Corrupt Biblical Archaeology

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 17, 2019

Yesterday I encountered two reports of Biblical scholarship that depressed the hell out of me. I’m an atheist, but I find historical biblical research fascinating. The first encounter was with the new issue of Harper’s Magazine and its story “Common Ground: The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem” by Rachel Poser, a senior editor for the magazine. (Harper’s offers one free article a month to read behind its paywall, so if you click the link it will count.) Poser’s report is about how right-wing activists have coopted archeology to justify Israel’s reclaiming land in Jeruselum. It’s a long, but fascinating report about right-wing politicians and zealots corrupting the science of archaeology, and their feuds with secular scholars who are seeking an unbiased understanding of the past.

My second encounter was last night on Netflix with the third episode of The Bible’s Buried Secrets entitled “The Real Garden of Eden.” Host Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor at the University of Exeter makes a rather strained case that a garden in a palace of ancient Jeruselum was the Garden of Eden, and Adam was their king. Stavrakopoulou uses almost no quotes from Genesis and builds her argument with an hour’s worth of archaeological evidence that seems flimsy at best. I can’t prove she’s wrong, but I’ve heard much better theories.

In both of these encounters with Biblical archaeology, it was obvious that science was being corrupted by shoehorning evidence to fit a cherished hypothesis. Of course, for thousands of years, humans have used ancient scripture as a kind of legal precedent to justify their claims. In both the article and documentary, archaeologists cherry-picked their findings and didn’t offer opposing evidence, either from valid scientists or their counterpart ax-grinders.

If you read the articles returned in this Google search, you’ll see many challenges to Stravrakopoulou’s hypothesis. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a theory, everyone has their evidence. There are scholars who pursue rigorous biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology, but how do we tell the cranks from honest academics?

Actually, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on The Garden of Eden. At least it summarizes the complexity of the problem. Rachel Poser’s description of Elad’s effort to prove the biblical David existed and the sites Elad’s archaeologists were excavating belong to David’s kingdom are simplistic in their logic and evidence. Stavrakopoulou case for Eden is also simplistic. And if you pay attention to any of the popular documentaries about biblical history and archaeology, they’re often simplistic too. Everyone seems to be trying to deceive other people into accepting their pet theories. Is there any way of not being conned?

First of all, does the Garden of Eden or King David really matter to the modern world? I would distrust anyone who uses any biblical history as validation for any present-day disputes over morality, ethics, land, laws, etc. They are only academic issues. Researching history, and evaluating it with archaeological evidence is a fun intellectual pursuit. But if you use it for any kind of justification of action, then it’s a complete fallacy.

I find it insane that modern minds use ancient thoughts to rationalize how we should live today. We should have laws against using old beliefs for legal precedent. Read Poser’s article. It’s horrifying how we’re using three-thousand-year-old fables to kill each other.

To Christians and Jews, the world began four thousand years ago, and they struggle to overlay that fantasy onto reality. They ignore the fact that more ancient civilizations surrounded the Levant even at the time of Genesis. Even when Adam and Eve were supposed to be walking in the Garden of Eden humans had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or that David’s Kingdom was an itty-bitty bump in the road between two vast empires.

I don’t know why western civilization is so focused on the tiny Holy Lands of the Bible when Earth is thousands of times bigger. It’s as if we all have a kind of history myopia that fails to see the planet and its history as a whole. I think the main problem is we’re raised with only one set of myths. Would we be more rational if our parents sent us to a different church/temple/synagogue/mosque/shrine every week as a child? Our insanity seems to come from trying to rationalize one viewpoint at the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis is a wonderful work of literature from pre-history. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to understand why it was written, by who, and when. But imagine if three thousands years from now, people revered a copy of Gone with the Wind as their only source of American history.

One solution might be to invite Asian archaeologists to dig up the Holy Lands, ones who had never been exposed to The Bible.




13 thoughts on “Corrupt Biblical Archaeology”

  1. I’m reminded of the original Star Trek series Episode “The Omega Glory” where the Yangs (Yankees) miss interpreted the origin story of America. I would invite your readers to look up the plot line. As beings with self awareness, our imaginations contain many beliefs as part of a larger belief system we label as our individual and unique world view. Our survival is dependent on the security of holding a particular world view as ‘true’ Anything less would place our individual existence at risk. Our brains cannot act or behave any differently than to increase the potential for survival.

