Archive for the ‘ Bible ’ Category

Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters” on Roman coins

This is an odd one, and it’s something that seems to have passed by the notice of most “alternative” archaeologists. It concerns some claims made by a genuine academic archaeologist that relate to coinage of the late first century BCE and early first century CE, which he believed demonstrated that the chronology of the career of Jesus of Nazareth have been dated wrongly. These matters of chronology are not the focus of interest here (indeed, they are abstruse and relate more to biblical exegesis and religious history than to archaeology as such): it is the claim that coins minted in the eastern (predominantly Greek speaking) part of the Roman Empire contain what are claimed to be “microletters”. These are microscopic letters that are alleged to have been created on the coin dies by the moneyers who struck them. It is an unusual claim, but coming from an academic archaeologist, ought to be examined carefully. After all, academics never make mistakes, do they?

Jerry Vardaman

Dr Ephraim Jeremiah (Jerry) Vardaman (1927-2000) Source

The discoverer of the “microletters” was Ephraim Jeremiah (‘Jerry’) Vardaman (1927-2000), a lecturer in archaeology and religion at Mississippi State University in Starkville (Mississippi, USA), where he was the founder and director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology from 1973 to 1981, and from which he retired in 1992. He had previously been a Baptist Bible chair teacher at Tarleton State College (now University), an adjunct teacher of Old Testament at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1958 and assistant professor and associate professor of New Testament archaeology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, USA) from 1958 to 1972. He also taught at the Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, perhaps after his retirement from Mississippi State University; he was certainly leading seminars there in 1998. His bachelor’s degree was awarded by Southwestern Seminary and he obtained two doctorates, one from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 (on Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel) and the other from Baylor University in 1974 (on The Inscriptions of King Herod I). He undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford (UK) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He excavated extensively in the Middle East, at the sites of Bethel, Shechem, Ramat Rachel, Caesarea, Ashdod, Macherus and Elusa. All in all, this is an impressive curriculum vitae and one that means we should take Dr Vardaman’s ideas very seriously.

Jerry Vardaman’s claims

Although Jerry Vardaman never published any peer-reviewed papers on his discovery, his paper “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos I (Eisenbrauns, 1989) introduced the concept of microletters:

These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth… On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters.

Microletters

An example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 1

Apart from this chapter in a relatively obscure publication on biblical chronology, there are no formally published reports of the discovery. A series of three lectures, delivered to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998 has been in circulation for some time; they can be downloaded here as poor quality pdfs 1, 2 and 3. That is the total of Vardaman’s output on the subject of microletters, although it should be noted that he also claimed to identify them on stone-cut inscriptions.

The academic response was almost non-existent. There were no (reported) attempts by others to validate Vardaman’s alleged discovery, no critiques of his technique and, most worryingly, no public statement on the matter by Nikos Kokkinos, alleged to have been the co-discoverer of microletters. Nikos Kokkinos is well known as an expert on ancient coinage and on the coinage of the Herodian dynasty in particular, but he seems never to have published anything claiming to have detected microletters on the objects he studies. He is someone who is unafraid of courting controversy (he was one of the co-authors of Centuries of Darkness, a radical attempt to revise the chronology of the ancient Near East and Aegean that has not met with the approval of the majority of scholars), so this failure to mention them is very surprising. The only response seems to have been a review, “Theory of Secret Inscriptions on Coins is Disputed”, by the prominent numismatist David Hendin in The Celator (Volume 5 no 3 (March 1991), 28-32). The magazine published a rebuttal to Hendin’s criticisms by Jerry Vardaman, which added no new evidence to his published work.

Critique of the “microletters”

Another example of microletters on a coin

Another example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 2 (reverse)

The lack of acknowledgement by the wider academic community is not necessarily a result of a general unwillingness to look at Jerry Vardaman’s ideas, nor is it the closing of ranks against novel hypotheses (a claim that many “alternative” archaeologists make to explain why mainstream archaeologists tend to ignore their works). It is a direct result of Vardaman’s failure to publish his results adequately by submitting them to peer-reviewed publications. It is also because of the audience to which he pitched his ideas: instead of presenting them to numismatists and epigraphers, who would be those best placed to evaluate them, he concentrated on the religious studies audience, particularly those of a biblical literalist bent. In some ways, this is not surprising (Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister), but it is worrying.

