Noah’s Ark?: Sensationalism Sells and Smells

30 04 2010

The following blog is an adaptation of an earlier piece that I wrote for Review & Expositor.  It seems relevant with the advent of the “discovery” of Noah’s ark.  Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum must be smiling.

Nothing generates buzz on blogs, in papers or over televisions like a new archaeological discovery.  The latest of these “discoveries” is Noah’s ark.  See the news story here:  Noah’s Ark.

These discoveries often make some claim to a biblical connection.  Take for example these eye-catching actual taglines from newspapers:  “Bombshell had Many Christians Wondering,” “Threatens Two Millenniums of Christian Doctrine,” and “Among the Greatest Finds from Christian Antiquity.” Who could resist wanting to know more? Often these “discoveries” are strategically announced around the same time that we are once again watching Charleston Heston transform from a loin-clothed muscled prince of Egypt into a robed and bearded messenger of God.

Media coverage of archaeological discoveries attempts to titillate the reader or listener.  And frequently, many in the general public are willing to be titillated.  Archaeological “discoveries” capture the imagination because they appear to either prove the Bible or disprove it.  Many Christians want tangible “proof” for their version of Christianity.  When spades are plunged into the soil of Israel, the Bible is scanned to find points of connection with any discovery.  Ironically, the New Testament is filled with narratives  emphasizing that faith is not linked to empirical, tangible proofs.  In the only beatitude in the Gospel of John, Jesus rebukes Thomas saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29). When archaeological proofs are needed for faith, a person is displaying an attitude little better than the leaders at Jesus’ crucifixion who set the standard for proof at “let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matt 27:42).

Because not all archaeological discoveries make headlines, many individuals are unaware that discoveries are made almost every day at excavations. Place a spade in the right place, and one is almost guaranteed to turn up some object from antiquity, from coins to pottery shards.  While many of the objects uncovered may appear mundane, each is significant within a collective context.  However, when the media spotlight shines on a specific archaeological discovery, the right perspective and especially the right questions are helpful.  The wrong question is, “How does this prove (disprove) the Bible?”  The right question is, “What does this reveal about the world in which the Bible was written, read, and our ancestors in faith lived?”

So how should we approach an archaeological discovery hyped on the History or Discovery Channels, puffed in the papers, or virally exploding across the web?  What should one’s response be to the news that the tomb of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, James, Herod the Great, or Bullwinkle has been found?  The hermeneutic of suspicion is always a great initial tool to employ.  Or in more colloquial terms, use your nose.  See if you can smell the sour odor of sensationalism drifting from the “discovery.”

Headlines claiming “Greatest Discovery Ever,” “Bombshell,” The Truth About,” “Could Change History,” or “Incredible Find” should be taken with more than just a grain of salt, maybe a pound of salt.  Initial discoveries, when done by creditable professionals, are tentative and nuanced.  Hedging discoveries with words like “perhaps,” “it seems,” “possibly,” “more study,” will not capture the attention of readers, but responsible archaeologists present findings carefully in scholarly contexts and with measured caution.

Sniff to see if the discovery has the odor of misinterpretation and misrepresentation.  Once while I was working on an excavation in northern Israel, a senior member of the team staring at a rock wall we had unearthed asked, “What do those rocks tells us?” Before we could answer, he said, “Absolute nothing.  Rocks don’t talk.”  Interpretations are imposed upon the silent material cultural that archaeologists bring to light.  Often in the zeal to “prove” or “support” the Bible, the media, or over-enthused interpreters, will act as ventriloquists for silent rocks.

One simple example is the “cross” of Herculaneum.  In a relatively recent excavation of a house covered by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (A.D. 70), a carbonized wooden cabinet was found.  Directly above the cabinet was a cross-shaped mark on a white painted wall.  The news spread that the earliest evidence of a Christian cross had been found in what appeared to be a Christian house. (This find would be extraordinary since crosses did not appear as a Christian symbol until the fourth century).  However, later evaluation showed the white “cross” was actually an imprint for hanging a chest on the wall.[1] Ancient wall brackets do not generate as much interest as crosses.

