The Biblical Pseudo-Archeologists Pillaging the West Bank

Finding the elusive, unregulated Israeli bureaucrat who lets American evangelicals run amok in the Palestinian territories.

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The Qumran archeological site in the West Bank, with the Dead Sea and Jordan in the background. (Wikimedia Commons)

A line of rental cars crawled up the side of ribbed sandstone formations, mounded high like giant termite nests. In the distance, the city lights of modern Jericho twinkled on the northern horizon. In this haunted landscape where the West Bank meets the Jordan River, the Dead Sea Scrolls--the oldest-known biblical record--remained hidden for millennia.

The discovery of the scrolls 50 years ago galvanized a resurgent evangelical movement, many of whose members heralded the creation of Israel as evidence of the coming rapture. Since then, the Holy Land has attracted a long succession of academic zealots seeking to tether stories in the Bible to the archaeological record.

For Randall Price, a mid-50's, sun-reddened pastor from Texas with a neat side part and a booming voice, archaeology is both a scientific and a devotional endeavor. "This was the area where great men of God were tested," he said. "When you're excavating there it puts you in touch, physically, with the reality of those events." Price has spent the last ten years searching for remains of an ascetic Jewish priesthood whom he believes settled in the desert wilderness of Qumran to await the coming of the Messiah and the End of Days. These remains, he said, could provide unprecedented evidence of a biblical text.

"In this conflict of religious ideas that affect the political situation, you have to take a side somewhere."

At first blush, Price seems like an unlikely candidate to head excavations amid one of the bitterest land disputes in the modern world. Though he never actually received a degree in archaeology, he built a global network around his brand of Near East biblical scholarship with an apocalyptic bent. He has written extensively for the website, given lectures suggesting that Iran is fulfilling the role of Antichrist, and has openly called for the United States to declare war on Islam.

Price says his own work underwrites Israeli precedence in some Palestinian land. "Despite the fact that Qumran is probably on the map as the Palestinians', the fact is we're unearthing ancient Jewish heritage," he said. "There's nothing here that speaks to any other people."

Price's politics are unlikely to disrupt his access to the Qumran plateau, however. Located in the West Bank, permits to excavate around Qumran are not issued by the Palestinian Authority, but rather by Israel's Civil Administration. It's a bizarre arrangement, which critics say allows Israeli officials and religious pseudo-scientists to cooperate in raiding cultural treasures.

Archaeology in the West Bank--specifically, who has the right to dig, interpret, and store artifacts--is a wedge issue that ties into broader struggles over resource control in the occupied territory. "Are we trying to be nationalist?" Price said. "In this conflict of religious ideas that affect the political situation, you have to take a side somewhere."

The notion that the modern state of Israel exists within a prophetic framework is one example of how religion and archaeology are injected into the politics of the region. In fact, they are historically inseparable.

Biblical archeology began as a largely evangelical academic movement about 200 years ago. Its most influential advocate, an American scholar named William Albright, spent the early 20th century building what became known as the Albrightian Consensus, the convention that archaeology provides physical evidence for the Old Testament--which, conversely, can be used as historical source material in planning and conducting digs.

Initial "proofs" included burned rubble near Jericho, which was attributed to the dramatic story in the Book of Joshua in which the Israelites brought down the city's walls using trumpets. Though Albright's movement was ultimately discredited, it continues to influence new generations of religious scholars who, as one popular adage goes, "hold the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other."

Backed by church funding, today's biblical archaeologists are often under pressure to deliver distinctly biblical discoveries. "There's so much riding on that," said Raphael Greenberg, a prominent Israeli archaeologist and a public critic of the biblical approach. "People feel like if they can't turn out that information, it defeats their national aspirations or their religious beliefs," he said.

Though subjected to heavy criticism, the biblical archaeology movement has helped to shape the history of the region. Early writings from the American cohort prompted the creation of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a British society, in 1865. This society was financed by archaeologists as well as clergy to conduct surveys and photograph Ottoman-controlled Palestine, but doubled as an intelligence gathering service for the British Army.

Today, Greenberg estimates the majority of funding for excavations in Israel and Palestine comes from religious sources. As a result, he said, researchers are plagued by financial pressure to produce religiously significant discoveries. Recent years have seen multiple claims of finding Noah's Ark, the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant, and most recently, a fraudulent ossuary that was claimed to contain the bones of Jesus' family.

"The site that is most often discussed is, of course, Qumran," Greenberg said, "which attracts no end of oddballs."

Actual discoveries in the region rarely make headlines. Cultural strata in Israel and Palestine lack the lavish treasures and mystique associated with the power centers of the ancient world, such as Egypt or Mesopotamia. The goods commonly unearthed in the region -- coins, provincial tools, and bits of pottery "don't have much intrinsic value," Greenberg said, "But they have the value of being from the Holy Land."

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Dylan Bergeson is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer living in the Bay Area.

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