Fake Finds

In our era of polarized politics, stories and reports that don’t conform to preconceived ideological positions are often given the label “fake news”. It is much easier to dismiss an argument completely than to investigate it.

After bombs were sent to prominent Democrats this week, one attendee outside a political debate held a sign that read “Fake News Fake Bombs”, and others on the right have spread the conspiracy theory that these pipe bombs are really a false flag operation designed to help the Democrats in the midterm elections.

Politics is not the only arena where our assumptions lead us into confirmation bias, the idea that we interpret the evidence in front of us to conform to an already existing belief. This week the Bible Museum in Washington, DC pulled 5 of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments from display when they were confirmed to be forgeries.

The $500 million museum, founded by the president of Hobby Lobby, bought the fragments on the antiquities market, where forgeries are rampant. The museum in the past had gotten into trouble for buying smuggled artifacts. Clearly, the fairly new institution was in over its head in dealing with antiquities.

How fitting that in the age of fake news we also see fake archeology, but the scandal at the Museum of the Bible also points to the tricky nature of certainty when it comes to ancient artifacts.

When an object is dug out of the ground, archeologists can log the location of the find as well as the context to guarantee its authenticity. They know in which chronological layer the piece was found. An artifact bought from a dealer provides no such certainty. Instead one has to rely upon the reputation of the dealer and the experts he or she brings to authenticate the find. Do you trust them or not?

In 2002 an ancient ossuary (a box containing bones) appeared with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” causing an immediate sensation because it purported to offer archeological evidence of the existence of Jesus.

After some analysis the ossuary was declared a forgery. The box itself was genuinely ancient, but the Israel Antiquities Authority claimed that someone had added the “brother of Jesus” part of the inscription in the modern period. The Israeli antiquities collector who owned the piece was later convicted of smuggling but acquitted of forgery.

It seems there is actually no consensus on the status of the ossuary: it may be a forgery or it may be authentic. Perhaps we will never know, which is a tough conclusion to reach. Human beings like certainty, but sometimes that’s fleeting. It’s much easier to declare “Fake News!” than to sit with the doubt that comes from a genuine search for the truth.

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