Buried Secrets? Responses to Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou
If you did not watch the three episodes presented by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou on BBC Two in March this year, you can still watch them YouTube with the first episode below…
As a fellow Oxford-educated scholar and member of the same Society for Old Testament Studies, I watched the programmes with interest, and though I will comment on each episode in more detail in following posts I will begin in this first post with some general comments on the series as a whole.
Francesca is a self-confessed atheist, and though she clearly loves studying the Old Testament she has no personal allegiance to Israel’s god, nor has she ever read the texts as they were intended to be read, without the sceptical anti-supernatural lenses of academic scholarship. She was given a particular privilege to present her specialist subject, the Old Testament, to the general public, so in writing these programmes she had genuinely good intentions – trying to persuade educated, middle-class BBC2 viewers that the Bible is in fact both interesting and relevant to them.
In order to do this, though, she felt that she must liberate the biblical text from those traditionalists who take it at face value and use it not purely as a work of ancient history (as she does) but as a pattern for modern living. She of course feels that the ancient Israelites were vastly less enlightened than modern Western society, so religious communities that choose to share those ancient beliefs will become unavoidably sexist, politically misguided and morally repressive. One way she thinks she might successfully persuade her viewers to give up their (either dismissive or fervently credulous) association of the Bible with such unfashionable ideas, is to try to show that in fact ancient Israel was a much more liberal and ‘normal’ ancient society than the Bible makes it out to be. Effectively this justifies why she enjoys studying it so much, and will hopefully encourage others to study it also.
Even so, she has acknowledged in print (in the latest magazine of the Oxford Theology Faculty, issue 2) that there will be some who disagree with her not purely from a naïve faith-based position, such as the average evangelical churchgoer, but also from an informed scholarly position. Such scholars believe that the biblical version of the past is quite able to stand up to critical inquiry, and she regularly has to deal with students of hers who raise objections to her sceptical views (encouraging to hear!). In the classroom setting she is able to answer these or recommend further reading, but she regrets the restrictions of a television programme that doesn’t allow for footnotes or sufficiently nuanced claims. I can quite understand how difficult she must have found this.
Unfortunately, she has been warned by her BBC producers to expect angry and abusive correspondence from her viewers, quite different from the polite etiquette in the scholarly world for how to disagree with someone. Our own reactions to her programmes, therefore, whether in private or in print, should model to her and to others who share her views how we who have a personal allegiance to the God of the Bible can interact with our ‘opponents’ with gentleness and respect, as Peter instructs us in 1 Peter 3:15.
I personally enjoyed the visual presentation of the series of programmes, and was perhaps a little envious even, of the opportunity she had to visit personally so many of the archaeological and historical locations regularly referred to in Old Testament scholarship. She communicates articulately and used the three hours allotted to her very effectively.
Nevertheless, I found the programmes frustrating for three primary reasons. First, in several of her provocative suggestions, she gave the impression that these were her own innovations rather than acknowledging others who advocate these fairly well-known scholarly views. Second, too often she argued against ‘straw men’, rejecting some facile old-fashioned interpretations of the Bible rather than engaging properly with what the text itself says. Third and most important, she contented herself with making superficially subversive proposals of the sort favoured by modern Old Testament scholarship, rather than recognising the far more profoundly subversive message of the prophets themselves. The impression given is that of a teenager’s petty rebelliousness against his parents’ rules, somehow failing to recognise that his parents are in fact themselves political dissidents fighting to bring down a dangerous and oppressive dictator.
There is far more at stake in the study of the Old Testament scriptures than simply different views about what a small ethnic group believed and wrote in a little backwater of the Ancient Near East. The ancestors of Jesus’ Jewish nation were part of the revolutionary plan by the God of the whole world for restoring all humanity to its rightful position of steward of creation, after he had first created a vaccine for the spiritual cancer causing mankind to turn against both itself and its Creator. Without the Old Testament’s careful record of centuries of trials, we would have no proof that this remedy can actually work with an entire people group, and mankind would be lost in its self-destructive sickness, without hope and without God in the world.