William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The City Of Sodom Possibly Identified (On Evidence)

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A team of archaeologists are making the case for Sodom. Not for buggery, mind, but for the historical location of the doomed city. And when you hear the evidence for the queer, fiery end of the proposed site, you might believe Sodom has finally been discovered.

On the other hand, other teams of researchers, as is not surprising, dispute the findings. Since I am not an archaeologist, nor do I possess special knowledge of ancient Middle East history, I am not well equipped to judge who is correct. But our interest here on this lazy Saturday morning is in evidence, what it means and how it is used. Hat tip to the Five Beasts for the pro-side and Lee Phillips for the anti side. Read this book for the philosophy of evidence.

Popular Archaeology has the article “Making the Case for Sodom“. Tells the story of Steven Collins of Trinity Southwest University and the evidence he has why a site called Tall el-Hammam is actually Sodom. I’ll assume you’ll read it.

“It all came from analyzing the Biblical text regarding the location of Sodom,” says Collins. “The quintessential passage holding the geographical key to Sodom’s location is Genesis 13:1-12.” As a Bible scholar and archaeologist, he, like many in his field, recognized the inescapable parallels between many of the archaeological sites and remains that dot the Levant with the place-names of cities and towns well known in the Bible—places like Jericho, Jerusalem, Capernaum, Megiddo and Hazor, to name a few.

This is followed by information on digs, locations, transitions of pottery types and the like.

And for Collins, this finding could provide another supporting clue to his suggestion that pederasty, a documented practice among the Cretan Minoans, may possibly also have been practiced among the ancient inhabitants of Tall el-Hammam, who may have been influenced by or had cultural connections to them…

But based on the excavated evidence, this Bronze Age heyday seems to have nevertheless come to a sudden end toward the end of the Middle Bronze Age—and the ancient city became a relative wasteland for 700 years, for the most part void of human habitation…

One possibility could have something to do with a Middle Bronze period ash layer discovered at various excavation areas of the Tall…Evidence of fiery destructions are commonplace among archaeological sites across the Levant, usually associated with conflict and military campaigns. Recovered pottery sherds evidencing exposure to very high temperature levels, much higher than what would be expected from heating from a kiln or oven, could be yet another clue. Collins has hypothesized that the latter could have resulted from an ancient ‘airburst’, a mid-air explosion caused by an object in the air above the ‘target’ area, such as that of an incoming meteor. A similar, earlier airburst was documented to have disrupted civilization in Mesopotamia around 2200 BCE.”

There is much more, including a video, all of which accords with the common view of Sodom’s fate (Collins explains Gomorrah in the video). Collins created a website devoted to Tall el-Hammam. On it he says these curious things:

As active members of the community of Levantine archaeologists, the TeHEP team is quite aware of the prevailing sentiment among many in the discipline who feel that archaeology should not be used to “prove” components of biblical narrative. We certainly agree that objective archaeology should take us where the evidence leads; but we also understand the importance of ancient texts like the Bible that often provide an historical framework for the identification of geographical locations…

If rigorous scholarship and responsible, objective archaeology confirm a link between Tall el-Hammam and Sodom (or between Tall Nimrin and Admah) or ?the other. As A. J. Ayer’s verification principle requires of any assertion, we must state clearly the criteria whereby any hypothesis can be verified and/or falsified, then follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is the strict method of science.

About the dispute between The Bible and reality and the wishes of archaeologists, more in a moment. First, it should be recalled Ayer eventually rejected his own verification principle, not the least because the principle itself cannot be falsified or proven by any measurement. Many propositions are impossible to verify, but which are true and believed. Any mathematical axiom, for instance.

Enter the detractors to the theory. Gent named Todd Bole isn’t buying the location, for a host of reasons which fall into two groups, incorrect inference of Biblical passages for the siting, and irreconcilable dating with Biblical texts not directly about Sodom. Bole points to one Bill Schlegel who dislikes Collins’s siting inferences, critiques which revolve around where Lot went when he ventured into the “Kikkar of the Jordan” (on his way to Sodom). Experts can weigh the differences; to my layman’s eye, both men have a point.

