Seeking the Sacred Past

Even as they appear on camera, archaeologists find themselves subservient to sensationalist programs more intent on entertaining an audience through the promotion of wild and often false claims than conveying reliable information about the past. While there have been a number of thoughtful and well-done documentaries and series, many programs have interfered with archaeologists communicating important understandings about the past.

By Paul V.M. Flesher
Director, Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
May 2009

On April 23-24, 2009, Duke University held a symposium titled, “Archaeology, Politics and the Media: Re-Visioning the Middle East.” Hosted by Eric and Carol Meyers, this meeting brought together professional archaeologists and media personnel from three continents for a general conversation about archaeology, its interaction with media, and the effect on it of political decisions. This was a cooperative and productive conference, with both sides identifying problems and suggesting solutions—ending with clear ideas about how to work together more effectively in the future.

The papers will be published in a collected volume by Eric and Carol Meyers. Robert Cargill blogged the sessions live; his notes and comments remain online. The lectures also appear in mp3 files at the ASOR Blog.i Given this dissemination, the following opinion piece aims not to provide a blow-by-blow account of the papers and their discussion, but to use several of the conference’s papers to elucidate a phenomenon that underlies and drives the problems that were the conference’s main focus.


Since its inception in the late nineteenth century as a branch of anthropology, archaeology has been highly successful in the world of academe. This is true for the archaeology of the Middle East as well as archaeology in general. Indeed, archaeology has become higher education’s only approach to the study of the human past’s physical remains; no alternative approach is even imaginable. Furthermore, archaeology shapes the way governments administer their country’s cultural heritage, both in their approach and in their administrative structure. To be sure, there may be disagreements over specific policies or decisions, but archaeological principles hold the upper hand.

In recent years, however, it seems archaeology has been losing its ability to impact popular culture, especially through the media. While important archaeological finds continue to receive good press, non-archaeologists increasingly speak as archaeology’s public voice. The dozens of television channels on cable TV and now the 100s of channels on satellite TV have led to television series and documentaries that pitch archaeological work to the lowest common denominator. Sensationalism and misrepresentation have become the order of the day. Presenters on these shows often interview archaeologists and then edit their responses to support view points with which they disagree or were never even asked about. A stray comment by F. M. Cross surreptitiously caught on camera was packaged to support a position that he has explicitly rejected in print.ii The topics of many such programs often have little to do with actual scholarship—Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, was recently asked if the pyramids were built by aliens.iii Even as they appear on camera, archaeologists find themselves subservient to sensationalist programs more intent on entertaining an audience through the promotion of wild and often false claims than conveying reliable information about the past. While there have been a number of thoughtful and well-done documentaries and series, many programs have interfered with archaeologists communicating important understandings about the past.iv

A brief stroll through some of the Duke Symposium’s presentations will illustrate how this works. Byron McCane opened the event with his paper, “Scholars Behaving Badly: Sensationalism and Archaeology in the Media.” One of his points was that sensational, over-hyped promotions of a false past avoid “principled commitments to basic academic disciplines.” This can create a circumstance similar to the tale of the boy who cried wolf: when solid archaeological research announces important finds, the audience has already tuned out. McCane gives the following précis of how this has already taken place in the twenty-first century.

In 2002 the James ossuary was published in a popular magazine and announced in a national press conference before the guild of scholars ever had a chance to take a close look at it.…As soon as it was examined critically, of course, the inscription on the James ossuary was exposed as a modern forgery.…In 2004, the cave of John the Baptist appeared first as a popular book, which has received generally unfavorable academic reviews. In 2007, the lost tomb of Jesus went straight to broadcast and DVD. After that event, public suspicions about archaeology were so strong that a few months later, when Ehud Netzer announced the authentic discovery of Herod the Great’s tomb, friends and colleagues asked me, “That’s a fake, too, right?”

The sad part of this story is how the previous events poisoned the public for Netzer’s discovery of King Herod’s actual tomb. McCane’s litany emphasizes how each of these media events bypassed scholarly examination and went straight to the press. The press attracted a great amount of attention and debate in various media outlets, which in turn created more publicity, and thus earned the promoters more money. But as scholars rebutted the sensationalist claims, popular culture reacted by assuming that any announcement about ancient discoveries was false.

