Tabloid Biblical Archaeology

Quick! Tell me about the three top stories in the most recent copy of the Journal of Biblical Archaeology.

Actually, from what I can tell, there is no Journal of Biblical Archaeology, though there is an Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology. That tells you something about how much most of us pay attention to developments in biblical archaeology. In fact, the flagship journal seems to be the Biblical Archaeology Review. And when you click on that link (go ahead, I’ll wait), you immediately get an ad for a free e-book on the James ossuary.

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And thereby hangs a tale.

The reason you and I don’t know anything about biblical archaeology is that it, like most science, is not sexy. Grubbing around in dirt, picking through fragments of pottery, carbon dating the occasional piece of detritus, and trying to piece together the life of an agrarian people about whom we already know a huge amount due to their leaving such an enormous literary and cultural legacy means that most bulletins from the biblical archaeology front will read to the average American like a footnote on a Sunday school lesson. Look! Ancient Jews believed in God! Look! Evidence of some skirmish or cultural overlap with other Semitic peoples in the area. Look! They had cattle, sheep, and goats, and they ate wheat and used iron! Look! Hezekiah built a tunnel! This does not thrill.

Similarly, the contours of early Christianity are (Dan Brown notwithstanding) pretty well established, and a lot of biblical archaeology consists of filling in the white spots in the coloring book of early Church history with details that basically demonstrate that, yes, early Christians were Christian and not something else. This too is not sexy. What the theologically illiterate public is looking for is Scandal! Controversy! Jesus with a girlfriend! Jesus with a boyfriend! Jesus vs. the Catholic Church! Something sexy! This explains, in its entirety, the extreme credulity that greeted The Da Vinci Code and the large number of rip-offs (even from allegedly respectable journals like National Geographic) that attached themselves like remora sucker fish to that embarrassing circus of theological and historical illiteracy.

And so we return to the ad for the Biblical Archaeology Review, which is, years after its purported discovery, still talking about the James Ossuary Controversy. Very briefly, the James ossuary was sexy. It was a bone box that purportedly had contained the remains of a “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Of course, the guy who owned the box, Oded Golan, has been under investigation as the head of a forgery ring since 2004, which should set off some alarms. And the inscription on the box has been described by FBI investigators as dating from “at least since the 1970s,” so there’s a vote of confidence for you. And even if the box is shown to date from the first century, we essentially have a box that says, “Jim, son of Joe, brother of Josh,” which does not exactly pin it down to the family of Jesus Christ nor, as some professional anti-Catholics fondly hope, disprove the perpetual virginity of Mary.

But still, Biblical Archaeology Review stands by the insistence that it is not a forgery. Why? Well, one can be forgiven for asking, “When was the last high-profile controversy in biblical archaeology that you heard about before that one?” The Dead Sea Scrolls? Archaeology, like all the sciences, concerns itself with the seven basic elements of the scientific method: time, space, matter, energy, power, prestige, and funding. But the greatest of these is funding. Sexy means publicity and excitement, and these mean money. Hence the big ad in Biblical Archaeology Review about the sexy James Ossuary Controversy.

The same basic principle was at work with the alleged “Lost Tomb of Jesus” in 2007, complete with “documentary,” broadcast (significantly) on March 4, 2007. It was the Shocking Revelation that was to Shake Christianity to Its Very Foundations (Again).

It was unveiled to great fanfare by James Cameron, who, as a biblical archaeologist, was eminently qualified to make Avatar. He claimed to have found the ossuary of somebody named “Jesus.” For a first-century tomb, this is sort of like finding the ossuary of somebody named “Bob.” But wait! There was more! The tomb also had ossuaries of people with first century equivalents of “Mary,” “John,” “Bill,” “Susan,” and “Jim.” And DNA tests revealed . . . that they were related to each other!

Clearly, then, these were the bones of Jesus, and Christianity was undone. Cameron naturally wasn’t eager to make a quick buck like his archaeologist critics said. Nor was the King of the World filled with overweening vainglory at the thought that He, James Cameron, had Single-Handedly Defeated the Lord of Hosts. Nope. He was just humble filmmaker bringin’ the truth.

