BOOK REVIEW: "A SKELETON IN GOD'S CLOSET"

 


 

ARCHAEOLOGICAL INTRIGUE

 

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 Jerusalem. This is oldest known copy of the Hebrew alphabet.

 

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 at Megiddo. The remains include two floor mosaics.

 

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 palace of Herod Antipas, who founded Tiberias in 20 A.D.


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. king of Judah.


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 Alexandria. Lines from this "Secret Mark" contained in the letter seem to suggest that Jesus and Mark engaged in homosexual activity. The Gospel Hoax makes a strong case that Smith himself fabricated the alleged Clementine letter.

 

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 Israel, Weber participates in a dig that makes some astonishing finds. In particular, Jon himself stumbles upon a papyrus letter that claims Jesus' body was taken from the tomb by one of his disciples and buried elsewhere.

 

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 Western Michigan University, is known for his translations of Josephus and Eusebius, his books on Christian history and apologetics, and his historical novels Pontius Pilate and The Flames of Rome. He is also a coauthor of one of the many books that point out the historical errors in The DaVinci Code. Given the author's background and the novel's publisher, the reader knows from the start that eventually a hoax will be discovered. However, there is still plenty of suspense in the process of finding out who perpetrated the hoax, how it was done, and how it will be exposed.

 

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.

 

Issue 20

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