yet another ark quest: randall price, liberty university, and pseudo-scientific religious fundamentalism

here we go again. ’tis the season for gearing up the recruiting and fundraising efforts for this year’s trek into the near east. all archaeology programs must do it. they ask for volunteers to contribute their blood, sweat, tears, and tuition for the chance to uncover the foundations of a 10th century bce structure (or 9th century, if dr. finkelstein is recruiting : – ) that will tell us more about the origins of a people we know as ‘israel.’

unfortunately, it is also the season for pseudoscientific fundamentalists to venture out into the world and attempt to prove things that are sure to yield no results, lots of press, and raise lots of dollars in the process.

dr. randall price of liberty university‘s new center for judaic studies (and of fundamentalist ‘world of the bible ministries‘ fame) is off to turkey in an attempt to locate noah’s fabled ark (read here).

i shake my head.

for those that are not familiar with the science of archaeology in the near east, there are a couple of items that scholars in the field hold as irrecoverable. these items include the tree of life, the ark of the covenant, the cross of jesus, a holy grail, and a host of other things, including the object at the top of the list: noah’s ark. most of these are considered irrecoverable because their very existence is questioned by all credible scholars. there is simply no evidence other than the biblical narrative that speak to their existence, and lots of evidence that they did not exist. and if they did exist, many of these items are made of wood (which tends to decompose over time when it gets wet) or metals (that get melted down and recycled, especially when a people’s enemies capture them). noah’s ark holds the distinction of being both made of wood and considered ahistorical. in fact, the flood narratives top the list of ahistorical narratives incorporated into bible. (yes, ‘narratives‘ is plural – there are two different flood stories intertwined in genesis. don’t believe me? ask yourself: how many animals were on the ark? two of each, male and female (gen 6:19) or seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of unclean animals (gen 7:2)?) thus, for centuries, well intending explorers have gone in search for a wooden object that at best decomposed long ago, and more than likely never existed in the first place. (that is, outside of the minds of early priests who had heard or read copies of the epics of gilgamesh or atrahasis.)

but this does not stop some ‘archaeologists’ from raising money to go and look for it. backed by a desire to prove every word of the bible historically accurate, fundamentalist scholars parade the words of mainstream scholars, who claim noah’s ark to be ahistorical (not unlike my words here) to anger fundamentalists into giving money to their cause. and their cause is no less than to defend the historicity of the bible (and thereby god) and disprove the so-called ‘learned’ scholars, who prefer rational thought, data, evidence, science, and academic integrity (which are chided as the mere ‘thoughts of men’) to a biblical tale. as dr. price puts it,

Our aim is to show that the Bible is good history.

fundamentalist educators raise money by fueling the fire against these ‘liberal’ scholars, who deny the ‘truth’ of the historical accuracy, inerrancy, and infallibility of the bible. their pitch is simple: ‘we need to show these heretical archaeologists the truth of the inerrancy of the bible, and you can help. for a small gift of $1000, you too can participate in discovering…..’

and make no mistake about it, raising funds for a new center for judaic studies is what this search for noah’s ark is all about. dr. price wasted no time in reaching for the ‘easy button,’ that is, appealing to the most popular archaeological ‘prize’ with the least potential for actual recovery. this entire quest is about raising money from those angry enough to give it. don’t believe me? read what dr. price wrote himself:

We at the Center are excited about the potential for training a whole new generation of evangelicals in Jewish studies. As the Lord provides donations, the Center will also establish a Biblical Museum (architectural plans for a building have already been drawn). The Center can be contacted at (434) 592-3249 Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Dr. Price’s e-mail address is jrprice4@liberty.edu. Maranatha!

i love this. what is incredible is that the potential donor isn’t even really giving the money. it is ‘the lord’ who provides the donations. see? don’t you want to do the lord’s work? and see, the plans for the new buildings have already been drawn. you don’t want us to go broke, do you? if we do, those heretical ‘archaeologists’ win. just to drive home the point, the plea ends with a classic ‘maranatha’ (‘come, our lord’), just in case you forgot whose side we are on.

