Book Review: Fant and Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible

Fant, Clyde E. and Mitchell G. Reddish. Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible Through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008. 471 pages, 12 color plates, pb. $28.00, Kindle Edition $15.40.

This book something of a guide to biblical antiquities which are housed in major museums around the world. As such, it is a “greatest hits” of archaeology illustrating the history and culture of the Bible. Some are completely contextual (creation and flood myths), others bear directly on the text of the Bible (Hezekiah’s tunnel inscription or Caiaphas’s Ossuary). All of the entries in the book are housed in museums, but that does not make them easy to find. Fant and Reddish provide a very helpful index sorted by museum. If one were going to visit the British Museum, for example, the index would provide a nice list of“must see” items for the student of the Bible. The entry for the artifact provides locations in the museum as well as item number to assist a visitor (or museum guide) in finding the artifact.

There ten categories of artifacts, arranged more or less chronologically from Creation Myths through the Roman period. The last category is entitled “Sensational Finds: Genuine or Forgery” and really only includes three recent and well-known forgeries (the James Ossuary, the Ivory Pomegranate, and the Baruch Bulla). Each entry has the item name, a category (clay tablet, seal, wall relief), then list of basic facts including provenance and current location, including the museum item number where available. A black and white photograph accompanies nearly every entry. Fant and Reddish then provide several paragraphs of description of the item, often including the circumstances surrounding the origin find. Finally, every entry has a section describing the biblical importance of the artifact. Many of these artifacts are documents, including cuneiform tablets and ostraca. In most cases key selections from these documents is provided in translations from ANET or COS.

Fant and Reddish dismiss so-called “scholars who twist the data to ‘prove’ the Bible” (xviii). This is a fairly clear dismissal of “biblical maximalism,” but may be more aimed at the sorts of popular books and websites which claim to have found Pharaoh’s chariots or some other spectacular find. While distancing themselves from this sort of popular sensationalism, they do provide a rather friendly list of artifacts which are extremely complementary to the text of the Bible. Even where there is opportunity for taking a “biblical minimalist” position, they usually reject it outright or simply state that there no evidence for the more negative view. For example, the Enuma Elish is not a source for the creation story of Genesis (p. 6) and the narrative of Sargon II’s birth is not the source for Moses’ birth narrative (although they do state that the author used “elements common to various legends” to “creatively tell the story of the birth of Moses,” p. 49).

In the explanation of the artifacts Fant and Reddish often report the circumstances of the find. These are interesting to me personally, since many of the major finds housed in museums come from a time when archaeology was more wild and edgy. Archaeologists of the nineteenth-century such as Charles Warren, Charles Clermont-Ganneau or Leonard Wooley lived in a time when one could buy a mummy’s head on the streets of Cairo or completely expose a mound searching for tombs stuffed full of treasures. Those days are gone (thankfully, these men also did a great deal of damage), but there is a sort of swashbuckling romance to the story of the discovery of the Moabite stone, for example.

The items covered by the book are all excellent choices, but there are a few oddities. The Epitaph of Uzziah (140-2) is clearly Hasmonean and likely has nothing to do with Uzziah. The plaque was found in the Russian Orthodox Monastery on the Mount of Olives, not a cave dating to the 8th century B.C. There is one unprovenaced seal (Shebnayau, 142-4), a category which could be expanded greatly. But an unprovenanced seal or bulla is an invitation for forgery! Occasionally the authors include long texts from the Bible which are not particularly helpful (Ezra 5:2-6:12, more than a full page!) I am not sure that statues of Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors qualify as “lost treasures” since these are apt to be well displayed. In addition, including Trajan seems to “go beyond” the Bible. Likewise the inclusion of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (a location Paul may not have visited) and the Corinthian synagogue inscription (as late as the 5th century A.D.!)  These two items are important, but tangential to the theme of the book.

Conclusion. This is an excellent book for general readers interested in archaeology as background for the Bible. Whether it is used in conjunction with a visit to a major museum or not, Lost Treasures provides the reader with good descriptions of the most important artifacts illustrating the world of both the Old and New Testaments.