind of collective cultural memory.
When a group of people experience things that are extremely important to their existence as a group, they often maintain collective memories of these events over generations. And these memories are probably augmented and elaborated and maybe even ritualized as a way of maintaining their relevance.
We can understand how mnemohistory works by looking at how it operates in more recent periods. We see this, for instance, in legends about figures in American history—George Washington is a wonderful example. Legends have something historic in them but yet are developed and expanded. I think that some of the accounts of the ancestors in the book of Genesis are similar. They are exciting, important, attention-grabbing, message-bearing narratives that are developed around characters who may have played an important role in the lives of the pre-Israelite ancestors.
Q: Let's turn to one of the most vivid figures in the Bible, Moses. Who is the Moses of the Bible, and could there have been such a person?
Meyers: The Moses of the Bible is larger than life. The Moses of the Bible is a diplomat negotiating with the pharaoh; he is a lawgiver bringing the Ten Commandments, the Covenant, down from Sinai. The Moses of the Bible is a military man leading the Israelites in battles. He's the one who organizes Israel's judiciary. He's also the prophet par excellence and a quasi-priestly figure involved in offering sacrifices and setting up the priestly complex, the tabernacle. There's virtually nothing in terms of national leadership that Moses doesn't do. And, of course, he's also a person, a family man.
Now, no one individual could possibly have done all that. So the tales are a kind of aggrandizement. He is also associated with miracles—the memorable story of being found in a basket in the Nile and being saved, miraculously, to grow up in the pharaoh's household. And he dies somewhere in the mountains of Moab. Only God knows where he's buried; God is said to have buried him. This is highly unusual and, again, accords him a special place.
"It's possible that a charismatic leader, a Moses, rallied people and urged them to make the difficult and traumatic and dangerous journey."
Q: What spurs the transformation of a real person into such a legendary figure?
Meyers: We can see the Moses narratives as the products of a period of trauma. We see this at other times and places. Think about our own American history. In the difficult period of the Revolutionary War, there's a lot of trauma and turmoil. Should people fight for freedom and risk losing everything? Or should they remain dominated by European colonial powers? And one man, George Washington, emerges as a superhero, the one in whom people could put their faith, who would take them to new terrain, who would lead them to independence. If you look at the biographies of George Washington that were written before 1855, you would think he was a demigod. The mythology about him is incredible.
In some ways, we have that kind of material about Moses. The hype about him is a way of expressing the fact that people could trust his judgment. They could trust that there would be success in this highly risky venture of leaving a place where they at least had food and water and going to a place where they might not have enough food and water. But they were apparently convinced it was worth the risk, if they might eventually be able to determine the course of their own lives and to escape the tyranny of Egyptian control.
Evidence of the Exodus
Q: You and other scholars point out that there isn't evidence outside the Bible, in historic documents and the archeological record, for a mass migration from Egypt involving hundreds of thousands of people. But it may be plausible that there was a much smaller exodus, an exodus of people originally from the land of Canaan who were returning to it. Is that right?
Meyers: Yes. Despite all the ways in which the exodus narratives in the Bible seem to be non-historic, something about the overall pattern can, in fact, be related to what we know from historical sources was going on at the end of the Late Bronze Age [circa 1200 B.C.E.], around when the Bible's chronology places the story of departure from Egypt.
Now, what is the evidence? First of all, during this period there likely were a lot of people from the land of Canaan, from regions of the eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt. Sometimes they were taken there as slaves. The local kings of the city-states in Canaan would offer slaves as tribute to the pharaohs in order to remain in their good graces. This is documented in the Amarna letters discovered in Egypt. So we know that there were people taken to Egypt as slaves.
There were also traders from the eastern Mediterranean who went to Egypt for commercial reasons. And there also probably were people from Canaan who went to Egypt during periods of extended drought and famine, as is reported in the Bible for Abraham and Sarah.
So Canaanites went to Egypt for a variety of reasons. They were generally assimilated—after a generation or two they became Egyptians. There is almost no evidence that those people left. But there are one or two Egyptian documents that record the flight of a handful of people who had been brought to Egypt for one reason or other and who didn't want to stay there.
Now, there is no direct evidence that such people were connected with the exodus narrative in the Bible. But in our western historical imagination, as we try to recreate the past, it's certainly worth considering that some of them, somehow, for some reason that we can never understand, maybe because life was so difficult for them in Egypt, thought that life would be greener than in the pastures that they had left.
