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.

no, no you didn’t find noah’s ark

A member of the Noah's Ark Ministries International claims to be examining Noah's Ark in Turkey.

A member of the Noah's Ark Ministries International claims to be examining Noah's Ark in Turkey.

about this time every year, something sensational happens…literally. every spring, as dig season approaches, we are treated to a little hoax disguised as hope. every spring, faith is once again used to sell something, and every year, science pays the price in the form of a reduced credibility at the hands of pseudo-scientists, who peddle their claims and cheapen the name of science.

i am speaking, of course, about the annual, sensational claims by some group that purports to have discovered the ark of the covenant, noah’s ark, the true cross of christ, or some other biblical relic that is supposed to prove once and for all that the narratives recorded in the bible are true. this year is no exception, but this time it appears that something far more sinister may be at work. late-breaking news indicates that the whole thing may be a hoax.

an evangelical group out of hong kong calling itself noah’s ark ministries international, and its partner organization, the media evangelism limited are claiming to all who will listen (except scholars) that they have discovered noah’s ark. their claim is based upon their ‘discovery’ of wooden ‘rooms’ or compartments atop turkey’s mt. ararat. they claim that it must be the ark because no one would possibly build a building at that altitude. they claim to have carbon-14 samples, but won’t reveal who performed them. and of course, they can’t tell us where the secret location of the site is, because, well…it’s a secret. still, according to the sun, group member yeung wing-cheung says:

It’s not 100 per cent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it.

well, allow me to explore that .1%. in fact, let me just come right out and say it:
no, no you didn’t find noah’s ark.

richard bartholomew and jim west have already commented upon this nonsense, but let me add my simple comments:

this group was put together to do one thing and one thing only: make money and spread ideology by pimping both archaeology and religion. let me explain:

the media evangelism limited is a media company which states on its website that its background, vision and mission are:

Background

  • In 1987, a group of young Christians in Hong Kong envisioned a society where multi-media businesses would proliferate, and they saw the chance to capitalize on the advance technologies to serve the society. Their vision gave birth to an organization, known as “The Media Evangelism” (TME). The Media Evangelism Limited was officially incorporated in Hong Kong in 1991.

Vision & Mission

  • The Media Evangelism Limited is a charitable Christian organization committed to building a Christian media presence by using every modern means of communication to promote the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our missions are:

  • To take the message of our Lord Jesus Christ to all by means of high quality audio and visual products and services.
  • To foster biblical standard and Christian values in Chinese communities worldwide.
  • To enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media.
  • To pull together the collective wisdom of Evangelical Christians who are talented and gifted in media arts, and to collaborate with other Christian groups for the advance of the Kingdom of God.
Lost in the Noah's Ark

Lost in the Noah's Ark

as one might expect, the group filmed the expedition and now has a documentary movie to sell (note the director’s name: yeung wing-cheung). it is also interesting that noah’s ark ministries international runs a noah’s ark theme park and needs to sell tickets. of course, you could make even more money if you host an exhibition entitled, ‘lost in the noah’s ark’ and advertised it with bizarre posters. and, of course, the whole marketing must be kicked off in a coordinated manner. according to their web site:

March, 2010
The “We Touched Noah’s Ark: The Search for A Carpenter’s Heart” Evangelistic Campaign was launched. Worldwide press conferences, exhibitions and sharing are carried out to spread the Gospel through the Noah’s Ark discovery.

follow the money and follow the ideology. every ark expedition is about the same thing: raising funds and spreading a fundamentalist christian ideology. this may all be well and good if you’re a ministry, but for a group feigning to be archaeologists, it’s a dead giveaway.

my colleague and co-chair of asor‘s media relations committee, dr. eric cline of george washington university, appeared on good morning america wednesday, april 28, 2010 and later on fox news on thursday, april 29, and discussed the group’s claims. dr. cline mocked the ‘99.9%’ claim, incurring the wrath and claims of bias and unfairness over at cbn (which means he’s got it right).

rather than ridicule or bash them, dr. cline addressed the fundamental archaeological methods that are lacking with noah’s ark ministries international (the name still cracks me up). they are keeping the location of the find secret, haven’t invited any scientists to provide outside verification, and haven’t revealed the source of the carbon-14 data they claim they have. as i said in an interview with rich buhler on 740 am kbrt this afternoon, any credible excavation knows that it must do the following:

  1. reveal the location. all credible excavations publish when and where they will be digging. in fact, they are usually begging for volunteers. but, this group has not yet even revealed the location of their find. here’s a rule of thumb to live by: any time someone promises you, ‘i have evidence that will prove that the bible is true, but i can’t show it to you,’ be suspicious.
  2. publish your data and get outside verification and corroboration. all credible excavations publish their data and make it available for peer-review and cross-examination. this is usually done at a professional conference. this is how scholarship works. this group has not done this.
  3. announce to scholars first. it is not enough to make a press release direct to the public. those who publicize their finds with direct-to-the-media marketing campaigns and bypass scholars do so because they rely on the buzz of the media and know that the scholars will end their 15 minutes of fame before it starts. they prey on the curiosity of the public, and hope that no one pays attention to scholars’ rebuttal on the back pages of the same newspapers and websites that ran the initial story in the headlines. (see: foxnews, msnbc, nat geo, abc, etc.)

