An archeological detective story traces the origins of the Hebrew Bible. In this landmark two-hour special, NOVA takes viewers on a 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?
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.
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.