the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

where there's hope, there's money

what would the wisdom of Solomon say about this? I know what Phineas Barnum would say.

Just on that subject of smug secularists, however...

I caught a fascinating program on SBS the other day - probably connected to this website - which links to the controversial issue of biblical archaeology, and how determined biblical belief interferes with archaeological practice and the questions asked.

I was fascinated in many ways by my own response while watching. I missed the start of the program, and tuned in to hear talk of a dark patinaed tablet with a Hebrew inscription, purporting to be a chip off the old block of Solomon's temple, no less. The breathless narration suggested a stupendous find, for up to this point there had been no extra-biblical evidence of the existence of Solomon or his temple. So the tablet was subjected to the most sophisticated scientific testing, including radiocarbon dating. The scientists found nothing to suggest it wasn't authentic. They even found evidence of fire damage, from the reputed destruction of the temple by the Babylonians.

So, the narrator went on, history would have to be revised, the temple did in fact exist, and he went on to speculate about how exactly the tablet was connected to the temple, and what the inscription meant. By this time I was hopping up and down saying 'no, no, you idiots, you can't leap to such a conclusion, even if this fragment is ancient, to construct a whole temple from it is absurd, there could be all sorts of reasons for making this tablet, even some thousands of years ago, even quite duplicitous reasons, or self-duplicitous reasons, we're dealing with the complexity of human need and pride, this isn't like finding a fossil...'

I was ready to switch channels, I couldn't bear any more of this credulity, but I kept watching, to hear the end of the story and also I think because I detected an undertone of 'something's not quite right here'.

Anyway, the 'priceless artefact' was next offered to some major Israeli museum. Museum officials were quite interested and millions of dollars were expected to change hands, but the museum insisted on knowing more of the provenance of the piece. Detective work led to a wealthy dealer in antiquities named Oded Golan. After a time, the authorities became suspicious of this guy, who was also associated with an ossuary, a box supposedly containing the bones of Jesus's brother James (remember that one? It made news around the world). There were also concerns about the Hebrew inscription, with various experts disagreeing about whether certain words found there would have been used in the time of the quasi-mythical Solomon. I was becoming more engrossed, and of course felt delightfully vindicated in my skepticism.

A new expert was called in, a Gary Cooper-like good guy complete with cowboy hat, and he soon sorted things out. His name was Dr Yuval Goren, and he was a true geo-archaeological heavyweight in spite of his youthful good looks. He found that the earlier scientific experts had been duped. He was able to work out where the stone of the tablet had come from, and found that the actual letters were inscribed recently, though the whole tablet had been treated with various materials to suggest greater age. Goren's findings prompted authorities to arrest Oded Golan, and they soon uncovered a highly sophisticated forgery operation which had been duping museums for some twenty years, to the tune of millions of dollars. The group of forgers, experts in a number of disciplines, had been trading cynically on the public and other experts' desperate need to find verification of biblical stories in the archaeological record. The authenticity of hundreds of artefacts was now under a cloud.

Another massive blow to those slightly sad amateur archaeologists and committed believers who have been clogging up the field for decades. By the end of the program, I must say, my secular smugness knew no bounds...


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