this is how the academy works. and this is how it should work. there should be a system of checks and balances between the academy and institutions of faith. it keeps both groups honest.

archaeologists look at these untrained, amateur, evangelical groups doing archaeology and making claims about noah’s ark with well-deserved suspicion. it is the exact same suspicion that evangelicals would show towards a group of untrained, amateur hindu explorers claiming to have found a mace, a chakra and a conch shell in kurukshetra that prove the existence of the hindu god vishnu. just because you find reindeer bones at the north pole does not mean you have proved the existence of santa claus. and, just because you find a boat doesn’t mean you’ve proved the flood. and in this case, noah’s ark ministries international hasn’t even demonstrated that they’ve found a boat! they’ve found wood. finding a wooden structure on a mountain in turkey does not mean you’ve discovered noah’s ark. it means you’ve found a wooden building. it could be a barn. it could be a small cottage. it could be a tool shed.

however, this story may be even more sinister than a simple sensationalist claim. there is evidence that it may have all been a hoax. an article by stephen kurczy in the christian science monitor is now claiming that fellow ark hunter, dr. randall price of liberty university, who once worked with the noah’s ark ministries international group and was the archaeologist on the chinese-led team in 2008 when this alleged discovery was first made, may have been participants in an elaborate hoax. according to the article:

“If the world wants to think this is a wonderful discovery, that’s fine. My problem is that, in the end, proper analysis may show this to be a hoax and negatively reflect how gullible Christians can be,” he says. He says he has “difficulties with a number of issues related to the evidence at hand.”

Price declined to elaborate. However, a leaked email from Price – which he confirms that he wrote – shows that he has reason to believe that a group of local Kurdish men trucked wood up to the mountain and staged an elaborate hoax for the Chinese team.

A group of Kurdish workers “are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. … During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film,” Price writes in the email.

michael heiser at paleobabble.com offers even more details. he writes:

I also got an email today from one of Randall Price’s students. The email contains a message from Dr. Price about this expedition. (Dr. Price, as some of you may recall, has been doing a lot of searching for the ark lately.) Here is an excerpt from his message:

I was the archaeologist with the Chinese expedition in the summer of 2008 and was given photos of what they now are reporting to be the inside of the Ark. I and my partners invested $100,000 in this expedition (described below) which they have retained, despite their promise and our requests to return it, since it was not used for the expedition. The information given below is my opinion based on what I have seen and heard (from others who claim to have been eyewitnesses or know the exact details).

To make a long story short: this is all reported to be a fake. The photos were reputed to have been taken off site near the Black Sea, but the film footage the Chinese now have was shot on location on Mt. Ararat. In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese, are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. In the winter of 2008 a Chinese climber taken by Parasut’s men to the site saw the wood, but couldn’t get inside because of the severe weather conditions. During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.

so it appears that the whole thing may have been rigged. an ark-eologist got duped by other ark-eologists. this is simply sad.

the problem with this is that both religion and science lose. people of faith look like a bunch of liars that will do or say anything to prove their faith, including lie, cheat, steal, and rig an elaborate hoax to raise money and spread their faith. but because they use science to make their claim, religious fundamentalists will claim that scientists are elaborate tricksters that manipulate data in an attempt to prove the bible is false. and somewhere in between these two extremes are honest people of faith and honest scientists trying to have an honest debate about the feasibility and historicity of a flood and an ark, questioning why different numbers of animals on the ark are given in the bible, (gen 6:19 vs. gen 7:2), and how wood could have survived and not decomposed over time. these arguments are lost because both extremes-the religious fundamentalists and the militant agnostics-retreat to their extreme positions, and the media loves extreme anything.

science and faith both lose. both can co-exist, but episodes like this one don’t help.

this unfortunate episode also reveals that there are two levels of ‘sensational’. the first is the sensationalism that we find when someone makes an unsubstantiated archaeological claim. whenever someone finds a piece of wood on top of a mountain in turkey, someone is always sure to claim they’ve found noah’s ark. there is no evidence, but this speculation is sure to raise eyebrows, and so someone always irresponsibly makes that claim. but, there is a far more egregious form of sensationalism: the hoax. this is when evidence is planted so that said sensational claim can be made. this hoax should be met with outrage, and both noah’s ark ministries international, their sponsors, and the local turkish government officials should be sanctioned for their participation in the charade.

Hong Kong people are recognized as Honorable Citizens in Agri Province of Turkey for the first time

Hong Kong people are recognized as Honorable Citizens in Agri Province of Turkey for the first time

so no, you didn’t find noah’s ark. but you did get to be honorable citizens for the day. and you got your name in the paper. and you got you picture taken. and you’ve become the latest chapter in the seemingly never ending story of the quest for things that we’ll never find, if they ever existed at all.

and one more thing: my hat is off to all of the scholars and the cadre of bloggers that came forward to research this story and expose this charade. hats off to the news organizations that quickly posted responses to the initial story like time and the christian science monitor. 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 and i respect that.

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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