In “An Ancient Medium in the Modern Media: Sagas of Semitic Inscriptions”, Christopher A. Rollston discusses how some Northwest Semitic epigraphs have been sensationalised when published by the media. He also discusses the role of scholars in ensuring that the way they deal with the media minimises the risk of misreporting. He provides a number of examples where a misleading media report can remain in the public mind long after scholars have had the time to counter it.
Rollston’s article appears in a volume edited by Eric M. Meyers and Carol Meyers, Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and the Media: Proceedings of the Duke University Conference, April 23-24, 2009 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012). As Jim West notes, the editors will be fielding questions on the book on the Biblical Studies Yahoo! Groups list from 11-17 February 2013.
Rollston discusses the spurious claim by Simcha Jacobovici that the Talpiyot Tomb contained the ossuaries of Jesus, his wife, and son (“the proposal … fails to meet the minimal standards for cogency, and it even fails to meet the minimal standards for plausibility”: p. 125) and also discusses Marjo Korpel’s speculative argument that a seal inscribed with the letters yzbl belonged to the Queen Jezebel who features in 1 Kings (“… tenuous at best. It falls into the category of sheer speculation, and in its speculation it is particularly weak”: p. 127).
More relevant for avid gigantologists are his comments on the media reception of a potsherd found at Tel es-Safi during the 2005 season. It is incised with two names, ’lwt and wlt[ ]. A March/April 2006 article in the populist magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) reports that the director of excavations at Tel es-Safi, Aren Maeir had claimed that ’lwt was “the equivalent of the name Goliath”. The BAR article also has Maeir refer to “the Goliath of the inscription from Gath”. Readers of BAR would therefore have concluded that Maeir had uncovered an inscription containing the very name “Goliath” at Tel es-Safi, the site of the biblical town of Gath. The BAR article goes on to note that Maeir stressed that the name on the inscription “is not the Biblical Goliath”, thus reinforcing the false idea that the name “Goliath” appears on the inscription, although it belonged to a “Goliath” other than the famous one.
Yet as early as February 2006, on the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog, Aren Maeir issued a “correction” to the article. Maeir noted that he had never claimed that the inscription contained the name “Goliath”. Instead, what Maeir had claimed was that ’lwt and wlt “are etymologically very close to Goliath” and this was something which had been known long before the discovery of the inscription at Tel es-Safi. So it would seem clear that BAR was responsible for the misleading statement that the Tel es-Safi/Gath inscription contained the name “Goliath”. It is also unlikely that Maeir is right that ’lwt is in fact etymologically similar to the name glyt (“Goliath”) – they are quite different forms – but that is another matter.
Yet Rollston’s conclusion in his article is that Maeir was responsible for BAR‘s error. Rollston goes so far as to suggest that Maeir’s alleged mistake (in fact BAR‘s mistake) was only corrected by Maeir’s co-authors, Stefan J. Wimmer, Alexander Zuckerman, and Aaron Demsky, when they published the inscription in “A Late Iron Age I/Early Iron Age II Old Canaanite Inscription from Tell es-Safi/Gath: Palaeography, Dating, and Historical-Cultural Significance”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 351 (Aug 2008), 39-71. Rollston claims that this publication was “certainly much more cautious, perhaps because of the high caliber of the epigraphic work of his co-authors” (p. 128) – negatively contrasting Maeir against his co-authors. Yet Maeir’s own statement in February 2006 already makes it clear that he was only claiming that ’lwt and wlt were only “etymologically very close to Goliath” and that they were not in fact “Goliath inscriptions”. Rollston then writes that “Maeir is a very good archaeologist, but not an epigrapher or a philologist” – implying that the blame lies with Maeir speaking about a subject that does not “fall within [his] field of expertise”. Rollston has incorrectly laid the blame on Maeir, not on the dilettante journalists at BAR who failed to understand Maeir’s quite correct explanation.
Yet the damage has been done by the time that Maeir attempted to correct the magazine’s mistake. Many media, blogs, and websites subsequently repeated the false claim that the name of Goliath has been found in the hometown of his biblical namesake:
“The evidence that Goliath was not a story invented many years later – as some Bible skeptics have long claimed – comes from an inscribed fragment of pottery. The name on it appears to be none other than Goliath.”
“Maeir … digging at the site of the ancient city of Gath, the place where Goliath lived, found a shard (a broken piece of pottery) containing an inscription in early Semitic style spelling with the name of Goliath.”
– Dr Claude Mariottini, Northern Baptist Seminary
“According to the archaeologist who found the broken piece of pottery with the name “Goliath,” the name was used one hundred years after the time of David. So, it is possible that the name “Goliath” was used to designate a special type of soldier, like “marines” or “navy seals.” If it is proved to be true that Goliath was the name of a champion warrior in the army of the Philistines, then David killed one Goliath and Elhanan killed another Goliath.”
– Dr Claude Mariottini, Northern Baptist Seminary
“A shard of pottery unearthed in a decade-old dig in southern Israel carried an inscription in early Semitic style spelling “Alwat and “Wlt”, likely Philistine renderings of the name Goliath”
– “Goliath’s name found at Israeli dig”, Sydney Morning Herald
All these statements are false, based on media distortions of archaeological findings.