On the Christian Need for Relics: Holy Grail Edition

The Holy Grail, à la Monty Python

The Holy Grail, à la Monty Python

In the wake of yesterday’s post, “No, no, you DIDN’T find the Holy Grail,” I thought I’d take a moment to spell out what I believe to be the driving forces behind the constant need on the part of some to hunt for Christian relics.

For the purposes of this article, I define “relics” as both the physical remains of venerated individuals and the objects associated with them.

The reasons people seek out and claim discovery of relics can be boiled down to two general categories: money (including fame) and a confirmation of one’s faith (including hope and healing).

[Note: Much of what I say below was featured in my Inside Edition interview with Megan Alexander (Twitter) yesterday evening, where I responded to the most recent sensational, pseudoarchaeological claims made by a pair of Spanish authors claiming to have found the Holy Grail. And, Inside Edition was kind enough to post an extended version of the interview on their website, where I repeat some of what I say below.]

Let’s deal with the obvious reason first: money.

Religious relics are a HUGE business. Anyone who has ever traveled to Jerusalem or Rome can attest to just how influential religious tourism is in these regions, and how essential it is to their respective local economies. The spectrum of souvenirs sold by local shops ranges from ubiquitous pieces of artwork and religious literature on the one end, to much rarer objects like antiquities (both legal and illicit), and yes, relics and rumored relics on the other end.

But the money isn’t just made by shopkeepers and antiquities dealers; churches and museums (which are often one-in-the-same) bring in HUGE tourism dollars from pilgrims who will fork over large sums of money to view something that confirms their faith. (We’ll deal with confirmation of faith in a moment.) There are tickets to be sold and refurbishments of chapels to be paid for, and possession of a relic is one quick and easy way to attract both pilgrims and profits.

But money made from relics isn’t limited to those who possess the relics; authors of books and producers of television documentaries can make thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars producing literary and video content about the relics, even if they themselves do not possess them. Toss in an effective marketing strategy – one which almost always includes releasing the book or film (or both) on or around Easter or Christmas – and publishers can sell tens of thousands of copies of speculative books, and producers can sell sensationalized, factually-challenged documentaries to ratings-hungry cable networks, who are increasingly replacing substantive history programs with reality adventure fiction.

Thus, the business of relic hunts is one of the main driving forces behind the continued claims of holy relics.

The second reason relics are so popular is due to their role in confirming the faith of believers.

The fact is that people like to give their faith something tangible. In a world increasingly reliant upon evidence and verifiable data, relics offer a form of spiritual “evidence” that confirms one’s beliefs. People of faith crave evidence confirming the person of Jesus as well as the claims made about him.

But the desire for evidence is not a modern phenomenon.

We must remember that there is absolutely zero archaeological evidence that points to the existence of Jesus, and much less so that supports the claims made about him, such as his divinity, his miraculous powers, etc. And as for literary evidence, outside of the biblical text, there are no authentic references to Jesus from the first century CE. None!

Now, I should note that text of Josephus’ Antiquities (18 and 20) as we now have it does possess two references to the Jesus mentioned in the Bible. But, anyone who can read Greek (well) will quickly notice that these references to Jesus – commonly referred to as the “Testimonium Flavianum” – are Christian additions to the original text of Josephus that were added in an attempt to remedy the obvious (and somewhat embarrassing) problem that the best known, most prolific, and most knowledgeable historian of Jewish life from first century CE Palestine that we know of, Flavius Josephus, never once mentions Jesus. In all of his detailed histories of the events surrounding Herod and the Jews and all of the messianic pretenders he mentions, he never once mentioned Jesus of Nazareth. This was obviously a problem for early Christians, whose story of Jesus (with the dead being raised, and the earthquakes, and the eclipses, and healing stories, and the thrashing of the temple, and the crucifixion, and the resurrection, etc.) should have certainly merited mention in Josephus’ exhaustive chronicles had they actually taken place. (For more on this subject, see Richard Carrier’s blog post and JECS article.)

