Noah’s Ark and the Maximalists

About a month ago, in late April, I was captivated by the news that a Hawaiian businessman, Daniel McGivern, claimed he’d found the resting place of Noah’s ark. Call me a sucker for eccentric millionaires and biblical conspiracy theories.

To recap: McGivern spent the last ten years arranging sattelite photography of Mount Ararat, in Turkey, and finally, after last summer’s European record heatwave, the ice on the mountain finally melted enough to produce some decent photographs. What the Air Force used to call “the Ararat Anamoly,” McGivern says are three beams and a cross beam.

–Sattelite photo of Mount Ararat shows a definite dark patch in the middle of a glacier on the edge of the 800-foot-deep Ahora Gorge.

Many biblical archeologists have supposed Ararat as the most likely place for the ark to have gone ashore. The book of Genesis even says that Noah hit land in the ancient kingdom Urartu, and Ararat is the highest point in that region. However, geologists say that even with an epic flood (which they concede may well have occurred in Mesopotamia in Sumerian times), there’s no way a boat could have risen to the altitude of Ararat.

All this got me fascinated with biblical archeology, especially as a hobby. Whatever you think of Christian entusiasts like McGivern (or, for that matter, Mel Gibson), you gotta admire their persistence and faith. After seeing the guy on TV, I personally don’t think McGivern’s motives are suspect; he’s fronting almost $1 million of his own money to fund an expedition this summer, and he doesn’t plan to do any excavating or salvaging. In other words, he falls into the category of bible maximalists, or scholars who seek historical truth in biblical narratives. A Quixotic quest? Sure. But certainly the kind of Indiana Jones adventure that I’d sign up for in a second, if I only knew where to enlist.

On the flip side: I’ve certainly worked with my fair share of Minimalists, too. By this I mean scholars and Penn Press authors who think of the Bible as an encyclopedia of Hebrew fables and myths. My boss might fall into the category of mini-mini-malists — he nearly blows steam out his ears at the mere suggestion that anything in the bible is remotely based on historical fact. And, to be honest, I’d classify myself as a minimalist, too.

I’m only inclined to become more so–skeptical, I mean–after reading David Samuels’ article “Written in Stone,” in the April 12 New Yorker, about the fools-gold discovery of an ossuary holding the remains of Jesus’s brother, James. As the article explained, a clever forger figured out a way to dupe much of the archeology world, including the high-circ magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, into believing that an ordinary box of bones actually contained a blood relative of Jesus and, therefore, his DNA.

The inscription on the box read: “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” As it turns out, only the first half–up to the “brother” part–is actually extant. The rest was chisseled in Aramaic with at dentist’s drill and painted with a faux patina. After the James ossuary fraud was exposed, many other antiquities in Isreal came under suspicion. It’s now believed that between one hundred and two hundred antiquities relating to the First and Second Temple may well be forgeries, too. Naturally, there are political ramifications. Every piece of evidence of Solomon’s Temple backs up Isreal’s claim that it existed and stood on the site of a present-day mosque, and every forgery undercuts their historical claims and arguments.

Getting back to Noah … if there’s one really positive thing about uncovering the ark, it’s this: the story of Genesis is found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, whatever the outcome of the Ararat expedition, at least everyone can all agree that the ark story is a damn good one. Everyone, that is, except the Amish.