And it's possible that a charismatic leader, a Moses, rallied a few of those people and urged them to make the difficult and traumatic and dangerous journey across the forbidding terrain of the Sinai Peninsula, back to what their collective memory maintained was a promised land.
Origins of the Israelites
Q: Do you think that these people returning to Canaan met up with other Canaanites in the hill country and became the people of Israel?
Meyers: The emergence of ancient Israel in the highlands of Palestine is shrouded in clouds and mystery. We'll really never know the whole story. We can only conjecture how the inhabitants of new settlements in the highlands, in places where there never had been any settlements before, somehow began to identify with each other. And, at least as I see it, they could have met with people who had made the trek across the Sinai Peninsula.
What was it that brought them together and gave them a new national identity, a new ethnicity? Many scholars, including me, would search in the theological realm. There is a belief in the Bible that the dream of escaping from Egypt and returning to an ancestral homeland could not have happened without supernatural intervention, divine intervention. And the group that had come from Egypt felt that one particular god, whom they called Yahweh, was responsible for this miracle of escape.
They spread the word to the highlanders, who themselves were migrants into the highlands, who perhaps had escaped from the tyranny of the Canaanite city-states or from an unsettled life as pastoralists across the Jordan River. And the idea of a god that represented freedom—freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor—this was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity, which eventually became known by the term Israel.
Remembering the Exodus
Q: So even though most of the early Israelites had not themselves made the exodus from Egypt, they adopt this story as part of their heritage.
Meyers: Yes. While very few Israelites may have actually made the trek across Sinai, it becomes the national story of all Israelites and is celebrated in all kinds of ways. Their agricultural festivals become celebrations of freedom, for instance. Many aspects of a new culture emerge and are linked with the "memories" of exodus.
The people who made the exodus from Egypt remember the experience, relive it, recreate it in rituals. They pass their rituals on to others, to future generations and to other people. We do this in our own American lives: Very few of us have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and yet that story has become part of our national story.
"The theme of the Exodus is an archetype in not only the Bible but in western culture in general."
Q: When was the story of the Exodus first written down?
Meyers: It's really hard to know when the story of the exodus first was put into written form. But it appears in one of the earliest poems in the Bible, the Song of the Sea, found in the middle of the book of Exodus [Exod 15:1-22]. This victory hymn probably dates to the 12th century B.C.E.
It's also important to note that the Exodus is a theme that's mentioned over and over again in various parts of the Bible. And it's interesting to think about that in contrast, for example, to the early chapters in Genesis about the creation of the world and of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. That motif rarely recurs in the Bible. It doesn't seem to be as important an aspect of biblical culture as was the exodus. The theme of a real people achieving freedom from oppression—that's something that resonates strongly with the biblical authors.
Q: And it's a theme that still resonates with us today.
Meyers: Absolutely. The theme of the exodus is an archetype in not only the Bible but in western culture in general. Even though it may be rooted in some cultural memory experienced by only a few people, it became a way of looking at the world that would have great power for generations and millennia to come—the idea that human beings should be free to determine the course of their own lives, to be able to work and enjoy the rewards of the work of their own hands and their own minds.
These are very powerful ideas that resonate in the human spirit. And Exodus gives narrative reality to those ideas. It would be compelling for peoples all over the world, wherever people find themselves subjected to domination and would like to live their lives in some other kind of way.
I think it's no accident that the founders of our own country, the United States, identified very strongly with the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. They felt that, in crossing the Atlantic Ocean and leaving the oppressive conditions of various European countries, they were coming to a place where they would be free from domination, where they would have religious freedom especially. And in the mythology of the colonial period in the United States, the crossing of the Atlantic somehow merged with the idea of the crossing of the Red Sea or Reed Sea of the Israelites. I think that the first seal of the United States actually depicted that kind of crossing.
The Palace of David
King David is one of the most celebrated figures of the Hebrew Bible, his name mentioned more often than even that of Moses. According to the Bible, David united the 12 tribes of ancient Israel into a great, unified kingdom stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia, with Jerusalem as its capital. Yet some scholars today question whether this kingdom—and even David himself—ever existed. In the mid-1990s, Israeli archeologist Eilat Mazar first proposed the idea of searching for the remains of David's palace at a site in the oldest area of Jerusalem. A decade later, with the support of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, she was able to realize this dream. In the interview below, which producer Gary Glassman conducted at Mazar's excavation site, we hear about her remarkable finds.
