on the misuse of archaeology for evangelistic purposes

i have written an article at bible and interpretation entitled “on the misuse of archeology for evangelistic purposes.” the article provides an update on the ridiculous claims earlier this year from a hong kong group called noah’s ark ministries international (nami) claiming they had found noah’s ark. in the article, i demonstrate how their intentionally misleading claims were designed purely to attract people to jesus. the article is essentially a sandwich of introducing the problem of pseudoscience and recommendations for proper ‘biblical’ archaeology, with some debunking of the noah’s ark folks in between.

i conclude the article with a list of more appropriate tips for doing archaeology in areas mentioned in the bible.

please check it out and feel free to leave comments there or here.

the latest on the search for noah’s ark

who does one root for on this one?

first, noah’s ark ministries international announced to the world via press conference that they were ‘99.9% certain’ that they had discovered noah’s ark.

many of us responded, rejecting the claims.

dr. randall price of liberty university also responded. however, since he had previously worked with nami, he had information (revealed by paleobabble’s michael heiser and the christian science monitor’s stephen kurczy) that the whole thing may have been fake.

dr. price also did an interview for fox news where he said the following:

btw, dr. paul zimansky, professor of archaeology at the state university of new york, stony brook, makes a wonderful point in his interview. he states:

it happens every year that somebody finds an ark. i don’t know of many expeditions that have gone off and failed to find an ark. but within a year, everybody’s forgotten it and they do it again. they never refer to previous discoveries.

now it appears that noah’s ark ministries international has put together a video response to the smackdown (see also here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here) that scholars worldwide, including randall price, have sent to the media since nami told the world they discovered the ark. nami attempts to answer the following questions:

  1. are rumors more scientific than solid evidence?
  2. did the expedition team witness and examine the wooden structure in noah’s ark?
  3. is it possible to deliver large wood beams to an elevation of 4000 meters?
  4. is the wooden structure at an elevation of 4000 meters is no more than a fake set?

these videos do little to answer the questions. but perhaps the most telling video released by the media evangelism, ltd. is one entitled do we believe in the noah’s ark or the god behind it?

in the video the speaker explicitly states that he became a christian after a previous bogus ark discovery claim (at the 3:50 mark). he goes on to state that whether or not nami‘s claim is verified in the end, as long as people come to jesus, it is worthwhile (view from the 4:25 mark). watch the video. in fact at the 5:13 mark, the speaker amazingly states:

Therefore as mature Christians, we should be accurate in speaking. When we talk about it from news or scientific aspects, we are just making use of it. The thing itself is not the truth. It is prone to change. Even today when i say that this is 90% sure to be the Ark, assume that one day the 10% rest showed that it is not to be the Ark, even then I don’t think it matters. Because what people believe is not only Noah’s Ark itself, they should believe the God who worked behind Noah’s Ark.

the speaker goes on to compare this find to the claims made about the shroud of turin, which he says brought many people to believe in jesus, even though it was later shown to be a fake. what matters to the speaker is that people believe in jesus, not whether or not the ark they claim to have found is real.

if this is not the most egregious, blatant, irresponsible misuse of archaeology to intentionally fool people into believing in christianity, then i don’t know what is. it’s just wrong.

for his part, dr. price has responded on his world of the bible ministries website. and he pulled no punches.

randall price shot back with a press release and an extensive explanation complete with email evidence – evidence that shows the collaboration between him and nami, and evidence that shows dr. price sent 60,000 euros to nami, about 2/3 of which was refunded to dr. price after he quit.

you can read it all here.

i think that as the fallout from this entire debacle continues, it will become quite clear that the entire mission was a premeditated campaign of deception intended to use something that will appeal to people – noah’s ark, and a lie at that – in an attempt to get them to convert to christianity. it is unthinkable that a group of christians would think that this is an acceptable form of evangelism, much less an acceptable form of science.

from aol news: scholarly squad debunks biblical ‘discoveries’

Dr. Robert R. Cargill in Bet Shean, Israel

Dr. Robert R. Cargill in Bet Shean, Israel

chanan tigay at aol news has written an article entitled, ‘scholarly squad debunks biblical ‘discoveries’.’ the article features some of the work that members of asor’s media relations committee has done to counter the recent sensational claims that have come out of an evangelical ministry that calls itself noah’s ark ministries international. they claim to have discovered noah’s ark. i have responded to these ridiculous claims on my blog (here and here and here and here).

the article highlights the work done by scholars, real archaeologists, and bloggers in combating sensationalism in biblical archaeology.

devry university, itt tech, and university of phoenix announce acquisition of dead sea scrolls

Dead Sea Scroll Fragment

A fragment (4Q51) of a Dead Sea Scroll

in a stunning development just one day after southwestern baptist theological seminary announced (blog) it had acquired three fragments of dead sea scrolls, the assassinated press is reporting that three more prominent american universities have acquired fragments of the dead sea scrolls and other well-known jewish cultural heritage objects from unnamed antiquities dealers.