More tangible (to me, at any rate) is the evidence provided by Eugene H. Merrill, who makes a good case (his math works) that the dates do not to add up if we accept Collin’s theory. Merrill’s paper is interesting also for the time table of ancient events; Abraham’s birth date and so forth. He is also adamant. But then we recall knowledge of dates, even once-certain dates, for ancient events have changed to marked degree among historians, and so could here, too: Merrill and the archaeological community could be mistaken. Again, I don’t know enough to say.

Merrill opens his paper by saying, “Steven Collins is a committed Evangelical scholar with impressive experience in Near Eastern archaeology…” Now that is odd. You would not have expected another archaeologist to have written “Eugene H. Merrill is a wishy washy agnostic, and sometime atheist, with impressive experience etc.” (I have no idea of Merrill’s religious views.) Collins is an evangelical, and although Merrill calls his experience impressive, Collins’s education isn’t traditional (his degree was awarded by the school which employs him).

Christianity (and to a smaller extent Judaism), then, is strong filter, or anti-filter. More information from the dig has been coming out, prompting many popular stories, such as one in the Washington Post, which proves the filtering from a quote from Israel Finkelstein: “We are probably dealing here with an etiological story, that is, a legend that developed in order to explain a landmark.”

Or we could be dealing with a story describing actual events, a story told in an the ancient and not modern manner: people did not convey information as we do now (when there is too much of it). Finkelstein’s remarks remind us of those people who deny the Biblical flood took place since it was written about in many cultures besides Jewish culture, as if multiple witnesses made an event less likely (see this article for additional tidbits). At any rate, Hershel Shanks thinks Tall el-Hammam is a likely site, but he had to say, “Theological questions are not subject to scientific proof—or disproof.”

That’s false. Christianity is founded on a claim which can and must be subject to “scientific” proof.

14 Comments

  1. The prevailing sentiment “archaeology should not be used to “prove” components of biblical narrative” I read as archaeology should NEVER be used to prove any idea associate with any religion. Can we just close the department now and head home? Think of the monetary savings there!

    Watching what ISIS is doing in the Middle East, there are obviously huge areas missing in historical information as the invading armies destroyed everything in their wake, taking out religious symbols first, in many cases, when the religion was not their own. Archeology is based on circumstantial evidence with a lot of missing information. I’m not sure it can “prove” anything, but rather hints around ideas.

    “That’s false. Christianity is founded on a claim which can and must be subject to “scientific” proof.” I completely disagree with this. Christianity is founded on a theological claim. It was and is about God. Christianity should not conflict with science, but science cannot prove or disprove Christianity. As for historical “proofs”, we can’t even prove Nero lived, Caesar or any other historical figure. Many accept things as “proof” in these cases, but the standard of proof there is lower than when applied to “religious” history. Realisitically, Nero could be a myth as could many others. We simply can never know.

    Circumstantial evidence simply very, very rarely can prove anything with certainty and often can prove many conflicting theories with equal certainty. It should be used very cautiously in all cases.

  2. “…but science cannot… disprove Christianity”.

    Find Jesus’ bones and you’ve done it.

  3. I have never really liked this claim, for both the opposing views you have cited. The location is bad; the chronology is worse. Conventionally, the MBA ends at 1550BC, which is too late for Abraham even on the late (13th Century BC) date for the exodus (c. 1250 BC + 400 years in Egypt + 250 years from Joseph to Abraham = much more than mid 16th century), and this date is dubious both Biblically (which places the exodus at about 1450BC) and archaeologically (the Semites left Northern Egypt in the 16th or possibly 15th century, plus the conquest archeology of the 13th century doesn’t match up). Possibly one could push the destruction of Tell -el Hamam into the LBA (see below), in which case a date of 1450-1500 might be feasible. In any case, we are closer to the time of Moses than the time of Abraham.

