Those Pottery Makers at Qumran

As is often the case, the publication of a book is accompanied by an article in a popular magazine and a summary in a newspaper article. Unfortunately, the New York Times doesn’t seek out mainstream scholars to get their take, and so from reading their article, you might conclude that scholars no longer believe that Essenes live at Qumran. That is just not so.

The book The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates, edited by Katharina Galor, Jean-baptiste Humbert, and Jurgen Zangenberg includes a chapter on which the articles are based.

The magazine article, Qumran – The Pottery Factory , is in the Sept/Oct edition of the Biblical Archaeology Review ($50 subscription to read online; much less to subscribe to the print edition).

That Qumran was not home to the Essenes has been suggested before, with theories that identify the site as everything from a Roman villa, military fortress, fortified farm, and now a pottery factory. To be sure, Magen and Peled are respected scholars who have excavated at Qumran. But their view is clearly in the minority. When you read a statement like this, “There is not an iota of evidence that it was a monastery,” red flags should be flying. That the majority of scholars would hold to a certain interpretation without one iota of evidence tells us more about the speaker than the theory. That the only outside scholar that the NYT quotes is Norman Golb should cause all the bells to be sounding. Anyone who has spent time in the area has to just bust out laughing when reading Magen’s idea that these caves are “the last spot they could hide the scrolls before descending to the shore” of the Dead Sea. I can just picture these guys running away from the Romans and just stopping by Cave 1 to drop off some scrolls! Oh wait, we need some jars for these – quick, run to the pottery factory and bring some back here! Those who have been to Cave 1 will understand the humor more; it’s not exactly “on the way” (Cave 2 even less so). The proximity of Caves 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 to the site is telling as well. They are all less than 50 meters from the inhabitation. The attempts to separate the scrolls from the site are an utter failure.

I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading the articles or the book about this theory. But here’s the problem: too often these minority theories get the sensational coverage and people read about them and, lacking any other knowledge, are taken in. Instead, they should be first directed to the theories which have long been held and tested. After reviewing the mountain of evidence that Qumran was an Essene settlement, then go and weigh it against the latest view.

There are a lot of good books on the subject, but one of the best is Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another advantage to this route: this book will cost you $13 instead of $147 for the one above.

There’s a video to go along with the NYT article here.

Side point: if scholars can’t agree on the function of a site in a relatively late period where there is lots of archaeological and historical evidence, how is it that they can be so certain about events much earlier in history for which almost no evidence has been preserved? The less evidence we have, the more certainty that scholars have.


“We Sell Hope”

Robert Cornuke has led many to believe that he has found the route of the Red Sea crossing, the location of Mt. Sinai, the place of Paul’s shipwreck, and, most recently, the Ark of Noah. Because of his failed track record, his imitation of the charlatan Ron Wyatt, and his own website dubbing him as “Indiana Jones,” I view Mr. Cornuke’s claims with suspicion. Yes, by the world’s standards, I am crazy: I believe the biblical account is historically reliable. But I’m not crazy enough to buy what Mr. Wyatt or Mr. Cornuke are selling. But now we find out that he’s selling something else.

In an interview in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Mr. Cornuke said,

I guess what my wife says my business is, we sell hope. Hope that it could be true, hope that there is a God.

The problem with this is that the standard needed to establish an item as justifying “hope” is substantially lower than establishing an item as actual, genuine, or persuasive. In the case of Noah’s Ark then, Mr. Cornuke need only have something that looks like wood. It doesn’t need to be wood; it doesn’t need to be the right kind of wood; it doesn’t need to be on the right mountain; and it doesn’t need to be from Noah’s Ark. It simply needs to resemble what Cornuke’s audience is looking for. If it’s possible, then you’ve succeeded. You’ve provided “hope.”

