BBC 2’s series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets is a familiar – and in many ways, winning – combination of middle eastern street scenes, archaeological digs, panoramic shots of Jerusalem and the golden Dome of the Rock, and computer animated reconstructions. Its writer and presenter, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University’s Department of Theology and Religion, is young, personable and enthusiastic, and the whole production is good-looking enough to make viewers feel, occasionally, as if they’ve stumbled into an advertisement for the holiday of a life-time.
This is not to underestimate Stavrakopoulou’s academic credentials. She has many fascinating, well-researched ideas about the Bible. In a recent episode, she suggested that the stories of creation and more especially, the Garden of Eden might be based on an actual historical event – and specifically not the creation of the world! She suggested, cross-referencing relevant archaeological findings, that the Garden of Eden might have been the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, whose intricate interior designs she likened to a kind of virtual garden. The so-called ‘fall’ – the Genesis account of the first couple’s disobedience and exclusion from the garden – could perhaps then be the fall of an ancient near eastern King of Judah. Arguably, this precursor of the Hebrew Bible’s first human creature, Adam, was a historical individual who seemed to consort with the gods and goddesses in the holy temple garden but who had in fact failed, because of personal greed, to maintain the terms of a very real vassalage to the imperial powers of the day, and thereby brought ruin and destruction – divine wrath and expulsion – on himself and his people as a result.
These are intriguing thoughts – of course – but perhaps not as controversial as some of the promotional material would have it. Although Stavrakopoulou’s theories about the Temple in Jerusalem, for example, offer us a different slant on a familiar biblical text, the approach as a whole differs little from the methodologies of the so-called Higher Criticism, calling for attention to the historical and linguistic contexts of the bible and the need for the kind of critical examination previously only applied to other kinds of books. Certainly, in the 19th century, professors and academics sometimes lost their jobs for proposing, for example, that the Bible’s stories might have had something in common with stories of other gods and goddesses. But it would be unlikely for this to happen today.
What is perhaps more provoking, is Stravrakopoulou’s suggestion that we might be able to liberate ourselves from the huge burden of guilt and human sinfulness imposed on us by Christian readings of Genesis 2-3, if we accepted her interpretation instead. Telling stories is one way to normalise or universalise what is actually culturally specific. Using the Genesis 2-3 story to make women carry the guilt for the ‘fall’ or radical sinfulness of the entire human race, is a case in point. There are many instances of Christian theologians, poets and writers over the centuries who have drawn misogynistic meanings out of this story and, quite clearly, Stravrakopoulou’s research would not actively support these readings. It’s more doubtful however, whether her theories really help us to come to a positive consensus on human nature.
Of course some Christians remain convinced of a more literal truth to the story of the Garden of Eden – Stravrakopoulou spoke to one or two of them and they were predictably unmoved. However, many people who have spent time reading the Bible over the last 200 years or so, have been well aware of its gaps, contradictions, lack of empirical verifiability and perhaps even its indebtedness to traditions mainstream Churches or theologians would pronounce as beyond the pale. They remain intrigued; hooked, nonetheless, by these problematic Biblical accounts of ambivalent human hope and fleeting divine epiphanies. Arguably it is these, essentially unanswerable but fertile questions that remain the Bible’s real buried treasure.