Crucifixion nails, Noah’s Ark, and the Jesus Tomb: how should we respond to sensational archaeological claims?

Every few years, it seems, a spectacular Bible-related archaeological claim catches media attention. Such claims dominate news websites for a few weeks and then tend to fade quickly from public attention, revealed as fakes—or at the very least shown to be less compelling than originally claimed. In recent years we’ve seen flurries of hype and interest over the Jesus tomb and Noah’s Ark. The latest claim—suspiciously timed for Easter—is by a journalist who claims to have (maybe) found the nails used to crucify Jesus.

You don’t have to read very far down that Time article to realize that this is less spectacular than the hype suggests; even the journalist making the claim admits that it’s a possibility, not a certainty. Not knowing anything more about this particular claim, I won’t comment on its merits, but this seems a good opportunity to talk about how to approach sensational claims like this.

It’s understandable that Bible readers and believers would be excited at the discovery of a possible artifact mentioned in the text of Scripture. (And by contrast, an atheist might be excited by an archaeological find that appears to contradict the Bible.) But how can we—most of us not archaeologists, and only dimly aware of the scholarship and context behind archaeological claims—evaluate these claims? Here are a few thoughts to consider.

2000+ years is a very long time for an artifact to have survived. While it’s certainly not impossible for artifacts like nails or pottery or a piece of architecture to survive through history, it’s statistically unlikely that a specific artifact would survive without some kind of special preservation—especially when the artifact in question is something easily destructible. 2,000 years is also a very long time for an artifact to have gone undiscovered, given that there were organized “relic hunting” expeditions in the Holy Land as early as the fourth century.

Many of the “artifacts” mentioned in the Bible were everyday items. Consider the significant objects mentioned in the Easter account: wood and nails (from the cross), cloth (from Jesus’ burial), a tomb. When we find an ancient example of one of these objects, it’s understandably tempting to link them to the ones specifically mentioned in the Bible… but remember that were were a lot of pieces of wood, nails, cloth, and tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

Who is making the archaeological claim? Is the claim made by a respected archaeologist working with a team, within the accountability of a peer network? A theologian? A tourist? We should never assume that only “professionals” can make a valuable archaeological find or that claims made by professionals are always correct, but it’s helpful to ask what sort of background gives the claimant the ability to make reliable archaeological claims, and if s/he is accountable to peers or an organization that support and evaluate their claims.

Archaeology rarely looks like Indiana Jones. Archaeology has helped us understand much about the Biblical world, but much of that knowledge is derived from long, painstaking, even “boring” practices like the study of pottery distribution and the excavation of very non-spectacular sites and buildings. These have taught us much about how people lived in ancient times. It’s rare that somebody stumbles out of the blue upon a spectacular artifact or other find without years of hard work and research.

Artifacts won’t “prove” the Bible or Christianity. The discovery of genuine artifacts from Bible times can corroborate Bible stories and lend credibility to Scripture. But Biblical artifacts are less “spiritually” significant than you might think at first. For example, what artifact might indisputably prove the resurrection of Jesus? One can imagine artifacts that would cause skeptics to consider the Bible’s claims more seriously, but it’s harder to think of one that would prove Christianity’s theological claims. (And see also the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus for its observation about proof and the unbelieving mind.) This shouldn’t discourage us from looking for Biblical discoveries or from welcoming them when they appear, but Christianity and belief in the Bible remain acts of faith—reasonable faith, to be sure; but still faith.

These are some of the criteria I use to evaluate Biblical archaeology claims that sound too good to be true. We shouldn’t automatically dismiss claims that contrast with these points, but if a claim clashes with more than a few of them, skepticism is warranted. It is certain that important Bible artifacts exist and will continue to be found; but it’s wise to ask careful questions before accepting sensational claims.

What would you add to my list above?

Related posts:

  1. Why Jesus’ parables stand out

Posted by Andy

Filed under Archaeology, Easter, History