Q: Why did you want to excavate here, in this part of Jerusalem?
Eilat Mazar: We started excavations here because we wanted to examine the possibility that the remains of King David's palace are here. We could have been wrong, but we knew that whatever we would find would likely be important. We are in a very important spot of the City of David [the oldest part of Jerusalem], at the top of the city. It overlooks all the area around, and it's very narrow, only about 60 meters [about 200 feet] wide.
Q: Were there clues in the Bible that this might be the spot of David's palace?
Mazar: Yes. We knew from the Bible that King David went down to a fortress as he heard the Philistines coming to attack him. Now, where did he go down from? Most probably from where he stayed, meaning his palace.
Before our excavations, it was believed that the Stepped Stone Structure [a 60-foot high, terraced structure] here was a support structure for the fortress of Zion, a Canaanite fortress that, according to the Bible, King David captured. Our idea was to excavate just to the north of where we thought the fortress was built.
Q: Did archeologists before you think this area had remains from the time of David?
Mazar: Some did. In the 1960s, for instance, Kathleen Kenyon's excavation revealed building remains and pottery indicating that a significant structure was built here in the 10th century B.C., meaning more or less around the time of King David [according to the biblical chronology].
Q: When you started your excavation, what was the first sign that you had found something important?
Mazar: We began to see signs that we were dealing with a very massive structure. Huge boulders started to appear all over the area. And we found walls that were very thick, more than five meters [about 16 feet] thick. I thought it was probably the remains of the fortress, not David's palace. Then, a week or a week and a half later, we started to find a lot of pottery from the 12th or 11th century B.C. in different places under the massive structure. So it couldn't be the Canaanite fortress of Zion, because the fortress would have been built hundreds of years earlier.
Q: So you found pottery under the structure, and then you also found pottery on top of the structure, is that right?
Mazar: Yes. And this pottery together helps us to date the structure. So, under the structure we found a great quantity of pottery that is typical of the 12th–11th century B.C., the late Canaanite pottery. And on top of the structure we found later pottery, typical 10th-century pottery. The structure stands in between these two periods, meaning the building itself must have been built sometime around 1000 B.C.
Q: Is it possible that the dating of the site could be off, that the structure might have been built earlier or later than the time of David and Solomon?
Mazar: In archeology, it's very difficult to declare such a precise date. I say that the structure was built around 1000 B.C., but it could have been built 50 years before or 50 years after. It's a possibility, although it doesn't make sense to me to prefer these other dates, and I think it's important to take into account the biblical story of King David.
Signs of royalty
Q: Does the pottery you found that you are dating to the 10th century look like the pottery of a palace?
Mazar: It's beautiful, elegant pottery, certainly a prestigious collection. We also found ivory, including the handle of a knife probably, and most people didn't have ivory at that time. This was not a regular house.
Q: Do you now see the Stepped Stone Structure as part of this massive structure you are dating to the 10th century B.C., around the time of David?
Mazar: Yes. We now see it as part of a huge structure. We are talking about a very complicated and highly skilled plan of construction. There are massive walls on the top, and because the bedrock here is very steep and cracked, these walls needed massive support, and the Stepped Stone Structure offered that support. So the Stepped Stone Structure was not built for a Canaanite fortress; it was built as one unit with the structure that we believe is the palace.
"The question is, how much of the reality that the Bible describes can we archeologists reveal?"
Q: How much of the palace complex have you found—assuming, of course, that it is a palace complex?
Mazar: The area we excavated occupies less than one-quarter of an acre, and it seems to be only about 20 percent of the whole structure at the top of the City of David. [Work subsequent to this interview has uncovered roughly 10 percent more.] So this is a huge structure, the largest ever found in Israel from the ancient Israelite period.
Q: What convinces you that the structure is a palace?
Mazar: Such a huge structure shows centralization and capability of construction. It can only be a royal structure. The question is, what kind of structure is it—a fortress or a palace or a temple? We conclude it's a palace because the Bible reports very clearly that such a palace was built. We showed it's not a Canaanite fortress, and we have no indication that another fortress was built. And we know there was a temple on the Temple Mount [north of the site] from that period.
A kingdom doomed to destruction
Q: In light of your discovery, how would you describe Jerusalem at the time of David and Solomon?
Mazar: It seems to me that Jerusalem at the time of King David and King Solomon was very much like the Bible describes. It was monumental; the constructions were massive. They used the Phoenicians, with their capability and skill, to build the largest structures ever built in Jerusalem: the temple, the two palaces—King David's and later the palace of King Solomon—and the wall of Jerusalem around these structures. This was a new wall that King Solomon added to the ancient wall of the old Canaanite town.