A third example of microletters

A third example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 3

One possibility for the lack of wider discussion of “microletters” is that other archaeologists simply did not believe that they exist. There are enormous problems with them, of course. Although Vardaman does not supply scales to his drawings of the coins, the letters he claims to have detected are tiny, less than half a millimetre in height. They could only have been added to the coin dies using a very fine, hard-tipped scriber of some kind, although he produced no archaeological evidence for this type of tool. We must also ask ourselves why an ancient coin die-maker would have added words and phrases that would have been invisible to the coin users. And why did he use a mixture of Greek and Latin on coins that have regular inscriptions only in Greek? How have letters so small survived the day-to-day wear to which all coins are subject so that Vardaman could discover them? How are they visible beneath the patina that develops on all archaeologically recovered coins? If corrosion products have been removed or stabilised, how have the microletters survived the cleaning process? These are insurmountable difficulties and Vardaman was never questioned about them.

Microletters reading REX JESVS

Microletters reading REX JESVS

There is a more serious problem, though. As well as the promiscuous mixing of Greek and Latin words in the microletter inscriptions, there is at least one instance published by Vardaman of the letter J, used in the name Jesus. This letter simply did not exist in either the Greek or Latin alphabets of the time of Jesus: it was invented by the Italian humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to represent a sound for which the existing Latin alphabet of Early Modern period had no character. It was based on the final -i in Roman numerals in medieval manuscript traditions, where ii, iii, vii and viii were conventionally written ij, iij, vij, viij, a purely decorative feature. It can not have been “microinscribed” on a coin of the first century CE.

Explaining non-existent “microletters”

So what are we to make of Vardaman’s hypothesis? Well, it’s bunk, pure and simple. It is Bad Archaeology of a very obvious kind: Jerry Vardaman was seeing things that just don’t exist. We have to ask ourselves why he did so. He does not seem to have set out to hoax people and seems genuinely to have believed in the existence of microletters. The well known atheist historian Richard Carrier has suggested that in later life, Vardaman was suffering from a “chronic mental illness”. This may be going too far. Jerry Vardaman was certainly deluded about the existence of his microletters and continued to assert that he was correct, without bringing forward any evidence, until the end of his life. I suspect that his religious convictions had a part to play in his insistence on their reality.

As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible; the well known problem of the impossible date for the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke, who appears to date it to 6 CE during the governorship of Quirinus in Syria, has led to a variety of ingenious explanations. Vardaman was of the view that there were two governors of Syria named Quirinus: the one mentioned by Josephus and well known to history and an earlier, more shadowy figure, who was governor in 12 BCE, the date Vardaman preferred for the birth of Jesus. His microletters formed a major element in his identification of the supposedly early Quirinius (as did microletters on stone inscriptions), who is otherwise unknown. Vardaman’s desperation to confirm the account of Luke in the face of the enormous difficulty posed by the implied date of the census that would have brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem led him into serious errors of judgement: he literally saw what he wanted.

Is Jesus ‘buried in Devon’? No, he’s not!

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Forget Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Place, Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger’s The Tomb of God or any other conspiracy derivative of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that claims the body of Jesus is hidden in south-west France: a Devon (UK) resident, Michael Goldsworthy, claims to have located the tomb of Jesus in south-west England. Billed by that bastion of fact-checking, The Sun, as an “amateur archaeologist”, Mr Goldsworthy has started with a medieval text that he believes holds clues to unravelling a host of religious mysteries.

