Theologians ought to love this BBC series on the Bible. Too bad it gives in to Dan Brown-style silliness

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, presenter of The Bible's Buried Secrets (Photo: BBC)

The Bible’s Buried Secrets, now in its second episode, is the sort of television programme that theologians ought to cherish. Or so it seems at first sight. In an age that loves simplification and dumbing down, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the programme’s presenter – and an absolute natural in front of the camera, by the way – does not shy away from asking some weighty questions. Last week, for example, she made us confront the uncomfortable truth that King David, a huge Biblical presence, has left only a minor archaeological footprint, compared to King Omri, one of the villains of the Old Testament, who is passed over in just a few lines.

This week, she turned her attention to the origins of monotheism – again, a worthy subject for enquiry, and it was certainly encouraging to watch a television programme that did not hesitate to use abstract nouns of more than two syllables. But, and sadly it is a huge but, the producers decided to sex the whole subject up by entitling the programme “Did God have a wife?” One can imagine how this happened – a conference in a smoke-filled room, the realisation that religion does not sell, the search for the sensational angle, and lo and behold, a serious scholar made to sound like a Da Vinci Code-style mountebank. If it were not for the fact that Dr Stavrakopoulou looks perfectly capable of fighting her own corner, I could almost feel sorry for her.

The doctor showed in the course of an hour that Israelite monotheism developed slowly over the centuries; she hinted that the concept of Abraham as the first monotheist was a theological reading back to a realisation that might have come many centuries after Abraham. There were, to put it crudely, other gods around at the time, and many of the Israelites may have followed these gods as well as the God of Israel. This is not in dispute, and an attentive reading of the Bible makes this clear. (Have a look at the strange story contained in Genesis chapter 31, for instance, which was not mentioned in the programme.)

The entire Old Testament is the history of a struggle between strict monotheists and syncretists, those who wished to follow the Gods of Canaan as well as the God of Israel. Where Stavrokopoulou pushed the boat out, I found, was in her assertion (without any evidence that I could see) that polytheism was the norm for the Israelites until the Babylonian captivity.

But it was in the closing moments of the programme that scholarship seemed to be given up in favour of what was, in fact, mere opinion. First, the doctor suggested that the cult of the angels and the saints in contemporary Christianity was a hangover from polytheism. This is completely false. The Blessed Virgin is not some sort of lineal descendant of Asherah. The Blessed Virgin is a human being, not a goddess; she represents all that humanity is called to be; if she loses her humanity, she would have no appeal to her fellow human beings. But Mary is one of us – that is the whole point of her. Second, the doctor suggested that monotheism presents God as exclusively male, and men thus like God, which leads to the marginalisation and repression of women.

With a charge like this, where can one start? The polytheistic Greeks and Romans denied females all political rights, despite the fact that Athens was under the protection of the goddess Athene, and Rome under the protection of Juno. The Julio-Claudian rulers claimed descent from Venus, but were not noted for their feminism. The idea that polytheism is more friendly to women is simply unsupported by the facts. It is easy to claim and sounds good, but as a serious thesis, it deserves to be dismissed. How on earth did it find itself in what purported to be a serious programme about the Bible?

Dr Stavrakopoulou wants us to see that the Bible and history are not necessarily the same thing, and that is a worthy task; she does have some thought-provoking things to say about modern Israeli claims to the land of ancient Israel; but her programme was undermined by the sheer silliness of trying to beat Dan Brown at his own game.