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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