and the fox news article was sure to include the price tag and a justification for the funds:

Price estimated that the team needs to raise about $60,000 to pay for permission to use the site, to buy the necessary machinery and to fund about two months of work on location.”The only thing that’s holding us back is to finance the machinery that we need.”

that is to say, this is all possible, as long as we raise enough money to pay for the equipment (and airfare and lodging and permission and staff salaries) necessary to uncover the ark. otherwise, we’ll never know if it’s up there, and those skeptical scholars will continue to rule the day.

and now for the good part. what evidence does dr. price produce to cause him to think that this time he will finally be successful? what new piece of data or technology does he possess that causes him to raise funds for the expedition? the fox news story continues:

A Kurdish shepherd told them that he had seen the ark, and even climbed on top of it, when he was a boy.

well there you go. who can argue with that? and what of the motives of the young shepherd boy? dr. price responds:

“That’s when he saw it as a boy, Price said, adding that they had interviewed the shepherd and could find no reason to distrust him. The shepherd asked for nothing in return, and agreed to lead Bright to the site where he said he had seen the ark.

apparently, dr. price is not familiar with the concept that drives the industry of reality television: pointing a camera at someone is often reason enough for making sensational claims. and make no mistake: the small kurdish shepherd boy probably really does believe it’s noah’s ark. but is that reason enough to raise money from equally devout and unsuspecting christians and begin an ark expedition? again?

it is easy to see how this ‘operation’ works. tell the world you’re going in search of evidence of the ark. raise a ton of money. get trips to turkey for you and your staff paid for. find nothing. come home and use the proceeds to build your new center. or better yet, find some wood and call your investigation ‘inconclusive’ and then raise even more money. maybe a second trip?

in sum, this is all very disappointing. it makes legitimate archaeologists look bad. there are legitimate issues in archaeology that must be investigated. unfortunately, not too many people are concerned about issues of assyrian invasions or canaanite settlement patterns or hellenistic influence on judaism. no, some must chase after the unattainable, and divert funds and valuable credibility away from legitimate archaeology.

now, dr. price (or anyone else) has every right to raise funds and go in search of anything he wants. but the overt religious, and yes, political, overtones of this entire initiative are made evident by dr. price himself. dr. price has written about dr. jerry falwell’s desire to train ‘a whole new generation of evangelicals in Jewish studies.’ this is archaeology for the sake of attempting to prove a particular fundamentalist, premillennialist, political point of view, and not for the betterment of science and understanding. (i offer his organization’s book catalog as ‘exhibit a’.) dr. price is not following the data, he’s attempting to invent and manipulate data to fit his preconceived religious and political notions.

my only point, i guess, is to decry the sensationalism that is used to sell what amounts to nothing more than sheer speculation. most expeditions are based on an initial discovery, be it scrolls from a cave, blocks from a wall unearthed by a highway construction crew’s bulldozer, or tablets uncovered by a farmer’s till. there is an initial discovery, an investigation, an excavation, and then published results in a peer-review journal, followed by open debate in journals and academic conferences. this academic process results in either consensus or a number of camps that interpret the data differently and continue their debate. dr. price’s search for the ark, however, is nothing more than a hunch based upon a boy’s claim, by an organization that wants to prove the bible historical, get some quick press, and raise a ton of money in the process.

and this frustrates scholars and scientists, because there are those critics on one side who will attempt to link all ‘archaeologists’ together and cast them as evil god haters who want to destroy the church, and those on the other side who want to paint all people of faith together as science-hating fundamentalists. let’s call this liberty university quest for noah’s ark what it is:

a focused program of education from a Christian world-view that embraces Israel as the center of the divine purpose can effect a practical change in the Christian academic communities. The Center will seek to accomplish this purpose by providing the means for the student preparing for Christian ministry or service to gain a biblical perspective of the Jewish mission and help equip the Church in making a biblical response to the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel. A special purpose will be to provide instruction to students at the undergraduate level and especially to prepare graduate students for Jewish ministries and for doctoral programs with related foci. (reference here)

jerry falwell couldn’t be prouder.