But there is silence about Jesus in the extra-biblical literature from the first century CE. That is, outside of the handful of Christians, who were producing literature about Jesus, there is no mention of him in the first century CE. (It’s also the likely reason for the apocryphal Letters of Paul and Seneca, which seek to elevate Paul to a status of a revered Roman philosopher in order to remedy the fact that he was never mentioned by any of his Jewish or Roman contemporaries. Cf. Bart Ehrman, Forged, 90-92.)

Thus, because of the lack of outside literary and physical evidence of Jesus and of the claims made about him in the biblical texts, early Christians sought out other various forms of “evidence” that could prove, at least to them, that Jesus was who he claimed to be. And this desire to find and confirm relics associated with Jesus was not limited to the poor Christian populace, but was an endeavor undertaken at that highest levels of authority, exemplified perhaps no better than by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the express purpose of acquiring Christian relics and memorializing the locations of significant moments in the life of Jesus by building chapels on them.

For this reason, Christian relics – especially those associated with Jesus like the “nails of the cross“, pieces of the “true cross“, the “holy spear” used to pierce his side, his burial shroud, and even fragments from his supposed tomb, etc. – have been the focus of scrutiny (and many, many books and documentaries) over the years. Relics allow Christians to touch what they believe to be evidence of Jesus, thereby confirming their faith.

Included within this confirmation of faith is the ancient belief that objects associated with Jesus possessed miraculous powers, and principal among them, healing powers. This tradition that objects associated with Jesus possess healing powers may stem from the biblical story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman found in Mark 5:24b-34, and paralleled in Matthew 9:19-22 and Luke 8:43-48.

Mark’s version of the story reads:

Mark 5:24b  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Mark 5:25  Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.
Mark 5:26  She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.
Mark 5:27  She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,
Mark 5:28  for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
Mark 5:29  Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Mark 5:30  Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
Mark 5:31  And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”
Mark 5:32  He looked all around to see who had done it.
Mark 5:33  But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
Mark 5:34  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Note that the woman in the story merely touched Jesus’ cloak, and that the text says that Jesus felt power go out of him. Luke 11:46 says, “But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.'”

This detail in the text implies that Jesus’ healing power can affect people who merely touch objects that touch him, and can do so even when he’s not consciously intending to perform a miracle. Again, in this story, Jesus is like a statically charged doorknob, whose power can be discharged by anyone wearing Uggs on a shag carpet making contact with him. In the story, the woman receives the healing simply by touching only his clothes, and Jesus confirms the act of touching by acknowledging that he felt power go out of him.

Because of stories like this, people likely began searching for objects, any objects, said to be associated with Jesus, hoping that they too might be the recipients of the unconsciously administered residual miraculous healing powers of Christ contained within the relics, thereby further confirming faith in Christ to them and to all who might witness the healing.

And when we add this story to Old Testament accounts of healing that arise from touching relics, such as the account of a man being resurrected from the dead after coming into contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha as recorded in 2 Kings 13:21, we can begin to understand how the obsession with discovering relics was not just about money, but about a confirmation of a faith that relies on miraculous accounts in the absence of archaeological evidence.

On Claims of the Holy Grail

Specifically addressing the recent claims of the discovery of a Holy Grail, let me remind readers that we know what common and industrial use cups from first century Palestine look like. There have been a number of archaeological discoveries that show us what common cups look like, including cups eligible for ritually pure meals. Such vessels can be found in the remains of the Burnt House in Jerusalem, and at Qumran – the site associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – where both stone and ceramic cups have been discovered, and most recently in the Mount Zion excavations in Jerusalem.

