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First Person: Of “Curiosities” and “Relics”
Special objects that connect us to our past are important in themselves.
By Hershel Shanks
I’d like to inveigh a little (Does it seem like that’s all I do?) against those scholars who disparage a simple emotional, even spiritual interest in the stones on which Jesus may have walked or a clay lamp like one he may have used to light his way.
When I was in Jerusalem not long ago, Sy Gitin, the director of the “American School” (the W.F. Albright School of Archaeological Research) invited me to address the fellows of the school and the local archaeological community. During the discussion we talked briefly about the bone box, or ossuary, that, if authentic rather than a modern forgery (as has been charged), might have held the bones of Jesus’ brother James. The same charge of forgery has been leveled at the inscribed ivory pomegranate that, again if authentic, might have come from Solomon’s Temple. In the discussion of whether or not these artifacts were forgeries, Professor Ann E. Killebrew, a distinguished archaeologist who lived in Israel for many years and now teaches at Pennsylvania State University, observed that it really didn’t matter much because, even if they are authentic, they are mere “curiosities.”
Now I happen to disagree with that. I believe that, if these items are authentic, they have much to teach the scholar. But that’s another subject for another time. However, if they are authentic, and even if they do have little or nothing intellectual to teach the scholar, I find them extremely interesting, important and meaningful. If they are authentic, they connect me emotionally and even spiritually to times and events that give meaning to my life. I don’t like them referred to as mere “curiosities.” (Another disparaging epithet is to call these objects “mere relics.”)
In a recent book on the historical Jesus,1 archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of La Verne in California, tells his fellow scholars how “difficult” it is “to overcome the caricature of Biblical archaeologists seeking relics [there’s that word] or sinking their spades in the ground to find sites listed in the Bible or artifacts mentioned in the New Testament.” To his scholarly audience, Reed is making fun of the Christian pilgrim who comes to the Holy Land to find spiritual nourishment in its stones and antiquities, many of which have been dug up by very fine, competent archaeologists like him. The archaeologist is, of course, interested in more than these “mere relics,” and this is certainly necessary and laudable, but there is no need to denigrate a simpler, layperson’s interest in what has come out of this ancient ground. Even scholars want to identify Biblical sites correctly. Even scholars want to know that something they dug up comes from a certain period in ancient religious history.
Modern archaeology is, of course, more than this. We want to know what life was like when Jesus walked this land—what kind of houses people lived in, what they ate, what they cooked in and much more. We want to know the political currents of the time, who traded what with whom, what religious ideas were swirling around—and sophisticated archaeologists are able to tell us. We want to know these same things about the time when King David ruled the United Monarchy of Israel. That’s all well and good—as it should be.
But that does not mean we have to lose our sense of awe at something that has no meaning other than that it provides a direct link to a world that still affects us. Such artifacts have an emotional impact, and no sophisticated archaeologist should belittle its meaning for us. If it has little or no meaning to you, that’s OK. But don’t make fun of me because I feel otherwise.
Further Reading:
Where in the Wide World? ( BAR 35:04, Jul/Aug Sep/Oct 2009)
Strata: “Apples of Gold” ( BAR 35:02, Mar/Apr 2009)
WorldWide ( BAR 40:05, Sep/Oct 2014)
The True Cross ( BR 19:04, Aug 2003)
The True Cross in Rome ( BR 19:04, Aug 2003)
The Chapel of the True Cross ( BR 19:04, Aug 2003)

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