    The scientific method is just another belief system, that some hold as ‘sacred’. No different than a belief that others hold that the Garden Of Eden existed as described in scripture.

    Humans have always competed with each other for prestige and scarce resources. Beliefs are just the cognitive manifestation of the brain acting and behaving in the only manner it can. That is to increase the potential for survival and opportunities to reproduce.

    We will always attempt to bend the truth to match our own particular beliefs. It’s simply our nature to do so.

    If Asian archaeologists were to use the belief system we call the scientific method as the pretense to ‘proving’ whether The Garden of Eden existed, this would not change anything. Humans with other beliefs would still contend that their world view is just as legitimate. Humans would still be competing on the basis of survival and reproduction. Nothing more, nothing less.

    It’s the illusion that we are agents of free will that causes us to conclude that our particular world view is superior to another, when. like the bears in the woods, we are simply competing for existence. The bears just don’t know it because they are not aware.

    1. Well I am very aware that bi biblical archaeology can be hyped up especially if it can attract a nice demographic

      However I think the pro evolution videos are many times worse

      1. I’m curious, how do you think the pro-evolution videos are worse. Personally, I just want to know the truth. Any research that clarifies knowledge with good evidence and statistics is comforting to me. I find my existence better explained by evolutionary theories. It’s easier for me to accept the bottom-up approach of evolution over the top-down approach of theology.

  2. Science is different in that it attempts to evaluate reality statistically. We assume if enough people come to the same conclusion after doing the same experiments then there’s a good possibility something might be real and true. Science doesn’t make conclusive proofs. We just hope that enough scientists reproduce the same results in their experiments then those results are reliable. Theoretically, if David existed and built a palace and we found it, there could be enough surviving artifacts to convince a majority of archaeologists. But we don’t have that now. The story of the Garden of Eden is just a story. For Stavrakopoulou to be proven right we’d have to excavate a palace with a great garden chiseled with a sign saying “Garden of Eden.” And even then it might just be some ancient tourist trap based on even an older legend. All those holy sites in Israel and Italy sound like tourist traps to me.

    I don’t think we have free will, and I agree that our world views overwhelm logic. But we should be able to build good archaeological cases for some ancient sites that a majority of scientists agree on.

  3. I also agree: human world views certainly overwhelm logic. To me the question is why. Clearly it is an integral element of being human. To me the answer – empirically unprovable, but to me credible nonetheless – has to lie in an adaptive mechanism, likely during our evolution as hunter-gatherers. The exact nature of how this worked is, of course, open to debate. But we can suppose it had something to do with social dynamics in a society of c150 individuals, which is where hunter-gatherer bands seem to sit. Of course the issue takes more than just a brief comment to outline – and there will likely always be more questions than conclusions associated with it. But it’s a fascinating focus of thought.

  4. We are certainly shaped in part by our cultural upbringing. No getting around that as it serves to maintain order (predictability) and security within the the band of extended family and the tribe. We humans and other sentient beings who of course are unaware of the sense, crave certainty. For us humans who are self aware it seems for some that biblical stories serve that need through beliefs that provide purpose and meaning to one’s existence. Although some of us may not require that particular level of certainty to sustain our place within the larger community. I personally know many who do, as I’m sure you do as well. I agree that it can be irritating sometimes to see certain belief systems competing over something that can be ascertained for all practical purposes through a proper and vetted practice of investigation. By the same token for those things in our imagination beyond the reach of experiment we have only our beliefs to shelter and secure us from that monster of uncertainty. Oh the downside of full theory of mind 🙂

    1. I agree. I love the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. I think it’s a wonderful communique from the ancient past. Whoever wrote it had amazing vision. I completely accept that some people have faith in beliefs I don’t accept. And as long as they don’t use them to hurt other people I will defend their right to have those beliefs. It’s when they demand that others adhere to their beliefs that I have a problem. That’s why theocracies always fail. People want to believe in different views, so it destructive to try and make everyone believe the same thing. If you read Poser’s article, Elad works to make their beliefs into a justification for harming other people. They are corrupting the law and science.

