Review – Bible’s Buried Secrets – Did King David’s Empire exist?

Francesca Stavrakopoulou presents the BBC's Bible's Buried Secrets

Well I have watched the much trailed Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s first programme on the Bible’s buried secrets. The first episode was looking at the evidence for whether King David and his kingdom actually existed.

Israel Finkelstein

It was in part a fascinating watch. There were some things, as in all these things, that were great about it. I liked the idea of looking properly at the archaeological record without always trying to match it to a verse of the Bible. It was fascinating watching a bit of the debate going on between the Biblical minimalists (of whom I don’t think it unfair to say that Francesca Stavrakopoulou is one) and the Biblical maximalists.

Some of the questions she raised were great questions to ask. If David existed and ruled a great  empire surely it would be reasonable to see signs of that empire in the archaeological digs? If Solomon re-built the fortress cities of Meggido, Hazor and Gezer then surely there should signs of that in the archaeological digs there?

Her main argument seems to be that Israel and Judah never had a united monarchy and that Judah had only a few villages and no big cities. In fact she believes that the power house was in the Kingdom of Israel in the north and not in the Kingdom of Judah in the South. David, if he existed, ruled raiding bands rather than armies.

One of the main focus of her programme was looking at the evidence and being sceptical of anything the Bible might say. In fact she was sceptical of anything that might even support the Biblical evidence – such as the Tel Dan or the excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Now the thing with all of this is that we all of us bring prejudices and presumptions to the discussion. I do, Francesca Stavrakopoulou does and (dear reader) you do. There is no such thing as a neutral view. This is very evident in Dr Stavrakopoulou’s programme. One of the main critiques she seems to have in view is the use of the Bible to authorise the existence of the State of Israel (now I have some sympathy with her) but this is another dangerous step in the mix that she is brewing.

BBC film Bible's buried secrets presented by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou

But some of her biases are just plainly absurd. She talks about the Biblical picture of the Philistines (for instance) as that of being barbarians. This is hokum and hogwash. The bible describes them as being more advanced and more powerful and as being a series of city states – all of which is true. It describes how their chariots and metal weapons were so much better than those of the Israelites – for example Saul is the only one described with sword and armour and it describes how implements had to be sharpened by the Philistines.

Other areas that I would genuinely like answers to are ones such as if there were only a few villages in the 10th century BC why were there flourishing cities less than a century later? They didn’t have great medical advances or technological advances so what caused the growth under this theory that Dr Stavrakopoulou puts forward?

Also if David and Solomon are later myths to create and bind a mythology for a return from exile people why are they described with so many faults? You find far fewer faults ascribed to monarchs such as Josiah and Hezekiah so why so many faults laid at the doors of David (especially) and Solomon? If this was a heroic history being created you wouldn’t expect so many faults! This is essentially Baruch Halpern’s argument (the meeting for which Francesca Stavrakopoulou is shown getting dolled up – can’t imagine that being done if it had been a male presenter) which Stavrakopoulou dismisses without really arguing a case against.

She glancingly points out that the Bible is written as a religious text but it sometimes seems that she doesn’t unpack some of the implications. The writers of it are not interested in giving a blow by blow account of each king and what they did from a purely historians point of view. They are interested in what the story of God in their history was. This means that sometime they used parable or imagery (such as Genesis 1-3) to describe the workings of God.

Meggido, Israel. Will Cookson on the Governor's chair

Sitting on the Governor's Chair at Meggido

She is on firmer ground in pointing out the dangers of the political use of archaeology but her rather fatuous statement at the end that you should keep politics and religion separate is puerile. The statement is in itself both a religious and a political statement in itself.

I’m pleased I watched it and it raises some interesting questions but not much of it is new and some it is just plain wrong.

Another review here

Have just reviewed the lastest programme Did God have a wife?

Final review up – The Real garden of Eden


17 comments on “Review – Bible’s Buried Secrets – Did King David’s Empire exist?

  1. Chris
    March 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    In normal circumstances I love these types of programmes, but this was so one sided her point just got lost, I felt she used so many different examples to make the same point that in the end I stopped listening and begun to wish I had watched Silk on BBC 1.

    • Will Cookson
      March 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

      I wrote an article about it a week ago that said it would all be a storm in a tea cup. What I didn’t expect was the tidal-wave of hits on the blog yesterday and today – so I watched it all the way through – and made notes!!

      I did think that the programme was one-sided – but hey that’s life. In fact interesting to see how other scholars appear to be more balanced than her – but it wouldn’t make such good controversial TV for the BBC. And why the heck did we see her being made up to going out to dinner with another scholar? Nothing to do with having a young attractive scholar?? Bit 1950’s.