    The destruction of Jericho (which fits the picture in the book of Joshua well, e.g. the walls fell down, the city was burnt etc.) is conventionally dated to the end of the MBA, but scholars such as Bimson, Livingstone and Wood have suggested that this should be pushed into the early LBA. If so Tel-el Hamman was destroyed shortly before this. I have often wondered if it was one of the principal cities of Sihon, King of Heshbon, who was defeated by Moses. It is not that far from the conventional site of Heshbon (and names had the habit of jumping from one site to a neighboring one in the ancient world), and Chronologically it is just before the destruction of Jericho which also fits. There is still a problem with the dates, but you can’t have everything.

    Anyway, that’s my speculation concerning this site. Almost certainly wrong, but less certainly wrong than its identification with Sodom.

  4. What!!! “Christianity is founded on a claim which can and must be subject to ‘scientific proof.’ ” And just what might that “scientific proof” entail, if you would? In my muddled view of what science involves, replicability is an essential ingredient. Is it required that Jesus Christ come down from heaven, be crucified and rise again? (I think there’s a subjunctive somewhere in the last sentence, whence no ‘s at the ends of verbs.)

  5. Too many of you bods assume that science = empiricism.

    Empiricism is a silly notion that assumes if you can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist. It has very limited use in science. It also assumes that everyone must invent his own wheel otherwise the wheel is invalid.

  6. swordfishtrombone

    August 13, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    Archaeologists announce possible discovery (on evidence) of site of mass murder by god enforcing he/she/it’s superior absolute moral code.

  7. swordfishtrombone: Impossible. No archaeologist is EVER going to attribute a finding to God. Try to avoid these leaps into complete fantasy.

  8. The further back in Biblical time you go, the dates and places get murkier. The naturally occurring pillars of salt around the Dead Sea were probably long the subject of myths and tales. It is from these we later get the moral tale of what happens to societies that promote butt play. The ancient Jews were fascinated with that sort of thing.

    JMJ

  9. JMJ: The further back in any history one goes, dates become murkier. This is true of all religious and secular history. Religous preachings are also subject to modification (for whatever reason), which is why so many different religious sects exist. A new “prophet” comes along and creates their own version of an existing religion. In the secular world, you see things like is happening now in the US. Politic was and is full of myths. Racism was and is rampant in the Democratic party. This party was the most racist out there and still are. However, clever editing of the news and history books can change people’s beliefs and that is underway currently, trying to paint the opposition as the racists. People rarely care about the truth. They just want something they can believe in, no matter if it’s a lie, a myth or true. No history is ever really accurate. (As I previously noted, my mother always said “the war of Northern aggression.)

    I will note here for those who will then ask if I believe the Bible is the literal word of God: I believe that if it was the literal word of God, God would have written it himself, much as he did the Ten Commandments.

  10. Bob Kurland,
    “replicability is an essential ingredient.”

    So Big Bang cosmology is not scientific either?

  11. Mactoul, of course the Big Bang is a single event. But measurements on red shifts, microwave background radiation, percentage of heavy elements in young stars, from which the Big Bang is inferred, are replicable.

  12. Bob: Yes, the circumstial evidence is relicable. However, it can still lead to the wrong conclustion.

  13. I remember when archaeologists thought Troy was mythological. And yet, there is greater reason for belief in a literal Sodom than there was for a literal Troy. It is not part of an epic, it is part of an account.

  14. Over the years, his research team has found evidence of a massive defensive wall, a palatial structure and a gateway complex that dates back to the Middle Bronze Age. During the 2015 season , the archaeologists found a few more towers and gates. The professor says there’s a good chance that the Biblical text is referring to Tall el-Hammam when it descri 4 bes Sodom.

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