As it turned out, this exciting development in biblical archaeology, standing as it did in direct contradiction to everything else we know about the origins of the Faith, turned out to have insuperable problems, beginning with the fact that it was stealing three bases and home to assume that it had anything whatsoever to do with Jesus of Nazareth. But it was a nine-day wonder in the press, which is always looking for sexy — especially during Advent, Lent, and Holy Week.


This brings us to the present and the just-concluding nine-day wonder of the alleged first-century Christian lead codices that recently turned up in the Holy Land, and which were immediately being trumpeted as “the major discovery of Christian history.” That should immediately warn you that somebody, somewhere, is trying to sex it up. The news articles breathlessly informed us that these codices likely date from the first century and that they were found in the area where Christians had fled after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Particularly piquant was this piece of “evidence”:

They contain a number of images and textual allusions to the Messiah, as well as some possible references to the crucifixion and resurrection. Some of the codices were sealed, prompting yet more breathless speculation that they could include the sealed book, shown only to the Messiah, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. One of the few sentences translated thus far from the texts, according to the BBC, reads, “I shall walk uprightly” — a phrase that also appears in Revelation. “While it could be simply a sentiment common in Judaism,” BBC writer Robert Pigott notes, “it could here be designed to refer to the resurrection.”

“I shall walk uprightly” appears in Revelation (and about a thousand other samples of standard issue Jewish piety)! What further evidence do we need? And the book was sealed! So this could be the very book that Revelation was talking about! Similarly, a recently discovered salt shaker could contain the very salt Jesus mentioned when he said, “You are the salt of the earth”! And that bread found fossilized at Pompeii? That might be the bread Jesus was referring to when he said, “I am the bread of life”!

Or, possibly, it could be that you should take off about 50 IQ points whenever MSM types try to deal with a grown-up text like the Bible and realize that when Revelation says:

I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:1-5)

. . . it is using imagery to make clear that the full meaning of the Old Testament (the scroll no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth can open) is only fully seen in Christ, who fulfills Moses and the prophets and reveals their full meaning. In short, it is making the same point Augustine did when he said the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is fully revealed in the New. It is not a reference to a hidden codebook in a Jordanian cave, because the Christian faith is not an Indiana Jones comic book.

Reading further, we discover that this whole thing is being unveiled to the press by somebody described as “David Elkington, an ancient religion scholar who heads the British research team investigating the find” — and who, by no coincidence whatsoever, has likewise “pronounced this nothing less than ‘the major discovery of Christian history.’”

Mm-hmm. So who is he? Well, your first red flag should drop when you read on his website the pronouncement that

Everything that exists does so because of vibration.

Matter comes into being because energy vibrates — any science book will tell you that. But understand the science of vibration, learn how to use it and you will have the key to…

Well, everything.

That’s the description of Elkington’s book, In the Name of the Gods: The Mystery of Resonance and the Prehistoric Messiah (featuring a swirling galaxy and the pyramids on the cover). As to his biography?

David Elkington was born in England in 1962 but spent his formative years travelling and exploring the Southern Hemisphere with his parents. His childhood in Australia was supplemented by sojourns in Polynesia, New Zealand and Indonesia. It was in these places that he first developed an interest in Sacred Sites and ancient traditions.

He trained as an artist at the Bath Academy of Art where an interest in the relationship between Christian myth and sacred sites was fuelled. Research for ‘In the Name of the Gods’ began in earnest in the early 1980s when he walked through Europe and the Middle East on a quest to understand and appreciate the mind of Ancient Man and his relationship with particular sites upon the Earth. For 20 years David has been led on a revelatory trail through world mythology, linguistics and philology into geophysics, architecture, acoustics, music, neuro-physiology, theology and still further into the all-encompassing, resonant atmosphere of the planet. As his research continued, surprising results emerged. For several years, David has been working with Dr Keith Hearne, the ‘father of lucid dream research’, on a new area of psychology — Geolinguistics — which sees the development of language as a direct result of the Earth’s physical environment.