  2. tom
    March 17, 2011 at 3:25 am #

    “Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou (an atheist) has been given a primetime BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, in which she makes a number of startling suggestions….”

    “The BBC’s religious output is overseen by Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion and ethics, whose appointment in 2009 prompted complaints from viewers who believed that the role should not have been given to a Muslim.”


  3. Yakov Israel
    March 20, 2011 at 1:11 am #

    It would be interesting to see whether the BBC will commission a similar deconstruction of the Koran, which might prove that Muslims use their religious book to legitimise enforced colonisation. One imagines that they wouldn’t ask a lecturer from Exeter to host the show, though – especially now that we know the University receives massive funding from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Royal Family. One also imagines that it would be difficult to get the BBC to agree to such a programme – mainly because there is no such thing as modern textual criticism of the Koran, but also because the BBC’s head of religious programming, Aaqil Ahmed, is a practising Muslim.

  4. Will Cookson
    March 20, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    Tom & Yakov,
    I think that we need to be a bit careful. The BBC did do a great job on the Nativity at Christmas – the best I have seen. Also we need to be careful to differentiate between Muslims. Just as there are very different expressions within Christianity and Judaism so there is in Islam. It is not a monolithic faith – there are many differing interpretations.

    I also think that there must be space for good scholarship. I don’t think that she is a particularly bad scholar – its just she takes one stance to the realistic exclusion of others – all a bit of a tabloid feel to it.

    Of course, there is sometimes a strong feeling that Judaism and Christianity are being used as stalking horses to attack Islam. I seem to remember that Richard Dawkins (not that he comes into this here) once said that Catholicism was the 2nd most evil religion on the planet – without explicitly naming the 1st!

  5. Brad Stock
    March 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    There are facts and then there is the bible of some sort. The bible is about historical accurate as a pig flying. It has been revised, parts deleted, fact mixed with fantasy. It is only useful as toilet paper.

    Now her being an atheist is a great thing. She is not prejudging based on fantasy. Atheists rely on fact not conjecture.

    • Will Cookson
      March 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

      Thanks for posting. Its a great line but it doesn’t fit in with the facts. As I said in the review the Philistines are not portrayed in the bible as barbarians. The bible says that they were more technologically advanced than the Israelites. This isn’t what Dr Stavrakopoulou portrays in her film.
      Please also be careful in some of the more colourful use of language – I do have a policy on this – see the About page.

  6. paul
    March 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    A powerful and slick demolition job of sacred things only accessible to a spiritual, humble mind, that trembles at the Word of God [Isaiah 57: 15]
    Not by an alleged athiest with a mirror close to hand.
    Series is further evidence of a growing global attempt to wipe out Israel – all nations will gather ultimately against it – then Yahweh with intervene through His son [Zech 14: 1-4]
    Good news is that we can choose to believe and look up as redemption draws nigh

  7. ian Paul
    March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    Will, thanks for your comments. I have reviewed both programmes in some detail on mine at and you might be interested in them.

  8. Mike
    March 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    I’ve watched both programmes so far broadcast. I’ve enjoyed them – I’ve learnt some things and particularly like the engaging personality of the presenter. Of course, we all come to topics like these with a bias – I’m an agnostic, who tends towards atheism (I’d like to believe in a benevolent God and an afterlife but when I rationally examine the universe around me, I cannot find any real evidence to give credance to any supernatural based religion – no offense intended to anyone with a firmly held belief in their God, or Gods). I think religion is often used as a ‘cloak’ for political ends and goals (as shown in these documentaries)…a real shame, as mostly if you truly analyse world religions they have the same goals of love, peace and helping those less fortunate than you. I actually think that the message of most religions is more important than all of the supernatural bit – you can believe in an unseen deity and still be a nasty piece of work. From a personal viewpoint, I don’t mind if Jesus was a historical figure (or the Son of God) it is the message about how we should truly lead our lives that is far more important. If all the ‘facts’ presented in these documentaries turn out ot be true it doesn’t matter – the really important lesson is how we all live and interact with those around us (and I mean not just the bloke next door, but in global sense).
    Nice blog site by the way – good design and pics etc!

    • Will Cookson
      March 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. I do agree with you that all too often that religion can be used as a cloak not necessarily just political ends (because I think that can be ok – getting rid of poverty for instance or healing the sick are both religious and political aims) but more importantly for power. I think that my problem with the programme (besides disagreeing with her!!) is that she is also making a power play (and some of my religious compatriots are doing the same).