Does the smell of money waft from the discovery?  Headlines sell papers, flashy covers sells magazines, and graphic commercials sell viewership.  Archaeological discoveries can and have been manipulated by marketing ploys.  For example, on the Discovery Channel website, one can find a section called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”  Along with getting the video, one can buy a book called The Jesus Family Tomb:  The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History.  With a title like that, they will sell lots of books.  It is interesting that the Foreword to the book is written by James Cameron, the Hollywood director of the movie Titanic.  Who knew that he was an expert on first-century Judean tombs?  Economics trumps thoughtful and reflective dissemination of archaeological discoveries.  One can note that the National Geographic needed to recover a $1 million dollar investment in the purchase of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas.  It did so by sensationalizing the Gospel’s discovery and its content.

Cars that get 200 miles to the gallon, making $100,000 a year by stuffing envelopes, getting a Ph.D. in two month, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The same truth holds for archaeological discoveries.  With healthy skepticism, question the popular media when it pushes into the limelight “earth shattering” finds that will change our understanding of the Bible.  Thankfully archaeologists and their discoveries are helping to shape our view of the biblical world, but that shaping is more incremental, more measured, and more thoughtful.


[1] Jonathan L. Reed, The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament:  What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians (New York:  HarperOne, 2007), 8.

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Readability: Great Resource

28 04 2010

I am constantly surfing the net looking for resources that allow me to be productive in teaching, researching and writing.  Many of the programs I use I later realize are not as helpful as I imagined.  However, I have stumbled into one program that has quickly become a favorite.  It is called Readability.  If you are like me I often get frustrated with the collateral ads, headings, and flying banners surrounding the main information I want to read.  The collateral junk is distracting (which of course is the purpose; they want you to click).  However, Readability allows a user to get rid of all the junk around the edges of the main article/information.  All it takes is one click.  The program is the easiest I have ever put on my computer.  Below is the difference between a cluttered screen and a Readability screen.

This program is the best.  The web link is here:  Readability.





Taxes: Ancient and Modern

15 04 2010

Since today is April 15, Tax Day, I thought it might be appropriate to blog about taxes, especially in relationship to the ancient world.  Taxes, of course, are not modern phenomena.  The extraction of funds from the general public for use by the state (or elites) has a long history.  One specific tax related to the ancient Mediterranean world and the first century was the Fiscus Judaicus.  For an excellent overview of this tax and its implication in the first century, see the recent dissertation from Rijksuniversiteit Groningen by Marius Heemstra, How Rome’s Administration of the Fiscus Judaicus Accelerated the Parting of the Ways Between Judaism and Christianity:  Rereading 1 Peter, Revelation, The Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John in Their Roman And Jewish Contexts (2009).  This dissertation has a fascinating thesis and is quite well done.  (We presented papers in the same section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting last year in New Orleans).

The Fiscus Judaicus was the tax levied by Vespasian after the Judean War and the destruction of the Temple (Josephus, Jewish War, 7.218). This tax in essence replaced the Temple tax.  The money collected for this tax, ironically, helped reconstruct the temple of Jupiter in Rome which had been destroyed in the civil war of AD 69.  One can only image the chagrin of the Judeans who were force to pay this tax.  One of the differences between the Temple tax and the Fiscus Judaicus is that the Temple tax was only required of Judean men while the Fiscus Judaicus taxed men, women, children, and even Judean slaves.

This Temple tax consisted of a half shekel (or the equivalent, two Roman denarii or two Attic drachmas).  The Fiscus Judaicus tax, while based on the Temple tax, varied over the years.

This tax continued into the time period of Emperor Nerva at which point it was abolished (AD 96).  This event was of such importance it was commemorated on a coin minted in Rome.  See below.

The inscription on the reverse is FISCI IVDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA which translates as “the removal of the wrongful accusation of the Fiscus Judaicus.”  Note the date palm tree; a typical symbol used for Judea.