The problem with this, of course, is that hope dashed is worse than hope never raised. There’s perhaps no better example of this than Noah’s Ark. Noah’s Ark has been “discovered” so many times that the most devout Bible believer with any knowledge of the former “discoveries” simply won’t be taken in again. Some, no doubt, tire of the fraud perpetuated by “Bible believers” and choose another way. The world, perhaps at times curious if there really is some truth in the Scriptures, simply laughs at the foolish gullibility and rationalizes that such gullibility must also account for their belief in the Biblical stories. In the end, all are worse off for the perpetuation of fraudulent “discoveries.”

There is an alternative. If there is a Noah’s Ark that still exists, conduct the study carefully (1-2 years is not carefully!). Bring in well-regarded experts to study the relevant issues (geology, geography, archaeology, etc.). Do not let professional policemen promote Scriptural interpretations which run counter to the consensus of Bible-believing scholars (don’t let that scholar word scare you: scholar means “professional” – it means they do this all their life; it means they know the sources and resources and are not easily deceived). And lastly, don’t publicize. Yes, I know that you love the publicity. You love the book sales and you love the contributions. But wait. Make sure that everything is in order. Make sure that there are no holes. Make sure that you really have it this time. This is the test if what you really desire is truth or fame.

You see, we already have “hope.” There are so many confirmations of the biblical record from the historical and archaeological sources that we have hope that Scripture is trustworthy. We have thousands of confirming evidences, and we don’t need that extra one if it is in fact a false hope.


Christians Doubt Cornuke Has Found Noah’s Ark

Recent claims that Robert Cornuke discovered the Ark of Noah in Iran are questioned by several people who believe that the flood of Noah was a historical event, but doubt that Cornuke has found evidence of it.

Dr. John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research comments on the “petrified wood” that Cornuke believes is from the ark. The article is brief and worth reading in full. Among other things, Morris notes:

The claim is made that the material is petrified wood, and it may be. But petrified wood is found in thousands of places around the world. Finding it here means nothing. Perhaps the ark is petrified, but this would necessitate conditions and a sequence of events which hardly seem likely here. Wood is best petrified when buried in volcanic ash, but the team have asserted that the region of their discovery is not volcanic. Without precise maps and study, it would be impossible to refute this claim.

Rick Lanser of the Associates for Biblical Research has written a much more detailed article, questioning in particular the Iranian location of Cornuke’s find. He concludes:

For the above and other reasons which space does not allow me to deal with, it appears that Bob Cornuke’s “filters” have prevented him from dealing fairly with much information which does not fit into his “Ark in Iran” hypothesis. When such data is considered, it raises great doubt that he has found anything related to Noah’s Ark on Takht-e Suleiman. I would love to see his find hold up to close scrutiny so it can be used as a witness to the world of the trustworthiness of the Bible, but if I – who, as a brother in Christ, am “on his team” – can come up with this many problems in identifying the find on Mount Suleiman with the Ark, we can be sure that an unfriendly, secular world full of dyed-in-the-wool skeptics will find many more reasons to reject it. The best I think he can hope for is that many will want to hear his story as an adventure tale – but that may be enough for him, an expected benefit of the aggressive promotion of the site at the beginning. I just hope that in view of the many problems that have come to light, he presents his audiences with the FULL story, warts and all.


The Top 5 in the Last 5

I’ve been asked what the top 5 archaeological discoveries related to the biblical record have been discovered in the last 5 years. I’m not really sure where to start in formulating a list except from my memory. So I’ll start a list here and welcome suggestions for additional items.

Pool of Siloam

James Ossuary (forgery?)

Jehoash Inscription (forgery?)

Tel Zayit 10th c. abecedary

“Goliath” inscription from Gath

Ketef Hinnom Silver Amulets – new inscription

Palace of David (?)

10th century remains in Edom

9th century seals from City of David (not announced as far as I know)

Noah’s Ark (3 or 4 times!)

A few notes:

1. This list is in no particular order.

2. The experts that I trust have not been convinced that the James Ossuary and Jehoash Inscription are forgeries. Some experts that I decidedly do not trust are convinced that they are forgeries. I have
included them on this list until there is greater agreement on the matter.