Q: So was Jerusalem the capital of a kingdom as described in the Bible?
Mazar: King David captured a Canaanite town that was very centralized, very important. He most probably did so purposely and didn't kill most of the people. He continued most of the existing administration. It gave him strength. I believe that Jerusalem continued to be a great metropolitan center and to serve as the capital of the Israelites.
Q: How did the palace of David come to an end? Have you found evidence in your excavation?
Mazar: We do not yet have clear evidence of the destruction. We may in future seasons. But I believe that it was part of the great destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. We have lots of other evidence of this destruction nearby.
Q: What was some of the first evidence of the destruction that you and other excavators found in nearby areas?
Mazar: At the beginning of the 1980s, Professor Yigal Shiloh, a mentor of mine, excavated an area that includes what is known as the Burnt Room and the Bullae House. In their destruction layer, he found pottery typical of this period together with arrowheads that show that some fight was conducted here. It really revealed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
Q: And more evidence for the invasion and destruction has also emerged, is that right?
Mazar: Yes. In my excavations at the Ophel, to the south of the Temple Mount, I discovered a royal structure that appears to have been destroyed by an immense fire around 586 B.C. As we excavated, our hands were black with the ashes. And the Bible tells us that the Babylonians set houses on fire.
Evidence of a biblical scribe
Q: Tell me more about the Bullae House. Why does it have that name?
Mazar: We think it was likely a royal archive. It has the name Bullae House because Shiloh found there, in addition to pottery and arrowheads, 51 bullae. A bulla is a very small seal impression made of clay. They were used by officials sealing documents. They would role up a papyrus document, tie it with string, and then put a bit of soft clay on top of the string and stamp it with a seal. This kept the document secret, because the seal would be broken if it was opened.
The bullae that first Shiloh's excavation and later my excavation found were remarkably well-preserved. The papyrus was destroyed in the fire, but the clay seal impressions were hardened because of the fire. The amazing thing is, we can actually read the names that were sealed in the clay.
One of the famous names we see is Yehuchal ben Shelemiyahu, a personality we know from the Bible. He was a very high official and minister, a well-known scribe at the end of the First Temple period, in the service of the Judean king Zedekiah. To find the seal impression of such a celebrity is astonishing. It's a case of archeology confirming what is in the Bible.
"There is still so much to be done in Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem really is not revealed yet."
Q: Do you think there were royal scribes in the court of David or Solomon who were recording things for them? Could those writings have become part of the written Bible?
Mazar: I believe that King David inherited the very developed scribes and administration that were part of Canaanite Jerusalem. And I'm sure that King David was aware of the importance of written documents. He likely took care to have a very detailed archive that contained administrative documents and also included poems, stories, songs, some of which we probably see in the Bible.
Q: How important to your work is the text of the Bible?
Mazar: It's the historical source, so important, so fantastically written. The question is, how much of the reality that the Bible describes can we archeologists reveal? Sometimes you find something like the bulla with the name of a minister that appears in the Bible. This happens once in a while. More often you find structures that surely were constructed in ancient times, and the stones, the remains, speak. We need to listen to what they say.
Q: Do you see your work as furthering the legacy of past biblical archeologists?
Mazar: What we are discovering in Jerusalem now builds on the work of past archeologists, past scholars. I got my first field experience as an archeologist with the famous Professor Shiloh. I was also a student of my grandfather, Professor Benjamin Mazar. He taught me how to observe historical sources, how to examine the archeological remains in light of these historical sources. I learned so much from both of them. And I'm just one part of a long chain. The next generation will continue the work. There is still so much to be done in Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem really is not revealed yet.
[Editor's note: Since Gary Glassman interviewed Eilat Mazar in the summer of 2007 for "The Bible's Buried Secrets," her team has made a number of noteworthy discoveries, three of which are detailed below.]
An ancient escape tunnel
Early in 2008, Mazar's team found the entrance of what turned out to be an extensive tunnel running under the Stepped Stone Structure. Mazar believes that the tunnel was likely first created before the time of King David to convey water, and then incorporated into the construction of his palace complex around 1000 B.C. She says there is "high probability" that it is the water tunnel called tsinor in the biblical story of King David's conquest of Jerusalem (in II Samuel 5:6-8 and I Chronicles 11:4-6).
