Let’s keep a sense of perspective here, right?

So that means first things first, matters of cosmic significance – or at least of great historical import – should come first, right? Right…



Right. Now to what was on SBS last night.


Now I really wasn’t sure what this would be like, whether it would be one of those oh golly pseudo-histories so often seen, done in breathless History Channel style with heaps of otiose re-enactments, or whether it would be something halfway respectable. It was a bit of both – rather an overdose of re-enactments/scribes sitting around wearing tea-towels and so on – but it was also very much up to date and thought-provoking. The Biblical Archaeology Review wrote: "The producers have done a magnificent job summarizing over a century of biblical archaeology and biblical scholarship in two hours. The film strikes a balance between the old-fashioned biblical archaeology approach, which tried to prove the Bible’s historicity, and the extreme skepticism of some minimalists, for whom the Bible contains little factual history.”

Par for the course were the tinfoil hat wearers at the American Family Association who organised a petition against impartial scholarship and for sectarian propaganda: "PBS is knowingly choosing to insult and attack Christianity by airing a program that declares the Bible ‘isn’t true and a bunch of stories that never happened…”

I have been interested in this topic for ages, and studying Near Eastern Ancient History at Sydney Uni in 1960 began my acquaintance with archaeology and real history, as distinct from apologetics and propaganda. Then flash forward to 1988 when I found myself tasked with teaching the history of Ancient Israel to a class of Orthodox Jews at Masada College. And so on. And more. Despite which I am still a constant Bible reader – even if I now regard it as a fascinating collection of texts that when it comes down to it are just texts like any other – and, as back in the 1950s Cam Williamson of Sutherland Presbyterian Church used to say, a text without a context is a pretext.  My idea of context has broadened somewhat since then, of course. And last night’s program nicely summarised what context now means to serious historians and archaeologists.

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….

Fascinating stuff, and consistent with the kind of scholarship you may find on The Bible and Interpretation site, which I have long respected. There is a nice subsection there on media and Biblical Studies: Scholars, Frauds, the Media and the Public. 

Again, see also other entries on this blog –  for example Is that all there is? And how to remember 9/11 constructively… — and on Floating Life and on my 2006-7 archive.

There is, I discover, a more recent documentary series of the same name as the PBS/Nova one (2008) SBS showed Episode 1 of last night. Made by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou for the BBC in 2011, it is available on YouTube.