3. I am not claiming that these items mean everything that has been attributed to them by various writers. I am also reserving judgment about the identification of the “palace of David,” but include it here because it seems, in any case, to be a significant building in OT Jerusalem.

4. The Noah’s Ark thing is a joke. (Here’s an easy way to know if something is a genuine hoax: if it has the names of Ron Wyatt or Robert Cornuke attached to it.)


British Museum: Top 10

A friend wrote and asked what my top 3, 5 or 10 discoveries in the British Museum would be. The first thing is to realize that any reduction to such a number is going to eliminate a lot of major finds. 

But there’s also the realization that a person has only so much time and so many brain cells. So here’s my top 15. I can’t reduce it any further than this. The list is in roughly chronological order. Some are more closely related to the Bible than others.

1. Epic of Gilgamesh

2. Amarna Letters

3. Kurkh Stela of Shalmaneser III

4. Black Obelisk

5. Samaria Ivories

6. Taylor Prism (Sennacherib)

7. Lachish Siege Reliefs

8. Shebna Inscription

9. Babylonian Chronicle for 605-594

10. Lachish Letters

11. Cyrus Cylinder

12. Temple of Artemis column

13. Elgin Marbles

14. Rosetta Stone

15. Politarch Inscription

Lachish Siege Reliefs Room

If you want to suggest an addition, please also suggest one of the above to remove.

In any case, if you’re planning a visit, the book that you must get is by Peter Masters, entitled Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum. It used to be hard to find, though I now see it listed for sale at Amazon and here and here.

Does anyone offer a B.A. in the British Museum? That’s not overreaching, in my opinion. Especially given what other college programs exist these days.


Sodom Identified?

I’ve been reading for a few weeks about new excavations by Steve Collins of a site that he thinks is biblical Sodom. You can read a typical report in the El Defensor Chieftain (also here and here), which doesn’t tell you much besides the site’s name and the excavator’s enthusiasm. The proposed site is Tell el-Hammam, which didn’t ring any bells. So I grabbed my copy of the best place to start for research on biblical sites in Jordan: “East of the Jordan:” Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Burton MacDonald (ASOR, 2000). It says that the site is located on the northeastern region of the Dead Sea, in what is known biblically as the “plains of Moab.” Bells went off, as I know from previous study that of the three possible regions for the location of Sodom and Gomorrah based on all of the Scriptural evidence (northeast, southeast, under the Dead Sea), the least likely is the northern theory. The second problem is not insurmountable, if the excavators can find evidence of occupation from a different period that has been found already. I’ll quote MacDonald in full here, as it may be useful in the months/years to come as the Hammam excavation moves forward.

Tall al-Hammam appears to be a very large and strongly built Iron Age I-II fortess (sic) completely enclosed by a strong outer fortification wall (Glueck 1951: 379). The East Jordan Valley Survey reports Iron I-II sherds as dominant at the site (Yassine, Sauer, and Ibrahim 1988: 192, 197-98). Prag’s 1990 work at the site indicates that relative to the northeast tell at Hammam ‘the most prominent ruins are probably of the Iron Age II and Persian periods, when it appears to have been strongly fortified. These remains were recorded in some detail by Glueck, who dated them to the Iron Age 1 and 2 periods’ (1991: 60). Tall al-Hammam is a good, though not certain, candidate for the location of Abel-shittim (MacDonald 2000: 90).

Perhaps then Collins will have one biblical site (Abel-shittim) if not the other (Sodom).

What does the team need to find in order for this site to potentially be identified with Sodom? A destruction layer in EBIV/MBI/Intermediate Bronze (2300-2000 B.C.). The Iron Age mentioned above is dated roughly 1200-600 B.C.

Bab edh-Dhra is the site most frequently identified with biblical Sodom.