The James Ossuary was the most successful at avoiding scholarly examination and generating hype in its initial stages. Its promoters organized an exhibit in a major museum and a special session at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature—a session which perhaps generated the largest audience in the society’s history. Tantalizingly little real information was given out, but it was all recorded on tape for the later documentary. When scholars finally were able to examine the ossuary carefully, their scientific methods quickly indicated its fraudulent nature. The discovery of tools and a workshop used for making forgeries found on the owner’s property should have clinched the matter.

But people remembered the sensationalized claims by the promoters, not the archaeological disproof, as revealed in Milton Moreland’s paper, “Forged by a Genius: Scholarly Responses to ‘History Channel meets CSI.’” Moreland participated in a five-year project at Rhodes College with fellow faculty and students that traced the public’s reaction to and memory of the coverage of the ossuary.v Their results show that people remember the sensationalized claims, not the scholarly rebuttal and disproof. This result would not surprise Eric Cline who observed in his symposium paper that rebuttals of “pseudo-claims” are rarely reported Calm scholarly reflections simply lack the hype that make a news item memorable.

Sensationalist promoters do not always win out over archaeologists and scholars. When the Discovery Channel began advertising Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary on the Talpiyot tomb, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” the advertising supplied by Jacobovici carried numerous factual inaccuracies. Moreover, the handling of the statistics, which was supposed to sound academically impressive, was handled poorly. Professor Mark Goodacre’s paper, “The ‘Jesus Tomb’ and the Blogosphere,” described how he and other academic bloggers addressed these sensationalized matters and persuaded the Discovery Channel to alter their own advertising and website even before the documentary was shown, backing off several of the more stupendous claims. Of course, Jacobovici’s own website of the documentary remains unchanged, still containing some of the glaring factual errors.

When we move away from media and documentaries, a different set of “popular culture” activities impedes archaeology’s ability even to do its research, namely, the widely discussed problems of looting and forgery.vii Looting, as is well known robs artifacts of their cultural context, and thus of most of the knowledge which could contribute to a fuller understanding of the past. The act of looting usually destroys the site by removing items from their loci, scattering skeletons when robbing graves, compromising closed loci, and generally increasing the difficulty of later archaeological excavation. Forgery may not destroy an ancient site, but it pollutes the historical record. False evidence leads researchers astray.

Looting in particular is a rather recent problem. Patty Gerstenblith pointed out in her plenary talk, “Legal and Ethical Aspects of Cultural Heritage,” that prior to World War II looting was mainly government to government; it was a penalty for defeat in battle. Even in Roman times, taking a conquered enemy’s religious treasures was common—as the Arch of Titus’ recording of the Jerusalem Temple’s captured menorah indicates. Since World War II, however, looting by individuals for individuals, via the shadowy antiquities trade, has become the predominant danger. This growing problem has become only more pronounced since the Iraq War and the realization that Middle East antiquities were not only good for collecting, but also for investing.viii

The serious problems of looting and forgery continue to be widely discussed and investigated in archaeological circles. There is little I can contribute to this discussion here. Instead, I want to focus on the question of what drives the four problems just mentioned: sensationalism and false claims about antiquities, looting and forgery of antiquities. If archaeology is to make inroads into these areas spurred on by popular culture, then it needs to understand the driving force behind them.

I argue that the four problems just identified should be understood in business terms; they are part of the law of supply and demand. In particular, they are the supply response in a financial transaction, furnishing fulfillment of a demand. It is the specific character of that demand which constitutes this essay’s focus. The demand is the desire to have contact with the world of the Bible in general and with Jesus’ earthly existence in particular. This is a deep, inner, spiritual longing, often unshaped, which guides an individual’s emotional response to the things of the biblical world.

Link to the Past: Making a Pilgrimage

Milton Moreland made the observation that 100,000 people viewed the “James” ossuary when it was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in Fall 2002. The Rhodes College study which Moreland cited indicates that those who visited the exhibit or followed its subsequent PR had their views of the ossuary shaped more by the initial claims and the hype than by the body of scholarly analysis that grew up afterward.

