Eric H. Cline: Biblical archeology is too important to leave to crackpots and ideologues. It's time to fight back.





[Eric H. Cline is the author of "From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible." He is chair of the department of classical and Semitic languages and literature at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is also associate director (USA) of the ongoing excavations at Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) in Israel. He can be reached at ehcline@gwu.edu.]

The Ark of the Covenant. The Garden of Eden. Sodom and Gomorrah. The Exodus. The Lost Tomb of Jesus. All have been "found" in the last 10 years, including one within the past six months. The discoverers: a former SWAT team member; an investigator of ghosts, telepathy, and parapsychology; a filmmaker who calls himself "The Naked Archeologist"; and others, none of whom has any professional training in archeology.
We are living in a time of exciting discoveries in biblical archeology. We are also living in a time of widespread biblical fraud, dubious science, and crackpot theorizing. Some of the highest-profile discoveries of the past several years are shadowed by accusations of forgery, such as the James Ossuary, which may or may not be the burial box of Jesus' brother, as well as other supposed Bible-era findings such as the Jehoash Tablet and a small ivory pomegranate said to be from the time of Solomon. Every year "scientific" expeditions embark to look for Noah's Ark, raising untold amounts of money from gullible believers who eagerly listen to tales spun by sincere amateurs or rapacious con men; it is not always easy to tell the two apart.
 
The tools of modern archeology, from magnetometers to precise excavation methods, offer a growing opportunity to illuminate some of the intriguing mysteries surrounding the Bible, one of the foundations of western civilization. Yet the amateurs are taking in the public's money to support ventures that offer little chance of furthering the cause of knowledge. With their grand claims, and all the ensuing attention, they divert the public's attention from the scientific study of the Holy Land - and bring confusion, and even discredit, to biblical archeology.

Unfortunately, when fantastic claims are made, they largely go unchallenged by academics. There have been some obvious exceptions, such as the recent film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which inspired an outcry from scholars by claiming that archeologists had found, but not recognized, the tomb of Jesus more than 20 years ago. But much more common is a vast and echoing silence reminiscent of the early days of the debate over "intelligent design," when biologists were reluctant to respond to the neocreationist challenge. Archeologists, too, are often reluctant to be seen as challenging deeply held religious beliefs. And so the professionals are allowing a PR disaster to slowly unfold: yielding a field of tremendous importance to pseudoscientists, amateur enthusiasts, and irresponsible documentary filmmakers.

At a time when the world is increasingly divided by religion, both domestically and internationally, and when many people are biblically illiterate, legitimate inquiries into the common origins of religions have never been more important. I believe that the public deserves - and wants - better. We have an obligation to challenge the lies and the hype, to share the real data, so that the public discussion can be an informed one.
It is time we take back our field....


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