Newsweek: Amid war and looting, the Bible is being uncovered

The first paragraph in this week's Newsweek cover story did not portend well for the rest of the package. In "Unearthing the Bible," Melinda Liu and Christopher Dickey begin:

What there was in the beginning, in the world of the Bible, is what there was in the land now called Iraq. There is nothing left of the Garden of Eden, no artifact at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where myth has placed the Temptation and the Fall.

Using the loaded word myth is a sure way to alienate a huge part of Newsweek's readership. And readers are going to get exactly the wrong idea about what the Bible says. Here's Genesis:

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

No one across the spectrum of Genesis interpretations argues that the biblical garden of Eden actually existed at today's confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—the geography just doesn't match, even if two of the names do. Even six-day creationists point to the description of four rivers and say there's no way we'll ever know where the Garden was. (They add that Noah's flood wiped away all traces.) So if tradition puts the Garden at a specific place in Iraq, that is indeed extrabiblical. But Newsweek readers may think the "myth" being referred to is the Genesis account, not local tradition.

The rest of the Newsweek cover package is actually pretty good, even if most of it is old hat for CT readers. What's biblical archaeology for? Do recent findings prove or disprove the Bible? Is there a trustworthy middle ground between those who say the absence of proof is the proof of absence and those who claim that practically every stone in the Middle East cries out to prove the biblical record? Can we trust recent archaeological discoveries tied to the life of Christ? Can we trust their detractors? We talk about it every few years—and indeed, it's a conversation worth repetition—with the details changing slightly.

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Newsweek says archaeology "is taking on new urgency," under threat from violence (both in Iraq and Israel) and looters. Archaeologists have had to massively scale back their work, since they and their institutions aren't thrilled with the idea of digging through gunfire and kidnappings. But the longer we wait, says Newsweek, the more we lose:

For believers contemplating the rise of the looters, lines from the Revelation of Saint John the Divine may come to mind: "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen." For archeologists, for the faithful, for all of us, the loss of this past impoverishes the future. Ripping artifacts from their contexts takes away the last chance we have to know those civilizations—from the world of Abraham to that of Nebuchadnezzar—that gave us our own.

Of course, looting historical sites and robbing graves is as old as antiquity itself. And, as Newsweek notes, dubious relics associated with the life of Christ date back at least to the fourth-century life of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. (An old joke says that she's the world's most successful archaeologist—she found everything she was looking for, including the True Cross and Jesus' tomb.)

The real newsy news that one might have expected Newsweek to hang its story on, of course, is Shimon Gibson's claim that he discovered a cave where John performed baptisms. Maybe Newsweek backed off from making the cave too big a part of the story after discovering that "few of [Gibson's] colleagues, even the few who have seen the cave, go along with him." One is quoted as saying, "It's pure fiction. It's not archeology."

In the larger of the two articles, writers Jerry Adler and Anne Underwood note that Scripture repeatedly puts John's baptisms in the Jordan River, never mentioning a cave. "And there is little more than conjecture," they write, "for a scenario sketched in Gibson's book by which John 'might very well have sent Jesus intentionally to visit the scene of his early baptism activities … and our [Tzuba] was just that place.'"

Weblog was earlier somewhat skeptical of Gibson's claims, quoting a few media references to his partner, University of North Carolina's James Tabor. The CBC, for example, had him saying that there's no proof John used the cave.

Last week, Tabor took issue with Weblog's summary. Here's his letter in full:

I thought the sarcastic and cavalier tone of your Weblog entry re: the discovery of the John the Baptist cave was really out of place.
There is no reason to take such an approach and it does your readers a disservice. Gibson is a serious archaeologist, one of the best in the business, and he painstakingly argues in his book the reasons the 1st century pottery evidence and other finds in the cave point in the direction of his hypothesis.
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And why poke fun at him for finding the only Jewish first century burial shroud ever discovered? My University had it C-14 dated. It seems the author of your Weblog would be glad to see such valuable material evidence turning up, whether Gibson found it or someone else. That we began to dig the cave in 2000 and only now are publishing the preliminary findings is standard procedure in the business. In fact, publishing within a year of finishing a dig is kind of a record, often it is more than a decade after!
Gibson should be congratulated for his efforts. Obviously the author had not bothered to even look at the book or evaluate any of the arguments or the evidence. Our scholarly academic volume will be out next year published by the Israel Exploration Society, the most prestigious venue in Israel for archaeological publishing. The entire piece was substandard for your magazine, to which I am a subscriber. I see no justification for it at all.

Weblog did say that Gibson is a serious archaeologist and didn't mock his earlier findings. The point was simply that media coverage over the first few days largely accepted the notion that the cave belonged to John the Baptist himself. Amid the ongoing controversy over the James ossuary, however, a healthy amount of skepticism—though not scorn—is in order. In that sense, Newsweek's cover package gets it right: The question isn't whether we have an authentic biblical relic, it's what archaeological finds can tell us about the past. John the Baptist's cave makes headlines and draws pilgrims, but even if it's only valuable for what it tells us about the Byzantine monks who scrawled on the cave walls, it's very valuable indeed.

If you're really curious about the cave, be sure to eavesdrop on the informal conversations among scholars at the Ancient Near East mailing list. For constant news updates on this and similar finds, bookmark the NT Gateway blog (which links to related blogs) and The Bible and Interpretation news area.

Deal Hudson speaks

Deal Hudson speaks
Aside from a Beliefnet article over the weekend, the National Catholic Reporter's article about Bush adviser and Crisis editor Deal Hudson has completely fallen off the radar. (Weblog thinks reporters are ignoring it just to see if The Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet merely starts walking the streets of New York in a sandwich board, or if he turns apoplectically into The Hulk, pummeling reporters who haven't followed up on the story.) Most of the blogs Weblog mentioned on Friday have by now said something about the story (one just to say that it's not going to say much about the story). But two developments are worth noting. One is Hudson's response to the Reporter article. The most noteworthy paragraphs:

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Ten years ago, I committed a serious sin with an undergraduate student of mine while teaching at Fordham University. For this I am truly and deeply sorry. I have confessed this and asked for forgiveness, my family has worked through it, and time has passed. But I know this is news to you, and so I offer my sincerest apologies. I recognize that I have let countless people down and have brought scandal to myself, my family, and my Faith. For this, I beg your forgiveness.
Some may wonder why I speak of the event in a way that seems vague or abstract. Please don't mistake this for lack of shame, regret, or repentance. The simple fact is, I can't say any more about it. Ten years ago, I signed a confidentiality agreement, and so I'm seriously constrained in what I can say. I know this is frustrating for you, and so that's one more thing I apologize for.

The second development is the response of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, whom Weblog earlier noted had potential to benefit from Hudson's resignation from the Bush campaign. Scratch that. After Thursday, the only people interested in tying those two guys together are those who don't like either one. That's because of Donohue's Thursday press release calling Hudson's undergraduate student "a drunk."

"One thing you've got to say about the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: It'll never be known as the Catholic League for Chivalry Toward Women," says Beliefnet blogger Charlotte Hays. "To smear this woman is inexcusable and I can't believe further dishonorable behavior is what is needed in this sad situation."

The Catholic League wisely removed the press release from their site, but given Hudson's recent statement, it seems that a full apology would be much wiser. In any case, Donohue just made a good case for why he worked in obscurity for so long.

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Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
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