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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Planet of the Apes: A Resource for Teaching Archaeology in Introductory Classes on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible [1]

Steve Cook


People who have seen the 1968 film The Planet of the Apes remember it for several reasons—the quote: “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” the final shot of the partially buried Statue of Liberty, and actors in Academy Award-nominated costumes as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. [2] Some might recall that the film includes a scene that turns the Scopes Monkey Trial on its head (chapter sixteen) and that the actor who plays its “protagonist,” Colonel George Taylor, appeared as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. It also bears noting that archaeology plays a crucial role in the story. Furthermore, in its representation and use of archaeology, Planet of the Apes provides a surprisingly helpful resource for introductory courses on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. In this brief essay, I want to highlight two ways in which Planet of the Apes can be especially useful: 1) productively exploring how archaeology interacts with students’ views on the Bible as scripture, and 2) effectively teaching the “archaeology basics” most often presented in introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible textbooks.

Is the Bible True?

For many (but not all) students in American classrooms, discussion of the Bible in light of archaeology potentially challenges their religious faith. This, of course, depends on whether or not the students have a faith-based commitment to the biblical text and/or how they understand this commitment. Nevertheless, for many students the archaeological results commonly presented in introductory texts (especially on the topics of Abraham, the Exodus, and Joshua’s conquest) can raise tough questions. And Planet of the Apes can provide a resource to discuss the impact of archaeology on the biblical text as scripture.

At the beginning of the film, Charlton Heston’s character Taylor, an astronaut fed-up with human beings, lands on a seemingly foreign planet. Instead of encountering inhabitants who prove that “Somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man,” he encounters talking apes who hunt, experiment on, and kill mute human beings. Are humans of planet Earth better than these apes? Taylor thinks so, and in the movie’s context, he can prove it if he can prove that the talking simians evolved from humans like those he left behind. Dr. Zaius, the apes’ Chief Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science, thinks differently. According to his sacred scrolls, God made ape in God’s image and voiceless humans served as pets in the long-ago past. After Taylor “disproves” Zaius’ scrolls with archaeological data, Zaius asserts: “I found nothing in the cave [the film’s archaeological site] to alter my conception of man, and I still live by its injunction” (in chapter twenty-five). While the remains of past civilizations refute Zaius’ scripture as historical, they ultimately do not mean a thing to him. He still reads his scriptures as such.

Some students might ask: “How can Zaius think this way?” Those who do not see a problem might have a hermeneutic that does not demand historicity from sacred texts. They might also see Taylor as Moses and consider whatever he says and his implied Bible as “capital T” truth that renders Zaius’ talk of scripture moot. But Zaius is not quiet, and his affirmation of his scripture returns to humble and infuriate Taylor when he finally meets the sand-buried Lady Liberty. Why does Zaius think the way that he does? Zaius knows more about human history and culture than Taylor. He knows that humans kill each other. He knows that they cause destruction. From where does Zaius’ zeal for his sacred scrolls come? It is not solely from the revelation contained therein. Rather, he reads his scripture and archaeology (the remains of the Statue of Liberty, for example) together.

In some ways, he reminds me of Father Roland de Vaux. On the subject of the Bible and archaeology, de Vaux is probably best known for saying, in regard to the “credo” of Deut 26:5-9: “If this summary of ‘sacred history’ is contradicted by ‘history,’ and if this confession of faith does not correspond to the facts, then the faith of Israel is void and so is our own.” [3] Perhaps mitigating the finality of such a pronouncement, de Vaux wrote in 1970:

There should be no conflict between a well-established archaeological fact and a critically examined text. One and the same archaeological fact or one and the same text may allow a choice among several historical interpretations: the proper interpretation is then the one in which both ancient witnesses are in accord. [4]

We can hear a trace of de Vaux in one of Zaius’ comments made earlier in Planet of the Apes: “There is no contradiction between faith and science—true science.” Thomas W. Davis has noted that de Vaux provided a middle ground between Biblical archaeologists such as Albright and more skeptical exegetes like Noth by using the subjective language of “well-established” archaeology and “critically examined” text. [5] Perhaps similarly, Zaius evokes and holds to “true science” as something that trumps archaeology and historical-critical approaches to scripture to maintain the enduring validity of his sacred scrolls.

Planet of the Apes provides a thought-provoking resource for classroom discussion of the impact of archaeology on “biblical faith” because it gives an occasion to hear different opinions. Dr. Zaius provides one type of reader for students to consider. He is a proud but pious man, who understands the language of science, but nevertheless, he does not need history to validate scripture. Father de Vaux provides another model of a reader, supplied as such by an instructor, for students to consider. And it could be productively asked: “How might a reader like de Vaux bring his or her own experience, knowledge, and interests to the tasks of establishing archaeological fact and critically examining a text?” Finally, in classroom discussion of archaeology’s connection to scripture, one could introduce Thomas Thompson’s comment made after his critique of the historicity of the ancestral narratives: “To learn that what we have believed is not what we should have believed is not to lose our faith.” [6] Through classroom discussion assisted by Planet of the Apes, one can tease out connections, similarities, and differences between Zaius, de Vaux, Thompson, and students themselves that might otherwise go unnoticed and/or unsaid. By doing so, instructors can productively challenge their students to consider and evaluate their ideas about historicity, history, and scripture.


