Britain's vogue for public debate as the smart evening out shows no sign of slackening. A couple of years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a debate about the role and merit of religion not only selling out months in advance, but "due to unprecedented demand for tickets", moving to a larger venue and selling that out too.
The affirmative team - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Professor A.C. Grayling - certainly has pulling power, but the team arguing against the motion will also hold some interest for Documentary Channel viewers. Alongside Rabbi Julia Neuberger and Professor Roger Scruton is Nigel Spivey, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a classical art and archaeology expert who came to public attention via Digging For Jesus, which screens, tidily enough, on Christmas Eve (10pm) on the Documentary Channel.
In the programme, which debuted last Christmas on Britain's ITV, Spivey examines the top 10 archaeological sites offering evidence that Jesus Christ did indeed walk the earth, and finding what he describes as "a core of historical reality that defies even the most hardened sceptic" as to Jesus' existence.
Divinity, of course, is quite another matter, but believers, including this Christian blogger, have been excited by the work:
The program was truly a breath of fresh air to watch, it was great to see a self-proclaimed sceptic being confronted with strong supporting evidence for the Gospel accounts and then to watch a sceptic humbly acknowledge the historicity of the Gospels. As Christians who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, archaeological exploration of the Holy Land shouldn’t be something which we worry about it ‘disproving’ the Gospels and go on the defensive. In fact we should be strengthened by archaeological exploration, as the New Testament narrative is proven time and again to be consistent with the facts on the ground. Just as we’d expect it to be.
Other online discussions of the programme were more circumspect.
Digging for Jesus re-screens at 6am and 2pm on Christmas Day, and then several times over the next few days (search the Sky listings for full details).
But there's not much more for the pious on Christmas Day itself: the day from 3pm is devoted to Living Famously programmes on the hour, featuring, in order: Oliver Reed, Benny Hill, Dusty Springfield, Keith Moon, Rudolf Nureyev, Mae West, Karen Carpenter and Peter Sellers. Most, if not all, of that lot would have made Baby Jesus cry …
At school we were taught that the Jewish captivity in Egypt was an historical fact but there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to support it. It appears to have been invented.
Fundamentalist Christians are determined to find archaeological evidence to support their claims that the Bible is literally and entirely true. In doing so, they do damage to archaeology. If you google for research in this area, you are more likely to find fundamentalist websites that distort the facts than genuine academic research.
There is a parallel debate among Jews.The leading Archaeologist in this field is Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University who says:
In some subjects, and with regard to some eras, local finds are unambiguous and make clear that the biblical account does not comport with the reality. In other subjects, everything is open to interpretation.
The leading edge of the dispute today is the question whether the United Monarchy of David and Solomon was a large and glorious kingdom. Confrontation with the archaeological finds raises argument whether one should read the Bible literally. When all is said and done, the biblical text is highly ideological, and so one must learn to read between the lines.
Most people just don't want to hear all this and are not comfortable with it. For scholars the matters are clear enough, and they know where there is, and is not, agreement, but they cannot compel the public to listen. By and large modern research is respectful of religious faith and has no wish to compel anyone to change his or hers; for that reason they have not forced anyone to pay attention to our discoveries. Today more than 90% of scholars agree that there was no Exodus from Egypt, 80% feel that that the Conquest of the Land did not take place as described in the Bible, and about 50% agree that there was no powerful United Monarchy.
Professor Finkelstein's comments can be found at the end of this paper, which is worth reading.