The Bible Unearthed
First Run Features // Unrated // $29.95 // June 23, 2009
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted June 17, 2009
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:
It's probably easy to take for granted how completely ingrained The Bible is in most of our consciousnesses. Everything from everyday language to almost subliminal folklore to characters, whether actually historical or not, that most of us grew up with, are part and parcel of most of our lives, whether or not we as individuals are particularly "religious." The Bible Unearthed, an astoundingly interesting four part French-Israeli coproduction, looks into the connections between Biblical texts and archeological investigations, and comes away with some surprising conclusions.

Based on a book of the same name by Israel Finkelstein (Professor of Archeology at Tel Aviv University) and Neil Silberman, both of whom appear in the documentary, The Bible Unearthed doesn't go the route of some biblical archeology--it's not out to prove the existence of, say, Abraham. What it does do, and quite brilliantly at that, is illuminate the text of the Bible from a historical perspective, which does, in fact, in an almost tangential way help the scholars come to certain conclusions about the veracity of those very texts.

This thoughtful examination takes its time through its four episodes, spending almost four hours looking into everything from the Patriarchs to the Kings. Starting at Megiddo (the site whose original Hebrew name was transformed into Armageddon), Finkelstein leads us on a never less than compelling journey as he explores often unexpected ways to delve into Biblical texts. For example, he attempts to pin down when Abraham may have actually lived by zeroing on mentions of the Philistines and, believe it or not, camels, trying to figure out when the "sea people" (as the Philistines were called) arrived in Palestine, and similarly when camels were domesticated enough to be part of a nomad's personal herd.

There's little if any religious posturing throughout the series, though through archival information presented objectively and without malice it's clear that biblical archeology has had a rather spotty relationship with zealots and others whose sole purpose was to prove this or that theory. Of course, then the problem became finding evidence to support that theory, no matter how flimsy, while rejecting anything that didn't fit that theory, no matter how overwhelmingly convincing that evidence might have been.

What sets Finkelstein and Silberman's research apart from what has gone before is not only its clear headedness but also its refusal to bend to commonly held preconceptions about what happened when, or if in fact anything detailed in the Bible actually "really" happened at all. It becomes clear that, for example, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were never actually related, if in fact they ever existed at all. These were three absolutely separate "hero" myths built up around three different city-state centers that were joined sometime around the seventh century BCE, probably purposefully, when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah became conjoined, so to speak, after Israel's fall to the Assyrians. This of course will offend the more literal minded Bible readers, but the evidence seems to be insurmountable.

This is an extremely well produced piece, perhaps not as in depth as the book upon which it was based, but nonetheless an invigorating and solid piece of reporting. Visually the documentary does a good job of establishing not only places (gorgeous location footage is the norm throughout the four episodes), but also of ideas and the actual history being described. There's some bare bones CGI utilizes sparingly, as well as quite a bit of archival footage of various digs, and of course lots of historical paintings, illustrations and, last but not least, Biblical texts themselves. Evocative underscoring also helps set a mood of ancient civilizations and cultures.

My hunch is a lot of people wouldn't even think twice about watching something like this. "Too dry, too cerebral, not interesting enough," might be some of their comments, but I'm here to tell you if you have even a passing interest in what impact the Bible has had on worldwide culture and perhaps even on you individually, you are going to be fascinated by The Bible Unearthed. This is a methodical and very deep exploration that takes several unanticipated twists and turns as Finkelstein singles out tidbits that would probably fly by the eye of most any reader. More importantly than that, though, The Bible Unearthed shows scholars rigorously questioning long held beliefs, beliefs that themselves colored other scholars' researches, and sometimes negatively so. Finkelstein and his cohorts seem absolutely committed to simply finding out the truth of who wrote the Bible and when, and what if any veracity is in what they did write. Though I don't think this particular adage is from the Bible, it nonetheless pertains to The Bible Unearthed in spades (pun intended): truth is stranger than fiction.


There is one major drawback to The Bible Unearthed, and that is its relatively lowly image quality. Transferred in an unenhanced 1.78:1 OAR, the DVD sports fairly omnipresent edge enhancement and occasional aliasing and shimmer. If you can get used to that, the information imparted more than makes up for this failing, but this is a curiously badly authored DVD.

Luckily the DD 2.0 soundtrack is much better than the image quality. All dialogue and voiceover is clear (though Finkestein's heavy Israeli accent can be a bit hard to decipher at times). No outstanding separation is heard, but none really is needed, and the mix has no pops, dropouts or other audio artifacts. No subtitles are available.

None are offered.

Final Thoughts:
One of the most thought provoking pieces I've had the pleasure of watching recently, The Bible Unearthed is probably not for the fundamentalists out there, but should be welcomed for others with a more open-minded approach to what is arguably the most important text to ever influence human existence. This is stellar documentary making, with a fascinating premise and impressive scholarship. Highly recommended.

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