Mazar thinks that, centuries later, the tunnel may have served as an escape route during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Bible, in the Second Book of Kings (25:4), describes King Zedekiah's escape through such a tunnel during the siege. The tunnel, with walls composed of unworked stone and bedrock, is wide enough to allow passage of one person crawling through at a time. Within the tunnel, Mazar's team uncovered intact oil lamps characteristic of the siege period.
A second royal seal
Two years after the discovery of the tiny clay bulla, or stamp, bearing the name of Yehuchal ben Shelemiyahu, Mazar's excavation brought to light a similar stamp from the same location. In ancient Hebrew script, it reads "Gedaliah ben Pashur." Ben Pashur's name appears in the same verse of the Book of Jeremiah (38:1) as ben Shelemiyahu's. Both men, according to the Bible, served as ministers in the court of King Zedekiah, who reigned from 597–587/6 B.C., just prior to the destruction of the First Temple and fall of Jerusalem.
The prophet Nehemiah's wall?
In an emergency attempt to shore up an unstable structure at the excavation site, Mazar's team chanced upon another important find—the remnants of a wall that Mazar suspects is related to the prophet Nehemiah, who governed Jerusalem around 445 B.C., following the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. An assemblage of pottery, as well as bullae and arrowheads, helped Mazar date the 100-foot-long wall to Nehemiah's time.
According to the Bible, Nehemiah, both a prophet and political leader, was determined to restore Jerusalem as the Israelites' capital a century after its destruction by the Babylonians, and he directed the construction of an enormous wall near David's former palace in a mere 52 days.
Origins of the Written Bible
by William M. Schniedewind
In the modern era, we take for granted that the Hebrew Bible is a text—written words, displayed in chapters and verse. Yet biblical scholar William Schniedewind, the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies at UCLA, has a different view. In How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge University Press, 2004), he explores when and why the ancient Israelite accounts—once conveyed only orally—came to be written down and attain the status of Scripture. Here, Schniedewind offers an overview of his findings.
A cultural shift
In writing How the Bible Became a Book, I began with a different question than scholars usually ask. Namely, why did the Bible become a book at all? This question began to haunt me more and more as I studied the archeology of ancient Palestine and the early history of Hebrew writing. Scholars agree that early Israel was an oral society of pastoralism and subsistence farming. So how and why did such a pastoral-agrarian society come to write down and give authority to the written word? How and why did writing spread from the closed circles of royal and priestly scribes to the lay classes? It was this spread of Hebrew writing in ancient Palestine that democratized the written word and allowed it to gain religious authority in the book we now call "the Bible."
When the Bible became a book, the written word supplanted the living voice of the teacher. Ancient Israelite society was textualized. This textualization marked one of the great turning points in human history, namely the movement from an oral culture towards a written culture.
We tend to read the Bible from our own viewpoint—that is, we tend to think of the Bible as if it came from a world of texts, books, and authors. But the Bible was written before there were books. As the great French scholar Henri-Jean Martin has observed, the role of writing in society has changed dramatically through history, yet modern analyses of biblical literature often depend on the perspective of the text in modern society. Using the most recent advances in the archeology of Palestine and relying on insights from linguistic anthropology, I came to new conclusions about why and when the Bible began to be written down.
The magical writing of priests and kings
In ancient Palestine, writing was a restricted and expensive technology. Writing was controlled by the government and manipulated by the priests. Writing was seen as a gift from the gods. It was not used to canonize religious practice, but rather to engender religious awe. Writing was magical. It was powerful. It was the guarded knowledge of political and religious elites.
We know from ancient inscriptions that writing did not require well-developed states like those of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. For example, the tiny city-states in Canaan during the late 2nd millennium B.C. each had their own scribe. Excavations at Tel Amarna in Egypt uncovered correspondence from these petty rulers in Canaan to the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom during the 14th century B.C. Other evidence, documented in NOVA's "The Bible's Buried Secrets," turned up in 2005, when a proto-Hebrew abecedary (that is, an alphabet inscription) dated to the 10th century B.C. was excavated at Tel Zayit in Israel.
Many early inscriptions were used in religious rituals, reflecting the belief in the magical power of writing. The well-known Gezer Calendar, a series of notes about planting and harvesting that dates to the 10th century B.C., was probably written on soft limestone so that the writing could be scraped off in such a ritual, with the written words literally becoming a kind of magic fertilizer blessing the agricultural year. Other inscriptions such as an early-ninth-century royal inscription from the tiny chiefdom of Moab (in ancient Jordan) were display inscriptions—they were located in prominent places by kings and chiefs, not to be read but to be seen. An aspiring king projected power by his control and manipulation of writing. But eventually writing would break free from these restricted uses.
