Now that Hans Solo is back on the pop culture radar….
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is one my favorite movies of all time. Harrison Ford, elsewhere known as Hans Solo, played this iconic, adventurous character, looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Who knew that Bible archaeology could be such fun?
Let us explore how the Bible and archaeological adventures connect, and find out…
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took the mega-popular Hans Solo character of Star Wars, and put him back on earth in the 1930s, as one Indiana Jones. One of my favorite scenes shows this studious looking archaeology professor talking about the Ark of the Covenant, the great chest of the Old Testament that stored the Ten Commandments, that went missing sometime during Israel’s ancient history. Within minutes after this scene, our Indiana Jones would be traveling the world, fedora hat on head, with bullwhip in hand, chasing trucks, trying to beat the Nazis to recover the missing Ark of the Covenant.
Adventure movies aside, Christians have historically taken a great interest in the archaeology of the Bible. Digging up artifacts in the ground, or otherwise exotic places, that could help to prove the Bible, is very attractive, in that it promises to add confidence to the faith of the believer. If the Ark of the Covenant were to be found, it would help to demonstrate that the Bible really is true, after all… and silence those who make mockery of the Christian faith.
Perhaps the first Indiana Jones-style archaeologist was Helen, the fourth century mother of the Roman emperor, Constantine. She had no leather jacket, no satchel bag over the shoulder, but she was a dedicated believer in Christ on a quest for truth. Helen led expeditions to the Holy Land, to re-discover many of the places mentioned in the Bible. Reportedly, the pagans had obscured a number of the ancient sites, with their pagan temples built over them, as a means of discouraging Christians from making pilgrimages to such places. According to the Roman Christian historian Eusebius, Helen demolished a temple of Venus, standing in Jerusalem, over the spot where Jesus had been crucified.
When excavating the location for Golgatha, Helen claims to have also found the very cross, on which Jesus was crucified, located between the remains of reportedly two other crosses, where the two thieves were executed. This cross, commonly known as the “True Cross,” effectively popularized the Christian interest in the collection of relics, physical remains that have served to bolster the faith of believers down through the centuries.
Inspired by his mother, Emperor Constantine then erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to mark the spot where Jesus bled and died for the sins of all humanity. Though the church has since been destroyed and rebuilt in the intervening years, mortar found in a limestone cave at the bottom of the church, has been dated back to the era of Constantine, evidence that suggests that this is the spot that Helen identified for Christ’s crucifixion. Unfortunately, we still do not know for sure if Helen herself was correct in her location, as there are competing hypotheses as to where Christ’s crucifixion might have taken place.
While many Christians continue to find encouragement in their faith, believing that we still have parts of the “True Cross,” it is quite clear that the business of relic collecting, associated with the “True Cross,” was known to be a scandalous enterprise during the 16th century Reformation. The sheer volume of pieces and splinters of the “True Cross,” scattered across medieval Europe, over a thousand years after Helen’s archaeological excavation, became enormous. French reformer John Calvin ridiculed this belief in relics, comparing the size of the supposed “true cross” to Noah’s Ark, “If we were to collect all these pieces of the true cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.”
Do we still possess any real fragments of the “true cross?” Is Helen’s original discovery verifiable? It is extremely difficult to say, if not practically impossible, as we find countless examples of superstition and fraud, that have maligned this Christian practice of collecting Bible-based artifacts.
As a result, most Bible-believing Protestants today, along with a growing number of other Christians, reject the practice of collecting relics. This type of skepticism, along with the development of modern science, eventually led to a more measured look as to how to conduct archaeological expeditionary research.
The reality today is that the modern practice of archaeology, including the search for Bible artifacts, is a lot more scientific-based than Indiana Jones-style adventures and treasure seeking. In order to resist the tendency to over-exaggerate claims of extraordinary finds, archaeologists today demand more rigorous standards for the verification of archaeological data. For every hour spent digging, today’s archaeologists spend considerably more time with meticulous note-taking, documentation, and publication of results, to be made available for peer review among other archaeologists.
Indiana Jones may look great in the movies, but the real world of archaeological discovery is more painstaking and more modest in making claims. The mistakes made by earlier generations of archaeologists, particularly in the very active years of the scientific awakening of the 19th century and early 20th century, has helped today’s archaeologists to be more careful when doing their research.
Still, the lure and excitement of Indiana Jones-style adventure is difficult to resist, and many Christians can be quite taken in by exciting tales of discovery. Otherwise sincere believers, who want to encourage people in their faith, popularize these tales, but they find it difficult and less exciting to play by the rules of modern scholarship, and to practice disciplined peer review.
In the late 20th century, perhaps the leading Indiana Jones-style, amateur archaeologist was the colorful Ron Wyatt. Several of my Christian friends have been impressed with Ron Wyatt, particularly by his “discovery” of Egyptian chariot wheels found at the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba, the site where Wyatt believed the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, in their escape from Egypt, on their journey towards the Promised Land. Through a series of television specials, endorsed by a former NASA astronaut, Jim Erwin, and a Swedish scholar from a non-archaeological field, Ron Wyatt promoted his “discoveries” to Christian audiences all over the world. Wyatt even claimed to have found the location of the real Mt. Sinai, which he said was in Saudi Arabia.