Stacked, V-shaped drinking goblets from Qumran made of Pottery dating to between the 1st C. BCE and the 1st C. CE. Height 26.5 cm (10 7/16 in.), diameter 16 cm (6 1/4 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (65-72). More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Stacked, V-shaped drinking goblets from Qumran made of Pottery dating to between the 1st C. BCE and the 1st C. CE. Height 26.5 cm (10 7/16 in.), diameter 16 cm (6 1/4 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (65-72). More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Limestone cup dating to the 1st C. CE. Cup (A): height 7.5 cm (3 in.), diameter 8 cm (3 1/8 in.) Cup (B): height 12.8 cm (5 in.), diameter 19.4 cm (7 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (38,39). Cylindrical cups of this type are frequently found in sites of the Second Temple Period. It is believed that their capacities correspond to the dry and liquid measures mentioned in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic laws governing all aspects of Jewish life.  The surfaces of these vessels were pared with a knife or adze, and their surface was left un-smoothed. The vertical handles rule out the possibility that they might have been produced on a rotating lathe. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Limestone cup from Qumran dating to the 1st C. CE. Cup (A): height 7.5 cm (3 in.), diameter 8 cm (3 1/8 in.) Cup (B): height 12.8 cm (5 in.), diameter 19.4 cm (7 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (38,39). Cylindrical cups of this type are frequently found in sites of the Second Temple Period. It is believed that their capacities correspond to the dry and liquid measures mentioned in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic laws governing all aspects of Jewish life. The surfaces of these vessels were pared with a knife or adze, and their surface was left un-smoothed. The vertical handles rule out the possibility that they might have been produced on a rotating lathe. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Large limestone goblet dating to the 1st C. CE from Qumran. Height 72 cm (28 1/4 in.), diameter 38.5 cm (15 1/8 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (37). This large goblet-shaped vessel was produced on a lathe, probably in Jerusalem, and is extremely well crafted. It is surprising that an ancient lathe was capable of supporting and working such a large and heavy stone block. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Large limestone goblet dating to the 1st C. CE from Qumran. Height 72 cm (28 1/4 in.), diameter 38.5 cm (15 1/8 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (37). This large goblet-shaped vessel was produced on a lathe, probably in Jerusalem, and is extremely well crafted. It is surprising that an ancient lathe was capable of supporting and working such a large and heavy stone block. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Stone cup from the

Stone cup from the “Burnt House” in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE. These implements were likely used for industrial purposes. For more: http://www.jewish-quarter.org.il/atar-saruf.asp

A 22-faceted, pared stone cup discovered in the Mt. Zion excavations in Jerusalem, inscribed with cryptic writing. For more: http://www.uhl.ac/en/resources/media/

A 22-faceted, pared stone cup discovered in the Mt. Zion excavations in Jerusalem, inscribed with cryptic writing. For more: http://www.uhl.ac/en/resources/media/

Let us also recall that Jesus and his disciples were poor, and that Jesus taught a renunciation of wealth (cf. Matt. 6:19, 24; 19:21; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 12:33; etc.). Thus, Jesus and his disciples most likely did not carry with them the sort of bling that is often the focus of grail claims.

And let us also remember that the “upper room” mentioned in Mark 14:15 and Luke 22:12 was likely a rented room (some even argue a Sukka) for two reasons. First, Passover was a pilgrimage festival in first century Palestine. They needed to find a place because Jesus and most of his disciples were said to have lived in Galilee and were not from Jerusalem.

Second, the Synoptic Gospels all record the story of Jesus instructing his disciples to find a man carrying a jar in Jerusalem who would lead them to an upper room where they were to prepare the Passover meal. Thus, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the room did not belong to Jesus or one of the disciples, but was a room made available to them for the Passover meal during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Thus, the cup that was used during the Last Supper was either provided by the owner of the rental room, or by Jesus’ disciples. The latter is not likely because the disciples were not likely to carry expensive objects as Jesus preached a message of the renunciation of wealth. And the former is unlikely because the owners of rooms rented to poor Passover pilgrims in Jerusalem were not likely to lay out the fine China. Next time you stay in a hotel room, look at the quality of the coffee cup provided to you. I’m guessing it’s not made of agate or gold.

Thus, if we accept a historical Jesus and a historical Last Supper, the cup used by Jesus would most likely be a nondescript stone cup – the likes of which archaeologists have uncovered in Jerusalem and Qumran and other sites throughout Roman Palestine time and again over the years. These stone cups are usually made of limestone (which is ubiquitous throughout Jerusalem), and are usually carved by paring facets in the cup from top to bottom, forming a roundish cup with handles sometimes carved from the stone.

