Sunday, October 18, 2009

Updated: Taking On Bad Biblical Archaeology.

This post was originally published on September 29th. See updated portion at the bottom.

An interesting little story has caused a stir in certain circles of the interwebs. An Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, allegedly published a report that archaeologists have discovered Egyptian coins bearing the likeness of the biblical Joseph (photographed above in his traditional technicolor dreamcoat).

I say allegedly, because unless you live in Egypt and can read Arabic, there's no primary source for this report. Instead, it comes to us translated via the Middle East Media Research Institute (or MEMRI) and has since been picked up by various Arab and Israeli news organizations and right-wing wack-job American bloggers. Meanwhile, the story has not been picked up by any reputable archaeology publication, the New York Times, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, or even Fox News.

According to the report, a group of researchers discovered the coins . . . wait for it . . . in the museum's vault. No word yet on where they really originated. Interestingly, while some American readers are fixating on the Joseph-ness of the coins (claiming them to be proof of the Bible's historical reliability), this was not the focus of the article. In fact, the article takes for granted Joseph's existence, focusing instead on the fact that the find proves that coinage was in use during Joseph's life, a time thought to be dominated by bartering.

Now, I love these kinds of stories because I find biblical archaeology exciting, but it doesn't take a scholar to see the numerous problems with this report. (Before I go any further with this, I'd like to point out that while seeking additional sources for this blog, I stumbled upon this wonderful blog entry by Todd Bolen, a biblical literalist who has dismissed this report using many of the same arguments I'll make here).

The first problem with the report is bad journalism. No dates are given (neither for the age of the coins, nor for the time of their actual discovery), and there's only one source for the story, a Dr. Sa'id Muhammad Thabet, the head of the research project that claims to have found the coins. Also, there's no clear photographs of the coins in question.

In addition to these critiques of the original Al-Ahram story, one should also consider the reliability of the source for the English translation. Of MEMRI, the UK Guardian's Middle East editor Brian Whitaker has said, "it poses as a research institute when it's basically a propaganda operation" and has accused the organization's co-founder Meyrav Wurmser of extreme Zionism.

The second problem with the report is that Dr. Sa'id Muhammad Thabet appears to have used the Koran to authentic the claims of his find. "This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt," says the report, while no mention is made of scientific testing of the materials and only vague mentions are made of non-Koranic writings.

The third problem, already hinted at, is that the report itself is just generally vague and absent of hard facts. Here I'll lift directly from Todd Bolen's response on his blog:
A statement like this: “Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt.” There is no time (singular) when scholars believed Joseph lived. There are various theories about when he lived. No credible source would make this statement without a discussion of when the “coins” date to and how we now know when Joseph lived.
I would only go further in pointing out that, to date, there is absolutely no archeological or historical evidence outside of Hebrew scripture (or the Koran) that Joseph ever existed as a real person. Not saying he didn't, only that we have no evidence.

And most suspect of all is where the report originated. As I already mentioned, the only media outlets to carry this story have been organizations for which it serves an agenda. No mainstream media or scholarly journals have reported on this supposed find. In response to this criticism, some may claim media blackout, that liberal atheists don't want the truth to get out. To this I have two retorts: 1.) Where's Fox News? Surely, their audience would eat this up. 2.) Does anybody remember the Jesus Family Burial Box?

The alleged discovery in 2002 of a burial box belonging to Jesus' brother became an absolute media sensation. Every news outlet carried the story, and it sparked numerous documentary specials and programs. The inscriptions on the box were later found to be a hoax, but there's no question that biblical archaeology makes great headlines, and the mainstream media isn't going to sit on a story that validates the existence of one of the great popular heroes of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths.

This would have been one hell of a story if it were real, but it's not. It is sad to see people so easily duped by their own need to find evidence for their beliefs.

Update, October 18:

Finally, some experts are weighing in on this story, validating my view from the beginning. Here are responses from Beliefnet, the Baptist Press, and World Coin News. Turns out there's no basis for believing the objects pictured below are coins at all, and they present no evidence of being associated with the biblical Joseph.
“The items appear to be scarabs or scaraboids,” said David Hendin of New York, an expert in ancient Judaean coins. “Sometimes archaeologists are under pressure to ‘discover’ something and get publicity to justify the funds they have spent on an excavation, but this one is so far off the wall, and supplies no relevant facts, that it is hard to evaluate."

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