Ancient Artifacts Subjected to Sacred Spin

[I first posted this lengthy review on my MySpace blog last year.]

I recently went to see an exhibition billed as "Ancient Treasures of the Holy Land" housed in the Embarcadero Building at Fair Park of Dallas. Fair Park has some fine museums, but the Embarcadero Building isn't one of them; it's just a general-purpose building with lots of space, usually given over to agricultural exhibits during the State Fair of Texas or various attractions during the North Texas IrishFest. However, because of the other museums at Fair Park, I assumed that this exhibition was tied to one of them.

I should have known better than to assume. Despite the red flag of the location, as well as that raised by the religious phrasing in the title, I expected it to be an archaeological exhibition. And, largely, it was -- but not of a properly scientific sort. Instead, the show consisted of strictly Biblical apologetics with the extremely superficial apparent support of archaeology -- superficial to the point of meaninglessness.

I think that a moment of full disclosure is called for here. I grew up in Dallas, which is a definite candidate for the Buckle on the Bible Belt. I was raised Methodist, participating in a church choir and youth group for about 7 years through my teens, and I also attended Sunday school classes regularly for about 7 years in my 30s at my late companion's fundamentalist Bible church. Though I am no expert, I am hardly unacquainted with the contents of the Bible. However, I have leaned toward agnosticism for as long as I can remember (since long before I even knew the word for it); even as a child, I thought of it as a storybook and I was truly appalled when I discovered that many people (including many supposedly intelligent adults!) believed everything in it as literal truth. The more I learned about the Bible, the less believable it became. I have identified myself for many years now as an agnostic with atheist leanings, and lately have settled on just "agnostic atheist." So now you know the point of view from which I experienced this exhibition.

Bait and Switch?

The banner in front of the Embarcadero Building said "Ancient Treasures of the Holy Land," just as advertised. But, confusingly, once inside the place, I never saw that title again. In its place was another name, more blatantly biblical: "From Abraham to Jesus." This was the title that appeared on all of the exhibition-related merchandise (books, posters, videos, souvenirs, and even many of the actual exhibition materials). At this point I saw that this was definitely going to be religiously oriented. [It was also at this point that I asked my friend who told me about this exhibit where she heard about it. Her answer? "It was advertised on flyers at church. But I didn't know it was going to be religious." (*facepalm*)]

I have since learned through some online research that this exhibition originally opened as "From Abraham to Jesus" in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 2006 to kick off a tour of 28 cities in the U.S. (supposedly through December 2008), but the original website for it said only that the exhibition had now changed hands and was no longer touring after all. Another article I came across mentioned that Dallas was being considered as a permanent home for it, so I'm guessing that this was either a trial run for that consideration or a temporary showing in its new city of residence until permanent housing is found for it. I doubt that the Embarcadero Building will be its permanent home; that venue has to serve other duties, especially during the State Fair of Texas.

But, anyway, I was with friends who had been looking forward to this for weeks, and I was already there and committed to the time anyhow, so I figured I might as well give the place a chance. Besides, I had already bought the ticket (but at least I got it at a good discount, only $10 rather than the full price of $17).

"Besides," I thought, "the exhibition has to have some archaeology to it, right? That's science-supported history, isn't it?" (Ah, hope springs eternal!) Well, yes, but the conclusions being drawn from that science were what the exhibition was really about, and they were invariably spun as support for the Bible, whether through stunning mundanity or absurd overreaching. (More about that later.) Meanwhile, any context, or any coherent or interesting science or history that actually leaked through, was almost incidental. No methodology was mentioned; no alternative theories were described; no diversity of opinions or disagreement among experts was given, or even acknowledged. The exhibit did at least provide a number of archaeological artifacts for viewing (though some were only replicas). However, for the conclusions being drawn from them, the only corroboration or context provided for them was the Bible -- but that context was provided relentlessly, and sometimes even quite pointlessly.

Style Over Substance

Materially, much of the show appeared very professionally made, such as the production values of the opening film and the ubiquitous full-size statues decorating the exhibition (not ancient statues, but plaster statues created to dress up the exhibit). The statues even greatly outnumbered the artifact pedestals, depicting human and animal figures to evoke biblical scenes, many set up to admittedly excellent artistic effect -- Roman soldiers, shepherds with sheep, that sort of thing -- which would have been much more admirable if they were not being put so blatantly to the purpose, not of enhancing scientific or historical context, but of evoking emotionally charged biblical imagery. Religious groups clearly have learned the value of form over substance in getting their message across: The more professionally produced something seems, the more people are likely to take it seriously, even when the actual information content is completely spurious, or even altogether absent. This exhibition wasn't nearly as egregious an example of this sort of thing as the Creation "Museum" recently opened near Cincinnatti, but it made a solid example nonetheless.

