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NOVA: The Bible’s Buried Secrets is a detailed overview of biblical archaeology and the scholarly study of the Bible. The video describes the work of current and past biblical scholars. It also documents several exciting archaeological discoveries in Egypt, Israel, and Syria. Some discoveries appear to support the history described in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), others call into question the biblical narratives of the Exodus and Conquest. This video is useful for a biblical literature or world history class.
The worksheet consists of 108 multiple choice and true and false questions, which will prompt the students to follow the progress of the video. This may sound like a lot, but I have found that this format enables the students to pay attention to the video while quickly recording their answers. I try to avoid a situation where the students are bogged down by writing long responses during a video.
The zip file download contains the 108 question video worksheet, an optional sheet of short answer questions, and answer keys. Files are provided in both MS Word and PDF formats. You will need to obtain a DVD of the video, use the PBS Internet site, or YouTube.
NOVA: The Bible's Buried Secrets Summary
Archaeological discoveries in Egypt provide some confirmation of the Exodus story. The Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses was first unearthed by Flinders Petrie in the nineteenth century. It may be a match to the city of “Ramesses” mentioned in the Book of Exodus. Pi-Ramesses was a capital city build by Ramses II, and it includes many statues of the pharaoh. Ramses II has long been thought to be the pharaoh of the Exodus, and he ascended to the Egyptian throne in 1275 BC.
As demonstrated by the video, the Exodus as biblically described is not supported by archaeological evidence. In the traditional Exodus story, over 600,000 escaped Israelite male slaves and their families wondered in the Sinai desert for 40 years. No evidence of such a mass migration has been unearthed in the Sinai. The video presents the hypothesis that a small group of slaves escaped from Egypt and eventually made it to Canaan.
In Exodus, Moses met God in a burning bush in the region of Midian. Egyptian sources state that the inhabitants of Midian, named the Shasu, worshipped a god named YHW (Yahu), which may have been the inspiration for the Hebrew name for God, YHWH (Yahweh). The newly escaped slaves may have been introduced to the Shasu god Yahu in Midian. They later changed the god’s name to Yahweh after arriving in Canaan, and attributed their escape to the god’s divine intervention.
In 1896, Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered what is now called the Merneptah Stele. It is a carved stone tablet dated to 1208 BC that describes the conquest and annihilation of nearby peoples by pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. The stele records the earliest known mention of the nearby people of Israel, and that they also lived in the hill country of Canaan. This discovery provides independent archaeological confirmation of the existence of the Jewish people after the time of the Exodus.
After the Exodus, the Bible states that Moses’s successor, Joshua, led the Israelites into the promised land of Canaan, where they conducted a “Blitzkrieg style” military campaign, conquered assorted Canaanite city states, and set up their own country. Exciting discoveries in the Holy Land were made in the Canaanite cities of Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, cities mentioned in the Bible as being conquered by the newly arrived Israelites. Each city demonstrated signs of war and destruction. The walls of Jericho showed signs of damage, and Hazor displayed rocks shattered by great heat. Archaeological dating techniques provide evidence that the three cities mentioned above where destroyed individually over a nearly one thousand year time period. Only Hazor was destroyed in the time period attributed to the Israelite invasion. Modern scholars hypothesize that the original Israelites were likely displaced Canaanites, a group that rebelled against the prevailing Canaanite city states. The desecration of an idol at Hazor, along with a change in pottery and housing styles, is cited as evidence for this idea.
The oldest known biblical figure that has been independently verified by archaeological evidence is King David, who likely existed about 1000 BC. A reference to the “House of David” was found carved on the Tel Dan victory stele, an exciting discovery made in northern Israel in 1993. Dating to about 700 BC, the stele contains the oldest known reference outside of the Bible that refers to a monarchy established by David.
The video documents the discovery of massive walls in Jerusalem, which may date from the time of Solomon--or may not depending upon the interpretation of results from radiocarbon dating and “relative chronology” established by the study of pottery styles. (The pottery chronology is based upon the work of William Foxwell Albright, the “father of Biblical archaeology”.) This dating issue is important in supporting the biblical narrative of the Kingdom of David: Was it a large and prosperous kingdom as described in the Bible, or “small chiefdom” whose status was later inflated by the biblical editors? The video also recounts the controversy surrounding Jerusalem in that it is a holy city in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A present-day marvel, the Dome of the Rock, considered the third holiest site in Islam, rests upon the traditional site of the Jewish Temple, and any archaeological exploration is forbidden.
David’s son Solomon took over the monarchy after David’s death. In the Bible, Solomon was described as a prolific builder who built the the first Jewish Temple. Evidence of Solomon’s building campaign may consist of distinctive six-chambered gates discovered in Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. The video also visits a temple at Ain Dara in Syria, which shares some of the same features as the biblical Temple. For example, the Ain Dara temple has carved cherubim and a similar floor plan.
