Simcha Jacobovici’s The Naked Archaeologist
TV series on Biblical archaeology are a bit thin on the ground on British television. While the TV companies do put on series about Christ, the most recent example being the BBC’s excellent The Miracles of Jesus, coverage of the archaeology of the Bible is mostly confined to the odd programme, such as the edition of the BBC’s science programme, Horizon, covering the lack of archaeological evidence for Solomon’s Temple, and the continuing controversy over the James Ossuary. The last big series the BBC did on Biblical archaeology was BC in 1977, where Magnus Magnusson clambered all over Israel discussing the archaeology of the Old Testament. So, when one of the cable channels decided to screen Simcha Jacobovici’s The Naked Archaeologist in Britain in the summer of 2006, it was clearly filling a space left by the terrestrial channels. It’s a pity it didn’t do the job properly.
Firstly, Jacobovici isn’t an archaeologist. He’s a Canadian film director. Although his work has won a string of awards, it needs very careful critiquing because of its poor scholarship and biased presentation. This is particularly so because of the wide interest his film, Exodus, directed by James Cameron and presenting evidence for the historicity of the Biblical exodus from Egypt, has gained amongst some Christians. His treatment of the Old Testament is generally unproblematic and usually stresses the historical accuracy of Scripture. Thus, he’s seen crawling through Hezekiah’s cistern in Jerusalem, marvelling at the dedicatory inscription carved into the wall. Other positive aspects to the show include an exploration of the remains of Jewish priestly houses one old couple had discovered in what became their own house’s basement; a tour round the reconstructed 1st-2nd century town at Nazareth; and a discussion of the apparently deliberate destruction of the pre-Islamic archaeology on the Temple Mount by the waqf administering the Dome of the Rock mosque. This had conducted an extensive rebuilding of part of the mosque, during which they had burrowed into the Temple Mount itself, and torn out important pre-Islamic archaeology, including remains of the Temple, and then just dumped it, mixed with rubbish to make recovery of the artefacts extremely difficult. Jacobovici interviewed the archaeologists sorting through this detritus, and getting their views on the project, the apparent attempt by the Muslim authorities to destroy the Jewish archaeology, and the unwillingness of the Israeli authorities to stop this vandalism. More controversially, he suggested that many of the artefacts now turning up in antiquarian shops in Israel were genuine archaeological finds, but were declared to be fraudulent by the Israeli antiquities’ authorities as a way of avoiding the colossal expense of protecting the country’s archaeological wealth from the danger of nighthawking.
Marring this, on the other hand, was a pronounced anti-Christian bias, with Jacobovici stating at various points that references to Jesus and other figures in the New Testament had either been made up, or rewritten to suppress the truth. Thus he declared that the part of the inscription on the James Ossuary referring to ‘the brother of Jesus’ was a forgery, with the rest of the text genuine. The last time I looked at the various Biblical archaeology websites there were arguments that it was all genuine, however. Not that it actually matters. As the New Testament scholar Carsten Peter Thiede has pointed out, Jesus was an extremely popular name amongst Jews at the time of Christ, many of whom had brothers called James, so even if the inscription on the ossuary is genuine, it doesn’t necessarily refer to Our Lord and His brother. And by the same logic, even if the inscription is wholly or partly a forgery, it does not disprove the existence of Christ either.
In discussing King Herod, Jacobovici presents unchallenged a statement by one of the tyrant’s biographers, stating that the Evangelists made up the Massacre of the Innocents, and that this must have been based on Herod’s murder of his third son. This is done despite the fact that Josephus states there were many things he didn’t record, and that the old villain was certainly capable of such mass murder, as JP Holding shows in his essay refuting this particular sceptical claim.
Jacobovici goes further, and takes a statement from another biographer, this time of Josephus, who tells him that the reference to Christ, the Testimonium Flavium, is a Christian insertion into the text. It’s a claim that J.P. again despatches in his article on secular references to Christ, though an effective refutation of such a claim appeared as long ago as William Whiston’s translation, published by Charles Griffin and Co in the 19th century. Jacobovici then goes on to compound this claim by stating that it’s the only reference to Christ outside the Bible, and then later still in the programme ‘outside the religious literature’, a claim refuted by the references to Christ in Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny and Mara Bar Serapion, as again discussed by J.P.
He also talks to Jesus Seminar member and fan of the Gospel of the Ebionites, John Kloppenborg, who tells him that the genealogies of Christ in the New Testament are a later invention for theological reasons (discussed and refuted by JP in another article), before dashing off to talk to Aviram Orsi, an archaeologist who has excavated Bethlehem in Galilee, and decided it’s the true birthplace of Christ. Why? Because of the questions from some members of the crowd in John 7:41-43, ‘But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him.’ Bethlehem in Galilee was changed to Bethlehem in Judaea to make it all fit with Old Testament prophecy, Orsi stated. Actually, the quote from John proves nothing of the sort, only that Jesus and His family had been living so long in Nazareth that it had been forgotten where Jesus had been born.