 

update: eric cline has posted a very good article dealing with this issue on the asor blog. read it here.

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9 Responses

  1. eric cline has posted a very good article dealing with this issue on the asor blog. read it here: http://asorblog.org/?p=84

  2. Dear Dr. Cargill:

    I have read the blogs by yourself and Dr. Cline and would like to clarify for the record that the Arch Search LLC expedition was not seeking national publicity or funds when its planned work was announced in the Fox News piece. The original story was given to a local reporter for a local paper as part of an interview concerning the archaeological field work of our newly instituted program in field archaeology. The focus of the interview was to have been on our university’s recent (December 2008) excavation on the Qumran Plateau which I have been directing for the past six seasons. This excavation is working with both the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa to analyze the animal bone deposits unearthed on the southern plateau. If you read the original article published in the Lynchburg News & Advance you will see this inclusion (omitted by the Fox News report). The interviewer learned of my survey of the site on Mt. Ararat this past October and hoping to raise from the local community some funds for the planned summer excavation I gave them some of the material. I did not approve of the paper’s focus on the Noah’s Ark expedition and its spread to national exposure. I have repeatedly declined any and all request for interviews from the media on this subject, even though they offered the means to raise needed excavation funds. I felt it was appropriate to raise funds from our local community in which Liberty University functions for the benefit of the community. Liberty University is a major employer in Lynchburg with 12,000 resident students and 30,000 distant learning students and contains a law school, business school, nursing program, aviation school, and fully accredited master’s and doctoral academic programs.

    Again, for the record, I was invited as an archaeologist by Richard Bright (the leader of the expedition) to access the site of the expedition when I was in Turkey to present a paper to a scholarly symposium in Dogubeyazit. As a result of going to the site, interviewing the Kurdish shepherd, and researching the history of prior exploration in this area, including satellite remote sensing, I agreed to conduct an archaeological excavation at the site, including the use of side-scanning radar. I do believe that this site offers the best possibility among sites previously researched for an archaeological excavation.

    The claim “there will be a discovery” was made by Richard Bright (the expedition leader) who I referred to the original reporter as a source in the local interview. Even though I do believe in the historicity of the Genesis account and that Noah’s Ark possibly may exist, and think that traditional Mt. Ararat is a good candidate in the region of ancient Urartu (“mountains of Ararat” in Gen. 8:7), I do not make any claims as to what is there or may be discovered. Based on my assessment of the site and the shepherd’s claim I believe it is scientifically responsible to conduct an archaeological excavation to prove or disprove this claim and that it is no more unreasonable to seek dig funds for this site than for any other. The intention of the expedition is to investigate through proper scientific means the site, recover any samples and subject them to laboratory analysis and write an article on the finds in a peer-review journal. If a discovery is made that can be objectively verified then a release to the media will be made.

    If the objection to this work is based on the interpretation that the Genesis account of the Flood and Noah’s Ark is allegory or based on an ancient local myth, then let that be the stated reason. It is not pseudoarchaeology when an organized archaeological work is being done at a site connected with a documentary account, unless one believes the account to be fiction and then can denigrate the one conducting the work as a fundamentalist.

    Sincerely,

    Randall Price, Ph.D.
    Executive Director
    Center for Judaic Studies
    Liberty University

  3. [...] Robert Cargill wrote a scathing assessment of Price’s plan and his motivations in a blog post at the time. [...]

  4. [...] quickly posted responses to the initial story. and hats off to randall price, whom i previously ripped in this very space, for admitting his mistake and exposing this nonsense. you did the right thing [...]

  5. When the news surfaced in passing over at Internet Monk, one of the commenters remarked that “Liberty University’s last contribution to science was Outing Tinky Winky and Spongebob.”