To start with, the exhibit had an introductory film on continuous loop, narrated (always off camera) by some guy with mellow but resonant vocal tones, rather reminiscent of Charlton Heston. (I am sure that was no accident.) We came in somewhere in the middle of the production and settled down to learn from the narrator how to operate our headsets, which would provide audio information to supplement the signs throughout the exhibition. The narrator's comments hinted that he was an archaeologist, and there was some reference to visiting with his granddaughter that, for the time being, confused me; but, after all, we had come in in the middle, so I waited to learn the backstory later.

Then the loop took the introductory film back to its beginning, and we got a more complete idea of what we were dealing with, starting with seeing that actual title for the exhibition: "From Abraham to Jesus." In waxing eloquent over the Middle East, the narrator spoke of it giving rise to "the world's TWO great religions, Judaism and Christianity" (my emphasis). Islam, which is descended from Christianity itself, worships the same deity, rivals it in number of followers (and vastly exceeds those of Judaism), and was also born in the same general region, but the film ignored it completely! In fact, the entire exhibition scrupulously avoided any mention of Islam at all; at least, if it ever was mentioned, I never saw or heard it. (It's possible that it came up at some point on the headset, since I didn't play all of the tracks on it.) The show also thus stiffed the world's "great religions" unrelated to Judaism and Christianity. Hinduism, for example, is the third largest faith after Christianity and Islam, even older than Judaism and practiced by approximately 60 times as many people worldwide. So what makes Judaism one of "the world's TWO great religions" along with Christianity, but not Islam or Hinduism? Purely subjective value judgment, that's what -- and, perhaps, a little biblical solidarity.

Of course, an exhibition must have a certain focus, and there is no need to get into Islam, Hinduism, or any other religion for the parameters and objectives of this one: To explore (or, rather, promote) biblical historicity as supported by archaeology. Since Hinduism does not intersect with the Bible at all, and Islam did not start until well after the period covered by the Bible, these could be considered nonissues, and they might have remained such if the script had been more carefully crafted -- but that crack about Judaism and Christianity being "the world's TWO great religions" betrays the emptiness of that potential dodge. It says nothing against Islam at all, nor against any other faith -- yet after that extreme claim for just those two, its very silence toward the rest conveys towering arrogance. So, by a mere choice of words, the film revealed a huge bias for this exhibition. Its message was clear: that the Bible is the only religious text of consequence. This isn't a message for a scientific or historical exhibition; this is pure proselytization.

Yet another interesting feature of this introductory film was that the narrator introduced himself as an archaeologist who makes his home in Israel, while clearly using a standard-issue Columbia-School-of-Broadcasting-style Midwestern-America accent. This isn't conclusively fraudulent, of course, but it immediately prompted thoughts in my head of the guy in a commercial who is wearing a lab coat and says, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" -- only this film was being presented in a documentary style, as if it were part of a genuinely true production. Somebody once coined the term "truthiness" to refer to this sort of dishonest ploy, blurring the line between fact and presentation, in which something doesn't have to actually BE true, but just has to SOUND true (at least to someone too naïve or ignorant to know better). This was a splendid example of "truthiness," and a huge strike against its credibility.

But the final straw that broke the back of the film's (and, by extension, the exhibition's) waning credibility came when the off-camera narrator introduced himself as "Daniel" -- first name only, with no further elaboration ever. Not "Doctor Daniel Smith of the Whatchamacallit Archaeological Institute of the University of Whatever," nor "Reverend Daniel Johnson of the Committee for Biblical Apologetics at the Whosits Evangelical Association," nor even "Daniel Jones, your narrator for this exhibition," which would have been only basic honest disclosure and an appropriate establishment of credentials. Nope, none of that -- just "Daniel." But he's "an archaeologist who makes his home in Israel," so you can trust him to know what he's talking about when he discusses the archaeological significance of artifacts with respect to the Bible, right? Riiiiiiight. If you believe that, I have an ancient bridge in Israel I'd love to sell you. Still, I was stuck here for the time being, so I decided to check my indignation at the door and make the best of it, and see just how amusing this whole affair could get. (Answer: A lot!)