So while gold and silver cups are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the Temple (1 Chron. 28:17) and various palaces (Gen. 44:2), while Roman and Egyptian glass vessels were made at the time, and while expensive precious and semiprecious stone cups were made from onyx, agate, jasper, chalcedony, sardonyx, and carnelian, it is most likely that these expensive cups would not have been used by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Rather, ceramic, or more likely, limestone cups would have been used for ritually pure meals like the Passover. Mishnaic regulations taught that stone vessels were insusceptible to impurities (m. Kel. 10:1; m. Oh. 5:5, 6:1; m. Par. 5:5; m. Miq. 4:1; m. Yad. 1:2; cf. m. Betz. 2:3), while ceramic vessels could potentially absorb impurities into the bodies of the vessels. Thus, because stone vessels were thought not absorb impurities like ceramic vessels, and were therefore preferable for the storage and pouring of liquids, especially in a ritually pure state, one might suspect that the cup used in a Passover meal in Jerusalem in the first century CE would have been made of common limestone, and not of the semiprecious and precious stones that would have been prohibitively expensive to Jesus and his disciples. Likewise, the cup would have been of simple design like the cups we find in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem and Qumran.

Finally, because the room was a rented room, the cup was either left in the room (if provided by the room’s owner), or taken with the disciples (if provided my them) after the meal. Either way, we have absolutely no record whatsoever of a chain of custody of any cup used in the Last Supper – an essential piece of evidence necessary to prove the provenance of an archaeological object, and therefore to confirm any credible claim of a “Holy Grail”. So even if – and this is a big IF – there were a Holy Grail, we would have absolutely no way of proving a cup was, in fact, the Holy Grail. Thus, the entire endeavor is sheer and unadulterated speculation.

Lest we forget, Easter is approaching. And thus ’tis the season for those who prey on the hopes of the honest faithful to make money by making sensational pseudoarchaeological claims related to Jesus…money made from those eagerly seeking a confirmation of their faith.


No, no, you DIDN’T find the Holy Grail

I was interviewed as part of a story this morning on Good Morning America (Twitter) about recent sensational claims about the “discovery” of the Holy Grail in Spain. Yes…that Holy Grail.

ABC’s Paula Faris highlighted the claim made by two Spanish historians. Video is here.

Two historians, Margarita Torres and Jose Manuel Ortega del Rio, authors of the book, “Kings of the Grail,” claim a jewel-encrusted goblet, which has been inside the San Isidoro Basilica, in Leon, Spain, for the last 1,000 years, is the Holy Grail. And just in time for Easter (and I’m guessing a planned renovation of the church in which the cup was ‘discovered’).

Because Jesus was all about golden, jewel encrusted bling. Right?

Of course, claiming to find the Holy Grail is as silly as other pseudoarchaeological claims, like purporting to find the nails of the cross, pieces of the true cross, the Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, the route of the Exodus, Atlantis, and Jesus’ family tomb. These are fools errands and the realm of the sensationalized absurd.

I’ll be appearing tonight on a segment with Megan Alexander (Twitter | Web ) for Inside Edition (Twitter) on this supposed discovery of the Holy Grail. The segment should air tonight. Thanx Megan and Tyler for the smooth setup and interview!

[UPDATE: Here is Megan Alexander’s interview with me on the “discovery” of the supposed Holy Grail. And, Inside Edition was good enough to post a 3 min. extended clip from our interview on their website. Thanx to Megan!]

And if you’re interested in doing REAL archaeology, join us at Tel Azekah, where you can dig (and smash) to your heart’s content.




Duke Conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media: DAY 1

i was asked by eric meyers to blog 2009 duke conference on archaeology, politics, and the media as an observer. even though my comments below are posted the monday after the conference ended, i recorded my comments as live notes, as one would live blog or twitter an event. my job was not to offer a polished report on the conference but rather to blog the sessions in a live manner. i’ve also added additional comments at places throughout.  -bc

Duke University Conference on

Archaeology, Politics, and the Media

April 23-24, 2009

The conference began with an introductory lecture by Eric Meyers and Michael J. Schoenfeld, Duke VP for Public Affairs and Gov’t Relations.

1:00 pm – 1:15 pm

Eric Meyers gave an introduction on the origin of the conference.

Meyers told the story of his first experience with archaeology and the media.

His discovery of an object in the Galilee was reported as: “Lost Ark Found in Wilderness of Galilee.”

His excavation’s “Sepphoris Mosaic” became the “Mona Lisa of the Middle East.”