Although the press reports announcing the “discovery” only appeared in October 2012, Mr Goldsworthy has been promoting his idea for some time. There is a book, of course, And Did Those Feet…?, which claims to give “definitive answers” to a variety of questions. Instantly, we can see that we’re in ley line territory, as the first question is “What is the relationship between the Neolithic works dotted around the British landscape, and those who built the many churches on pre-exiting pagan sites?. Despite a recent comment by someone called randy, there is no evidence to support the idea of ley lines; nor is there evidence that “many churches” were built on “pre-existing pagan sites”, let alone Neolithic sites. When confronted with a claim like this, made without any qualification or reservation, we can see instantly that we are dealing with ideas that are not grounded in evidence-based archaeology. Instead, we are in realms of unbridled speculation.

Burgh Island, Bigbury, Devon

Burgh Island, Bigbury (Devon, UK) and its art deco hotel

So, what are Mr Goldsworthy’s claims, according to the recent press reports (which perhaps derive from a press release)? According to Ted Harrison in the Western Morning News, Mr Goldsworthy has located burials on Burgh Island, a privately owned island off Bigbury on the south-west coast of Devon known to readers of Agatha Christie’s novels as the setting for And Then There Were None and Evil under the Sun. There is said to have been a monastery on the island, demolished in the nineteenth century to make way for the hotel that stands there, although it does not appear on a list of monastic houses in Devon, unless it is the “purported cell dependent on Malmesbury”, for which no contemporary evidence appears to exist. It is not one of twelve archaeological sites on the island recorded by the Devon and Dartmoor National Park Historic Environment Record, although the hotel built in 1929 is Listed. This is not a good start!

Of course, the discovery of these alleged burials is not based on any type of archaeological survey. Instead, it relies on Mr Goldsworthy’s reinterpretation of a mid fourteenth-century text, which he claims shows that Burgh Island is the fabled Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his wounds. According to the text (see below), the Island was a place of burial for many pagans among whom was Ioseph… ab Arimathia nomine (“Joseph, by name ‘of Arimathea’”). This story circulated in medieval Glastonbury, which was frequently identified with Avalon, but Mr Goldsworthy is convinced that it contains clues to the true location of the mysterious island. The clue apparently lies in the phrase in linea bifurcata (“in the split (or two-forked) line (or linen garment)”) that describes the location of Joseph’s tomb: he takes this to be a reference to two ley lines diverging from a single point! Never mind that it could be a description of his clothes…

Yair Davidiy's The Tribes (1993)

Yair Davidiy’s The Tribes (1993)

From here, we descend into the murky waters of British Israelism, a bizarre belief system, based solely on genealogical data, that the peoples of the British Isles and their descendants are the lost tribes of Israel. The core belief of the movement is that “The Jews are not the whole of God’s people Israel, as so many imagine, but only a small part of the chosen race – at the most two tribes out of twelve… and British-Israelites maintain that the Anglo-Saxon race embody, and are, the ten-tribed kingdom of Israel” (as expressed by A N Dixon on page 16 of The Divine Plan in the Government of the World Proved by the Great European War, published in 1915: emphasis in the original). There are thus potentially dangerous political undercurrents in some of these beliefs, while its supporters are biblical literalists and therefore creationists. Let’s not go there…

Walter Crane's I Saw Three Ships, 1900

Walter Crane’s I Saw Three Ships, c 1900

Moving on with relief, we discover that “the mysteries of the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud and possibly the Ark of the Covenant will be solved”. Oh well, the relief was short lived. Although we are told by The Sun, with its <sarcasm>characteristically high journalistic standards</sarcasm>, that the “tomb… could also hold… the Turin Shroud, this is not one of Mr Goldsworthy’s claims. It’s all to do with the Knights Templar, wouldn’t you know, who knew the secret location of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Burgh Island. He conjours up a scenario where “three ships arrived off the island bringing sacred treasures from the Holy Land to secrete in what they would have believed was a special place. They took away with them the shroud as a relic and souvenir.” So that’s clear, then. To put the icing on the cake, Mr Goldworthy maintains that “[t]he Christmas carol ‘I saw three ships’ is said to originate from this visit, as the ships sailed in on Christmas day to attract the least attention.” Those Templars apparently thought of everything.

Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Thankfully, we’re almost done. The final piece of evidence, as one might have guessed, involved a Leonardo da Vinci painting, just not that one. This time, it’s Madonna dei Fusi (“The Madonna of the Yarnwinder”), which, we are assured by Mr Goldsworthy, depicts Burgh Island and Bigbury Bay. Well, there’s not actually an island and the landscape does not look like South Devon to me. It might have been more convincing if, like Burgh Island, we had a definite island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Perhaps good old Leonardo didn’t want to make the clue too obvious.

And that is about it, so far as the presentation of evidence goes. Of course, there’s also King Arthur’s tomb, the the bifurcation of the (ley) line at Avebury, Diodoros Sikoulos’s account of Burgh Island and the mysterious island of Ictis. But it’s all so ridiculously speculative, so without any understanding of context, so divorced from academic consensus, that it becomes too boring to examine. Sorry, Mr Goldsworthy, but that’s how your ideas strike me. It’s a long way from the “Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown with a vengeance” excitement promised by the Western Morning News!

It’s archaeology, Jim, but not as we know it…

Michael Goldsworthy's And Did Those Feet

Michael Goldsworthy’s And Did Those Feet… ?

As with so many of these ‘amateur archaeologists’, the starting point is not archaeological fieldwork at all. Instead, it is based on a rehashing of an obscure bit of Latin attributed by the fourteenth-century writer John of Glastonbury to one Melchinus (usually anglicised to Melkin), alleged to have lived in the distant past. We are in very dubious territory with this material. John was probably writing his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church”) around 1343 and claimed to have access to texts that supplemented the account of William of Malmesbury (c1095-1143), the first historian to attempt a history of Glastonbury Abbey in his de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church”), probably written between 1129 and 1139.

John will have wanted to improve William’s work, which was by his time over two hundred years old. He brought it partly up to date with the work of Adam of Domerham’s Historia de Rebus Gestis Glastoniensibus (“History about Glastonbury Deeds”), itself a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s work up to 1291. He re-orded William’s work to give it greater chronological focus and inserted additional material. This included details from the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Transitus Marię (“Assumption of Mary”), various Grail romances (although John does not mention the grail) and other sources, including the work of Melchinus. The alleged extract is often known as The Prophecy of Melkin. John is the first writer to connect Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury, basing his account on a marginal note added to a text of William’s de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię in the thirteenth century. He is also the earliest writer to mention Melchinus.

The site of Arthur's grave

The site where the monks of Glastonbury found a grave in 1191 claimed to belong to King Arthur and Queen Guenevere

All later writers who mention Melchinus are derived from John of Glastonbury until the antiquary John Leland (1503-1552), who may have seen material at Glastonbury also attributed to him; the additional material is related to the developed Arthurian legend, mentioning Gawain and Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury. This would place Melchinus later than the discovery of the alleged grave in 1191. Leland’s contemporary John Bale (1495-1563) states that Melchinus wrote a work de Arthurii Mensa Rotunda (“On Arthur’s Round Table”). Once again, we are looking at an author who is alleged to have written material dealing with the fully developed Arthurian legend. He mentions two other books by Melchinus, de Antiquitatibus Britannicis (“On British Antiquities”) and de Gestis Britannorum (“On the Deeds of the Britons”). No-one has seen any of these works since then.

In John Pits’s (1560-1616) Relationum Historicarum de Rebus Anglicis (“Of Historical Relations about English Matters”), published posthumously in 1619, he places Melchinus in the reign of Maglocunus, in the middle of the sixth century. This is clearly fantasy: perhaps he was struck by the superficial similarity of the names. Nevertheless, the idea that Melchinus was a Welshman named Maelgwn has been repeated many times (and the common mis-spelling ‘Maelgwyn’ is a sure sign that the writer does not know what they are talking about!) and can be found on the majority of web pages dealing with him. The name Melkin actually looks Middle English, which would be appropriate for a writer in the High Middle Ages who seems to have been concerned with the Arthurian legends.