Alas, Babble On....

After the introductory film, I clicked on the headset, and I thus soon found out why the visiting granddaughter had been mentioned. Her name, by the way, was given as "Rachel" (is anyone else picking up on a theme here?), and she was ostensibly a college student visiting her grandfather, the archaeologist "Daniel" (who, by the way, was voiced by a noticeably different narrator from the one in the film, so that was yet further confirmation of "Daniel's" bogus identity and credentials). As we walked through the exhibition, by clicking on the headset, we were to be treated to a series of conversations between them in which "Daniel" explained the nature of the exhibits to "Rachel," largely responding to her (obviously scripted) questions. Again, no complete names were given, and their simplistic comments and clearly enunciated speech styles made it abundantly clear that this whole "conversation" was scripted about as naturally and believably as the banter between characters in a children's show. It was aimed at about that level of intelligence and sophistication, too, except for the unavoidable multisyllabic words.

One of the first few items that we came to in the exhibition, admittedly intriguing, was a replica supposedly of a bas-relief allegedly depicting Jews in captivity in Babylon. The headset conversation indicated that it was a unique depiction of such because of the Jewish rule against making "graven images"; it supposedly was commissioned by the Babylonian ruler of the time. (Pity I didn't have a way to take notes at the time, though; I would have liked to remember this better so I could look it up for more information.) The fact that it was a replica detracted from its authority, of course, but it certainly looked appropriate in style, coloration, and sense of art -- at least from my view as a total nonexpert. It was also rather large, about 10 feet wide and 5 feet tall. It was a fine piece, and I wished I could have seen the original -- and gotten some interpretation of it that was more trustworthy. What we were told may well have been completely true, but after the foundation of credibility we had been given, there was no reason to trust a word.

Approximately the fifth item I came to in the maze of the exhibition seemed completely out of place. It was a flat-screen TV with a constantly looping CGI presentation of the Solar System, starting from the sun and working outward, planet by planet from Mercury to Pluto, and then starting over again. It didn't have a thing to do with archaeology, but I enjoyed staring at it for a while just the same; it was beautifully done, very colorful and bright, and I have always been crazy about planetary astronomy, so I was enjoying what I consider major eye candy. I'm sorry to say that I can't recall what the accompanying sign said, if anything, but the headset entry for this particular exhibit had a lot to say.

Unfortunately, none of what it had to say was the least bit relevant.

The narrator (without "Rachel" this time) started reciting the Book of Genesis, reading through something like two full chapters of it while I watched the planets whiz by. I kept waiting, with increasing impatience, for "Daniel" to come to some kind of a point, perhaps making some kind of lame attempt to link the story of the Creation to any sort of scientific discoveries about the Solar System or its formation, however contrived (or even untrue) they might be.

But the presentation never even bothered to do any such thing. It even proceeded to segue from the biblical narration directly into some modern Christian pop-hymn, never making any point at all! The silliness and transparency of it all was just too much. It was at this juncture that I gave up on the headset altogether. Bad enough that the "extra information" (what little there was of it) about the exhibits was being presented in so inane a fashion in those cheesy faux conversations -- but if the headset was also going to be used at times to simply preach at me without even the vaguest pretense of giving me any supplementary exhibit information, that was going too far, and I refused to give it any further opportunities to annoy me. I had come for an archaeological exhibition, not a Sunday school lesson -- which is all that this was rapidly turning out to be.

Illogical Conclusions

As I wandered further through the meandering maze of the exhibition, a pattern emerged. The majority of the items being exhibited were common, everyday items from antiquity: tools, coins, weapons, clay idols, pottery vessels. Such presentations were almost invariably accompanied by Bible verses making mention of such objects. The consistent and highly fallacious inference being drawn was that because these things are mentioned in the Bible, and archaeologists have found them to have been in use in some of the regions and periods the Bible describes, the Bible is thus a true historical document in all that it mentions, as supported by archaeology.

This, however, is the height of absurdity. It makes just as much sense to claim that the movie Pirates of the Caribbean is a factual documentary. Rum was real, ships were real, swords were real, pirates were real, gold was real, the Caribbean Sea was real; therefore, the curse of undeath laid upon a hoard of Aztec gold did truly cause great distress to a crew of actual mutinous pirates of the ship Black Pearl, as well as Captain Jack Sparrow and other people who became bound up with their fate. The "logic" that supports reaching such a conclusion is exactly the same as claiming that the finding of ancient coins, tools, and pottery being used for normal, mundane purposes supports the tales of Moses parting a sea and Jesus walking on one. They could take a lesson from literary study: There's a big difference between minor setting details and major plot elements.

