A two-hour program set to air Tuesday night claims to have "new discoveries that shake the foundation of biblical archaeology," echoing claims by other contested documentaries such as "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which aired last year on The Discovery Channel.
"The Bible's Buried Secrets," produced by Rhode Island-based Providence Pictures for PBS's science series Nova, attempts to uncover who wrote the Hebrew Bible and whether it's history or parable, delving into the origins of the Israelites to explore their gradual transformation into a monotheistic people.
The show also poses provocative ideas – including the "revelation" that many Israelites believed that God had a wife – and disputes literal readings of the text.
It is "a shocking film in many ways, but it's truth, revolutionary, and it's as fresh as yesterday," said Bible scholar William G. Dever during the presentation for the program during the Summer 2008 Television Critics Association (TCA) Tour.
Dever, who specializes in the history of Israel in biblical times, says most of the two dozen biblical archaeology films he was involved in prior to "The Bible's Buried Secrets" turned out to be "outrageously" dishonest.
"They either pander to the public's misunderstanding that the role of archaeology is to prove the Bible to be true or, at best, they're simply dishonest, outrageously so," he said at a session for the program during the Summer TCA Tour.
"The Bible's Buried Secrets," however, is different, he claims.
"I vowed not to make any more such films until 'Nova' came along. I knew their reputation, and I knew this one would be good," he said.
For the documentary, Providence Pictures scouted and filmed at archaeological sites throughout the Middle East – including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – and interviewed biblical scholars from around the world.
Producers say the interviews – along with historic works of art, ancient artifacts, animations of biblical passages and scenes, and dramatic recreations – provide the latest account of the ancient Israelites and how they found their one God – the God not only of modern Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam.
"To this day, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is a sacred text for more than three billion people throughout the world," says Gary Glassman, the program's writer, producer, and director. "The film's international team of archeologists and scholars researches biblical texts and examines artifacts and ancient manuscripts to illuminate how the concept of one God emerged to later form the foundation of the three great monotheistic religions."
According to NOVA Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell, the program is both a scientific detective story and dramatic adventure that digs deeply into the Bible and the history of the ancient Israelites through the archeological artifacts they left behind.
"In addition to exploring the historical authenticity of the biblical narrative, this powerful intersection of science, scholarship, and scripture also provides a unique insight into the deeper meaning of biblical texts and their continuing resonance through the centuries," she stated.
Producers say they are "confident that our film will be the definitive documentary on biblical archaeology for years to come."
Many, however, are very skeptical of the film and one group is even taking their protest over the film to Congress.
"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,'" states a petition being circulated by the conservative American Family Association, which is urging Congress to stop using tax dollars to fund PBS.
"I have often said that PBS should not receive tax dollars," says AFA founder and chairman Donald E. Wildmon, noting that Congress gives PBS hundreds of millions of tax dollars to help support the network.
"'The Bible's Buried Secrets' is simply one more reason Congress should stop supporting PBS with our tax dollars."
Aspell, however, argues that Nova is not out to disprove the Bible or to denigrate anyone's religious convictions.
"Our approach is simply to present the results of mainstream, peer-reviewed biblical archeology and let viewers draw their own conclusions," she said in an interview.
Among the claims reportedly presented through "The Bible's Buried Secrets," as highlighted by the AFA, are:
• The Old Testament was written in the sixth century BC and hundreds of authors contributed.
• Abraham, Sarah and their offspring didn't exist.
• There is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus.
• Monotheism was a process that took hundreds of years.
• The Israelites were actually Canaanites.