The power of persuasion, however, lay not merely in the sensationalist claims made by the promoters. It was that those claims linked to something much more fundamental. Byron McCane characterized the matter this way: the Rhodes College study showed that “the James ossuary became an early 21st-century relic, luring thousands of pilgrims.” McCane uses two key terms here that point to the demand which the ossuary aimed to supply. The ossuary was a relic that attracted pilgrims. The words “relic” and “pilgrim” belong to the realm of pious medieval religious practices, not to that of modern museum goers. McCane’s application of the terms to the latter, however, suggests an underlying similarity that requires further investigation. To accomplish this, let’s begin with the original meaning of the terms in western culture and then see how they have been transformed.

A pilgrim is someone who performs a pilgrimage; for Christianity this means in its purest form a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the early fourth century, Emperor Constantine began transforming the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian empire. A key component of that change focused on Israel, the land of the Bible. Christian leaders, including Constantine’s mother, identified what they believed were the locations of biblical stories from the life of Jesus, the early Church, and the Old Testament. At these sites, Christianity built churches and shrines where worshippers could commemorate those sacred events. In this way, the Church transformed the Jewish “Land of Israel” into the Christian “Holy Land.”

Through the centuries, Orthodox and Catholic travelers made these churches into pilgrimage destinations. For Orthodox pilgrims, even today, perhaps the primary activity at these churches is the veneration of icons contained in them.ix These paintings provide the pious a window to the individual portrayed, whether Jesus, Mary, or a saint. As St. Basil of Caesarea in De Spiritu Sancto observed, “The honor paid to the image passes to the prototype.” For the Orthodox, God is made real through the icons, which provide a physical symbol of the divine presence.

While Orthodoxy reveres liturgy, especially during Holy Week, Catholicism has elevated liturgical observance even higher. This is particularly true for pilgrimage in the Holy Land, where the celebration of Mass in the churches at the holy locations constitutes a central activity of pilgrimage. The divine presence in the Mass’s bread and wine, as Catholics believe, assures the faithful pilgrims that their pilgrimage has brought them close to God.

Accompanying this is the practice of prayerful and meditative devotion, in which pilgrims at a holy site imagine the sacred events that happened there. Often they seek to imagine themselves as present in those past events. While the Stations of the Cross comprise the most widely known collection of these locations, nearly all sacred sites serve as foci for such meditation.

Although the Orthodox and Catholic churches have carried out such Holy Land pilgrimages for centuries, today they are vastly outnumbered as visitors to Israel by Protestants, mostly Americans. Protestant travel to the Holy Land takes on a totally different character. Instead of seeking out the churches at holy sites, Protestants avoid them. Their Holy Land experience emphasizes the land itself and its connection to Jesus. As Professor Tony Cartledge of Campbell University observes in his essay, “Walk about Jerusalem: Protestant Pilgrims and the Holy Land,” “They want to walk where Jesus walked, to weep where Jesus wept, to sleep in some proximity to where Jesus slept.” As G. Bowman explains, “The Protestant desire to have an unmediated relation to the Bible means that a holy place covered over with Orthodox or Catholic churches is, in effect, a site which commemorates institutional domination rather than the truth which that institution has usurped and distorted.”x

Instead, Cartledge observes, “Protestants love the Sea of Galilee because they know Jesus was there and no one has contrived to cover its stormy waves with a stony church. They love the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary because those sites fit their biblically inspired imaginations much better than the sooty stone and polished marble found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Despite its lack of a centuries-old designation as sacred, Protestants favor the Garden Tomb because it is a garden where one can worship among the scents of native flowers, the shade of indigenous trees and the songs of local birds—all of which Jesus would have experienced.

Archaeological sites also comprise favorite places for Protestant tourist pilgrims. Here, the earth of the ancient land lies exposed. At Megiddo, pilgrims are guided through the city’s development through the centuries spanning the Old Testament. At Capernaum, the excavations have uncovered dirt layers on which Jesus may have strolled. The archaeological excavations and restoration done primarily for historical study and preservation also provide Protestant visitors with religious inspiration for understanding Jesus and the biblical record concerning him.

Cartledge’s point is this: “For the most part, it is the land that Protestants come to see. They have imagined the craggy cliffs and steep valleys of southern Judah, the rolling hills and rolling Sea of Galilee. They want to see, smell, and touch the land of their shared biblical memory.” The pilgrims’ actual presence in the land, the ability to see the countryside that Jesus saw (more or less), to smell the smells, hear the sounds, touch grass, and feel the dust gives solidity to their “biblical memory.” Protestant pilgrims view and experience a physical manifestation of Jesus’ world that provides reality to the imagined past prompted by their reading of the biblical text. They form a connection with the history made holy by its contact with Jesus. This is a deep spiritual and emotional bond.