Meyers told a brief history of the “James Ossuary,” and how Hershel Shanks, Simcha Jacobovich, and the ROM promoted and sponsored the James Ossuary exhibit in Toronto. SBL then held a special session on the James Ossuary.

Meyers concluded with the ongoing trial of Oded Golan, the power of the media, PR representatives, lawyers, the IAA, and others, and lamented the fact that these side-shows continue to take away from the work of reeal archaeology and archaeologists.

Michael Schoenfeld welcomed the attendees and gave an introduction to Duke. Schoenfeld provided reasons why he felt it was important that Duke University addressed issues of Archaeology, Politics, and the Media.


Joel Marcus, professor at Duke, introduced the first speaker, Byron McCane.

Byron McCane – Prof. of Religion and Chair at Wofford College.
“Scholars Behaving Badly: Sensationalism and Archaeology in the Media.”

McCane discussed the Talpiot Tomb’s discovery and subsequent media blitz.

Wed, Oct. 3, 1945 was the actual first media blitz of the Talpiot Tomb. McCane told it as if it were the introduction to the recent Jacobovichi/Cameron endeavor (which, of course, it was not).

Earlier, on Sept. 10, 1945 Sukenik, Nachman Avigad, Yigael Yadin, excavated the Talpiot tomb for the first time.

McCane then told the story of the original discovery of the “Jesus Tomb.” Although he initially saw the possibility of Christian discipleship, Sukenik gave several interviews explaining the nature of the discovery, tempered sensational news reports, and published a formal, peer-reviewed report to the academy, which was received negatively. Scholars responded to the publishing negatively, and Sukenik received the criticism without protest. That is, he behaved like a scholar should, and took the high road, accepting the judgment of his peers.

Prof. McCane lamented the growing trend to report any archaeology discovery as a sensational, straight-to-media promotion, without the consultation of the academy.

2004 – Cave of John the Baptist
2007 – Talpiot again
2007 – Netzer discovered the Tomb of Herod the Great
2009 – Easter, Who really killed Jesus, found the house of Caiaphas.

Spate of sensationalism is surely the fault of the media.

But, (!)

Most documentary makers are careful and responsible, although speaking to a popular audience.

They attempt to catch the eye, challenge the mind, and touch the heart.

The responsibility also lies with scholars.

We have been entrusted with great responsibility like tenure, and the opportunity to educate the public’s children.

The responsibility of the scholar on TV is not to use it as an opportunity to promote our own pet theories, but to provide an informed scholarly consensus, or bring about a sense of the academic debate.

“We should never present to the media any theory that has not already been published in a peer-review journal. Put frankly, if you can’t get it published in a peer-review journals like BASOR and JBL, then don’t say it in front of a camera when the little red light is on.”

McCane concluded by stating that sensationalism gives the public the impression that the Middle East is a place where religious battles can be fought and won, and takes away from what the Middle East might someday be.


Milton Moreland, Assoc. Prof of Religious Studies at Rhodes College
“Forged by a Genius: Scholarly Responses to History Channel Meets CSI”

Religiously-inspired video productions are incredibly popular in the US.

The Religion documentary has arguably replaced the book as the method of archaeological dissemination of information to the public.

Moreland did a study on the public reception of religious TV docs with his class and shared some of the results.

Biblical scholars and archaeologists need to take these documentaries VERY seriously.

Where inspiration once came from thousands of hours of scholarly work, the public now receives the bulk of its information about archaeology from film studios.

The archaeologists and biblical scholars MUST continue to engage the documentary industry to counter the sensational misinformation of the fringe, conspiracy-laden documentaries.

Moreland stated that there are no crises of faith in the archaeological record except those manufactured by the popular media.

How did we get from John Grierson to Simcha Jacobovichi? How did something so educational go so wrong?

Docs once had a high level of trust and an expectation of truth.

PBS/BBC – May have been boring, but were associated with truth.
Frontline – Investigative Documentaries became seekers of truth and chief debunker of fantastic stories.
Ken Burns – Provided a model for filmmakers for biblical documentary makers.

In a final proposal, Moreland suggested that we must treat doc filmmaking in the way we treat other scholarly print. We must respond in a formal and timely manner to the sensational claims of the doc filmmaker.