Here’s One to Ignore

I had no idea when I wrote yesterday about Finkelstein’s view of the City of David that he has a new book coming out on David and Solomon. Like Unearthing the Bible, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition is co-authored by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. I haven’t seen the book yet, but you get an idea for the content of this book from a review in Publisher’s Weekly:

The authors are careful to note that the absence of contemporary confirmation outside the Bible is no reason to believe that the characters did not actually exist. Rather, the biblical stories form the basis for a legend tradition in which the Davidic legacy gradually transforms “from a down-to-earth political program into the symbols of a transcendent religious faith that would spread throughout the world.”

To whom would I recommend this book? Only to those who need insight into the creativity that is required (or allowed) when you jettison the major historical sources and set about inventing your own history.

Which reminds me of a similar point: I have my students read from (many) liberal authors with whom I greatly disagree. I wonder how many liberal teachers require their students to read from conservative authors? I can tell you from own experience in graduate school: liberals don’t seem aware that there are other opinions. And they certainly don’t want their students exposed to those ideas. Yes, it is ironic that these are the “liberals.”


On the JPost Article on the City of David Excavations

The Jerusalem Post has a lengthy article on the recent excavations in the City of David. Though there are some basic factual errors, the article does a good job of informing the reader of some of the different views about the latest archaeology in the oldest part of Jerusalem. The two major excavations in the last decade are those of Eilat Mazar (“palace of David”) and Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun (Warren’s Shaft, Siloam Tunnel, Pool and Spring Towers, Pool of Siloam). According to these excavators, the biblical accounts are essentially supported by the archaeology. According to Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv U., “all of the recent discoveries from Ir David are merely ‘Messianic eruptions in biblical archeology.'” Perhaps the article’s writer misunderstood him, but if not, it’s really a stunning statement by one who has received major awards for his archaeological contributions. More accurately, it is a foolish statement.

I shouldn’t be surprised, because this is the trend. The trend used to be (unfortunately) that when anything was discovered it was immediately connected to the Bible and claimed to “prove” the Bible.  
This itself is foolish, as often errors in identification and dating were made. Proof was desired so badly that caution wasn’t exercised.

The trend now is the opposite. Scholars who distrust the Bible respond in knee-jerk fashion to deny any biblical connection regardless of the evidence. Is the discovery of the “Pool of Siloam” really a “Messianic erruption”? How so? I’ll tell you what it is – a massive and impressive reservoir that dates (no doubt) to the time of Jesus and is the area where ancient sources describe (photos). It doesn’t prove that Jesus healed the blind man there, and no one is claiming that it does prove that. But some scholars are apparently so scared of anything that may relate in any way to the Scriptures that they dismiss them with a passing insult.

Perhaps Finkelstein wasn’t referring to the Pool of Siloam, but only to the “palace of David.” Now, I am not certain that the monumental building that Eilat Mazar discovered was David’s residence. And Finkelstein isn’t either. But you wouldn’t know it from the way he talks.

“Because there was no floor discovered and no pottery assemblages or olive pits or seeds, the building could be from the ninth century or the eighth or the eighth, or from two minutes ago, there is no way to know.”

But it also could have been from the 10th century. The reason that it “isn’t” is because Finkelstein’s mind is already made up. [Did he really say the building could have been from “two minutes ago” or is that just incompetent journalism?]

The article tries to spin this as Mazar and the sponsoring institution already having their minds made up. But no one has their mind made up more than Finkelstein, who published his elaborate theory in The Bible Unearthed. He argued, on the basis of the absence of evidence, that there was no great united monarchy in Jerusalem. Who has the most to lose? He does. Mazar’s discovery would pull the bottom card from his stack of cards. But the article doesn’t say that, and Finkelstein for certain doesn’t want to draw attention to that.

There is additional folly in the notion implied in this article that the sponsoring institution (which has right-wing views) could somehow change the discoveries in the excavation. It’s almost as if completely different things would be discovered if the dig was sponsored by a left-wing institution than if it was sponsored by the Shalem Center. Does anyone really believe that a respected archaeologist like Eilat Mazar would fabricate her findings? Does anyone really believe that if she did that she could get away with it? Archaeologists have voices and they have journals and they are not afraid to speak up.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for reading articles like these in the future: if the only nay-sayer is Israel Finkelstein, he can safely be ignored.