The Protestant approach to pilgrimage parallels the Reformation’s attitude towards the Catholic Church itself. As Martin Luther emphasized, Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone!”—not Scripture as retold by the church, its traditions, and its dogma.

But it is more than Sola Scriptura. Protestants seek direct contact with the sacred Christian past, not one mediated by the church. This pilgrimage seeks not Scripture, but the reality from which Scripture was made. Whereas Orthodox and Catholic pilgrimage has long emphasized that which came after Scripture—the Church—the Protestant pilgrimage goes to what came before Scripture, what made up the very events and world that Scripture later recorded. If Scripture’s record about these matters has become sacred, then how can the places where those events occurred escape sacrality?

In terms of Protestant theology, this insight seems at first glance to be suspect, for a key Reformation objection to the Catholic church was its tendency to sacralize ordinary things. Many Puritans even objected to the sacralization of the cross (“idolatry”!) and of the Sabbath and Christmas day. But if we view the matter from the perspective of History of Religions, we can see how this transformation works. Jerusalem Temple worship provides an informative comparison. The animals offered on its altar are ordinary animals; they are born and raised like all other animals.xi But by the time they are slaughtered in the Temple, they are sacred. This transformation has come about by their contact with God who is present in the Temple. So too with the bowls that collect each sacrifice’s blood before it is tossed on the altar. They are made by ordinary craftsmen out of ordinary metal. But the vessels’ contact with God in the Temple has rendered them holy, transforming them into fitting recipients of a sacred bull’s blood.

If contact with God renders Temple vessels and sacrifices holy, then God’s presence in the form of Jesus in Galilee some 2000 years ago renders sacred those places and things with which he came into contact. If Jesus’ godhood was not recognized during his life and the sacrality of his surroundings went unrealized, Christians in later centuries have understood His holy character and have acted in accordance with that sacrality. And American Protestants today, as the largest body of visitors to Israel after the Jews themselves, see and experience the sacred land in a new way, a way that rejects religious mediation and seeks to experience directly the sacred reality of Jesus’ presence there.xii

Link to the Past: Relics

If one cannot travel to the Holy Land in person, the next best thing is to view an object that has been brought from there—from Jesus’ or the Bible’s sacred past. As McCane observed about the James ossuary, people will make a pilgrimage to a relic, particularly if that relic is available nearby. Like the word “pilgrimage,” the term “relic” also possesses important religious overtones. In Christian history, relics were objects associated with a biblical person or a later saint. Relics could even be the remains of those people. These were usually placed in cathedrals, sometimes providing their originary story; Romans built St. Peter’s Cathedral upon what they believed was St. Peter’s grave, while Venetians constructed St. Marks Cathedral over the recently acquired bones of St. Mark.xiii Other sacred remains and objects are known across Europe. Several cathedral reliquaries claim to possess pieces of the “True Cross.” These relics brought the sacrality formed by contact with the God, Jesus, out of the Holy Land to Europe and helped sacralize locations in which the church established itself there. The burial sites became destinations of pilgrimage, as did the cathedrals that held other relics of Jesus’ time.

The Protestant rejection of the Church’s mediation of Holy Land sacrality applies to objects associated with Jesus, the Bible, and early Christianity, as much as it does to the land itself. Protestants do not seek sacrality in stuffy and dark cathedral reliquaries, where sacred objects are encased in so much silver, gold and jewels that the original item is nearly invisible. Instead, they look for sacred objects displayed plainly—the James ossuary was exhibited in a well-lit room under clear glass. The viewers wanted to see the “relic” without interference; they were not seeking a church-mediated experience.