The spread of literacy and origins of biblical literature
The invention of alphabetic writing was a pivotal development in the history of writing, but it alone did not encourage the spread of writing beyond the palace and the temple. Recent discoveries at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt date the invention of the alphabet back to 2000 B.C., and for centuries after, writing likely remained the province of the elite. So what allowed the alphabet to spread beyond religious and literary elites to be used by soldiers, merchants, and even common workmen? It was the urbanization and globalization of society. This process began in the eighth century B.C. with the rise of the Assyrian Empire, which encouraged urbanization as part of a plan for economically exploiting its growing territory.
I believe that the formative period for the writing of biblical literature also began at this time and stretched roughly from the eighth through the sixth century B.C., when the social and political conditions for the expansion of writing in ancient Israel flourished. With the rise of the Assyrian Empire, ancient Palestine became more urban, and writing became critical to the increasingly complex economy. Writing was important to the bureaucracy of Jerusalem. It also continued to serve as an ideological tool projecting the power of kings. At the end of the eighth century in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, rulers were collecting the ancient books, and ancient Judeans followed their model—collecting the traditions, stories, and laws of their ancestors into written manuscripts.
The evidence of archeology and inscriptions suggests a spread of writing through all classes of society by the seventh century B.C. in Judah. This allowed for a momentous shift in the role of writing in society that is reflected in the reforms of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century; writing became a tool of religious reformers who first proclaimed the authority of the written word. This new role of the written word is particularly reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy, which commands the masses to write down the words of God, to read it and treasure it in their hearts, and to post the written word on the entrance to their homes.
To be sure, this shift in the role of writing encroached on groups with a vested interest in the authority of the oral tradition or the prophetic word. The rise of authoritative texts in the late Judean monarchy was accompanied by a critique of the written word.
Dark years of exile
The composition of biblical literature continued into the period of the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.C.), after the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrians in the north and invaded the Kingdom of Judah. However, it was hardly a time when biblical literature could flourish. The exile resulted in a massive depopulation of the land of Israel. Archeological surveys suggest the region was depopulated by as much as 80 percent, and in Babylon the situation was grim for the exiles—with the exception of the royal family.
It is hardly credible that Jewish exiles working on Babylonian canal projects wrote or even valued literature. However, the royal entourage of the last kings of Judah were living in the southern palace of the Babylonian kings, and they retained their claim to the throne in Jerusalem. They collected literature from the royal and temple library, as well as wrote and edited literature that advanced their claims and standing. But the high status of the royal family and its role in the formation of biblical literature seems to disappear by the end of the sixth century B.C.
The region of Palestine, especially in the hills around Jerusalem, continued to be sparsely populated and impoverished in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. These were dark times for Jerusalem and the Persian province of Yehud. In past scholarship, it was "dark" simply because we knew so little about this period of history. Increasingly, archeology has filled in the void but painted a bleak picture.
Most biblical literature was written long before this dark age. However, the priests who took over the leadership of the Jewish community during this period preserved and edited biblical literature. Biblical literature became a tool that legitimated and furthered the priests' political and religious authority.
The text becomes the teacher
By the time of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C., and the return of the Jewish exiles to Palestine, the core of the Hebrew Bible was completed. The very language of Scripture changed as society became more textualized. Most tellingly, the Hebrew word torah, which originally meant "teaching, instruction," increasingly began to refer to a written text, "the Torah of Moses," (also known as the Pentateuch) in the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130).
The tension between the authority of the oral tradition and the written word, the teacher and the text, continued in the Second Temple period among the various Jewish groups. The priestly aristocracy controlled the temple library and the sacred texts. They were literate elites whose authority was threatened by the oral tradition. Groups like the Pharisees, in contrast, were largely composed of the lay classes. They invested authority in the teacher and the oral tradition.
Both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, which grew out of the lay classes, struggled with the tension between the sacred text and the authority of the oral tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Although they acknowledged the authority of the written Scriptures, they also asserted the authority of the living voice of the teacher.