The death of Solomon has been established with some accuracy through the confluence of Egyptian and Israelite history. The Bible describes an invasion by Pharaoh Shishak that occurred five years after Solomon’s death. This pharaoh also erected a “head-smiting” carved scene at Luxor, which also contained a list of Israelite cities that he had conquered. Egyptian records state that the invasion occurred in 925 BC, hence the date of 930 BC for Solomon’s death.
After the death of Solomon, Israel broke apart into the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The northern kingdom was crushed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Later, the Babylonians conquered both kingdoms in 586 BC. The Temple was ransacked and burned, and many of the Israelites were taken as captives to Babylon, an event termed the Exile. Israelite priests were likely able to take precious documents, the original biblical writings.
The Exile prompted the Israelites to begin questioning their past, and how they had seemingly broken God’s covenant. Many of the biblical prophets had railed against the worship of other gods, and archaeological discoveries reveal that many Israelite homes contained idols of Asherah, and other Canaanite gods such as Baal. At one point, Asherah was likely considered “God’s Wife”. Part of the reconciliation with God came in the form of the final codification of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the establishment of the Sabbath and male circumcision. These practices enabled the Israelites to maintain their Jewish identity, continue the worship of Yahweh, and reestablish the Covenant in Exile. The modern form of the Jewish religion came from this period.
The Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, and the Israelites were able to return to Israel. The video relates the moving story of the prophet Ezra, who read the entire Torah in public after the return to Jerusalem.
The Hebrew Bible appears to have been compiled by priests during the Exile in Babylon. The priests likely assembled a variety of older works that had been saved from destruction to create the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This editing and combining of past traditions became the codified monotheistic worship of Yahweh, the original God of the Israelites. Today’s conception of one God, the one shared by the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can be traced back to the work of these ancient scholars.
In tradition, the Torah was written by Moses, but textual evidence makes this doubtful. For example, the very end of Deuteronomy describes the death and burial of Moses. Nineteenth century scholars identified the work of different authors that appear to have been combined into a single document by later editors. This “documentary hypothesis” identifies at least four separate original works that were combined by a "redactor" to create the modern Torah. The original authors have been assigned distinguishing letters:
“J”, named for the use of the name Yahweh for God
“E”, named for the use of the name Elohim for God
“D”, named for Deuteronomy
“P”, named for the “priestly” writer
"R", named for the "redactor", an editor who had combined all of the previous works into the coherent narrative that we have today
The first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, is likely a compilation of myths and legends. The documentary hypothesis helps explain some of the odd features of Genesis, such as the statement of two separate and contradictory creation stories (one story is attributed to “J”, and the other to “P”), and contradictions in the story of Noah and the Flood.
Based upon the language used, scholars claim that the oldest writings in the Torah are in the book of Exodus. Exodus contains the Song of the Sea, one of the oldest recognized parts of the Bible. The Song of the Sea likely existed as a recited poem that was passed down before being recorded in the Bible. The song marks the celebration of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army.
What is the earliest date that the Bible could have been written? This issue calls into question the “legitimacy of the Israelite past”.
In 1979, two tiny silver scrolls or “amulets” were discovered in an Israelite tomb at Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem. Painstakingly unrolled over a three year period, the scrolls contain the earliest known passages from the Hebrew Bible, in particular the Numbers 6 Benediction ("Yahweh bless you and keep you… Yahweh make his face shine upon you…, and give you peace"). The video states that the scrolls were dated to the the 7th century BC based on the proximity of characteristic pottery. There is some debate about this conclusion, with other scholars suggesting an age of around 586 BC, just before the Babylonian destruction of the Temple.
Early in the video, the 2005 discovery of the Tel Zayit “abecedary” by a worker under the direction of Ron E. Tappy is described. This stone displayed an inscription of the Hebrew alphabet, and is evidence that the original biblical writings could have existed as far back as 1000 BC, around the time of David.
In summary, based upon the discovery of the Tel Zayit stone, the Hebrew alphabet existed nearly 600 years before the exile. The original oral poems and stories such as the Song of the Sea, and the creation and flood myths of Genesis, became the J texts, along with the later Deuteronomy writings of author D and the priestly writings of P, which offer alternative versions of many of the earlier stories. The various writings were saved during the Exile and compiled by the redactor (R).
Note: After writing this essay, I read "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliott Friedman. I found that some of my previous statements were contradicted by this work, and I have since corrected them. From Friedman, I learned that the redactor (R) was likely the original editor, not the P author. (Friedman identifies R as the prophet Ezra.)