It is ironic that often the public’s desire for an authentic contact with the Bible’s sacred past is met by fraud and forgery. Jonathan Reed’s essay, “The Lure of Proof and the Legacy of Biblical Archaeology: Scholars and the Media,” featured an examination of three frauds across several centuries that duped people into believing in an object from the sacred past: the fourteenth-century Shroud of Turin in France which purported to be Jesus’ burial covering; the nineteenth-century Cardiff Giant in New York which promoters claimed was a petrified giant—one of the “nephilim” mentioned in Genesis 6; and the recent James Ossuary which was presented as the burial box of James the brother of Jesus. In each case, the fraud was pointed out shortly after the object came to light, but not before many people saw it and decided to believe in its authenticity. Even the Shroud of Turin, which was first promoted to the public in the fourteenth century, was denounced by the Bishop of Troyes as a fraud less that 40 years after it first appeared—the bishop had interviewed the artist who painted it.xiv

Reed identified a pattern that the three fraud episodes followed, a pattern that is fundamentally economic in character. It begins with the recognition that objects linked to Jesus or Scripture feed “The public’s thirst for things tangible and biblical.” In fact, he sees this as the initial factor—the “demand” in economic terms—that provides the motivation for biblical fraud.

Reed’s description of the public’s demand “for things tangible and biblical” is an accurate portrayal of this phenomenon as far as it goes. But as with pilgrimage it is more than that. The relics, in this view, belong to the sacred reality of Jesus’ presence on earth or, with regard to Old Testament events, to God’s actions with His people Israel. They link believers not to sacred Scripture, but to the events and people themselves of which Scripture speaks. This creates a spiritual bond that ties the modern believer to God’s sacred past.

Both Reed and McCane posit that part of this bond lies in the notion that such objects provide “proof” of Scripture’s veracity. I would argue that this misunderstands the phenomenon in question, for proof is an intellectual notion more appropriate to the recent “culture wars.” It is anachronistic to apply this mental concept to the spiritual and emotional desire for direct contact with the objects (and locations) of Scripture’s sacred past. Furthermore, the discourse of proof comes from those hyping the objects—the salesmen on the supply side of the economic equation—rather than from the desires of the believers on the demand side. Such objects instead serve to remind and reassure believers of the reality of the sacred stories which the biblical record inspires in their imagination; any desire for proof is secondary.

Viewing such sacred objects in person is the most desirable. This can be seen not only by the attendance recorded by the Royal Ontario Museum at the James Ossuary exhibit, but also at the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit at San Diego’s Natural History Museum in 2007 and the 2009 exhibit “Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story” at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

If viewing in person is not possible, then the objects can still be seen on TV and DVD documentaries, usually along with scenes from the Holy Land itself and even reenactments involving the objects. While such productions cannot convey the actual presence of the object from the sacred past, they still provide an experience that gives reality to biblically inspired understandings of the stories of Jesus and other biblical characters.

Reenactments play another role as well, that of “Living History” in historical parks. As seen in Virginia’s “Colonial Williamsburg” and Massachusetts’ “Plimouth Plantation,” living history places actors into historical settings where they take on the roles and reenact the lives of the people who lived then and there. In Orlando, Florida, the “Holy Land Experience” theme park combines reconstructions of places and buildings from ancient Israel—including city walls, gates, and markets, as well as the Temple itself—with actors playing the roles of people living in those surroundings. As Mark Pinsky described in his paper, “Not Another Roadside Attraction,” the park also reenacts several biblical scenes, including worship in the wilderness Tabernacle before the Ark of the Covenant and, of course, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Although lacking the authenticity of the sacred reality of objects, landscapes, or buildings from the ancient world, these imitations provide a view of “real things” and provide visitors an experience unmediated by the church that helps believers populate the landscape of what Cartledge termed their “shared biblical memory.”xv

Interestingly, the Protestant desire for viewing and experience of biblical places and objects unmediated by religion is mirrored by two other modern movements with their roots in religion. The first is Zionism, which made the same intellectual cut that Protestantism did, but within Judaism. Just as Protestantism rejected centuries of the Church’s mediation between their time and that of Scripture, so too Zionism rejected Rabbinic Judaism’s reconstruction of Judaism in the wake of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Sweeping aside more than a millennium of belief and tradition, Zionism sought to return to the biblical Land of Israel, to Jews’ historical roots there as recorded in their Scripture. They sought to rid themselves of Rabbinism’s legal and haggadic interpretations and to immerse themselves in the reality of the land of the ancestors unmediated by the religious development of later centuries. This perspective nicely matches the Protestant desire for an unmediated experience of the biblical past.xvi