      I also believe that the key is not so much the dogma (on either side) because dogma as dogma is all too often used as a mask. It is much more the values that drive us. Now this can be belief. It is because I believe in the resurrection and because I believe that I am loved that I can try and love all those around me. You too will have belief systems that will similarly support you. Some are better than others at doing this. I have people in our church at all stages of belief and its a joy and a privilege to have ALL of them there.

      One of the reasons I started this blog was to be able to discuss things and all debate that was good natured (even if passionate) and to allow differing views to be expressed. So thank you for your comment.

      Thanks too for the comments on the blog design – must admit to being a bit of a geek!

  9. Candace
    September 12, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    Was there a “world empire” in existence during the reign of King David?

    • Will Cookson
      September 12, 2011 at 7:29 am #


      Of course even the biggest empire then could not be described as a “world empire”. Many believe that the rise of Israel was possible because of the weakness of the surrounding empires. Egypt in the south going through a period of decline, Babylonia was politically weak after the demise of the Hammurabi regime and the Hittites in the north had problems of its own.

      But there was no overwhelming power – China was still fragmented, as was India, Rome and Greece were not yet great powers. Hope that helps a bit?

  10. Patrick Geaney
    December 13, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    Clearly Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is no Academic as she claims. No Academic (who at the very least would have first studied his or her sources), would make the absurd claim that the Bible describers the Philistines as being ‘barbarians’. The very opposite is the case. Go and read the Bible Dr Stavrakopoulou

    Truly as the saying goes ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’

  11. Shane Jenson
    May 7, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    I would like to compliment your review and writing it is very concise and eloquent at the same time. I found this looking for something else but I think of all the research I have done today outside of reading the bible itself it was the high point to any opinion I have read. Thanks for that.

  12. Melanda Guenther
    December 5, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    I just finished watching this compelling account of what does seem to be motivated by proving Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s own personal views that an empire motivated by religion was created by a myth, that is David’s Empire. She meets mainly with scholars who agree with her own view point, and we hear few other view points. She leans towards interviewing those who don’t agree with her who have such an obvious bias towards disproving the existence of David’s empire that this doesn’t do these participants much credit. It doesn’t do Dr. Stavrakopoulou much credit either.

    A good scholar takes the facts as they come. It is compelling to me that Will, who writes this blog has questions about assigning dates during Biblical times, and that they are not set in stone quite as rigorously as Dr. Stavrakopoulou would have us believe. I know this from having studied archeology at an undergraduate level (and although I teach International Business now at a university level, and not archeology), that dates are shaky at best, and a mistake can easily be made where dates can differ by 100 years when we are examining archeological evidence without the ability to carbon date, or when using even more sophisticated dating tools.

    Dr. Stavrakopoulou has her own agenda, and I think its a little naive for her or any other scientist to believe that they are not biased just because they are an atheist, when they are discussing Biblical archeology. They are biased towards finding out that David’s Empire didn’t exist, that much is clear. So, if you are truly unbiased, and a real scholar, it would be more convincing that you are presenting an unbiased account if you don’t push the research one way or another, and if you present some real problems in archeology such as dating, so that you leave room for doubt regarding your own beliefs, assertions and research. I think its outrageous that she makes the statement, “I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that David’s empire didn’t exist, and that Judah and Israel were not united by David.” based on the thin argument and evidence that she provided. I have not studied archeology at a graduate level and I found some major holes in what she was saying. Does anybody know where she teaches?

    And I thought it was sad that part of the show she was putting on make up, what was the point of that? And as a woman, its always hard to be taken seriously without nonsense like that in a traditionally male-dominated field such as Biblical research. You don’t do other academics like myself any favours with that nonsense.

  13. Fallon Green
    September 13, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    I just watched this as well and found it just so one-sided. I felt her documentary had such a very clear agenda and was a bit disrespectful to all living in that region. She claims she is seeking the truth but all her theories towards disputing a David kingdom were well developed in sharp contrast to when she was forced to consider “for science” its possible existence to which she had barely one or two supporting details. Its so stark the contrast that dare I say it felt a bit like propaganda. Forgive me for saying it. I did not find it enlightening and in fact the documentary disturbed me so much I had to come online and see if anyone else was as startled as me. The over-politicization of the story of David made me very uncomfortable and her rendering made me feel at times like she was mocking the faith of thousands. BTW, I belong to no one religion. I just have to say again, I am glad I am not the only one a little weirded out by what was a very confusing documentary.

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