Teaching Archaeology


Most Hollywood representations of archaeology do not do a service to the discipline. While not perfect in its representation, Planet of the Apes does well to collapse a multi-period dig site into a Hollywood set and a type of “courtroom scene” in the movie’s twenty-fourth chapter. In doing so, the film provides a unique opportunity to review basics of archaeological method most often presented in introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible textbooks. Many textbooks, for example, discuss the use of squares to control excavations and how Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation of Jericho changed the way scholarship thinks about Joshua’s conquest. In chapter twenty-four of Planet of the Apes, students will see something resembling balks, albeit poorly maintained. If students can both identify and critique the film’s field methods, they will have learned something important.

The film also appropriately highlights the importance archaeologists give to chronology. When discussing the age of his findings, the film’s archaeologist Cornelius places them within a timeframe relative to one another in such a way as to delineate the appearance of ape civilization after earlier, more advanced human community. In doing so, he performs the same evaluative processes archaeologists practice. Interestingly, Cornelius presents his reconstruction of successive cultures in a way that emulates William F. Albright’s assessment of the apparent cultural disconnect between urban civilizations in the Early Bronze IV-Middle Bronze I period. In both cases, the “Dark Age” reflects a change of inhabitants. If one has introduced debates on the archaeology of the ancestral age in one’s classroom, the film provides yet another tool for student’s to demonstrate and interact with what they have learned.

Finally, the film provides an opportunity to explore the difficulty in reading mute archaeological remains. Most important to Taylor’s argument with Zaius are artifacts that he and the film’s audience recognize as human (especially a talking doll as well as a pair of eyeglasses and a pace maker). Not willing to take Taylor’s interpretation of artifacts without argument, Zaius states: “I could offer an alternate description of every one of those articles which is just as ingenious as yours, but it would be conjecture not proof.” Although the movie portrays Zaius as thickheaded to reinforce its cautious esteem for Taylor, the film has the doctor make a solid point. Archaeologists often do provide readings of archaeological remains that require later modification or even rejection. Along the same lines, Zaius demonstrates the fact that different people do read archaeological findings differently.


Classroom Experience


I have used Planet of the Apes at least four times for pedagogical purposes. The first time was in a Vanderbilt Divinity School-based discussion on archaeology in film (I showed the cave/dig site scene from Plant of the Apes alongside scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and an archaeology-as-breaking-and-entering scene from Fellini’s Roma). [7] Twice I either showed or discussed the movie in presentations on the Bible and archaeology for adult, Presbyterian Sunday school classes. Most recently, I had my introductory Old Testament classes at Furman University watch the last hour of the movie after we had reviewed different models for the emergence of Israel in Canaan and the importance of Kenyon’s excavation at Jericho as surveyed in John J. Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. I think that it was in this last context that I derived the most pedagogical benefit from the film. [8] In particular, I used the class period after the students watched Planet of the Apes to review methods of tell archaeology by asking students to identify and critique the film’s presentation of a dig site. Additionally, I probed students as to their appreciation (or lack thereof) for the character of Dr. Zaius, hoping to give students a chance to articulate and share thoughts on history and scripture (as well as the ethics of scripture—ape and human). The class period spent discussing Planet of the Apes provided only enough time to begin exploring how it treated the subject of archaeology and the biblical text’s status as scripture. However, I found that the movie resonated with my students well after we turned to other topics. As such, the film made an important contribution to my introductory classes. I imagine that it could in others, too.

And for what it is worth, subsequent installments in the Planet of the Apes series (Escape from the Planet of the Apes [1971] and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes [1972]) tell the story of an ape who, threatened with death as an infant, goes into hiding until he returns and leads a revolt against humans.

Steve Cook, Vanderbilt University



[1] This essay continues and revises thoughts that I presented at a 2006 SECSOR session devoted to teaching archaeology. The 2006 SECSOR meeting operated with the larger theme of teaching of religion in the southern United States.

[2] The American Film Institute ranks “Get your stinking paws off me…” as the sixty-sixth greatest movie quote.

[3] Roland de Vaux, “The Hebrew Patriarchs and History,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 121.

[4] Roland de Vaux, “On Right and Wrong Uses of Archaeology,” in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: Essays in Honor of Nelson Glueck (ed. James A. Sanders; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 70.

[5] Thomas W. Davis, “Faith and Archaeology: A Brief history to the Present,” Biblical Archaeology Review 19, no. 2 (March/April 1993): 58.

[6] Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (New York: de Gruyter, 1974; repr., Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity, 2002), 328.

[7] For more on movies with archaeology, see: David Howard Day, A Treasure Hard to Attain: Images of Archaeology in Popular Film (London: Scarecrow, 1997).

[8] Frankly, I found that my “older” Presbyterians were not too interested in the quasi-campy Planet of the Apes at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. My college students, on the other hand, quite enjoyed it.


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