The second movement with an important parallel to this is the rise of archaeology itself as an enlightenment science. From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, archaeology has sought to get behind the traditions and stories that have accreted over time and to reach actual remains of the past, with the goal of using them directly to understand the past.xvii While there is no notion that such remains are sacred, there is the belief that the past should be unmediated except by its own context and the scholarly understanding thereof. So in the end, archaeology’s presentation of remains from the biblical past, if not its explanations of them, parallel Protestantism’s desire to access an unmediated past in order to come into contact with its sacred character. Archaeology’s transparent presentation of ancient materials and sites, therefore, can be easily appropriated by both Protestant (and Zionist) ideologies for other purposes, because its transparency presents it as unmediated by the Church or by rabbinism. Where archaeologists see only a historical object, believers see access to a sacred past.

Many people find the mere viewing of significant objects from the past unsatisfying. Some feel the need to hold, to touch, even to own such objects. This leads to the purchasing and even collecting of objects purportedly from the ancient past. Some collectors operate out of the religious motivations described here, while many have a similar urge but expressed through a secular viewpoint.xviii It is these desires, especially backed by a large amounts of money, that have fueled the looting and forgery networks in today’s Middle East—the same networks that funnel illegal drugs and migrants across the world.xix

What to do?

This essay began by describing how archaeology has been losing ground in the realm of popular culture even as it has triumphed in educational and governmental arenas. To counter this, archaeologists and historians need to understand the popular demand that motivates the activities that have been pushing archaeology aside.

For believers, there is a single motivation that generates the excitement they find in the biblical past, namely, the desire to come into contact, visual or tactile, with its sacred reality. This motivation may be expressed in many ways. It may take the form of a pilgrimage to view the Holy Land itself and the locations where biblical personages lived and walked, or of viewing or possessing objects from that time and place, or of just watching films about them. This spiritual and emotional impulse for the authentic reality from the sacred past constitutes the demand which suppliers usually try to meet through underhanded means, from false and/or sensationalized claims to looting and forgery. The success of these suppliers in hoodwinking their popular audience and undercutting legitimate archaeology and history constitutes the primary public-relations problem facing archaeology today.

So what’s an archaeologist of the Middle East to do? The papers presented at the Duke Symposium on “Archaeology, Politics and the Media” provided a number of specific remedies and suggestions, several of which are already being implemented. They are too numerous to lay out in any detail here.xx Instead let me pick up on one mentioned in different ways by several speakers, but which Chad Spigel stated most succinctly, “We are teachers, so let’s teach.”

Archaeologists, and scholars of religion for that matter, are no strangers to students who come into classes with the attitude toward Scripture and its sacred past described in this essay. Our classes transform this unarticulated desire into one that can be formulated, expressed clearly, and thus addressed specifically. Students learn that more important than contact with an indefinable sacred past is knowledge and understanding of that past. The sought-for, uncontrollable, spiritual experience of holiness becomes transformed into the desire to understand the objects used by biblical personages and the places where they lived their lives. These can be put together with other objects and places to build fuller and deeper knowledge, one which in turn helps us understand the scriptural stories—whether we see them from the perspective of believers, historians or archaeologists. The mysteries of the sacred past—or should I say indescribable “mysteries” at the center of religious belief—become questions to which scholars and archaeologists can seek solid answers through the persistent application of tried and true methods of research. This transformation does not drive away an individual’s desire for contact with the sacred past but refocuses it into an articulated interest in understanding the experiences and peoples of the past.

Archaeologists and historians need to let our educational experience in dealing with this perspective among students inform our interactions with the public realm. Just as we lead our students toward transformation, so too we should lead the public to—or in many cases remind the public of, for many are our former students—the realization that knowledge and understanding, acquired from archaeologically controlled excavations and contexts, provides fuller understandings of the past many hold sacred. To better understand Jesus’ time on earth, for example, the goal is not contact with its sacred character, but historical and archaeological inquiry that uses the remains from the time to illuminate and contextualize evidence already in our possession.

