Steven Ortiz (associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds and director of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) has an excellent chapter in the book, Buried Hope or Risen Savior? The Search for the Jesus Tomb, ed. Charles L. Quarles (B&H Academic, 2008), entitled, “The Use and Abuse of Archaeological Interpretation.” It’s worth keeping on hand for the next time you hear of some blockbuster archaeological discovery being touted in the media that overturns biblical truth or the majority opinion.
“The scripts for all of these amateur portrayals,” he writes, “are similar and follow the same basic 10 points”:
- The prevailing hypothesis affirmed by the consensus of the scholarly community is wrong.
- The “discoverer” is not a trained archaeologist but is self-taught, and he knows the “true story” that all others have overlooked.
- An expedition is planned for one season, and (lo and behold) at the first attempt they find exactly what they are looking for.
- This is all documented while a camera crew happens to be filming the discovery.
- The process is “detective work” that has been missed by the academic community, and they (amateur archaeologists) are the ones who are able to unravel the mystery or solve the problem that has perplexed the experts.
- No new date is presented, only a reworking of previously published data. A corollary is that not all the data is consulted.
- Upon the presentation of the discovery, the scholarly community scoffs at the find, and it is claimed that there is a secret monopoly by those in power to suppress the information.
- The amateurs sensationalize the “discovery” by claiming that it is so revolutionary that it will change our way or thinking and our lifestyle.
- The old “discovery” is presented to the media as a “brand-new” discovery.
- Usually a book or movie comes out within a week of the “new” discovery. (pp. 29-30)
Professor Ortiz was writing several years ago when James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici were making the rounds with their discovery of The Jesus Family Tomb. Fast-forward to 2012, and they’re back with a new discovery and a new book: The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity.
James Hoffmeier, a noted Egyptologist and archaeologist (and the co-editor of Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?), recently explained how serious (as opposed to sensationalist) archaeologists do their work:
As a field archaeologist I spent the past decade surveying and excavating in north Sinai (Egypt). I made some pretty significant discoveries, but never did I speak to a western reporter, nor did any attention-grabbing headline appear like “Egyptian Fort from Exodus Period Discovered!” It is normal practice for archaeologists who make significant discoveries to first present their finds at professional conferences where other experts can evaluate their discovery and their interpretation of it. Then a preliminary report is written which is submitted to a peer review journal in the relevant field where it is fully vetted by two or three authorities (I have been a referee for several academic journals).
At this stage, provisional interpretations are cautiously offered. Finally, after more time is given to complete the excavations, study and evaluate the finds by specialists, the final scientific report is published with all the data reproduced for all to see. This careful and deliberative process is how serious archaeological discoveries are handled before going public and popularizing the results. This time-honored process is even more critical when matters related to the Bible are involved because much is at stake.
When an archaeologist makes an end run around their professional colleagues and goes directly to the press, we naturally have to ask “why”? Tabor and Jacobovici evidently do not want to be scrutinized and their views challenged before publishing their popular book. By going to the press and the public with a splashy news conference, sales of their book will skyrocket. Academic books don’t sell; popular ones that are slickly promoted with sensational titles do. This approach is not the one taken, however, by serious, objective scholars.