The same holds true of fairy tales generally. Just because brooms, pumpkins, mice, lizards, dresses, and shoes exist doesn't mean that Cinderella really lived. Just because straw, gold, and spinning wheels are real doesn't mean that a magical dwarf named Rumpelstiltskin ever existed. So for the exhibition to trot out this laundry list of common items means nothing with respect to the claim that the Bible is historically accurate in terms of the events it describes, or that the supernatural claims for any of its characters have merit. All it means is that the books of the Bible were written by people living approximately in that culture, place, and time (or only up to a few generations afterward), or at least familiar with its trappings, which to my knowledge has never been disputed (well, except for Genesis, of course). We do the same with fictional stories we write set in our world today, filling them with references to the artifacts in our world, from clothes to cars to computers. All that does is help to determine the state of the culture in which they were written -- not the truth or falsity of the stories being told.

One instance of overreaching for a particular conclusion, however, came with one of the more interesting artifacts presented: a stone ossuary (bone box) with an inscription that reportedly identified the contents as "Alexander, son of Simon." The sign with this exhibit stated that this ossuary inscription "most likely" refers to Simon of Cyrene (the man grabbed from the crowd to carry Jesus' cross for a while), whom the Bible says had sons named Alexander and Rufus. The existence of the box, with its inscription, thus is supposedly proof that this box must have held the bones of that Alexander whose father was that Simon whom the Bible tells of carrying the cross.

However, the box inscription makes no mention of Cyrene; the only thing for us to go on here is the father-son relationship of two people named Simon and Alexander, respectively. Considering the scopes of time and region being considered, that likelihood is extremely questionable. The names Simon and Alexander were quite common, and Jerusalem was a major city. (I don't even recall whether the sign said that the ossuary came from Jerusalem; I'm just giving them that much as an assumption here. I could be wrong.) For comparison, my father's name is Will, and my name is David. If you did a search of the Dallas area, you'd probably find a hundred father-son pairs with the respective names of Will and David. And that's just for right now; the issue multiplies greatly when you consider that the time frame involved, from an archaeological perspective, is a much longer period, at least several generations. Even allowing for smaller (but faster-breeding) populations in antiquity, there is simply no justification at all for this particular claim in support of biblical historicity. In other words, it is "most likely" pure coincidence.

It's a pity that so much was made of this; the ossuary is genuinely interesting in its own right for archaeological reasons without it being hijacked as purported "evidence" in support of some ancient legend. If some further evidence were available that helped to corroborate the claim, then maybe it might be worth considering. Some ancient legends do have some basis in fact; that's how Heinrich Schliemann was able to use The Iliad to discover the site of Troy. Yet you'll notice that nobody is trying to claim this as evidence that the Greek gods were real! Even if this ossuary somehow definitively established the crucifixion of Jesus as a historical fact (and there's no way it could do that much all by itself), it still would not support one iota of the supernatural claims made for him. And until something else besides the Bible adds to the information about it (such as this ossuary is being misinterpreted to do), even the crucifixion is still only an unsupported if plausible contention, and the biblical Simon of Cyrene remains only a minor character in another old myth.

Abuse of Artifacts

My experience with the exhibition, therefore, didn't tell me much about ancient Israel, but it told me a lot about its creators and handlers. At best, they are seriously naïve, unacquainted with logic or critical thinking (or at least with applying it to anything in their religion), and concerned only with spreading/celebrating the gospel, not with the actual factual archaeological details they claim as its support. At worst, they might even be deliberate liars, frauds, and con artists, fully aware of the travesties of illogic they are perpetrating to commit what is close to being a pious scam, just to bilk the faithful. My thinking is that they actually fall somewhere in between the two extremes, but even the "good" extreme is rather pathetic and disingenuous.

The exhibition closed a few days after I viewed it; I do not know when or where it will be displayed next, though I expect that it will be put on display somewhere, sometime. But I want you to know that I not only do not recommend this exhibition as it is, but I heartily recommend that it be dismantled and the component pieces donated to a real museum (or museums), where they can be studied by real archaeologists -- who have full names, real degrees, and affiliations with institutions of higher learning -- as well as appreciated by the public for what they really are, not just for an ideology they can be packaged to try to sell. That would be a far more honest and worthy use for these "ancient treasures."


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