Does this sound like “Biblical Archaeology,” the discredited approach to “proving” the Bible through archaeology? Only slightly. Biblical Archaeology sought to prove the Bible as an explicit goal; its conclusions were inherent in its presuppositions. Modern archaeology of the ancient Middle East has moved beyond those intellectual and methodological problems. It is time to step up and bring solid archaeological knowledge on scriptural questions back to the public. If we do not, then non-archaeologists will continue to do it for us.

A final note. Talking to the national or international media, whether directly or via one’s publications or website, is only one form of outreach. Another lies in the way that the site of archaeological excavations are presented to and integrated with the local populace. Bert DeVries’ work at Umm el-Jimal in Jordan constitutes a wonderful example of how an archaeological site should be and can be incorporated into the life of the community who lives near it. See his paper, “Site Presentation in Jordan—the Case of Umm el-Jimal.”xxi Eric Meyers’ paper, “The Quest for the Temple Mount: the Settler Movement and National Parks in Israel,” shows how the “City of David” park in Jerusalem actually constitutes a example of how not to accomplish these goals.xxii


i For Cargill’s blog, see and The ASOR Blog also has sound files of the conference presentations and responses: See also Eric Meyer’s essay, “Archaeology and National Parks in Jerusalem: Who owns the past?” here on Bible and; it constitutes a précis his talk at the symposium.

ii Milton Moreland discussed this in his paper, “Forged by a Genius: Scholarly Responses to ‘History Channel meets CSI.’” The documentary in question is: “The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family” by Simcha Jacobovici.

iii Eric Cline, “TV and the Near Eastern Archaeologist,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 71:3 (2008), p. 172.

iv The best recent documentaries include: Frontline’s “From Jesus to Christ,” Nova’s “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” and “Science of the Bible.”

v See their forthcoming book, Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics, Ryan Byrnes and Bernadette McNary-Zak, eds. University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

vi “Fabulous Finds and Fantastic Forgeries: The Distortion of Archaeology by the Media (Pseudo-archaeology)”

vii Looting, unprovenanced items, and the illicit trade that supplies collectors were the particular focus of papers by Patty Gerstenblith, “Legal and Ethical Aspects of Cultural Heritage”; Morag Kersel, “The Power of the  Press Release and Popular Magazines on the Antiquities Trade”; and Nina Burleigh, “Inside the Collector’s Lair and Other Tales from the Biblical Antiquities Trade in Israel and the USA.”

viii This point was made by Morag Kersel,

ix This discussion of pilgrimage is based on Tony Cartledge’s presentation, “Walk about Jerusalem: Protestant Pilgrims and the Holy Land.”

x G. Bowman, “Christian Ideology and the Image of a Holy Land: The Place of Jerusalem Pilgrimage in the Various Christianities.” Pp. 98-121 in Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, ed. J. Eade and M. Sallnow. New York: Routledge. Quote is from p. 116. Cited by Cartledge.

xi I use the common word “ordinary” here for the technical term “profane.” I should note that Leviticus (see, for example, 3:1 and 6:6) ordains that sacrificial animals must be without blemish, but that unblemished character does not make them holy, only eligible to be made so.

xii Do they recognize mediation? Can they identify other forms of mediation—e.g., in their own cultural forms or by their own religious organizations—when they see it? Not usually.

xiii In this light, it is not an accident that the part of the attraction of the fraudulent James ossuary is that it is a bone box.

xiv This ruling was later supported the Pope Clement VII.

xv Of course, the theme park is a construction from beginning to end, with nothing authentic, except for a few items in its museum; it is a totally mediated experience. But the visitors rarely recognize it as such. There is no Catholic or Orthodox church present, just the representation of the past. Just because Protestants reject mediation on principle does not mean that they recognize it when it occurs.

xvi This parallel between the two perspectives has political consequences as well; evangelical Protestants are perhaps the staunchest supporters of Israel’s right to exist and many of its policies towards its neighbors.

xvii The same principle applies mutatis mutandis to places whose stories have been forgotten over time.

xviii How else should one understand the rumors that some collectors sleep with their ancient prizes?

xix This point was emphasized by Morag Kersel.

xx For some ideas, see the material mentioned in footnotes 1 and 3, as well as my earlier essay here at Bible and Interpretation, “How Should Archaeology Reach its Public?”: In addition, watch the ASOR blog for further information.

xxi See the Umm el-Jimal website at:

xxii See an abbreviated version of Meyers’ paper cited in footnote 1.

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