So what is this mysterious prophecy that has led Michael Goldsworthy to jump to some quite unjustified conclusions? It runs as follows:

Insula Auallonis auida
funere paganorum,
prę ceteris in orbe
ad sepulturam eorum omnium
sperulis prophecię uaticinantibus decorata,
& in futurum
ornata erit
altissimum laudantibus.
Abbadare, potens in Saphat,
paganorum nobilissimus,
cum centum et quatuor milibus
dormicionem ibi accepit.
Inter quos Ioseph de marmore,
ab Arimathia nomine,
cepit sompnum perpetuum;
et iacet in linea bifurcata
iuxta meridianum angulum oratorii,
cratibus pręparatis,
super potentem adorandam virginem,
supradictis sperulatis
locum habitantibus tredecim.
Habet enim secum Ioseph
in sarcophago
duo fassula alba & argentea,
cruore prophetę Jhesu
& sudore perimpleta.
Cum reperietur eius sarcofagum,
integrum illibatum
in futuris videbitur,
& erit apertum toto orbi terrarium.
Ex tunc aqua, nec ros cęli
insulam nobilissimam habitantibus poterit deficere.
Per multum tempus ante
diem Iudicialem in Iosaphat
erunt aperta hęc,
& viventibus declarata.

I translate it (badly but literally):

The Isle of Avalon, eager
For the corpses of pagans,
Foremost of others in the world
For the burial of all of them,
Decorated with foretellings of the prophet of the world
And in the future
Will be embellished
With those praising the Most High.
Abbadare, powerful in Shephatiah,
The most noble of pagans,
With one hundred and four thousand
There accepted eternal sleep.
Among those, in a marble slab, Joseph,
Of Arimathea by name,
Took perpetual sleep;
And he lies in a split line
Next to the south corner of the oratory
Made from reeds,
For the worship of the powerful virgin,
Of the aforementioned world
Thirteen inhabiting the place.
Indeed, Joseph has with him
In his sarcophagus
Two small vessels, white and silver,
With the blood of the Prophet Jesus
And His sweat full to the brim.
When his sarcophagus shall be rediscovered
Whole and complete
Will be seen in future times
And it will be open to all the lands of the globe.
From then on, neither water nor star jelly
Will be able to be lacking for the inhabitants of the most noble island.
For a long time before
The Day of Judgement in Jehoshaphat
These things will be open
And declared to the living.

Such is the stuff of which wild goose chases are made! I find the promise of the future abundance of a slime mould particularly fun…

This was originally going to be a short post. I had seen the story in the press and saw how ludicrous and without evidence it was. I believed that I could write a short debunking of a story that would obviously lead nowhere other than madness. I was wrong. There is just so much wrong with this short newspaper story that I despair of getting to the bottom of it. Thank goodness I haven’t read the book!

This ought to be the first rule of “Biblical Archaeology”

Bad Archaeology logo

“Biblical archaeology” is in “scare quotes” because it’s a highly problematical concept, but more of that later. What I want to address first is what ought to be a first principle for anyone reading about claims for discoveries that are supposedly related to the Bible (Hebrew or Christian) or any religious text, for that matter. It’s this:

If a discovery confirms your pre-held religious beliefs, then it’s wishful thinking at best and even more likely to be a fraud.

As a principle, I think it’s a good one. But it’s one I have rarely, if ever, encountered in so-called “Biblical Archaeology”, which is a sub-discipline that is characterised by a distinct lack of sceptical thinking. Why is that?

Let’s answer that by looking at some recent claims: the “Jesus family tomb”, the “lead codices” from Jordan and the interminable searches for “Noah’s Ark”.