      Stavrakopoulou has a nice little idea that’s only a fun academic theory. She’s okay. Her problem was pulling a fast one on the audience by not presenting other sides that counter her theory. She just stacked the deck for her pet idea. I was complaining because I like documentaries that are more balanced. One critic of hers stated she wanted to get rid of original sin because she thinks it sexist. I thought that crafty of her, but she also seemed to eliminate Eve from the Garden of Eden.

      1. ‘Unfortunately’, we are competitive by nature. So aside from the craving for certainty which social anthropologists attribute to security and survival, we also seek prestige which is a social recognition of reproductive fitness. Thank goodness we no longer have to compete on that basis to obtain mates! None the less our innate nature still drives us forward. Theocracies, or any other form of state governance are just an extension of this drive. Legitimacy is usually determined by what works socially. As long as the governed are for the most part satisfied and content with the status quo the alpha’s will have their day.It’s only when the conditions change and the trade off’s are no longer there and the risk proposition becomes unbalanced, that trouble starts. Competition is the means by which things get sorted out until the risk proposition is re secured. I would think that is why capitalism has worked so well as a clearing house for the day to day transactions in modern liberal democracies while all other forms of social hierarchies have come and gone. Iran is the only example I can think of where the titular head of state is a cleric. In reality Iran is westernized so the council of clerics retain their prestige in name only. Once they try to impose their particular belief system too far they will pay the price. The instinct for survival guides their behavior as it does for all of us. Gorbachev punched a hole in the belief system that was the Soviet bloc, and the whole thing came tumbling down almost over night in historical terms

        The garden of Eden is a great story. It provides a concise and simple explanation for why a perfect being in God created such an imperfect being in Man, thus clearing up the whole issue of good and evil that confounded early fathers in their striving to set the code of conduct for their particular society and at the same time retain the prestige they sought as governors.

        At your suggestion I watched some of the episodes from Stavrakopoulou in the BBC series ‘Bible’s buried Secrets’ It’s always fascinating to hear a different view of a given belief that we are already familiar with. In the larger picture all is well as long as a significant majority of us in any given society holds a discerning view point on any belief system. It’s when the prestige seekers win the day because a significant majority of the governed are unfit (complacent and too focused on their individual needs at the expense of their social relationships…an unfit trade off for survival) and submit to the alpha version of the ‘truth’. Vigilance is the watch word for the common good.

        Keep up the good work James

        1. I agree that our competitive nature makes us even compete with our personal beliefs. I’ve always thought it interesting that people need to validate themselves by getting other people to agree with them. Religious people act as if they can get everyone to believe a certain doctrine then it will be true. But I have to also believe that most true believers harbor some doubts.

          By the way, there are several documentary series using the word buried, bible and secrets. It’s rather confusing. The one on Netflix is from the BBC I think. There was one from the PBS show NOVA. And I think another on National Geographic. I liked the PBS one best.

          1. Human nature is tremendously interesting. From where I’m sitting I prefer the less specific connotation of the word religious. We all hold individual beliefs that we may consider our personal religious views that invariably conflict with other’s to some extent. Folks who consider themselves ‘religious’ in the social sense of the word are putting themselves out there at some personal risk. So be it. Those who seek a greater modicum of prestige are always selling something for potentially more than it’s worth. Again just our competitive nature at work. I can’t imagine a world otherwise.

            Yes I found many versions of the series as you described. I guess it’s up to the individual to decide which snake oil tastes the best!

          2. As an atheist, what I find fascinating about studying The Bible is it reveals how people thought 2000-3000 years ago. It was written well before history was an academic discipline, yet it reveals a lot of history. The Old Testament is a whole lot less a book of spiritual guidance than it is a history of forming a nation and culture. Throughout The Old Testament the prophets and scribes beg the people to follow the rules, and they obviously don’t. There was no consistency of belief back then either. And there seemed to be a constant struggle between the rulers and the priestly class for power. The Bible is fantastic for what it says about people rather than anything it might say about imaginary beings.

  5. True enough the bible especially the old testament was a commentary of the times reflecting what it took to maintain social order. The elites promoted peace as the reward for compliance. This condition offered predictability for all individuals a win/win so to speak but at the same time self serving, as the leaders feared disruption more than anything. At the moment the mythological bubble bursts, all is lost in the endless cycle of competition. The bible was story about people and their trials and tribulations as well as joy and fulfillment. The idea of God was a placeholder to explain the alpha and the Omega of our imagination. A hold as great as any physical device. Such is the price of our self awareness.

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