It’s not all about Noah!
It seems that certain types of religious believers cannot accept that objects mentioned in the Bible might have ceased to exist long ago. So we get the perennial search for the remains of Noah’s Ark, for the tomb of Jesus or any other physical relic that these people think will be the final proof that their particular interpretation of ancient literature is correct. In many ways, it’s little more than a continuation of the medieval church’s fascination with relics: the idea that people’s faith will be strengthened or unbelievers converted by the sight of something so holy that they cannot fail to be impressed.
While stories of the discovery (or near-discovery) of Noah’s Ark appear with tedious regularity in the generally gullible press, there is of course the other Ark: the Ark of the Covenant. This was a vessel built to contain the pair of stones (הברית לוחות) Luchot haBrit, “the tablets of the covenant”) that Moses was believed to have carried down from Mount Sinai, miraculously carved with Yahweh’s ten commandments. Eventually, it was housed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple and is believed by some still to exist. Jewish legend places it under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but others have sought to identify it in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Heaven.
The first attempt of modern times to locate the Ark is said to have been by the Finnish poet Valter Henrik Juvelius (1865-1922). This however, seems to be based on a misunderstanding of his work, which was based on the interpretation of coded passages in Biblical texts. These allowed him, among other things, to locate and plan the tomb of Solomon, including the locations of two sources of radiation intended to kill tomb-robbers, without actually setting foot anywhere near the tomb. There is little doubt that Juvelius’s work was that of a fantasist and there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he actually found any of the sites his work on Bible codes had convinced him must exist.
The doyen of seekers for the Ark is, naturally, Ron Wyatt (1933-1999). Well known for his fraudulent claims to have discovered virtually every object mentioned in the Bible, he of course located the Ark, beneath the site of Calvary in 1982. Along with the Ark was the seven-branched candlestick, the Menorah (מְנוֹרָה), apparently contradicting the description of Josephus, who says that it was taken to Rome to be used in the Victory parade of Vespasian, following the conclusion of the Jewish War in 70 CE. It is depicted on the Arch of Titus and, like so much booty, was probably melted down to augment the state treasure.
There are others, of course. The arkeologists include the pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock, the ubiquitous (and litigious) Andis Kaulins, historical detective Graham Phillips and Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Tudor Parfitt. Each of them claims to have located the Ark in different locations, so it is obvious that they cannot all be right. Is it possible that one of them is correct or is it more likely that none of them has the answer?
Does the Ark of the Covenant still exist?
For there to be an answer, we have to be certain in the first place that the Ark of the Covenant still exists. As I said at the start, we have no real reason to suspect that it should other than the convictions of religious people who think that it ought. In fact, the whole story of the Ark and its importance may be exaggerated. Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that it was part of the worship of Yahweh in Judah, but did not feature in worship in Israel, where the object seen as the residence of Yahweh was the Tabernacle; only after the fall of Israel did the two objects become associated. It is last mentioned as existing in the Book of Jeremiah (III.16), in a context that implies that if the Jewish people become truly faithful and have faithful kings, then the Ark will be forgotten and no longer relevant, presumably because the people will no longer need to have the physical reminder of the presence of Yahweh. This is very ironic in view of the attitude of certain faithful people that it simply must still exist!
In the deutero-canonical Second Book of Maccabees (II.4-5) (not regarded as part of the Bible by Jews or Protestant Christians), there is a statement that Jeremiah hid the Ark and the Tabernacle in a cave on the mountain “where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God”, Mount Nebo. This is the last we hear of it, but the reference is itself problematic. The Second Book of Maccabees was not contemporary with Jeremiah: it was written towards the end of the second century BCE in Greek, probably in Egypt. Although it cites the writings of Jeremiah, no such reference is found in anything he is known to have written.
It is much more likely that the Ark did not survive the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, when the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. Certainly, the author of the Book of Revelation, perhaps towards the end of the first century CE, did not believe that it existed in his day: in XI.19, after the seventh trumpet has sounded, the Heavenly Temple becomes visible and the Ark of the Covenant can be seen inside it. It was only centuries after the Ark is last recorded as a physical object that speculation about its present whereabouts began. After so long, there is no reason to believe that anyone could have known whether it still existed, let alone where it might be. That does not stop people today from looking for it!
The life and death of an Arkeologist
One of the more recent seekers of the Ark of the Covenant, Vendyl Jones, died on 27 December 2010. Born in Texas (USA) in 1930, he obtained an undergraduate degree in Divinity and a Master’s in Theology before preaching as a Baptist pastor from 1955. Over the next few years, he became disillusioned with anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament, concluding that they were added from marginal comments made in an unidentified manuscript of the Gospels, saying that his printed bible had claimed this. No such manuscript is known to exist and the majority of Gospel historians believe that these numerous statements are original to the text; moreover, Jones would not state which printed version he used had made this assertion. Nevertheless, Pastor Jones resigned his post to study under various American rabbis. He came to the conclusion that Jesus had intended his gentile followers to live by the “Seven Laws of Noah” (שבע מצוות בני נח, Sheva mitzvot B’nei Noach): the prohibition of idolatry, the prohibition of murder, the prohibition of theft, the prohibition of sexual immorality, the prohibition of blasphemy, the prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive and the establishment of law courts.
This led to a break with the Baptist sect in which he had been educated. To some Baptists, this means that he was not only an apostate who could never be forgiven, but the very antichrist! However, he continued to study Judaism and moved to Israel in 1967. He worked on numerous excavations in Israel, including at Qumran, but he remained a controversial figure in Israeli archaeology, failing to attract government grants and even being denied permits to work. Much of his research was carried out under the auspices of the Judaic-Christian Research Foundation, which he founded (it later became the Institute of Judaic-Christian Research and subsequently the Vendyl Jones Research Institute). He believed that if he could locate specific objects and materials used in worship at the Temple of Solomon, their rediscovery would initiate something similar to the End Times of Christian belief, during which all Jews will return to Israel, there will be peace in the Middle East, the reconstituted Jewish state will be ruled by a Sanhedrin and Yahweh will make presence known to all humanity. It has been reported that he believed that he would locate the Ark of the Covenant before 14 August 2005, supposedly the anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, although he subsequently denied these reports.
Always a colourful character, Vendyl Jones claimed to have been the inspiration for the fictitious Indiana Jones of the film franchise, but the character’s creator, George Lucas, is clear that there is no connection. Indeed, the character’s name was originally intended to be Indiana Smith, but when Steven Spielberg objected, Lucas changed it to Jones. The only connection appears to be that both Joneses looked for an object that’s unlikely to still exist.
With the passing of Vendyl Jones and, eleven years earlier, of Ron Wyatt, two of the more entertaining Bad Archaeologists have been lost to the world. Unlike many Bad Archaeologists, they both conducted archaeological research on the ground, the former in a more-or-less orthodox fashion, the latter in a way that more resembles the work of the fictional Indiana Jones.