The main problem with Ron Wyatt is that while he was indeed a fascinating adventurer, and an apparently sincerely devout man, no one has been able to confirm any of Wyatt’s archaeological claims. Ron Wyatt had a habit of getting into trouble on numerous occasions, for not always having a permit to conduct his digs and research. He was kicked out of Saudi Arabia at least once, maybe twice, while searching for Mt. Sinai.
But that is not the end of the story.
There is more to the fascinating tale of Ron Wyatt. Before his death in 1999, Ryan Wyatt had made a number of extraordinary claims, none of which have been verified or positively reviewed by other, credential archaeologists. Here is a sample of some of Wyatt’s extraordinary claims, of things he “discovered,” as documented, but as yet unconfirmed, by Answers in Genesis:
- The real Sodom and Gomorrah, with building outlines still standing as piles of sulfur-fried ash.
- Noah’s Ark.
- The rock at Horeb.
- The true site of Korah’s earthquake.
- Noah’s house, and the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Noah, together with millions worth of her jewelry (allegedly then stolen from Wyatt).
- An actual sample of Christ’s blood, with chromosomes allegedly still visible under the microscope, showing that there was no human father. Placed in growth medium, the cells began dividing, says Ron Wyatt.
- The tablets of the Ten Commandments, bound by golden hinges.
Ron Wyatt was a busy man, who lived quite an adventurous life. A real Indiana Jones.
My favorite “discovery” made by Ron Wyatt is that of his alternative to Helen’s site for where Jesus was crucified. Wyatt claimed to have found the exact post hole, for where Jesus’ cross, was dug. Not only that, Wyatt found that when Jesus was dying, His blood dripped down a crack in the rock, and eventually made its way down to drip on the mercy seat below, where the Ark of the Covenant lay buried.
Ron Wyatt had found the Ark of the Covenant. I guess Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones was a bit off in his discovery.
Was Ron Wyatt onto something? Did he really find outstanding evidence that proves the reliability of the Bible? Or was he a pious fraud, who allowed his desire to hear from the Holy Spirit, in his quest for God, to blind him from submitting his research to other, credentialed archaeologists, both Christian believers and non-Christian alike, who could verify his claims? Look at the evidence and you can decide (Wyatt’s website vs. Tentmaker.org, a Christian researcher who investigated Wyatt’s claims), but I have some serious doubts.
This is not to say that adventurers, like Ron Wyatt, should always be dismissed out of hand. The Bedouin shepherd boy, who discovered the clay pots, housing the scrolls of Qumran, in 1947, had the same adventurous, Indiana Jones-style spirit that Ron Wyatt had. But this Bedouin boy, and his adventurous, treasure seeking colleagues, did the right thing, at least, with respect to the discipline of archaeology, whereby credentialed archaeologists eventually did get involved in the peer review process, confirming that a young, “Indiana Jones” had made perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ron Wyatt died almost twenty years ago, and other adventurers have trod in his footsteps, with slick videos and fanciful trips to out-of-the-way places, in an effort to raise monies for more exciting adventures. Bob Cornuke, a former police investigator, leads the post-Ron Wyatt pack, and he has a dedicated following. Among some of Bob Cornuke’s extraordinary claims include: finding the anchor to the ship associated with the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck, off the island of Malta; relocating the “true” location of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and, of course, learning that the Ark of the Covenant was taken to Ethiopia. Todd Bolen, a respected Christian archaeologist who runs the BiblePlace.com website, says that the amateur Bob Cornuke “discovers more on a two-week summer trip than any trained archaeologist discovers in a lifetime!”
Realistically, the claims by some Christians that supposedly prove the Bible, as well as the counter-claims by skeptics that supposedly disprove the Bible, have been wildly exaggerated. In the final analysis, the best source for believing in the truth claims of the Christian faith, is to be found in the Bible itself, without overly demanding too much from the discipline of archaeology. In many cases, archaeology has helped us to sync up the history as presented in the Bible, with the history as it has been found buried underground. So, in that sense, archaeology has been a real boon for supporting the Christian faith, as such discoveries appear to be consistent with what we find in the Bible. In other cases, the lack of evidence that we would hope to find has assisted scholars to reconsider some traditional interpretations of the Bible.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of unanswered questions, as archaeologists have merely scratched the surface, relative to what can be effectively researched in the Holy Land. In that sense, Christians can get excited about archaeology, as it is continuing to help us understand our Bibles better.
If people like Indiana Jones-style adventuring, it is pretty fascinating to follow people like Wyatt and Cornuke. Some of their ideas might be right. But Christians should exercise extreme caution, as there are highly trained, Bible-believing Christian archaeologists out there, who find Wyatt and Cornuke to be embarrassments to both the discipline of archaeology, as well as for the cause of Christ. For people who really value truth, the glamorous attraction of fringe archaeology can have a very negative, devastating effect, in giving Christ a black-eye. It preys on unsuspecting people, with misguided attempts to supposedly defend the faith, that actually serve to undermine the faith of those, who are honestly seeking the truth.
For a helpful video, from the ESV Archaeology Study Bible, editor John D. Currid, an Old Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, explains why archaeology can not prove the Bible (and does not need to). The ESV Archaeology Study Bible, published in 2018, is highly recommended for giving up-to-date information about the archaeology of the Bible, minus the fringe factor, probably superseding its 2006 cousin, the NIV Archaeology Study Bible. Hopefully, it will come out on Kindle sometime!!