Cargill note:

  • The journey of documentaries into a lesser level of truth and more entertainment is tied to its association to reality TV. This is why History doesn’t show history shows anymore. History and Discovery show “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and “Axe Men,” and have changed their slogan to “History in the Making” in order to cash in on the reality TV craze. Note that the Emmy Award category is now “Reality/Documentary” – both of which are scripted for maximum entertainment, often at the expense of truth. By the way, that’s almost done and it’s about to change.


Christopher Rollston, Emmanuel School of Religion
“An Ancient Medium in the Modern Media: Stages of Semitic Inscriptions”

Rollston gave a paper that, in keeping with his style and traditional subject matter, was an erudite specialist paper on NWS epigraphy.

Rollston described the discovery of the Mesha Inscription and the media that surrounded it. He noted that there never has been any doubt about its authenticity.

Rollston suggested three categories of archaeological inscriptions:

1. Forgery
2. Apologetic Usage
3. Sober Reflections by Scholars

For the Jehoash Inscription, Rollston stated:

1. Forgery (by the public)
2. Genuine (only by non-epigraphers)
3. Sober Reflection (forgery)

Rollston spoke about Jacobovichi and the Talpiot Tomb sham.

Rollston called for “All hands on deck!” We need to address the documentary sensationalism put forth by filmmakers, and not think ourselves above it.

Regarding the Jezebel seal, Rollston believes it’s a forgery. For many previously published reasons, and reason that there is no (other) 9th century seal in Canaan.

Following the outline he provided, Rollston then dealt with sensationalism surrounding other epigraphic discoveries.

1. The Media at Sea Sans Compass
a. Jesus Family Tomb

2. All Trained, Restrained Hands on Deck: The Sagacity of Methodological Doubt and Field Expertise
a. Jezebel Seal
b. Goliath Inscription
c. Temeh Seal to Shlmt Seal
d. John the Baptist Cave: No Epigraphic Data
e. Pierced Messiah
f. Baruch Bulla

3. Recalibrate the Ship’s Rudder: A Case Study in Retraction
a. Ebla Tablets and the Cities of the Plain

4. Navigating for Placid Waters

Methodological Doubt must be our M.O.

Be suspicious comes from the antiquities market.


Jonathan Reed, Professor of Religion at University of LaVerne
“The Lure of Proof and the Legacy of Biblical Archaeology: Scholars and the Media”

Reed gave an excellent talk and accompanying powerpoint presentation on Pseudo science and Biblical Archaeology. He discussed his class that teaches critical method and historicity.

The lure of proof coupled with the lure of mammon drives much of popular media.


The Cardiff Giant – The petrified stone remains of a giant.
The Shroud of Turin –
Head of John the Baptist
Three Heads of the Magi
The Feather of the Holy Spirit
The Foreskin of Jesus (no image available)

The James Ossuary – there’s a sucker born every minute

How to create a sensationalistic (and profitable) claim:

Prey on the public’s thirst for proof
Use scholarly skepticism
There is money to be made
Use twists of logic
Make reason for doubt

Reed noted that archaeology is made to be the arbiter of faith and fact. Should this be the case?

Biblical pool (Silwan) found in Jerusalem.

The lag time between discovery and publication is suspect.

Public dissemination of the story and the earlier academic discussion are often disconnected.

The purpose of late (NT) archaeology is not to ‘prove’ the biblical narrative, but more to illuminate the social context of the world that produced the biblical narrative.

What should scholars do with regard to the media? Good teachers can use a stupid question to answer a rephrased form of that question and communicate a better bit of information, shedding light on the questions we should be asking.


Question and Answer Period

Is it better to anticipate in the media or to ignore and remain above the media?

Skepticism is growing. Skepticism follows sensationalism.

Today’s kids are more skeptical of things because we all know how to Photoshop, YouTube, blog, and manipulate the Internet (AND catch those that do it). Like a cat and mouse, the public (especially younger generations) are learning to be highly skeptical of sensational claims, and use the new set of research tools at their disposal to verify claims. This is why sensational archaeologists are making better use of websites, Wikipedia, and YouTube, to beat the scholars to the media.

