BOOK REVIEW: "A SKELETON IN GOD'S CLOSET"
by Doug Ward
Biblical archaeology often made headlines in 2005. Several notable discoveries were announced, including the following:
·Dr. Eilat Mazar and her team have discovered the remains of a large public building, dating from around 1000 B.C., in the northern part of the City of David. Dr. Mazar believes that this building, situated just north of the Jebusite city that King David conquered, may be the palace built by David and probably occupied by a number of his successors. One remarkable artifact found at the site is a clay bulla from the late First Temple Period inscribed with the words, "Belonging to Yehuchal the son of Shelemiyahu the son of Shovi." (This Yehuchal could well be the one mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3; 38:1.)
·The site of the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a blind man (John 9:1-11), has been found by archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich.
·Dr. Ron Tappy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary found a large
stone inscribed with the Hebrew alphabet in the wall of a building from the
tenth century B.C. at Tel Zayit, south of
·A team led by Yotam Tepper of the Israel
Antiquities Authority (IAA) has found evidence of a Christian public building from
the late third or early fourth century A.D. on the grounds of a modern prison
·Dr. Aren Maeir and a team from Bar-Ilan University, excavating at Tel es-Safi (thought to be the site of the ancient Philistine city of Gath), found inscriptions of two names very similar to "Goliath" on a fragment of pottery. There is no evidence that the inscription refers to the biblical Goliath, but the inscription does provide evidence that the name Goliath was in use among the Philistines during David's time.
·Excavations at the
site of ancient Tiberias unearthed, among other
things, a Roman stadium mentioned in the writings of Josephus and a marble
floor that may be from a
Archaeological forgeries and hoaxes have also been in the news. At the end of 2004, the IAA and the Israeli police indicted five people who are suspected of having forged inscriptions on ancient artifacts in order to enhance the value of those artifacts in the antiquities market. The chief suspect is Oded Golan, who is connected with two recent possible forgeries:
·the "James ossuary," which now bears an Aramaic inscription that in English translation reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." (The phrase "brother of Jesus" may have been added to an original inscription.)
·the "Jehoash tablet," which describes repairs made to
Solomon's temple by Jehoash, a ninth century B.C.
In a less-publicized story, Stephen Carlson's book The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark (Baylor University Press, 2005) should finally lay to rest a thirty year old hoax. Historian Morton Smith announced in The Secret Gospel (1973) that he had found a previously unknown letter written by church father Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215 A.D.). This controversial letter claimed that the evangelist Mark had written a secret version of his gospel for a special group of Christians in
The archaeological stories that garner the most media coverage are those that have some bearing on the historical accuracy of the Bible. That's why forgers produce inscriptions that apparently corroborate the biblical record. They know that the public loves to hear about Bible-related discoveries, and they know that museums and collectors will pay dearly for artifacts with specific biblical connections.
What would happen, then, if archaeologists found evidence that challenged the central historical claim of Christianity-the resurrection of Jesus? This is the question explored by Dr. Paul L. Maier in his novel A Skeleton in God's Closet (Doubleday, 1991).
The novel's main character, Jonathan Weber, is a Harvard
professor who heads an institute for the study of Christian origins and has
authored a bestseller on the life of Jesus. While on sabbatical in
When word of these discoveries leaks to the press, Jon finds himself at the center of a media circus. And as test after test of the artifacts supports their authenticity, public distress and outrage escalate and Jon faces his own crisis of faith.
Maier, a professor of history at
Despite the fact that this book was written in the early 1990s, the story could have come out of yesterday's headlines. Discussions of how artifacts are checked for authenticity and how forgers make modern alterations to ancient materials sound very much like news reports on the current forgery crisis. The novel has recently been reissued in paperback (WestBow Press, 2005), a testimony to its continued timeliness.
Like most "Christian fiction," A Skeleton in God's Closet does not rank with the world's greatest literature. The book's romantic subplot, in particular, is not very well executed. But although Maier will never make a living as an author of romance novels, he is a good storyteller who has devised a fascinating premise and plot. Moreover, his knowledge of the world of archaeology and biblical scholarship has enabled him to fill the book with authentic details that more than compensate for the book's shortcomings. I highly recommend it to Christian readers who are interested in biblical archaeology and enjoy a good thriller.
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On 04 Jan 2006, 15:19.