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 email@example.com. 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.
Filed under: archaeology, i'm not making this up, nonsense, religion | Tagged: archaeology, ark, christian fundamentalism, flood, jerry falwell, liberty university, mt. ararat, noah, randall price, religion, science |