A Q&A WITH PAULA S. APSELL,
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF NOVA
Q: For those who haven't had a chance to see the film yet, tell us broadly what it's about.
Paula Apsell: "The Bible's Buried Secrets" is an archeological journey into the Hebrew Bible, more commonly known as the Old Testament. It builds on centuries of biblical scholarship and excavation to tackle some of the biggest questions in biblical studies: Where did the ancient Israelites come from? How and when did their religion transform into modern Judaism? Who wrote the Bible, when, and why? How did the ancient Israelites, who, like virtually all ancient peoples, worshiped many gods, come to believe in a single God?
The answers to these questions emerge as we look both at the archeological evidence and at the biblical text itself—the powerful accounts describing Abraham and his journey to the Promised Land; Moses and the Exodus; David's kingdom and Solomon's Temple; and the destruction of that temple and Jerusalem followed by the Exile of Jews to Babylon.
Q: This is clearly a topic that many people feel deeply about. Why did NOVA want to take it on?
Apsell: This is indeed a topic people feel passionately about. It's a subject of huge importance. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is a sacred text for more than three billion people in the world today. It's the foundation for the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And yet many people may be unaware of the archeological and historical scholarship that sheds light on this text.
Ultimately, we wanted our audience to have an opportunity to learn more about the Bible, particularly in its historic and geographical context. And we wanted to highlight significant archeological work that offers insights into the world of the ancient Israelites.
Q: Yet some people might question why NOVA, a science series, is doing a film about the Bible and religion.
Apsell: "The Bible's Buried Secrets" synthesizes decades of work in biblical archeology and provides an illustration of the scientific process at work. It shows how researchers pursue evidence and refine their ideas as new information emerges. Biblical archeology—the study of biblical lands and times based on material evidence—is a peer-reviewed field that uses a host of scientific techniques to date and analyze artifacts. As such, it is a powerful tool for understanding life in biblical times, including the houses people lived in, the temples they built, and even the gods they worshiped. It offers us a picture of the people who wrote the Bible, the ancient Israelites, and helps us understand what the narrative may have meant to them.
At NOVA we've explored similar subjects through such an archeological lens, including Lost Tribes of Israel and Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land. These have been among our most popular programs, so we know that our viewers have a real appetite for this kind of material. In addition, PBS has broadcast many special programs in this arena, including Islam: Empire of Faith and Frontline's From Jesus to Christ. In fact, we like to think of "The Bible's Buried Secrets" as the prequel to these two distinguished series, fitting well into the tradition of providing our viewers with information about the roots of modern religion.
Q: How is "The Bible's Buried Secrets" different from other films about biblical archeology?
Apsell: As with all our programs, we secured access to the most authoritative experts to make this film. Our aim was to present the most definitive synthesis of the latest thinking in biblical archeology and scholarship, and to forge this scholarship into a cohesive account of how an ancient people, the Israelites, came to believe in one God—the foundation for the universal God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Our program is different from others because it was not our goal to use archeology to attempt to prove or disprove the Bible. It was, rather, our intention to go beyond the question of fact or fiction to explore why the biblical narrative may have been written in the first place and what its deeper meaning may have been to the ancient Israelites whose history it relates.
Q: So NOVA is not out to disprove the Bible?
Apsell: Not at all. NOVA is certainly not out to disprove the Bible or to denigrate anyone's religious convictions. Our approach is simply to present the results of mainstream, peer-reviewed biblical archeology and let viewers draw their own conclusions. Guided by our scholars, we look for archeological and historical evidence outside of the Bible, such as ancient inscriptions and artifacts, and examine how well this evidence corresponds to what is written in the Bible.
As it turns out, the film reports on a number of cases in which archeology backs up what we find in the Bible. For instance, we cover a discovery at Tel Dan, a site in Israel near the Golan Heights. Archeologists there found an Aramean victory stela proving to many scholars that King David really did exist. We also visit an archeological site where two tiny silver scrolls were found containing prayers from the Book of Numbers, prayers that are still recited today in synagogues around the world. The fact that these artifacts date to approximately 600 B.C. underscores the antiquity of the Hebrew Bible.
Q: So you cover some cases in which archeology supports what we read in the Bible. What about cases in which there seems to be no archeological evidence?
