I'd never heard of Mike Sanders, but he awakens two powerful forces in me: the erstwhile religion graduate student who my parents supported at huge cost, and the junk-archeology junkie. NBC, who will air Sanders' "Biblical Mysteries: Ark of the Covenant" and "Biblical Mysteries: Sodom and Gomorrah" on successive Sundays starting March 4, describes him as a "Biblical scholar and modern-day 'Indiana Jones.'"
That should have been me. Unwrapping a mummy on Discovery Channel? I'm there. Looking for Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat? I've seen it. Philologists debating obscure Greek Mystery Cult engravings? I've got it on tape. NBC--apparently jealous of the success of ABC's "Search for Jesus" last fall--is billing "Biblical Mysteries" as "action-packed expeditions with the potential to change how the world views Biblical history."
These documentaries aren't so much about history, however, as they are about Sanders' theories. Both "Biblical Mysteries" episodes start out with the requisite black-and-white historical reenactment. They then follow Sanders through the exploration of the mysterious disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
There are many theories as to where the Ark of the Covenant ended up after the destruction of Solomon's Temple. Some say it's housed in the Church of St. Mary's in Ethiopia, others say it was stashed away on Elephantine Island in the Nile, while others feel the Knights Templar whisked it away during the Crusades and that it now rests beneath Chartres cathedral.
Sanders begins his crusade for the Ark in the Old Testament, pointing out that the text itself never says that the Ark disappears. He goes on to hypothesize that the pharaoh called Shishak, who, the Bible says, plundered the Temple and took all the Israelites' treasure, is not the Egyptian king Shoshenq I as many scholars think, but Ramses III. Scholars agree that there was never a pharaoh named Shishak. But Sanders says Shoshenq never conquered the right region: Ramses III did, and furthermore built a temple outside of Egypt. Is this the final resting place of the Ten Commandments?
Would this be another Geraldo-Rivera-Al-Capone's vault moment? Or would they really find something in those cavities? Unfortunately, the Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities (Tourism and Antiquities?) won't let the expedition dig, and we viewers end up just as frustrated as Sanders.
Sanders' search for Sodom and Gomorrah started in outer space. Sanders and company were intrigued by anomalous readings on some NASA satellite photographs of the Dead Sea. As we are told time and time again (without being told why), the floor of the Dead Sea should be completely flat, so these objects are major discoveries. The anomalies correlate with the location of Sodom and Gomorrah on a map published in 1650. That's good enough for Sanders and crew, and they head off to the Middle East with a mini-sub.
Bureaucracy intervenes again before we can find out much more: Though one of the dives reveals possible manmade structures, the group isn't allowed to explore further. The possible ruins lay on the Jordanian side of the sea, and the Jordanian government revoked permissions just days before the search started.
All this keeps us busy enough that, for a while, we forget to ask precisely who this Sanders is, or how the rest of the archeological world regards his ideas. But in these shows there is a decided lack of counterarguments and credentialed experts--dendrochronologists, seismologists, and ethnobotanists hypothesizing in highly educated accents. And as the expeditions come to nothing, a viewer gets the creeping sense that we're watching infomercials for funding further expeditions.
But Sanders' passion is evident, and his theories are intriguing enough to placate qualms about journalistic and academic balance. By the time we catch a glimpse of the spookily flat bottom of the Dead Sea, which looks like an icescape out of Antarctica, we don't much care if Sanders' theories are correct or, thanks to the political tensions in the Middle East and the bureaucratic runaround of individual governments, we never learn if they are true. As the narrator says, perhaps these things are hidden for a reason. It may be more fun not to know.