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.

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Series

In February 2019, I was sitting in a Eugene, Oregon-coffee shop with my editor. Mary Mag was moving smoothly through editing and heading toward the printer, so Kathleen and I were reviewing a rough proposal for my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist: Digging Israel (as it was titled at that time).

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I had spent the previous two days in high-energy, encouraging meetings with almost everyone who worked at Harvest House, so I was ready to start my next project ASAP. Squinting at a complex-looking calendar-matrix of all her acquisitions, she told me, “It looks like my next slot is in Winter 2021.”

I went quiet, thinking about how far away that date seemed to be. Kathleen quickly assured me that the years would fly and the project would benefit from the extra time. Of course she was right. (Kathleen is always right!)

In February 2019, my next book was planned to be your typical 250-page black-and-white nonfiction paperback. I intended to write about archaeological discoveries and how they can impact our readings of Scripture.

In February 2021, I will present to you a still-pretty-typical 250-page black-and-white paperback; but this one has original photographs, history lessons, travel adventures, and cultural encounters…in addition to explaining how archaeology can illuminate Scripture!

The change in the book’s tone from scholarly to conversational and the expansion of its content from artifact-focused to culture-conscious are the direct results of the time I spent digging and traveling in Israel last summer. Fifteen years had passed since the last time I’d been similarly immersed in Israeli(te) history and culture, and I realized quickly that the book I had planned–which was initially based on what I had learned and experienced in my last years at Harvard–would not accurately reflect today’s practice of archaeology or the current inhabitants of the Land.

In Israel, ancient history and modernity coexist in ways they do not in Western nations, largely because the struggle for control of the land has never ceased. Thousands of years of wars and regime changes gave us the ancient tels we excavate, and they continue to define political boundaries and spheres of influence today.

All of this is simply too much to contain in one black-and-white book. Therefore, I’ve been working during our mutual COVID-containment time to develop a website. On February 23, 2021, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel will release and redhairedarchaeologist.com will launch. There you will find an online appendix of color photographs and links to Season 2 of The Red-Haired Archaeologist Podcast, all of which will enhance your reading experience. In the future, it will also be the home of all things RHA, including online Bible studies, future adult titles, children’s books, and more!

When Truth and Tradition Collide

CoverSince my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)