Every now and then there is a buzz of excitement.
When teaching Old Testament a student will ask me if I have heard that Pharaoh’s chariot wheels from the exodus have been located in the depths of the Red Sea. It is thrilling stuff, and often based on grainy photographs passed about on the internet and on Christian DVDs. Sadly, however, it is a hoax, which has undermined the credibility of evangelical engagement with archaeology and other disciplines.
The problems with the evidence are manifold. We ought to be unsettled by the fact that no academic, objective scrutiny of the claims has ever been made. The central evidence itself is based on the personal testimony of the late Ron Wyatt who took some photographs of what look like coral encrusted ship debris and made lavish claims for their significance without any rigorous testing. On investigation, every element of his evidence looks decidedly shaky! Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Wyatt. He was a busy man. Travelling in his vacations, he also claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, and a number of other important biblical relics. I have no hesitation in turning students away from this kind of sensational but unsubstantiated hokum.
However, underlying these claims is a more important issue. Our evangelical churches can become an undiscerning haven for fraudulent ideas and untested rumours. Such threadbare evidence is woven into sermons and youth talks. Unlikely proofs become a church equivalent of an urban legend, sounding more plausible for frequent retelling. Does it matter? Yes, because we undermine our credibility and our integrity. If friends discover that we have slipped one hoax into our evangelism then how will they know they can trust any other piece of historical or archaeological information? If photographs of chariot wheels are demonstrably spurious then does that undermine the exodus itself? What about the reliability of the Old Testament? Can we trust the Bible at all?
We must double-check our facts in evangelism. A Google search is not enough! There should be a healthy distrust of the first thing we read and a careful weighing up of what evidence we use with our friends. Eternal matters are at stake. With this in mind I have just published an introduction to the Old Testament that draws on some of the latest discoveries as well as more well known finds. My intention in Time Travel to the Old Testament (IVP, 2013) is to affirm the historical reliability of the Bible and show how background information can help bring further light to the meaning of the text. These things really happened, and we can be confident in our faith. While writing it, I have had to tread a careful path to avoid bogus claims and wild speculation. There is plenty of it about! But we do not need the hogwash. There is a wealth of solid scholarship that supports the essential historical credentials of the Bible. It is this kind of scholarship that we should be circulating in our evangelical circles.
Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College
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