The “Jesus family tomb”

The so-called ‘Jesus family tomb’

The so-called ‘Jesus family tomb’

In 2005, the Canadian investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici (know to television viewers as The Naked Archaeologist, a rather unappealing designation) entered a tomb originally found during construction work in 1980 at Talpiot (‏תלפיות‎), a suburb of Jerusalem. It seems that he did this without the permission of the Israel Antiquities Authority (העתיקות רשות), which makes it an illegal act. The purpose was to make a documentary with the film director James Cameron, as Jacobovici believed that it was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and other members of his family. The documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was released in March 2007, with a follow up book co-authored by Jacobovici and Charles R Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: the discovery that will change history forever (there are different versions of the subtitle that are less emphatic than this!) that was released a month later.

Both the book and the film have proved controversial, with criticism focusing on statistical claims that allegedly show that the combination of names found on ossuaries recovered from the tomb has only a one in six hundred chance of occurring in first century CE Palestine. They take this to be proof that the tomb really was that of Jesus and his family. There are problems with their argument, though: the statistics used by Jacobovici suggest that there were at least a thousand men named Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef alive in the first half of the first century CE. As more than twenty-two ossuaries of the right date bearing the name Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a have been found in and around Jerusalem, several of these ought to belong to a Yeshu‘a/Yehoshu‘a bar Yehosef. Jacobovici’s statistical claims only stand up if Yehosef is counted twice (once on the ossuary belonging to Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef and once on the ossuary naming Yoseh, who cannot be shown to be the father of Yeshu‘a)/

The inscription supposedly naming Yehosu‘a bar Yehosef

The inscription supposedly naming Yehosu‘a bar Yehosef

To make matters worse, they include several additional names in their analysis: Mariamenou-Mara and Yehudah bar Yeshu‘a. The reading of the first name is disputed, her identity as the wife of Yeshu‘a bar Yehosef is entirely speculative and the suggestion that she was Mary Magdalene is also pure speculation. The second name is included to create a son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Why? There is no biblical authority for this move. Instead, it relies on an idea first mooted in the notoriously slipshod but best selling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, that Jesus fathered one or more children, creating a dynasty that survives to the present day. Following the unprecedented success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the plot of which is based around the conspiracy at the heart of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has now entered popular discourse.

It is not unfair to say that Simcha Jacobivici could not have made his documentary without Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s unfounded speculation about the marital status of Jesus. His contribution to the debate their book engendered uses statistics in a dishonestly tendentious way. Using this manipulated data, he claims to have found proof that a perfectly ordinary tomb in a Jerusalem suburb housed data that completely undermines the core belief of Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended physically into heaven. Regardless of the religious dimension, which seems to be to create a Jesus-without-divinity, the claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is a core prop in the hypothesis by which the Talpiot tomb is identified as that of Jesus’s family. This is an example of using one unsubstantiated hypothesis as a prop for another in order to claim that the original hypothesis is thus proven.

The “lead codices” from Jordan

One of the alleged lead codices from Jordan

One of the alleged lead codices from Jordan

In March 2011, the Jewish Chronicle Online, followed by several newspapers (including The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph), carried a story of an amazing new discovery: a group of lead codices or ‘books’ that were claimed to contain Christian texts older than the writings of St Paul (generally reckoned to be the oldest part of the New Testament). Curiously, although the early stories places Robert Feather at the centre of the recognition of the books, The Daily Telegraph focuses on a press release issued by David and Jennifer Elkington. Robert Feather is a metallurgist by profession and a member of the West London Synagogue who has published The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran, which links the treasures listed in the scroll with ’ḫnjtn (Akhnaten) and his city of ’ḫtjtn (Akhetaten). He links the codices with the rebellion of Simeon bar Kokhba in 132-136 CE rather than with early Christianity. David Elkington describes himself as “an Egyptologist, specializing in Egypt-Palestinian links that have inevitably drawn him into the field of Biblical studies” and is the author of In the Name of the Gods: the mystery of resonance and the prehistoric messiah, which is described as a “highly acclaimed academic thesis on the resonance and acoustical origins of religion”.