Christianity, however, quickly adopted the codex—the precursor of the modern book. Codices, with bound leaves of pages, appeared in the first century A.D. and became common by the fourth century. The codex could encompass a much more extensive series of texts than a single scroll could contain. In bringing together a collection of scrolls, the codex also defined a set and order of books and made possible a more defined canon. It was with the technological invention of the codex that the "Bible" as a book, that is, the Bible as we know it, first got its physical form. The adoption of the codex probably encouraged the authority of the written Scriptures in the early Church.
Judaism, in contrast, was quite slow in adopting the codex and even today it is a Torah scroll that we find in a synagogue ark. Eventually, Judaism too would cloak its oral tradition in a written garb. Still, a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism even as the oral Torah and the written tablets were merged into what, according to doctrine, is one pre-existent Torah that was with God at the very creation of the world.
William M. Schniedewind is the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies and Professor of Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages at UCLA. In addition to writing How the Bible Became a Book, he is also the author of The Word of God in Transition and Society and the Promise to David.
Who Wrote the Flood Story?
by Richard Elliott Friedman
For centuries, scholars from many backgrounds have worked on discovering how the Bible came to be. They were religious and non-religious, Christians and Jews. Their task was not to prove whether the Bible's words were divinely revealed to the authors. That is a question of faith, not scholarship. Rather, they were trying to learn the history of those authors: what they wrote, when they wrote, and why they wrote.
The solution that has been the most persuasive for over a century is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The idea of this hypothesis is that the Bible's first books were formed through a long process. Ancient writers produced documents of poetry, prose, and law over many hundreds of years. And then editors used these documents as sources. Those editors fashioned from these sources the Bible that people have read for some 2,000 years.
In the following article and interactive feature, explore the Documentary Hypothesis through the story of Noah and the flood.
EVIDENCE FOR THE HYPOTHESIS
[Editor's Note: Today, the consensus among many biblical scholars is that there are four main sources (known as J, E, P, and D). These sources contributed to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.]
The process of identifying the biblical sources took centuries. The process of refining our identifications of these sources has been ongoing, and it continues to the present day. Scholars in recent years have proposed many variations, arguing for different identifications, different dates, and different pictures of the editing of the parts into the final work. This has led some to claim that there is a lack of consensus in the field. But that is misleading. The central fact of these sources and editing remains the dominant model among critical scholars, though not among most fundamentalist or orthodox scholars, who remain committed to traditional beliefs.
Initially, it was a tentative division based on simple factors: where the name of God appeared in the texts, similar stories appearing twice in the texts, contradictions of fact between one text and another. Accounts of this early identifying and refining may be found in many introductions to this subject and in my book Who Wrote the Bible? The collection of evidence here is not a review of that history of the subject. It is a tabulation of the evidence that has emerged that establishes the hypothesis. It is grouped here in seven categories, which form the seven main arguments for the hypothesis in my judgment.
When we separate the texts that have been identified with the various sources, we find that they reflect the Hebrew language of several distinct periods.
Certain words and phrases occur disproportionately—or even entirely—in one source but not in others. The quantity of such terms that consistently belong to a particular source is considerable.
The sources each have different and consistent presentations of central matters, including the priesthood, the ark, the Tabernacle, the time of the revelation of God's name, and the very nature of God.
Continuity of Texts (Narrative Flow)
One of the most compelling arguments for the existence of the source documents is the fact that, when the sources are separated from one another, we can read each source as a flowing, sensible text. That is, the story continues without a break. You can see this demonstrated with the flood story.
Connections With Other Parts of the Bible
When distinguished from one another, the individual sources each have specific affinities with particular portions of the Bible. This is not simply a matter of coincidence of subject matter in the parallel texts. It is a proper connection of language and views between particular sources and particular prophetic works.
Relationships Among the Sources: To Each Other and to History
The sources each have connections to specific circumstances in history. And they have identifiable relationships with each other.
Convergence of Evidence
The most compelling argument for the hypothesis is that this hypothesis best accounts for the fact that all this evidence of so many kinds [mentioned above] comes together so consistently.
EXPLORE THE FLOOD STORY
The story of Noah and the flood, found in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of the book of Genesis, is thought to have been composed of two sources referred to as J and P.
WHAT TO NOTICE:
In the first place, it is significant that it is possible to separate the text into two continuous stories like this. And it is even more significant that we can find this throughout the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Five Books of Moses. Thus:
The P text here always calls the deity "God" (16 times). The J text always calls the deity by the proper name "YHWH" (10 times).
The P text uses the word "expired." The J text uses the word "died."
