Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou thinks that the Bible is not an accurate historical record. Oh, really? It would be easy to say "yes, we know that" and change channels. But if you jabbed the remote you missed a gem, a precious stone set in the silver screen. Francesca may have looked demure but that only made her more dangerous (BBC Two, Bible's Buried Secrets, Tuesday 22 March, 9pm).
First up was the Reverend Walter Moberly, who seemed endlessly on the verge of calling her "my child". Monotheism, he intoned, is the root of our morality. Given that our morality seems to consist of greed, viciousness and lies - and that's only in our role models - that's hardly a defence for a belief in one God. Francesca let the reverend speak. And the more he spoke, the more vacuous his pronouncements became.
Professor Muhsin Yusuf was next. He and Francesca rendezvoused in what looked like an alley. The sort of venue where you might obtain illegal substances; quite fitting if you think that religion is the opium of the people. The professor declared that God was great and that you had to believe in him or you would burn in hell. So the only thing separating the deity from a drug baron is his superior firepower.
Rabbi Ken Spiro was the most genial advocate of monotheism, cheerily trying to bring theology up to date by using management-speak. Abraham "thought outside the box". It is this particular patriarch we have to thank for the belief in one God. "Worship me", said the Ancient of Days to Abraham, "and I will give the land of Canaan to you and your descendants forever." A haggling God? A God who trafficks, trades and bargains? Perhaps we are made in his image after all. Well, at least those who cleave to the commercial world. The rest have probably descended from different deities.
And there were plenty of them around. God addresses them in Genesis iii, 22: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" he must be cast from Paradise. We don't know what happened, but there seemed to be a falling-out among these supernatural beings because the Bible warns against worshipping any other gods but the God of Abraham. Baal seemed to be a particular favourite among lapsed Israelites. Francesca was pretty keen on him too. "Look, there's Baal," she cried as an archaeologist brushed the dust off a just-excavated figure. He was "a young, strong, thrusting, virile deity" said Francesca thickly.
Her research suggested that the God of the Old Testament was none other than the Canaanite god El. If he was, he had certainly undergone a personality change in the process. El was a jolly decent sort whereas Yahweh was, well, rather moody, prone to stomping upstairs and slamming his bedroom door. And just what evidence did Francesca have for this extraordinary claim? Quite a lot: for instance, in Genesis xxviii, 19, Jacob names the place where he spent the night after the Lord: Beth-el.
What did Ken think of that? By now, he was showing signs of fatigue. This must have been the umpteenth time that Francesca had confronted him with the flaws, omissions and downright suppressions of the scriptures. But the worst was yet to come. Yahweh had a wife. Ken's beard, which had been turning steadily grey, now went white. He tried to argue that God didn't need a wife because "he is above physical needs". Possibly. But he's certainly not above psychological ones, exhibiting an almost pathological desire to be adored.
The goddess' name was Asherah and, in the Canaanite pantheon, she had been married to El. She was a fertility goddess - aha, so that's why Francesca was wearing a flowing green top. Drawings showed a big-breasted figure with a pronounced pubic triangle and a hairstyle that even Lady Gaga might baulk at. She was not a sexy goddess, said Francesca, but a life-giving one. Not like Baal then.
What is truly fascinating about Asherah is the branch above her pubic region, which signifies the Tree of Life. Surprisingly, Francesca did not relate this image to the story of Adam and Eve or to the Cross, but then she had only an hour to overturn centuries of scholarship. The goddess is mentioned 40 times in the Bible, each time as something to be destroyed. Whatever Asherah had done, probably not following the proper procedure when sacrificing to her husband, it had a devastating effect on women. Even today there are plenty of believers who think that women should be barred from religious office. What are these men afraid of? That the women will show them up?