Controversy over the Bible runs rampant. For a while, a small group of scholars calling themselves the Jesus Seminar won sensational headlines from magazines. That group (though some are highly respected scholars) claims little of the New Testament can be validated, very few of Jesus' words can be reliably attributed to him, and so on.
Now it's the Old Testament under the same revisionist fire. A new documentary attempts to put this controversy in context. Digging for the Truth: Archeology and the Bible (The History Channel, Dec. 17, 9-11 p.m.) needs to be about two hours longer than it is. Too many loose ends are in need of tying up. And like so many documentaries dealing with complex subjects, it tends to oversimplify a variety of scholarly opinions into two camps.
Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the Bible, history, or archaeology, the film is riveting. It's shocking to find how politicized the Hebrew Scriptures have become. From the confines of academic speculation to the spotlight of political debate, the film shows, for example, that it may be impossible to appreciate the situation in Israel today without understanding how the Bible is being used by both sides to discredit the other.
A small group of Old Testament "minimalist" scholars has made sensational claims that Hellenistic Jews invented the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures to validate Jewish heritage. In this view, Moses didn't lead the Israelites out of Egypt - in fact, he never existed. Kings David and Solomon were likewise as mythological as Zeus.
Never mind the physical evidence of ancient Israel: Minimalist biblical scholars are not, as it turns out, archaeologists. Their claims are based on their interpretation of text.
"Minimalists read the text as myth," says William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson and author of "What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?" "But archaeologists engage every day with the reality of ancient Israel. It never occurs to us to doubt it existed."
It comes down to this: Those who support Palestinian claims to absolute sovereignty in the region are using the academic debate to say Israel has no claims to the Holy Land. And many of those who support Israel's claim say biblical tradition is backed by historical-archaeological findings of an ancient state, perhaps founded by King David.
The debate is hardly new. It's the result of a century of skepticism in biblical research. And it's true that the first archaeology in the Holy Land was undertaken by Christian ministers. Some of their findings have been reinterpreted. But archaeology now errs on the side of caution rather than faith.
"Archaeologists know how much they don't know," Dr. Dever says. "We are always finding new evidence.... We also know we have ideologies - but we can set them aside [in favor of] objectivity. There is an enormous consensus among archaeologists about so many issues."
Dever is not a theologian - or even religious. But he understands the importance of the Scriptures to Western civilization - and the morally edifying nature of them. Biblical minimalists tend to be post-modernists, he says, who believe that there are no facts and all claims to knowledge are mere social constructs. One might suppose, then, that minimalists would see their own perspectives as social constructs, too, but in the film they talk about them as if they were Gospel. Now, there's irony.
Another kind of religious controversy surfaces in A&E Investigative Reports: Healing and Prayer: Power or Placebo? (A&E, Dec. 17, 10-11 p.m.). In the last 12 years, at least 100 scientific studies have been conducted that support the idea that prayer can heal.
"Most critics would look at the most recent studies and say there really is something going on here," says Dr. Larry Dossey in the program. "Some of this science really does look bulletproof." He says the evidence is so powerful that clinics and hospitals are beginning to bring in prayer as part of medical treatment.
The filmmakers interview people who have experienced outstanding healings that they attribute to prayer. A Roman Catholic woman recovered from severe brain damage. Michael Lanham lived through a life-threatening illness. "Every time they'd tell me something bad, I'd turn to my church group, and they'd say, 'no, we're not going to accept that,' " his wife says. He is convinced prayer saved his life.
In the program skeptical doctors say his healing and others are the result of the "placebo effect." Other doctors don't claim to know why prayer appears to be so effective, but are still willing to pray with their patients.
And while the placebo effect may help explain an adult's healing, what about a child's? In the program, a couple tells about the distress they felt when their 20-month-old toddler was diagnosed with a leukemia-like disease, ITP. She grew sicker under medical care and finally the wife, who had been raised in Christian Science, asked her husband if they could rely on prayer in Christian Science. The child recovered fully within a month, has had no recurring symptoms, and is now a healthy 15-year-old. Their next-door neighbor, a medical nurse-practitioner, saw it all and is shown commenting with wonder on the healing.
Skeptics abound in the documentary, of course, including those critical of Christian Scientists' sole dependence on prayer. One doctor asserts it's a bad idea to mix religion and medicine. He also says religion doesn't need science to prove itself because "it is independently valuable. And attempts to use science to validate religion [are] clearly offensive."
But other doctors say they should use any effective means they can find to treat patients. Today, half of American medical schools offer courses in health and spirituality, and the National Institutes of Health is funding research on the connection between spirituality and healing.