In J, it rains for 40 days and nights, and the water recedes for 40 days. In P, the whole process adds up to a calendar year.
In J, Noah releases a dove. In P, he releases a raven.
P has two of each species of animal, a male and a female. J has 14 (seven pairs) of each species of the pure animals (animals that may be sacrificed) and only two of the animals that are not pure. This is important because J ends the story with Noah making a sacrifice—so he needs more than two of each animal or he would make a species extinct!
P has details of cubits, dates, and ages. J does not.
In J, God is personal and involved: known by a personal name ("YHWH"), personally closing the ark, personally smelling Noah's sacrifice, described as "grieved to his heart." In P, God's name is not yet known ("God," in Hebrew Elohim, is not a name; it is what God is), and there are none of the anthropomorphic descriptions that are found in J.
And the point is not just that these differences are maintained consistently in this particular text. These differences are also consistent with the language and characteristics of the other P and J texts throughout the Five Books. P consistently is concerned with dates, ages, and measurements. P uses the word "expired" for death elsewhere (11 times); it never occurs in J. And the distinction regarding the name of God is maintained through over 2,000 occurrences in the Torah with only three exceptions. In the P creation story, God creates a space (firmament) that separates waters that are above it from waters below. The universe in that story is thus a habitable bubble surrounded by water. That same conception is assumed here in the P flood story, in which the "apertures of the skies" and the "fountains of the great deep" are broken up so that the waters flow in. The word "rain" does not occur. The J creation account, on the other hand, has no such conception, and here in the J flood story it just rains.
One cannot just say that this is the work of clever scholars who divided up the text to come out this way. Just try doing it with any other work of comparable length to the Five Books of Moses. No scholar is clever enough to make all of this come out so consistently.
Some opponents of the Documentary Hypothesis claim nowadays that this hypothesis no longer is the dominant view in the field. Some assert that there is a new consensus. Some even claim that it was disproved long ago and that "no one believes that anymore." In the first place, this claim is just not true. Scholars at nearly all of the major universities and many seminaries in the United States still are persuaded that it is correct, they work in it, and they teach it to their students. The same may be said of most scholars in England, Israel, and other countries. Major commentaries (such as the Anchor Bible), encyclopedias, and introductions treat it. The most common challenges have come from a number of European scholars, but as of this time, they have not responded to the central evidence. Specifically: They have not come to terms with the linguistic evidence, the continuity of the sources, the match of the sources (especially J and E) with history, or the convergence of the lines of evidence.
The Documentary Hypothesis is still the most common view in scholarship, and no other model has a comparable consensus, but in the end the question is not a matter of consensus anyway. It is a matter of evidence. And the evidence for the hypothesis is, in my judgment, now substantial and stronger than ever.
MORE ON SOURCES J AND P
For two centuries (from 922 to 722 B.C.) the biblical promised land was divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. A text known as J was composed during this period. It is called J because, from its very first sentence, it refers to God by the proper name YHWH (Jahwe in German, which was the language of many of the founding works in the field of biblical analysis). It includes the famous biblical stories of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, the tower of Babylon ("Babel"), plus stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as stories of Joseph and then of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and Israel's travels through the wilderness to the promised land. J was composed by an author living in the southern kingdom of Judah.
The third main source (out of the four—J, E, P, and D) is known as P because one of its central concerns is the priesthood. In critical scholarship, there are two main views of when it was composed. One view is that P was the latest of the sources, composed in the sixth or fifth century B.C. The other view is that P was composed not long after J and E were combined—specifically, that it was produced by the Jerusalem priesthood as an alternative to the history told in JE. Linguistic evidence now supports the latter view and virtually rules out the late date for P. P, like E, involves both stories and laws. The P laws and instructions take up half of the books of Exodus and Numbers and practically all of the book of Leviticus. The P stories parallel the JE stories to a large extent in both content and order, including stories of creation, the flood, the divine covenant with Abraham, accounts of Isaac and Jacob, the enslavement, exodus, Sinai, and wilderness. Also like E, the P stories follow the idea that the divine name YHWH was not known until the time of Moses.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Elliott Friedman earned his doctorate from Harvard in Hebrew Bible. He is Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego. One of the premier biblical scholars in the country, Friedman has written many books on biblical studies, including The Disappearance of God, Commentary on the Torah, Who Wrote the Bible? and The Bible With Sources Revealed. This feature was adapted from The Bible With Sources Revealed with kind permission of the author and publisher, HarperSanFrancisco.