The Providence Journal interviews Gary Glassman

New slant on Bible's origins

Thursday, November 13, 2008
By Richard C. Dujardin
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- After years of producing documentaries on topics as varied as volcanoes, the secrets of the Parthenon and the crash of Swissair Flight 111, Providence-based filmmaker Gary Glassman has produced a stunning documentary about the origins of the Hebrew Bible.

The Bible's Buried Secrets is a two-hour NOVA documentary that is scheduled to air on PBS Tuesday. Glassman, who is the show's writer, producer and director, describes it as an archaeological detective story that explores how the ancient Israelites were transformed from being a people who worshipped many gods into a people who believed in a single God.

"The traditional story is that Moses authored the first five books of the Bible, but the consensus of most scholars is that it was the work of many hands," says Glassman.

The film largely accepts the hypothesis of scholars who say those five books represent texts that were written over a period of several hundred years, which were compiled and edited into a form familiar to people today in 536 B.C. after the Jews went into exile in Babylon.

"If there had been a historical Moses, it would have been 700 years after his death."

What's that? Does Glassman say, "if" there was a Moses?

He explains that because the film had to be based on solid scholarship and research, the filmmakers had to look for evidence outside the scriptures. While there is a possibility that there were Jews who fled Egypt 3,200 years ago, the scholars who were interviewed by Glassman's team found no evidence of a massive exodus of 600,000 men and their families as described in the Bible.

At the same time, Glassman says the film points to other exciting discoveries that help to support parts of the Bible story, such as a huge stone monument known as the Merneptah Stele, which is believed to have been erected by an Egyptian pharaoh around 1208 B.C. On it, the pharaoh lists the peoples he conquered, including the Israelites.

Stuck into maps of the Middle East at Glassman's Providence Pictures headquarters on the third floor of the old Providence Journal Building at Eddy and Westminster streets are tacks showing numerous archaeological sites in Israel, Syria and Jordan that the filmmaker and his team visited during the two years they worked on the production.

During one visit to an archaeological dig in a valley in Tel Rehov, Israel, the team was on hand when archaeologists unearthed a clay figurine of Asherah, who was regarded by many of the ancient Israelites as a fertility goddess and consort to the god, El, who they believed would become "Yahweh's wife."

The finding of such figurines is not unusual. While many people assume, from the stories told to them in Sunday school, that the Israelites had been monotheists from the time of Abraham, the figurines as well as exhortations of Hebrew prophets against idol worship, show that the ancient Israelites were perhaps no different from other ancient peoples and believed in multiple gods, Glassman says.

But it is noteworthy, he says, how that changed during the period of the Babylonian exile. "Something happened during their exile that forged their belief in one God."

For the first time, they identified themselves as Jews and read and studied a Bible that taught them to see themselves and their relationship to God in a new way.

To bring the story to life, Glassman and his team visited ancient ruins over two years and employed digital animation techniques that allowed them, for example, to show what the long-lost Temple of Solomon could have looked like before it was destroyed. They commissioned a hand-crafted illustrated Bible -- a bound collection of art, featuring images of ancient frescoes and illuminated medieval manuscripts -- which became part of the film.

"I think what distinguishes this film from others is the depths that we went into to create historical accuracy," Glassman said.

Providence Pictures also hired actual scribes. Tristan Barako, the show's associate producer and senior researcher, who has a doctorate in Middle Eastern religious studies from Harvard University, even taught the scribes how to write in ancient Paleo-Hebrew lettering to make the scenes more accurate.

This is a film, says Glassman, that crystallizes 100 years of academic and archeological scholarship, and shows how the Jews gave the world the concept of one God, fundamental to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

A native of New York, Glassman received a master's degree in fine art from the University of California at Los Angeles before meeting his future wife, Joan Branham, a visiting scholar at the Getty Center there.

In 1996, his wife was hired as a professor of art and art history at Providence College, where she is now a department chairman.

In the dozen years since, he started Providence Pictures. Glassman's company has produced 30 documentaries, including award-winning films such as the one on the building of the Parthenon in Athens.

That production recently won the top award at the International Archaeological Film Festival and was the highest rated show of the year on the Franco-German Arte television network. It was also the second-highest rated show on NOVA in the last two years. Glassman says he's hoping for even bigger ratings this time.

Asked if the film would inspire people or upset them, Glassman said: "I would say that in many ways the film is like the Bible.

"You can find what you want in it or make it what you want. People who want to do good and those who want to do bad can find messages in the Bible. I would hope that people who see this film will find a message of inspiration in the best traditions of what it can mean to people."

As for the film's impact on his own faith, he says working on the production inspired him.

"I have to say that my relationship to religion has very much to do with sitting around the family table. The table that me and my wife and daughter, in-laws and friends gather around on Friday night is that same table that I grew up with."

Regardless of whether there really was a Moses or an Abraham, "my sense is that what the stories are about is our being part of a long tradition that goes back thousands of years. Making this film has increased my respect for the religious traditions."