After breaking records with The Bible, the 10-part dramatic miniseries from reality show mogul Mark Burnett that aired earlier this year, the History Channel is banking on heightened interest in the religious book to attract audiences to its latest Biblical documentary that kicks off this week.
The six-part "Bible Secrets Unveiled," which premieres Wednesday night, promises to teach viewers about the "mysteries" and "hidden facts" of the the Old Testament and New Testament, saying it will take on the "provocative questions that people of faith yearn to have answered."
While the series, which was produced over six months through interviews with dozens of noted scholars in the United States and the Middle East, doesn't break new ground in Biblical studies, it's bound to be controversial in the eyes of viewers who take a more literal and theologically conservative reading of the book.
"A lot of Biblical scholarship is controversial from simply making unsubstantiated claims or by saying things like 'we found the Ark of the Covenant and the nails of the cross,'" says Robert Cargill, an archeologist and religion professor at the University of Iowa who was a consulting producer for the show. "We wanted the scholarship itself to be controversial, based upon the facts of what we have found in our studies."
Its first episode opens with Dead Sea Scrolls and follows with examinations of the traditional belief that Moses wrote the Torah (the documentary, like many Biblical scholars today, posits that the book was actually put together over several centuries), whether Adam and Eve were created together or one before the other and who authored the New Testament. The episode, "Lost in Translation," also dives into "who actually killed Goliath," says Cargill, who was filmed over the summer while at an archaeological excavation in Azekah, Israel, near the the site where's it's believed the Biblical battle between David and Goliath would have taken place.
In addition to Cargill, who was raised as a Christian but now calls himself an agnostic, experts were drawn from Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and secular backgrounds. They include Reza Aslan, whose book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, topped bestseller charts this year after a controversial interview about his Islamic faith on Fox News, and Los Angeles-based author and Rabbi David Wolpe.
"We look at the different approaches to the canon. There are some people who say the Bible is the word of God, while others say, 'well, people did the best they could to believe in the Bible a long time ago, but now we accept that everything wasn't created in six days, now we accept that there's evolution," says Cargill.
A Gallup poll from 2011 found that three in ten Americans said they believed the Bible was the literal written word of God, while a plurality said it was "the inspired word of God" but shouldn't be taken completely literally.
"Some people say the Bible is a political document, an economic document or a legal document. At the end of the day, it's a human document, and that's what scholars look at," adds Cargill. "But the reason it's so popular is because people have found so much value in it, looking toward it for nuggets of wisdom and guidance for how to life a better life."