Cargill notes:

  • We must engage the popular media.
  • Archaeologists must participate in these docs at the very least as debunkers and at best as authorities on the subject.
  • Archaeologists must form a consortium that offers some equivalent of a “seal of approval.”
  • There must be a group dedicated to discussing archaeology and the media. We have editorial boards for peer-review journals. Where is our editorial board for television production?
  • Likewise, the respected authorities/scholars within the field must embrace those bloggers and legit websites that are attempting to combat junk science by making guest posts on the sites.
  • It’s time to stop claiming that the academy is above television media. If we don’t speak to the public, they will.
  • One of us needs to get in, take root, and invite the others in.
  • Documentary filmmaking has merged with reality television. That means, the audience is getting younger. Thus, the more media savvy, younger generation of scholars will begin to get asked to participate. Where are they/we? Why am I the youngest person here?)
  • The other thing is that peer-review publication is the ‘radio’ of television media. That is, tv docs are always looking for people who are “camera friendly”. “Camera Friendly” can be defined as good looking, fit, or eccentric. Scholars need to do a better job of learning to speak and appear in ‘camera friendly’ ways, so that they will become more likely to be used on camera.

3:20-3:40 pm

Eric Cline, George Washington University
“Fabulous Finds and Fantastic Forgeries: The Distortion of Archaeology by the Media Pseudoarchaeology”

Cline began with a “study” that declared the types of breakfast cereals one eats influences the gender of children produced by the one eating the cereal. Even though the claim was later refuted by science, the legend remained.

The game is played by issuing a fantastic claim and couching it as possible.

When facts are later refuted, they are not as popular as the original fantastic claim.

We have already taken the first steps towards reclaiming the field archaeology from junk science and fantastic claims.

Cline suggests creating a “war room” to respond to junk science.

Cline used the example where he and Robert Cargill called out Randall Price and his search for Noah’s Ark on the ASOR website. He also noted his quick response to defend himself once he had been called out, showing that these junk scientists are using and monitoring the media and know of the power of legitimate scholars responding to them.

Cline noted that the AIA created a combat/refutation site.

Cline also described the Raphael/Norman Golb affair and their misuse of the Internet to promote marginal views of Norman Golb. He described how Robert Cargill used the Internet to track and ultimately expose the media campaign.

Cline suggested we should create something like a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for documentary makers.

Cline also suggested that ASOR should create a page for the media in which a list of specialists who are willing to appear on camera might appear.


Response by Joe Zias, Science and Archaeology Group

Zias discussed how this issue has been around since the 70’s with Erich von Däniken.

He also discussed how the media exploits religion and vice versa.

Zias described a story of how Hershel Shanks published an article about the James Ossuary, and told the real story behind the abuses of the ossuary and the media coverage of it.

During the discussion period, Eric Cline stated that 30 years ago, there were a few nuts and a few outlets. Today, there are more outlets (Internet) and therefore more nuts making unverified claims. The lure of an unknown amateur making a discovery missed by the professionals is appealing to the reality TV/American Idol public audience.

Robert Cargill asked whether this “crisis” is based upon this second American trend of self-publication? As newspapers fail and blogging increases, the definition of ‘credible’ resources is again in question. Credible scholars must embrace credible bloggers or create a central, authoritative one of their own.


Morag Kersel, University of Toronto
“The Power of the Press Release and Popular Magazines on the Antiquities Trade”

Kersel spoke about archaeology and the ethics of antiquities sales. She discussed the practice of looting and its relation to the antiquities market.

Kersel did original research in the form of interviews to determine how consumer demand drives antiquities dealers’ desire to acquire objects.

AAMD issued guidelines for press releases that limit publication of items after the 1970 threshold date to those that have a demonstrable history of ownership or context.

Archaeological context is not about history of ownership, but about actual in situ context. We need to wage a social war against those who advocate for the collection of antiquities. Only education as to the supply and demand of this trade will curb the desire to collect objects.


Response by Annabel Wharton, Duke University

Wharton agreed with Kersel and argued that dealers and collectors drive the market and harm archaeology and despoil it of its own history by removing it from its context.

As an example, Wharton shows the claims about the “Tomb of David” in Jerusalem.


Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“Confessions of an Archaeologist: Lessons I Learned from Talpiyot Tomb Fiasco and Other Media Encounters”

Magness told many stories about her participation in public documentaries.

