Where “Indiana Jones” Gets Archaeology Wrong

When you imagine an archaeological site, do you see white tents, pith helmets, and sand dunes? Is the dig director a middle-aged man with a thick British accent, bossing around his local workers and charging into newly opened tombs with abandon? That image isn’t too far from the truth of the late-19th- and early-20th-century excavations that sought to find ancient, beautiful objects for national museums and personal collections.

Those first archaeologists were romanticized by writers and inspired some great film characters (Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones leap to mind). They popularized the field, inspired Halloween costumes, and had children like me answering “archaeologist” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Unfortunately, the linen-clad men and women were mere treasure hunters. Their methods of extraction disconnected their finds from the historical calendar and left spectators to marvel at the items instead of understand who had created them and why.

Archaeology means “the study of ancient history.” It is a branch of anthropology that attempts to reconstruct the lives of ancient people based on what they left behind. The further one goes back in time, the fewer written records remain, so archaeologists study mundane objects and architectural ruins to discover who people were, how they lived, and why they died.

Archaeology has become increasingly scientific in the last century. In the 1930s, William F. Albright invented the first method of dating ancient sites based on the shapes and colors of the ceramics excavated. He found that cities throughout a region could be connected to one another in time based on their styles of pottery. Today archaeologists still do their primary dating based on the pottery, but they can learn even more about artifacts with technological tools such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, GPS location, and microbiology.

Within the field of archaeology is biblical archaeology, which was also “created” by William F. Albright. It exists to contextualize Scripture—to come alongside God’s Word and help us better understand it.

Read this description of the water-basin stands that Hiram created for Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7:27-30:

And he made ten bases of brass; four cubits was the length of one base, and four cubits the breadth thereof, and three cubits the height of it. And the work of the bases was on this manner: they had borders, and the borders were between the ledges: And on the borders that were between the ledges were lions, oxen, and cherubims: and upon the ledges there was a base above: and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work. And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass: and the four corners thereof had undersetters: under the laver were undersetters molten, at the side of every addition (KJV).

Based on those words, artists and theologians and Sunday School children would draw wildly different versions of the stands because that description is unintelligible unless the object has been seen in real life. But in the 1980s, such a stand was found in Ekron. Informed by that discovery, read how a more recent Bible translation describes the stands:

Each water stand was 6 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 4½ feet high. The stands had side panels and panels between the crossbars. On the panels between the crossbars there were lions, oxen, and winged creatures. There was a pedestal over the crossbars that would support the basin, and there were garlands of ornaments below the lions and oxen. There were 4 bronze wheels and 4 bronze axles for each stand. The 4 legs of each stand also had 4 bases. There were bases with garlands on all sides below the basin (The Voice).

What Trude Dothan and her team found at Ekron helps us to envision what Scripture is describing. Her find may not be exciting, but it helps us to imagine ourselves worshiping at Solomon’s Temple among God’s other followers.

Neither Albright nor Dothan were adventure-seeking, artifact-stealing rogues wearing leather jackets and escaping rivals (or authorities) on motorcycle. They didn’t find the ark of the covenant, but they and their successors have helped Bible readers understand God’s Word just a bit better.

Originally published on the Harvest House Publishers Blog.

After Easter

Scholars tell us that Jesus was born in 4 BC. Assuming–and this is an admittedly HUGE assumption–they and all post-AD calendars are correct, yesterday was the 1,990th anniversary of Easter.

Today we all await the fulfillment of the last big prophecy—the end of the world.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote an entertaining and popular fictional series about the biblical apocalypse. I read all twelve books of the Left Behind series as they were published, and I enjoyed most of them. They begin with the Rapture, a doctrine that states the last generation of Christians on Earth will be “beamed up” to heaven before the Tribulation. The rest of the series details the authors’ interpretations of the Tribulation and ends with the Second Coming of the Christ. When I read the novels I believed this tradition of Rapture, so the books made me think I had a solid grasp of Scripture and understood what the Apocalypse will look like.

The danger of highly entertaining books with biblical inspirations such as the Left Behind series and The DaVinci Code is that they seem to be more fact than fiction. The characters are all made up, sure, but it is easy to believe that the books’ settings and events are based in reality. My favorite genre of escapist literature is historical fiction, so this is a tempting trap I know very well.

Once the idea of the Rapture came up in a conversation, and others were surprised to hear that I don’t wholly accept this doctrine. I realized pretty quickly that they (and a lot of other people, it turns out) associated the Rapture with the Second Coming of Christ. The two should not be conflated. Rapture is a tradition (the word never appears in the Bible); the Second Coming, or Parousia, is Scripture. I absolutely believe Jesus will return.

The Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine is a relatively new one. It was developed in the late 1800s by British theologian John Nelson Darby and then popularized in America in 1907 when C. I. Scofield’s Reference Bible was printed. It takes disparate verses of the New Testament and combines them to form the doctrine. The doctrine isn’t exactly a product of proof-texting, but it is close.

The theory begins with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul is answering the questions of church members who are wondering what will happen to their Christian friends and family who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [in death], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

The Thessalonians were part of the Greek culture that believed there was no returning from death. Greek Christians were, at that time, unique in their beliefs in the completed resurrection of the Christ, and they were trusting in Jesus’ words (Matthew 24) that they would be resurrected as well. It seems their faiths were eroding as they lived among the Greek pagans, watched Jesus-following church members die, and waited for His return. Paul is setting their minds at ease here by reminding them of what they already know. At the Second Coming of Christ—not before—the dead will rise and the living will follow them. According to Paul, Jesus returns before anyone living or dead rises.

I always assumed the Rapture was detailed in Revelation. It is not. The only people who ascend to heaven in that book are John of Patmos (to see this vision), the two witnesses (11:12), and the “Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (12:5). To connect John’s vision of Revelation to Jesus’ description of the Tribulation and Paul’s assurance that the dead and living will rise when He returns, you have to get pretty creative.

Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.

If you read Revelation 3:10 outside of its context as I have it here, then you might guess that Christians will be kept “from the hour of trial” by way of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, but that certainly is not stated and nothing else in Revelation would support that idea. Also, this promise was made only to the Church in Philadelphia, so most of us better pack up and move!

All of this to say, Christians need to read the rest of what Paul says about the end times:

But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10).

We don’t need to try to predict the end of the world or worry that we might suffer prior to His return. We are here, as children of God, to be used by God to reconcile all of humanity to Him. After Easter, may we focus on His present will and not the world’s future end.

Some Satire this Fool’s Day

The first book of the Bible I ever translated from Hebrew to English was Jonah. My five-member Ancient Hebrew class would gather with our professor at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the refectory for coffee, cereal, and translation. We were always tired and a bit silly, so it was good that we were working with Jonah which is only four chapters long and entertaining.

When Christians study Scripture, we tend to ignore the comedy of Jonah mostly because it doesn’t translate naturally from Hebrew into English. Plus, laughing feels irreverent even when God intends it. As a child, I learned about Jonah “and the whale” on Sunday school felt boards while gobbling animal cookies and juice. I pictured the prophet bobbing around inside that whale as Pinocchio and Geppetto sailed the stomach juices of Monstro before getting sneezed out. Jonah’s was a cautionary tale: obey God’s commands, or you’ll be punished (maybe by swimming with rotting fish carcasses inside a whale belly). There’s nothing funny there.

That moral of the story isn’t necessarily wrong, but it also isn’t the point of the book. The Book of Jonah is not a biography of a bad prophet; it is a satirical tale of a man who thinks he is more deserving of God’s grace than his enemies are. His opinion is absurd, so everything that happens in the book is extreme.

    • God says, “Travel about 500 miles west to the city of Ninevah.” Jonah decides to sail about 2,500 miles east to the tip of Spain. That’s a different mode of transportation in the opposite direction for five times the distance.
    • God sends a hurricane to stop one ship sailing the Mediterranean. Jonah says, “Drown me, and the winds will stop.” His baby toe hits the water, and there is instant calm.
    • A fish (be it bass, tuna, or shark—but not a whale) carries Jonah back to dry land. A fish. No explanation needed there.
    • God says, “Go give My message to the people in Ninevah.” Jonah takes about three steps into a city the size of Los Angeles and says to no one in particular, “Stop it, or God will kill you.” And they do. One glorified whisper from one random foreigner leaning against the wall of their city, and all Ninevans—and their animals—repent.
    • Jonah climbs a hill and pouts because God is just too nice to everyone, including Jonah. God refuses to kill Jonah as the prophet requests because, once again, God is just too nice…to any who rebel against Him.
    • The salvation of 120,000 people doesn’t teach Jonah the value of God’s mercy, so God kills a day-old bean plant just in case that might do the trick.

Then we are left hanging: “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11). God asks Jonah a rhetorical question, but we never hear the prophet’s answer.

If we try to take it seriously—or literally—then Jonah’s is the most bizarre story in the Bible. But if we remember that this is an absurd story meant to convey a deep truth (that is, satire) about God’s consistent grace for all people in all nations, then the Book of Jonah is poignant.

It is tempting to read Jonah and mock him, thinking we know better and behave better than the prophet did. But really, we are the prophet. Too many Christians want to limit God’s grace to only those people whom we think deserve it. We will bend over backward—sail through a hurricane or sleep in a fish—to see our own “enemies” punished when we are no better than they are.

That attitude is absurd, and God knew it would take an absurd story to show us our own prejudices. No foolin’!