  6. Dear Mr Cargill,
    I have read your blogs and after reading them my heart is full of sadness for you, a man I dont even know. I am not writing about my oppinion on the Noah’s ark issue but, your contempt for God. I will not try to tell you anything but my own personal experience with the real and true God. When my husband and I came here to Lynchburg from San Diego California we were as far from “Christian” as one could be. As a matter of fact my husband talked of opening a strip club in the area just to tick the “Christians” off. We thought we were so much more intelligent than these stupid people who didnt have a thought in their own heads. Conformists we called them. I was raised in a church and knew of the lies men told with tears in their eyes…..it made me sick. My mom and a few others in my life were good and honest people who believed in God but because of all the lies I had witnessed in our church growing up I didnt want to be a part of that mess. Our life went on and there were times when I felt like maybe I was wrong and that there was a God out there. I would push it away because of my husbands total nonbelief. Finally our life had spun out of control. We were on the verge of divorce and bankrupsy………it wasnt pretty. I decided to try it my moms way and I said a prayer. I asked if you are real God help me and my husband find you. Something I knew would not happen because my husband would NEVER be a Christian. My husband and I went to a regular baptist church where he sat in the back playing tick tac toe and hating every minute of it. He wanted to keep our family together so he agreed to sit in church. We were invited to a friends church and I wanted to try it. I can tell you I found God there. My husband too. When you have an encounter with the one true God you know it. It is undeniable. I know at this point you are rolling your eyes or ready to stop reading but I just felt compelled to tell you my story. Since feeling God that day for the first time we have changed soo much. For one my husband could no longer deny God was real and was being lead to do things I would never have expected. We have had sooooo many prayers answered. Things that would blow your mind. Literally just incredible things. One example is soon after we started going to our church my husband was hurt at work and lost part of his finger. We were in big trouble financially because he was the only one working and we have 4 kids. Things were getting bad and I was too proud to tell anyone our troubles. I said a prayer and told God I needed $1,000 dollars to make it through the month. Never really expecting anything but hoping that God wasnt too busy to hear me. The following day a man we had only met a few Sundays calls my husband to invite him to a mens breakfast and tells me God has had us on his heart and that my husband needed to come to breakfast. My husband took what little money we had and went to breakfast and came home with a check for $1,000 dollars. The man had written it out AT HOME with what God told him to give. NO ONE KNEW our situation but us and God!!!!! The church knew my husband had an accident but I continued to tell them we were fine and didnt need anything. If there is no God how did this man know the exact amount we needed and further more why would a man who hardly knew us GIVE us $1,000????!!!! I dont even have family who would GIVE me that much money. I have many other stories of the same. God stories. Real honest realities of how God leads people like myself and others to “pay for things” as you laughed about. I know there are people out there who try to guilt trip people into paying for their agendas but, there are also those of us who know what it feels like to hear God’s prompts to give. That giving is our response to a very real God. I know there are alot of people out there claiming to be Christians walking around acting like fools. I want you to know that you cant look at what men are doing. If you have ever read the bible it warns of people who claim to know God but really have no idea what its all about. I just know I have prayed specific prayers and they were each answered in very specific ways. I used to believe in coincidence but not anymore. I do not see myself as any more special than anyone else in this world. I just now know that there is a real God who loves me and who I want to live for. I want to be real and honest and follow the example left for me in the bible. God is real even if you and others like you dont believe. Our world and surrounding universe is too beautiful and complex to have been ANYTHING other than the work of the creator. You can make fun of my education,spelling ability, situation, looks or life in general and thats fine but this is one individual who knows………..really knows with all my heart that God is real.
    Ruby

  7. Ruby, don’t take your love to town. It wasn’t Bob who started that old crazy asian war. But he was proud to do his academic chore.

  8. Christ Crucifixion site and the Ark of the Covenant found burred under a trash pile in Jerusalem.

    http://arkofthecovenant2.blogspot.com/

  9. i’m approving this just so people can see what i’m talking about when i say that this kind of nonsense comes around every spring. -bc

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