David began to introduce his work to the public in 1996 when he presented a major lecture on “Acoustic Resonance, Life and Consciousness” at the Quest for Knowledge Conference in London. He lectures in England and Europe, has co-hosted a tour of the major ancient sites of Egypt and is a member of the Egypt Exploration Society and Palestine Exploration Fund. He has been a consultant to the government of Sierra Leone, to the BBC, ITV, and to NASA.

Mm-hmm. So . . . a New Age quack who says “it’s all about vibration” is announcing “the major discovery of Christian history.” Turn out that being a self-proclaimed “ancient religion scholar” is not exactly the same as being a biblical scholar.


So what do actual biblical scholars say? Well, Dr. Peter Thonemann, university lecturer in ancient history, Forrest-Derow Fellow and tutor in ancient history, Wadham College, and lecturer in ancient history, Keble College at Oxford, stakes his career on his conviction that the lead codices are forgeries executed within the last 50 years. His explanation is elegant and simple. Asked by blogger Daniel O. McClellan to explain how he knows it is a forgery, Thonemann points to the Greek inscriptions and explains:

The text was incised by someone who did not know the Greek language, since he does not distinguish between the letters lambda and alpha: both are simply represented, in each of the texts, by the shape Λ.

The text literally means “without grief, farewell! Abgar also known as Eision”. This text, in isolation, is meaningless.

However, this text corresponds precisely to line 2 of the Greek text of a bilingual Aramaic/Greek inscription published by J.T. Milik, Syria 35 (1958) 243-6 no.6 (SEG 20, 494), and republished in P.-L. Gatier, Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie XXI: Inscriptions de la Jordanie, 2: Region centrale (Paris 1986), no.118. That inscription reads, in its entirety, as follows …

“For Selaman, excellent and harmless man, farewell! Abgar, also known as Eision, son of Monoathos, constructed this tomb for his excellent son (i.e. Selaman), in the third year of the province”.

This is a stone tombstone from Madaba in Jordan, precisely dated to AD 108/9, on display in the Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The text on your bronze tablet, therefore, makes no sense in its own right, but has been extracted unintelligently from another longer text (as if it were inscribed with the words: “t to be that is the question wheth”). The longer text from which it derives is a perfectly ordinary tombstone from Madaba in Jordan which happens to have been on display in the Amman museum for the past fifty years or so. The text on your bronze tablet is repeated, in part, in three different places, meaningless in each case.

The only possible explanation is that the text on the bronze tablet was copied directly from the inscription in the museum at Amman by someone who did not understand the meaning of the text of the inscription, but was simply looking for a plausible-looking sequence of Greek letters to copy. He copied that sequence three times, in each case mixing up the letters alpha and lambda.

This particular bronze tablet is, therefore, a modern forgery, produced in Jordan within the last fifty years. I would stake my career on it.


Moral: There is a good rule of thumb to employ whenever a biblical archaeology story makes waves in the news. It is this: “The sexier, the more dubious.” If it hits the news during Advent, Lent, or Holy Week, you can take it to the bank that somebody is trying to cash in. If it poses a direct contradiction to the received truths of the faith (like the supposed “Jesus tomb”), you may safely assume that it’s not only born of the fraudulent heart of man, but of the lies of the devil too.

And if it proposes yet another “radically new view of Jesus,” it needs to take a number and get in line. After all, we now know so much about Jesus courtesy of so many other radically new views, and yet it’s awfully hard to fit it all under one roof. As Anthony Sacramone has pointed out, depending on which Discoverer of the Shocking Truth you talk to:

Of course, all of this seems still to be undiscovered news to the credulous MSM writers at, for instance, the Daily Mail. But one hopes they will soon catch on. Meanwhile, my own view is that, sooner or later, the sundry discoverers of the Latest Real Jesus are going to have to hold some sort of ecumenical council to sort all this out. After all, if Jesus never existed, then it’s going to be tough for him to have bones and DNA. Ditto if he was eaten by wild dogs. If he was a woman, then marriage to Mary Magdalene and a huge family gets tough. If he was an alien, then the DNA will be very curious to behold. Sooner or later, some of these guys will need to be ruthlessly excommunicated by the Keepers of the True Anti-Faith.

But I can’t for the life of me see why Christians need to do anything other than chuckle.

  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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