People are most interested in issues of Egyptology (mummies, pyramids, etc.), and anything related to Jesus.

The web has blurred the lines between scholarly credibility and popular junk science.

It is impossible to explain in a 60-second sound bite why some archaeological claims are simply invalid. Sensationalist claims can be made in a moment. Disproving a claim scientifically takes more time, more effort, a more patient and understanding audience, and therefore are not usually as received as the initial claim.

Some filmmakers use their connections and capital to promote false claims, in spite of archaeologists counter claims. They do it knowingly for ratings.

Magness wished that ASOR, SBL, and the AIA had issued swift claims denouncing many of these false claims.

Archaeologists have a responsibility to communicate their findings to the public. This means that scholars need to learn to speak in sound bites and become more media savvy.


Response by Chad Spigel, Trinity University

Academics have had tremendous difficulty responding to and refuting sensationalist claims.

Are scholars offering the kind of expertise that the public thinks it is receiving?

Academics don’t always agree with each other, and history is always interpretation.

Irresponsible uses of the media can be used as teaching moments in the classroom.

Cargill notes:

  • The number one thing interviewers say to me is, “Can you say that again, but say it more definitively? You keep saying ‘It is possible’ or ‘some scholars believe’ before everything. Can you say it again and just say it factually?” The fact is that scholars can’t, because scholars live in a world of probability, doubt, and preponderance of evidence, while junk science and peddlers of sensationalism live in a world where any data is definitive, and any possibility, no matter how remote, is fodder for investigatory entertainment.


Mark Goodacre, Duke Professor of the NT

“The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers”

Dr. Goodacre talked about the role of blogging in the Talpiot Tomb affair.

Goodacre demonstrated the successes and failures of blogging in their role in countering the claims of the Jesus Tomb doc.

The key is a consistent presence, which builds trust and confidence in the source, as well as a presence within Internet searches.


Response by A.K.M. Adam, Duke University

Mark Goodacre’s “Talpiot mistakes” page is not as much of a failure as he thinks it is. Goodacre should be credited with an early and consistent voice against the Jacobovichi’s claims, as well as a platform for others to voice their concerns and opinions.

We need to learn to address other media outlets other than blogs.

We need to engage all forms of media and get ahead of the curve.

7:45 Plenary Session

Patty Gerstenblith, DePaul University; Director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law; President, Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
“Legal and Ethical Aspects of Cultural Heritage”

The earliest form of looting is the booty of war.

The French were required to return the plunder of war after the Napoleonic War.

Only about half of the objects were returned.

Leber Doctrine – Cultural objects captured during war were to be returned and not destroyed. First codified set of rules regarding artifacts.

1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict

Art. 3. Safeguard Cultural Property

Art. 4. Respect for Cultural Property

  • Section 1. The High Contracting Parties undertake to…
  • Section 2. The obligations mentioned in paragraph 1…may be waived only in cases where military necessity imperatively requires….

Art. 5. Occupation

  • Section 1. Any High Contracting Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory…

Art. 7. Military Measures

Hague Convention Blue Shield

First Protocol

  • Section 1. An occupying power should prevent export from occupied territory.

Second Protocol (1999)

Narrows “military necessity” waiver

Art. 9. Preserves cultural property

Status of the Hague Convention as of 2003

105 States Parties to main Convention
87 to First Protocol
U.S. had signed, but not ratified the treaty

Following WWII, the antiquities market surpassed war as the leading cause of looting.

Fakes and Looting became the two main ways to appease the demand for artifacts.

Market and looting encourage damage to artifacts. The mosaics in Northern Syria were given as an example.

Gerstenblith spoke of the story of the excavation:

Proliferation of Aramaic incantation bowls in Israel post-2003. Under the conventions, Israel should return the bowls (if proved to be authentic) to Iraq.

How did US military break the conventions?

Sites looted for objects are worse than looting the museum. Because in a museum, at least the objects are recorded.

Recent developments:

1970 UNESCO Convention ratifications: UK, Suisse, Germany, Belgium
1954 Hague Convention.
UK proposed ratification of convention
Germany implementing legislating
US ratification in 13 March, 2009.

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