Neither does the archaeology Orsi adduces support his contention either. Finding the remains of a wall around the town and the remains of a large, late Byzantine church, Orsi declares that this shows it must have been recognised as the true birthplace of Christ, else otherwise why would the Byzantines build a church that size and fortify such a small town. Yet the difference between town and village in 1st century Palestine was extremely fluid. Towns could be the size of villages, and in many cases the only difference between the two was that towns had walls. As for the church, during the later Byzantine period there was a massive drop in population, so that instead of there being the traditional municipal arrangement of polis – city – and ecclesia, there was instead kastra – fortification, which often included much of the town or village – and ecclesia. This was important as bishops took over many of the functions of secular Roman officials, so that municipal government and functions were maintained and exercised by the bishop working with the imperial governor and a few local magnates. Provincial Byzantine cities depended very much on support from Constantinople, and those that had little or no role in imperial administration consequently declined as the central government rationalised its support. Thus, by the middle of the seventh century, the remaining cities were concentrated in the core of the Empire with a few, much reduced outposts, such as Thessaloniki, Ravenna and Ephesus surviving on the periphery. Examples of the stagnation and decline of Byzantine towns include Hieron, as the ancient city of Didyma was known to the Byzantines. During the sixth and first half of the seventh centuries this shrank until it consisted of a fortified church, a small castle, and a hamlet. At Ephesus the new city walls only enclosed an area half the size of the ancient city, and the new church which was built to replace the great cathedral was similarly reduced in size.
In the Western Roman Empire at the same time, which was similarly suffering a drastic reduction in population and town size, quite small towns were fortified where it seems they were on important shipment routes for taxes or munitions, such as Godmanchester or Wall in England. These settlements are only called towns because of the construction of defences during the later Roman Empire, but there is no essential difference between them and ‘villages’ lacking these walls, such as Swalcliffe, Bourton Bridge or Dragonby. Given that these trends in the stagnation and development of towns were general across the late Roman Empire, both western and eastern, it seems that a similar process was at work to fortify Bethlehem of Galilee, despite its modest size.
Added to this is the consideration that at the time the Byzantine Church would have been built, the text and canon of the New Testament had been settled for centuries, and the Byzantines would not build or construct anything that explicitly contradicted scripture. So, rather than discovering Christ’s real birthplace, Orsi had uncovered what seems remarkably like a standard, late Byzantine Palestinian town, and then made some rather inflated claims about it.
Accusations of the Gospel writers tampering with Christ’s story continued further as Jacobovici went round the remains of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee at the time of Christ. Surveying its amphitheatre, the luxurious priestly houses with their very un-Jewish Roman mosaics and the synagogues, Jacobovici wondered why such a prosperous town, only four miles away from Nazareth, isn’t mentioned in the Gospels. The answer: it had been edited out. Actually, the answer to that question is very straightforward. There were many places Christ avoided because of the hostility of the Herodians, and these would have included Sepphoris. Throughout His career, Christ tends to stick to the back roads and less important areas, reflecting both His social class as someone not wealthy enough to use the main routes, and a concern for His safety before confronting the authorities in Jerusalem.
Apart from this, and it’s a minor complaint, there was the general tatty presentation. Frequent use was made of stock footage from Black and White Biblical epics of the type DeMille didn’t make, showing kilted warriors wearing Egyptian style headdresses running over sand dunes, and what looked like 1940s B movie documentaries about the importance of tractors in wheat farming. Whenever agriculture was mentioned, the same footage of legions of tractors crossing sun-drenched fields of corn appeared. Mercifully these stopped before a man from the Ministry of Agriculture or its equivalent appeared to tell the audience that thanks to the introduction of the new-fangled ‘combine harvester’, the nation would be self-sufficient in porridge by 2046.
Jacobovici probably believed that this was jocularly hip and post-modern, but at times his attitude was just disrespectful. For example, filming at the Church of the Nativity, Jacobovici gets tired of waiting in the long queue like all the others and declaring, ‘Can we do this? We’re television!’ barges up to a window and breaks into the Church, rushing past the queue of pilgrims to touch the site where Christ is believed to have been born. Religious tension runs high in the Holy Land, but what this seemed to prove was that people at the Church were remarkably tolerant. Despite obviously thinking that being in television gave him carte blanche to do what he wished despite how it may appear to others, nobody appears to have challenged him apart from giving him bemused looks before Jacobovici and his crew charged out of the Church.
Later editions of the programme promised a look at John the Baptist and the evidence for crucifixion at the time of Christ, but by this time I’d stopped watching. It was interesting in places, but faced with Jacobovici’s antics and the dodgy, biased scholarship, it simply wasn’t worth watching. And far from being accessible, it came over as just cheap. It does, however, point up the need for proper programmes of this type, with decent standards of scholarship and a proper budget. That, however, may be a long way off, though hopefully it won’t be another 23 years before one comes along.
Angold, M., Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (London, Phoenix Press 2002),
Aston, M., and Bond, J., The Landscape of Towns (Stroud, Sutton Publishing Limited 2000),
Porter, J.R., Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith (London, Duncan Baird Publishers 1999);
Thiede, C.P, Jesus: Man or Myth (Oxford, Lion 2005).
Whiston, W., trans., ‘Appendix: Dissertation 1., The Testimonies of Josephus Concerning Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and James the Just, Vindicated’, in The Works of Flavius Josephus (London, Charles Griffin and Co.), pp. 639-646.