Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a lecturer on religious studies at the University of Exeter and now has her own TV series on the BBC. In her shows, she claims to unearth the buried secrets of the Bible. Actually, what she is doing is communicating to the general public ideas which have been discussed in the academy for ages. And no worries there. It’s exactly what I do in the field of science and religion.
Dr Stavrakopoulou is a “minimalist” who denies the existence of King David and the United Kingdom of Israel. That’s a respectable, if minority, opinion among archaeologists. I happen to disagree, following Robin Lane Fox from The Unauthorised Version. Of course, Lane Fox and I are historians. This means we tend to give texts more weight than archaeologists do, at least when it comes to specific events and people.
Anyway, this week, Dr Stavrakopoulou’s buried secret was that God had a wife who was later edited out of the Bible. Now, once again, this is spun as something new. But again, it isn’t.
A quick reminder of the theme in the history books of the Bible: 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The story these books tell is that the Israelites were a bunch of independent tribes who gather together under a leader in times of war. Eventually, they chose a king and briefly enjoy some success. However, the kingdom fragmented as they often did. In general, the Israelite kings worshipped the same gods as their neighbours. However, there was always a strand of opinion in Israelite society that insisted that they should worship only the one God Yahweh. With a few exceptions, most notably Josiah, the kings either continued in their polytheistic ways or hedged their bets by worshiping Yahweh, but not exclusively. That almost certainly involved marrying him up to a neighbouring fertility goddess. Only when the Israelite kingdoms were swept away by eastern invaders did the people, now rootless and kingless, become pure monotheists.
Now, this story simply comes from historians reading the Bible like any other ancient text. It seems quite plausible and isn’t that controversial among scholars. It is also nicely consistent with the archaeological record. A few of the characters named, including King David, King Omri and Baruch ben Neriah, have even turned up on inscriptions. The main argument is over the extent to which United Israel was anything like as impressive as the Bible says. Probably not.
So what is the buried secret? It seems to me that Dr Stavrakopoulou is an Old Testament Bart Ehrman trying to turn mainstream scholarship into something radical that is a serious problem for the Christian (and Jewish) faith. It’s neither and anyone who bothers read their Bibles would know this.
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