Apsell: In cases in which no evidence has emerged for events described in the Bible, we simply state that fact. We acknowledge that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And we ask the scholars interviewed in the film to probe deeply into why these accounts were written in the first place. Because beyond the question of historical authenticity—whether events actually happened as the Bible describes—there is still the critical question of why these accounts are so meaningful. They were meaningful to the ancient Israelites, and they continue to resonate for us today.
Q: Is the Bible's account of Moses and the Exodus one of these unproven cases?
Apsell: The experts we interviewed, who are among the foremost biblical scholars in the world, tell us that there is no evidence to support the account of Exodus as described in the Bible—a massive outpouring of some 600,000 men and their families. However, these scholars don't deny the possibility that an exodus in some form might have occurred. In fact, many of them think that a smaller departure from Egypt did take place.
There's another twist in this view of the Exodus that may surprise people. Many biblical scholars now think that it wasn't Israelite slaves but rather Canaanite slaves who escaped from Egypt. As these former slaves made their way back to Canaan, they stopped in a place the Bible calls Midian, where they underwent some type of religious transformation, adopting a god perhaps known as Yahu.
In our film, through dramatic reenactments, we show these former slaves returning to Canaan, where they tell their story of liberation, and of a redeeming God, to the people they find there, the ancient Israelites. Many biblical scholars think this was a critical juncture in the formation of the identity of the ancient Israelites and their belief in Yahweh, who became their one God. And it's one of the key moments in our film.
Q: What other aspects of the film do you think might surprise viewers?
Apsell: We cover a number of important ideas about the Israelites and origins of the Hebrew Bible that might surprise our audience, although they are well established in biblical scholarship.
First, many viewers may not know that since the 1700s, biblical scholars have pointed to evidence that the Bible was written by human hands, and that it likely had several different authors. This is now accepted as fact by many mainstream religious organizations, seminaries, and rabbinical schools. Yet it might surprise some people.
Second, although the Bible tells us that the ancient Israelites came from lands outside of Canaan, archeology suggests that the Israelites actually were themselves Canaanites, part of a splinter group who overthrew the elites of their society to establish a more simple, egalitarian culture.
And third, although the Bible tells us that the ancient Israelites often lapsed into polytheism and idol worship, few viewers will know that the archeological evidence for this is overwhelming. Literally thousands of clay figurines have been found among the remains of Israelite homes. And some scholars think that these figurines represent a Canaanite goddess called Asherah, who is referred to as the wife of Yahweh in ancient Israelite inscriptions. Polytheism and idol worship likely persisted until the time of the Babylonian Exile, around 586 B.C., when it appears to have stopped entirely, since the figurines are no longer found after that date.
Q: Some of these ideas, while they may be widely accepted among academic scholars, will no doubt strike some people as heretical. Why did NOVA delve into such controversial topics?
Apsell: NOVA decided to make this program because the subject offered new scientific material in an area of great importance to many people. It will give our viewers an unparalleled opportunity to witness fascinating archeological research and to hear what scholars have to say about the interpretation of biblical text in the light of that evidence.
As I mentioned before, the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is a sacred text for more than three billion people worldwide. With such an important subject and a wealth of archeological evidence, what could be a more important or more suitable topic for NOVA?
Q: NOVA has developed classroom materials for "The Bible's Buried Secrets." Does this in any way breach the separation of church and state?
Apsell: NOVA is the most-used video resource in high schools nationwide, and we develop classroom materials for every new program. If educators decide to use a program in their classroom, we offer a study guide to help them explore the scientific concepts in the film. In this case, we give teachers and students a context for understanding how archeology can be used to study the Hebrew Bible, reveal the conditions under which it was written, and provide information about the ancient culture that produced it.
Q: Apparently some organizations are attacking the film already. Is that true?
Apsell: Unfortunately, without even seeing "The Bible's Buried Secrets," some groups have decided to attack it, based on a misguided view that it aims to disprove the Bible or challenge their deeply held religious beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The perspective of "The Bible's Buried Secrets" is consistent with modern scholarship and the teachings of mainstream religious traditions. I hope that when those individuals who have attacked the program watch the broadcast, they will find it a thoughtful presentation of biblical archeology that enriches our understanding of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient people whose story it tells.