Controversy over the Bible runs rampant. For a while, a small
group of scholars calling themselves the Jesus Seminar won
sensational headlines from magazines. That group (though some are
highly respected scholars) claims little of the New Testament can be
validated, very few of Jesus' words can be reliably attributed to
him, and so on.
Now it's the Old Testament under the same revisionist fire. A new
documentary attempts to put this controversy in context. Digging for
the Truth: Archeology and the Bible (The History Channel, Dec. 17, 9-
11 p.m.) needs to be about two hours longer than it is. Too many
loose ends are in need of tying up. And like so many documentaries
dealing with complex subjects, it tends to oversimplify a variety of
scholarly opinions into two camps.
Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the Bible, history, or
archaeology, the film is riveting. It's shocking to find how
politicized the Hebrew Scriptures have become. From the confines of
academic speculation to the spotlight of political debate, the film
shows, for example, that it may be impossible to appreciate the
situation in Israel today without understanding how the Bible is
being used by both sides to discredit the other.
A small group of Old Testament "minimalist" scholars has made
sensational claims that Hellenistic Jews invented the stories of the
Hebrew Scriptures to validate Jewish heritage. In this view, Moses
didn't lead the Israelites out of Egypt - in fact, he never existed.
Kings David and Solomon were likewise as mythological as Zeus.
Never mind the physical evidence of ancient Israel: Minimalist
biblical scholars are not, as it turns out, archaeologists. Their
claims are based on their interpretation of text.
"Minimalists read the text as myth," says William Dever,
professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the
University of Arizona in Tucson and author of "What Did the Biblical
Writers Know and When Did They Know It?" "But archaeologists engage
every day with the reality of ancient Israel. It never occurs to us
to doubt it existed."
It comes down to this: Those who support Palestinian claims to
absolute sovereignty in the region are using the academic debate to
say Israel has no claims to the Holy Land. And many of those who
support Israel's claim say biblical tradition is backed by
historical-archaeological findings of an ancient state, perhaps
founded by King David.
The debate is hardly new. It's the result of a century of
skepticism in biblical research. And it's true that the first
archaeology in the Holy Land was undertaken by Christian ministers.
Some of their findings have been reinterpreted. But archaeology now
errs on the side of caution rather than faith.
"Archaeologists know how much they don't know," Dr. Dever says.
"We are always finding new evidence.... We also know we have
ideologies - but we can set them aside [in favor of] objectivity.
There is an enormous consensus among archaeologists about so many
Dever is not a theologian - or even religious. …