O Me of Little Faith

Back in 2007, I had the pleasure of spending a day out in the California desert shooting footage for a potential cable TV project that didn’t ever work out. Long story. But it was about archaeology, and the producers brought in a real-live archaeologist to play an archaeologist in the shoot.

His name was Robert Cargill, Ph.D. He’s a man of both faith and science and has some serious credentials. Dr. Cargill has a seminary degree, has taught Hebrew Bible and New Testament courses at Pepperdine, once worked for Nicole Kidman as her personal history and religion tutor (a crazy story, btw), earned his Ph.D. from UCLA with a focus on Second Temple period archaeology and biblical studies.

Oh, and his dissertation focused on Qumran remains, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. He’s been working as a dig-in-the-dirt archaeologist for the last decade, but he does more than that: Dr. Cargill also serves as Chief Architect and Designer of the Qumran Visualization Project, a real-time virtual reconstruction of the site of Qumran.

He is way smarter than me. And if you watch closely, he shows up on a lot of History Channel and Discovery Channel shows debunking aliens and talking about the Bible. Sometimes in the same documentary!

So when all the media outlets exploded this week with the announcement that an Evangelical group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International had discovered Noah’s Ark up on Mt. Ararat, I found myself wondering what Bob thought. So I asked him.

Here’s what he said:

JB: The ark hunters said they are 99.9% certain that the wood they found in Turkey is Noah’s Ark. That number surprises me. It seems a little too certain for a science like archaeology. What do you make of this claim?

Dr. Robert Cargill: Consider me to be part of the .1%. Not only is this a sensational claim with very little credible evidence, it now appears to be a hoax. As a rule of thumb, anytime you hear 99.9%, it’s not scientific. In this case, it’s sheer sensational falsehood.

So let’s discuss the now-public suggestion that it’s a hoax. That’s what Dr. Randall Price told the Christian Science Monitor. Price is an evangelical archaeologist and a former member of the team that found the “ark.” Would serious archaeologists really be fooled by planted evidence?

Sure. A good hoax or salted (planted) evidence can fool some scholars. And of course, every single legitimate find always has a few scholars claiming it’s a forgery, often times because it doesn’t fit with their earlier claims. But while some scholars can be fooled, this is not one of those cases. The fact that this is part of a marketing campaign and bypassed scholarship altogether raises the red flag of suspicion.

From your perspective, what’s the big deal about archaeologists trying to find Noah’s Ark? Why the fascination?

Three reasons: One, the flood is one of the biblical stories that just about everyone has heard, even the non-religious. Thus, if you can find Noah’s Ark, then there must have been a flood, and if there was a flood, then the Bible is historical and true, and if the Bible is historical and true, then why don’t you accept it?

Second, the creation stories and the flood stories are stories that have zero archaeological and scientific evidence to support them, and all kinds of evidence that contradict them. Thus, they are the least likely to be historical, and are therefore under the greatest ‘attack’, at least according to Evangelicals. Thus, many feel they must defend these stories vigorously.

Finally, because the story of Noah’s Ark is so well known, and because so many want to believe them despite the evidence to the contrary, it is easy to raise money for these expeditions. The pitch is simple: “You want people to believe the Bible, don’t you? Well, if we find the Ark, the world will have to believe.” So, in order to show their faith, people give to Ark expeditions in the hopes that they contribute to something big. All they end up doing is funding free trips to Turkey for the group of tourists that make up the ‘expedition.’ They get to be honorable citizens and stay in fine hotels and all the while believe they are demonstrating their faith. After enjoying a luxurious trip abroad, they use the rest of the money to fund their various ministries. And since they never find anything, they keep coming back for more donations with the plea, “But we’re soooo close.” In that sense, it’s a scam.

What about you personally? Do you have any interest in finding archaeological proof of biblical events? Is there anything to be gained by it?

There is plenty of archaeological evidence that corroborates claims made in the Bible. We begin seeing a few of these in the 10th century BCE, but really nothing before that: no Patriarchs, no Creation, no Exodus (so-called ‘evidence’ for various Exoduses are all hoaxes as well). Not until the settlement in Canaan do we begin to see evidence of biblical claims. (We also find evidence that contradicts some of the claims made in the Bible.)

We have evidence of construction on the Temple in Jerusalem, the build up of cities like Megiddo and Lachish and Dan, evidence of a preparation in defense of an Assyrian attack on Jerusalem (2 Kings 18), evidence for an exile to Babylon, etc. Likewise, there is evidence of New Testament claims.

It is important to remember, however, that real archaeologists don’t go ‘looking for something.’ We dig. We dig and we find what we find. Wherever the evidence leads us, we go. Whatever the evidence says, we report. We don’t go looking to ‘prove the Bible.’ This is flawed methodology, because you begin seeing what you want to see or hope to see, and not what’s really there.

Is there anything else the average Christian n
eeds to know about this story?

It’s a hoax. We’ll never find Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, etc., not only because they may not be historical, but because the ancients were far better recyclers than we are. My Prius and I are no match for ancient recyclers, who would have torn or melted down and reused anything of value, especially wood and gold. Don’t base your faith on relics.

And don’t base your faith on the historicity of pre-scientific attempts to explain why things are the way they are. These are not scientific stories, they were attempts to convey thoughts about God and his activity in this world. Believe the biblical stories or don’t, but remember that just as Jesus told parables that he often made up in order to communicate a moral point, so too did the early biblical authors. (I mean, had Jesus really seen a man get robbed on the road to Jericho, don’t you think he, Jesus, would have helped?)

It’s a story that conveys an ethical principle. So are the flood stories in Genesis 6-9 and the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. One should base one’s faith on how they are to treat others, and not on ancient attempts to explain the origin of rainbows.


Thanks for the insight and expertise, Dr. Cargill. For a more in-depth rant on the whole Noah’s Ark find and some helpful links, check out this Ark-debunking post on Robert Cargill’s personal blog. Then follow him on twitter if you’d like.

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