in what has become a race of archaeological one-upsmanship, several universities have begun purchasing fragments of the famed dead sea scrolls and other jewish antiquities that have previously been in private collections. prior to last year, princeton theological seminary and the university of chicago were the only american universities to have portions of the dead sea scrolls in their private museum holdings. then late last year, southern california academic powerhouse azusa pacific university surprised the world by announcing (blog) they had purchased fragments of the dead sea scrolls from a southern california antiquities dealer. then just yesterday, southwestern baptist theological seminary announced it had also acquired fragments of the scrolls from an undisclosed antiquities dealer for an undisclosed amount of money.

the desire for christian universities and seminaries to boost their academic reputations by purchasing fragments of the enigmatic scrolls has apparently started a trend among other institutions of higher learning also seeking to gain overnight credibility by purchasing classical jewish inscriptions. this morning, online education powerhouse devry university announced that it has acquired a fragment of the great isaiah scroll discovered in cave 1 near qumran. the fragment is a .5 cm x .3 cm wide and contains a single letter: aleph. despite the fragmentary nature of the fragment, professor roger smoak, who holds a joint appointment in accounting and northwest semitic palaeography, assured devry’s board of regents that the fragment was authentic and worth every bit of the 2.3 million dollars it paid for the single letter.

This fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although small, shows DeVry’s commitment to being a leader in the online university/alternative education market. Big things come in small packages, and this single aleph is the ‘A’ for effort that will make DeVry a major player in the world of higher education. Look out Harvard! DeVry knows a little about the Bible too. In fact, we now own a part of it.

immediately after devry’s announcement, online technical school itt tech announced that it had acquired an inscribed piece of pottery, or ostracon, from an antiquities dealer in jerusalem for an undisclosed sum. the dealer claims the ostracon is from the famed ‘samaria ostraca‘ collection, which comprises a number of ancient tax receipts for items brought to an israelite palace in samaria. the sherd acquired by itt tech contains three hebrew letters: bet, yod, and taw. while most scholars agree that this fragmentary ostracon simply contains the hebrew word bayit, or ‘house,’ itt tech associate professor of information systems security and hebrew bible, jeremy suriano, said:

While most scholars believe this ostracon says ‘house’ or ‘house of,’ I believe it is the earliest known reference to the computer term ‘bit,’ the foundational building block of bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes. In this sense, this simple ‘byt’ inscription must be considered a prophecy of the technology boom we are now experiencing today. And now we own this piece of prophecy!

A purported silver sliver of the backside of the Ketef Hinnom inscription shown next to a penny for scale.

not to be outdone, the university of phoenix has announced that it has acquired a fragment of the ketef hinnom inscription from a pawn shop in the silwan valley. matthew nam, professor of international trade and systematic theology, believes the silver sliver of text could be the centerpiece of the online university’s new masters program in international business and theology.

Obviously, the acquisition of a piece of history this significant is no small thing. Despite the fact that it contains no actual writing, the 1.1 million dollars we spent on this sliver of the Ketef Hinnom amulet’s backside shows our dedication to establishing our new program in international business and theology and establishing ourselves as the world’s premier online business degree for those who also love the Bible. Because we have made this purchase of a mere fragment of an archaeological object, we must immediately be recognized as a legitimate and major player in online theological education.

still other institutions are rumored to be in the hunt for valuable jewish antiquities in an effort to improve their academic reputations overnight. in an effort to solidify its place atop the field of agribusiness education,  fresno city college is said to be near the completion of a deal to purchase a 2 cm x 2 cm portion of a bar kokhba letter that mentions a piece of fruit. thousand oaks high school has partnered with local temple etz chaim preschool to acquire a coin minted by herod the great. and, liberty university is in talks with the jordan archaeological museum to acquire one segment of the copper scroll, which liberty university will then trade to the istanbul archaeology museum in turkey in exchange for the siloam tunnel inscription, a purported piece of noah’s ark, an artifact to be named later, and cash considerations.


these recent acquisitions of archeological objects by universities all go to show that a lack of status in theological education within the academy can quickly be overcome with a few dollars and the purchase of sensational archaeological objects. while most top schools waste their time educating their students with literary critical techniques and objective assessments of history, bible-based colleges can circumvent the scientific method while maintaining their sectarian doctrinal stances by simply purchasing objects that the public revere but do not understand. in this rough economy, why hire more faculty to educate students when a school can use that same money to purchase antiquities and sell tickets to its museum? thus, it makes great business sense for bible colleges to buy publicity by purchasing artifacts rather than producing scholars who truly understand them.

(n.b. check the ‘filed under’ category below)

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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