Ancient Church Found at Megiddo

I’m being asked for my opinion on the latest archaeological discovery: the “earliest church” found at Megiddo (AP story, Washington Post, photos and more photos). Frankly, I’m not all that excited. 

Here’s why.

1. It seems like every few years the “earliest church” is discovered (in Jordan). Of course, they mean the earliest church building, and that means a building which is decorated with things which I do not find necessarily helpful nor biblical.

2. Israel has plenty of ancient churches, chapels, and monasteries. They are everywhere, and usually in exactly the wrong place. Many of them have beautiful mosaics, like this one. Thus the only thing that makes this “newsworthy” is the claim that the church is from the 3rd century (before 300 A.D.).

Now that would be remarkable, since Christianity was a persecuted religion until about 310. I suppose I can imagine a group of believers meeting publicly in Israel (far from the Roman center) at this time, but it is harder to imagine them building a lavish structure. Perhaps this will help to re-write history. And if so, that is fine. But I also confess that I am a bit suspicious of the claim, knowing as I do, that this would be a non-story if it were a few decades later. Knowing that the archaeologist can get a lot of attention out of this and quite likely get the site preserved on the basis that this is a unique structure. Perhaps it is, but I see too many other motivations for preferring a lower date if the evidence is ambiguous.

3. Even if it were everything claimed for it, I still wouldn’t be very excited because it’s just a church building. I don’t see how it is going to help me to better understand any of the things I care about, including the Bible and theology. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, just that it’s not important to me.

Today, however, was a good day of excavating in the City of David. There will be more news about the work there in the years to come.


Did Worship of Yahweh Leave Archaeological Evidence?

I have two books on my desk right now, and both make the same annoying point. One is Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed, and the other is Dever’s Did God Have a Wife. A major premise of the latter and a point made in the former is that according to archaeology, worship of Yahweh only developed in the late period – time of Hezekiah or Josiah. Here’s Finkelstein:

“Yet archaeology suggests quite a different situation—one in which the golden age of tribal and Davidic fidelity to YHWH was a late religious ideal, not a historical reality. Instead of a restoration, the evidence suggests that a centralized monarchy and national religion focused in Jerusalem took centuries to develop and was new in Hezekiah’s day. The idolatry of the people of Judah was not a departure from their earlier monotheism. It was, instead, the way the people of Judah had worshiped for hundreds of years” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 234).

One can hold to this view, but please don’t pretend that it is based on archaeological grounds. These authors seem to miss the most obvious point: worship of Yahweh as commanded in the Bible didn’t leave archaeological evidence. The exception would be the temple, and nothing of that exists thanks to the Babylonians, Zerubbabel, Herod, the Romans, and the Muslims. These authors argue that because they have found Asherah figurines, bull statuettes, high places, and inscriptions related to non-Yahwistic worship, and because they haven’t found the same for “Biblical religion,” then therefore the latter didn’t exist. They date it to the late kings because that’s when they date the text.

Still no archaeological evidence, mind you.

Another common error in these works is reflected in Finkelstein’s comment immediately before:

“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had sometimes abandoned the faith” (ibid.).

Why do some liberals insist on this mischaracterization? It is patently false. The biblical record is that the Israelites consistently failed to follow the Lord. The exceptions were those who did. That doesn’t make biblical faith less true, real, or required. It does tell us that archaeology should expect to find significant remains of non-biblical religion. When it does, archaeologists act surprised and say, “Aha, I told you the Bible wasn’t telling you the truth.” In fact it is, but like the ancients, moderns refuse to listen.

I’ve only skimmed Dever’s work at this point, but Finkelstein’s is full of similar errors, inconsistencies, and gaps of logic. It’s also one of the best-selling books on “biblical archaeology” in the last decade.