It’s only the start of the story and already we are in murky waters. Who is the discoverer of the codices? Both claimants refer to their owner, a Jordanian lorry driver called Hassan Saeda (or Saida), while the Elkingtons were in possession of two of the books at the time of their interview with The Daily Telegraph. The power of blogging was soon brought to bear on these issues. It turns out that David Elkington is a graphic designer originally known as Paul Elkington and that his “thesis” was self-published; he had originally contacted Biblical scholar Professor Peter Thonemann of the University of Oxford on 15 September 2010, sending him images of what were clearly the same objects, only they were said to have been found in Egypt. Thonemann was able to identify the Greek text on one of the codices as a bungled copy of part of a Greek inscription published in Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie XXI: Inscriptions de la Jordanie, 2: Region centrale, 118. It was thus clearly a fake. Nevertheless, he put out his press release on 22 March 2011 knowing this.

The Elkingtons

The Elkingtons in a portrait by The Daily Telegraph

In detailing the strange behaviour of David/Paul Elkington, blogger Thomas S Verenna notes that what is “scandalous is the complete lack of journalistic integrity, honest research, and thorough fact-checking. These codices might never have been heard of if the authors of the reports for BBC and Fox News (among others) had just checked with the academic community before publishing the “find”After examining the almost immediate response to the codices by Biblioblogs, one is confronted with the value of a form of media, which is not peer reviewed or looked over by an editor, which can bring about correct historical information to a large audience quickly. Perhaps blogging isn’t enough; but it is something”.

I couldn’t agree more. What this story illustrates is one of the principal mechanisms by which Bad Archaeology and other pseudosciences are promoted: go straight to the press with a fantastic story secure in the knowledge that the hacks will do little to check its veracity. This is the practice of churnalism, whereby press releases are simply copied-and-pasted or occasionally very lightly redacted for publication. No scholarly articles are written to confirm the legitimacy of the finds, no data is made available for qualified scholars to examine, overblown claims are made for the significance of objects that are not available for examination and those making the claims inflate their own scholarly credentials.

The ‘lead codices’ are a feature of Biblical archaeology that is all too common: the allegedly important object that is supposed to rewrite our understanding of early Judaism/Christianity that turns out to be a fake. The ossuary of James the Just, the Jehoash inscription and the Turin Shroud are just some of the examples of frauds intended to bolster the faith of the pious by providing evidence that their beliefs are grounded in reality or to push a particular version of the past to discredit the religious beliefs of others. In some cases, the motive is simply greed.

Noah’s Ark

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark by Jan Breughel the Elder

The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark by Jan Breughel the Elder (1613)

I’ve covered this topic ad nauseam both on this blog and on the main site, but it’s a hardy perennial of Bad Archaeology. Scarcely a year passes without some new announcement that it’s been located. That’s not what I want to discuss this time, though. What I want to touch on is the curious belief among some of the faithful that objects mentioned as being significant to the religion of the Hebrews ought still to exist somewhere, as I touched on in this post some time ago.

Noah’s Ark makes a brief but significant appearance in Genesis VI.14-VIII.19. We’re told what Noah was commanded to use in his construction. The main material was “gopher” (גֹ֔פֶר) wood; nobody actually knows what sort of wood this was (Wikipedia’s suggestion that it may be a Hebrew transliteration of Assyrian giparu, claimed to mean “reeds” is wrong, as the word means “residence of the enu-priest”, “part of a private house”, “meadow” or “taboo”: this is why Wikipedia entries always need to be checked against more authoritative sources!). Pitch is also mentioned, while it had a “covering” that could be “turned back”. Although it is described as a massive boat, it was supposedly made from perishable materials: wood, even when coated in pitch, rarely survives in archaeological contexts and tends to survive only in very specific conditions (extremely dry, freezing or anaerobic situations). Nothing in the text of Genesis suggests that it was anything more than a temporary home for Noah, his family and the animals they cared for during the Flood. Its usefulness over, it was simply abandoned on the “Mountains or Ararat” by those who descended to the lowlands to repopulate the earth.

