RESEARCHERS from Tel Aviv University recently announced a discovery that could shake the foundations of biblically based history currently taught in most states below the Mason-Dixon line (otherwise known as “Jesus Country,” unless Jesus comes back without a photo ID).
Granted, biblical controversies may not be the most important thing to you right now, when you’re coming up with this year’s excuse why your new beach body won’t be ready by Memorial Day. But we should never shirk from scholarship that could deepen our faith or, short of that, allow us to use the phrase “camel bones” for the first time in our lives.
To wit: Using carbon-dating techniques to determine the age of the world’s oldest-known camel bones, researchers have determined that camels could not have been the pack animals referred to in much of the Old Testament. At that time, camels had not yet been introduced to the region. It’s not clear if camel introductions were something that just wasn’t done in polite company or if the dearth of camels was only alleviated by Egyptian merchants establishing Mediterranean trade routes. But the latter would be my guess and is, in fact, the conclusion of the Tel Aviv researchers.
And it’s good we see eye-to-eye with the scientists on this particular issue, since their method is one I hold in contempt. I took it personally when carbon dating was used to disprove that the Shroud of Turin displayed the real image of Jesus Christ. I believed in the Shroud. When preachers would sermonize on faith the size of a mustard seed, I would smile condescendingly, because my faith was bolstered by something big enough to cover a good-sized twin bed! And with a picture of Jesus on it! (Much cooler than Justin Bieber or a Disney princess.)
I’ve never believed much in carbon dating since then. Speed dating, maybe. But not the other thing.
HOWEVER, it is science, and even if it’s not applicable in all states, let’s assume for the moment the camel thing is true, like the recent discovery of kryptonite on the periodic table. (It was on the lower right, so nobody noticed it.)
What this means is, yet again, biblical archaeology has trumped biblical history, and people who fail to learn the lessons of biblical archaeology are doomed to repeat it. And that’s a lot of syllables to repeat, much less type without spellcheck.
Ancient Egyptian merchants probably introduced camels around the 9th century BCE—hey, don’t ask me; I don’t know what the “E” stands for either—and just in time, too, otherwise the animal might not have figured in any of the iconic imagery of our faith. No camels to fit with difficulty through the eye of the needle. (Jesus: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a, uhm, okay, maybe that donkey cart over there to go through ...”)
No moonlit silhouettes of the three Wise Men following the star in the east. While it might have been more comfortable to make the journey in a Winnebago, they’d only need one, so there goes that image.
It’s odd that no camels appear in any of the nativity scenes commemorated in classic paintings or Cracker Barrel snow globes. The Wise Men probably tied up their camels outside the manger, where they were unable to do those nasty things camels would have done to spoil the touching scene. Camels, after all, never low. They spit, and might even have bitten the Little Drummer Boy on the way in.
It’s just as well that camels were never a part of the live nativity scenes of my youth. It’s hard to find a camel in rural Indiana. Actually, I have a vague memory of a llama showing up once, in the back, but my view was distracted by a donkey that kept braying in that way donkeys have of showing their prominent gumline in a most unalluring fashion. Nobody wants to see that. Not you. Not me. And certainly not the Baby Jesus who, in this instance, was a plastic doll of an undetermined gender and age. (Where are the scientists when you really need them?)
Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.