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat: move along please, there’s no Ark to see here

So why do people want to go in search of it? Putting aside the question of whether the “Mountains of Ararat” (הָרֵי אֲרָרָט) in Genesis VIII.4 refer to the mountain we call Mount Ararat today, by what mechanism do they see the Ark surviving? And surviving as a complete or near-complete ocean-going vessel? Should its preservation be viewed as a miracle performed by Yahweh?

If I were to initiate a search for, say, the shells of the eggs laid by Leda, Han Xiang’s gourd without end or Mami Wata’s grooming set, it is unlikely that I would get many enthusiasts to join me or donate money to my expedition. It is only the privileged position that Hebrew mythology enjoys in Western culture that convinces some people that Noah’s Ark once existed in the real world.

The underlying problem with “Biblical Archaeology”

A great deal of what is presented to the public as “Biblical Archaeology” bears little relation to what other archaeologists recognise as archaeology. The spinning of data to push a particular and tendentious interpretation, the outright forgery of artefacts and the naïve belief that certain objects ought to survive to the present day are not characteristics of scientific archaeology but are typical of pseudoscience.

A great deal of what passes for “Biblical archaeology” consists of a search for sites and artefacts that ‘confirm’ what the Bible says; indeed, this was one of the inspirations behind the development of archaeological excavation. Following the questioning attitudes to religious certainty inculcated by Enlightenment writers, the faithful wanted to demonstrate that their beliefs could not be shaken by rational inquiry but, rather, would be confirmed through it. Unfortunately, the reverse has tended to happen. Archaeology has not confirmed the glories of the Davidic kingdom, has failed to produce evidence for Noah’s flood, has not revealed the location of Jesus’s crucifixion, has not identified a Pharaoh of the Exodus. And it probably never will.

A great many of its practitioners start out from a particular religious viewpoint (usually orthodox Judaism or a Christian sect) and aim to find evidence that backs up their literalist interpretation of the sacred texts. This seems to have been at least part of the motivation behind the forgery of the ‘James the Just ossuary’ and other dubious artefacts traced back to Oded Golan (the other being financial, of course).

In an important book, The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus, 2007), Biblical scholar Hector Avalos argues that:

Since archaeology has failed to reveal much biblical history that matters, biblical archaeology… not only has ceased to be relevant but it has ceased to exist as we knew it. Instead of revealing biblical history, archaeology has provided a fundamental argument to move beyond the Bible itself. If… biblical archaeology has to serve theology once more to be relevant, its days as a secular academic field are numbered. Either way, biblical archaeology ended in ruins—literally, socially, and metaphorically…

So our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture as an authority in the modern world. Sacred texts are the problem that most scholars are not willing to confront. What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence. Abolishing human reliance on sacred texts is imperative when those sacred texts imperil the existence of human civilisation as it is currently configured. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it.

Strong words. And perhaps a little over-the-top. But, as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman show in The Bible unearthed: archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts (2001), archaeology paints a coherent picture of the development of the Jewish people that is completely at odds with the claims of the Bible. No amount of fraud, wilful misinterpretation of data or quests to find the objects that will ‘prove’ a particular religious viewpoint will bring back the innocent and ignorant days when the Bible could be read as literally true.

It’s hardly a surprise…

Bad Arcaheology logo

By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The notorious Noah’s Ark Ministries ‘discovery’ of the well-preserved remains of the Ark have been outed as a hoax, not that it should come as a surprise. A letter to Dr Randall Price from two Kurdish brothers has been published on the web. In it, they say that they helped to construct the remains, which they had been told were to be used for a film set.

As others have pointed out, the story had a strange feeling to it from the outset. On wonders how much money Noah’s Ark Ministries International Ltd. has made from this scam. It may be no coincidence that the group’s website has not been updated since the initial announcement in 2010.

Hat tip to PaleoBabble for the link!

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