Ancient misinterpretation of large bones as mythological giants

A new study provides a useful survey of ancient and early modern discoveries of large bones which were misinterpreted as the remains of giants. (They usually, in fact, belonged to mammoths and whales.)

Marco Romano and Marco Avanzini, “The skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: misinterpretation of Quaternary vertebrates as remains of the mythological giants” Historical Biology (June 2017): 1-24.

The article provides a host of examples. But the short section on biblical giants on pp. 3-4 contains many errors: a quotation from Genesis 6.4 is wrongly cited “Genesis 6.3”. The term “nephilion” should be Heb. “nephilim” or Ar. “Nephilin”. The Anakim are wrongly identified as Amorites in Numbers 13, which is rather the result of a conflation with the differing account in Deuteronomy 1. It has “cube” instead of “cubit”. It confusingly alternates between arabic and roman numerals for the same biblical citations (e.g. “Deuteronomy 2, 10-11”, but “Deuteronomy II, 10”). The phrase “one the vanquished kings” should be “one of the vanquished kings”. It has Italian “Giosuè” for “Joshua”. The citation “Number XXI, 33” should be “Number[s] [XXII], 33”.

Note also earlier studies on this subject by folklorist Adrienne Mayor and biblical scholar Brian Doak.

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Believing the Giant Skeleton Myth

There is a popular internet meme involving fake photographs allegedly portraying skeletons of giant humans. You’ve probably seen a few of these photographs before, for example, the one on the left below (beside the original photograph on the right):

Left: Hoax Giant skeleton photograph; right: The original photograph from a dinosaur dig in Niger, Africa, by the University of Chicago (1993)
Left: Hoax Giant skeleton photograph. Right: The original photograph from a dinosaur dig in Niger, Africa, by the University of Chicago (1993)

A recent article published in the journal SAGE Open asks: what are the characteristics of people likely to believe that the discovery of giant human bones is true?

Participants, drawn predominantly from central Europe, were presented with the following form of the myth:

giant-skeleton-found-in-indiaRecent exploration activity in the northern region of India has uncovered the skeletal remains of a human of phenomenal size. This region of the Indian desert is called the Empty Quarter. The discovery was made by the Indian Division of the National Geographic Team, with support from the Indian Army as the area comes under the jurisdiction of the Army. The exploration team also found tablets that suggest the giant belonged to a race of superhumans that are mentioned in the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic poem from about 200 BC. The government of India has now secured the whole area and no one is allowed to enter except National Geographic personnel.

The National Geographic confirmed in 2007 that the story and accompanying pictures were a hoax. The results of the 2016 study showed that significant predictors of belief in the Giant Skeleton Myth were Openness to Experience, New Age orientation, and anti-science bias:

Results showed that women, as compared with men, and respondents with lower educational qualifications were significantly more likely to believe in the giant skeleton myth, although effect sizes were small. Correlational analysis showed that stronger belief in the giant skeleton myth was significantly associated with greater anti-scientific attitudes, stronger New Age orientation, greater religiosity, stronger superstitious beliefs, lower Openness to Experience scores, and higher Neuroticism scores. However, a multiple regression showed that the only significant predictors of belief in myth were Openness, New Age orientation, and anti-scientific attitudes.

(Viren Swami, Ulrich S. Tran , Stefan Stieger, Jakob Pietschnig, Ingo W. Nader, and Martin Voracek, “Who Believes in the Giant Skeleton Myth? An Examination of Individual Difference Correlates”, SAGE Open (January-March 2016): 1–7, published online 5 January 2016, DOI: 10.1177/2158244015623592)

Thanks to Aren Maeir, director of the archaeological dig at Tell es-Safi/Gath (Goliath’s alleged hometown), for alerting me to this study. Aren also amusingly notes that, “every few months, I get an email asking me about th[ese] finds”!

 

Don Verdean: A Film telling the Truth about Biblical Archaeology

Don Verdeen movie poster, with Sam Rockwell as Don Verdeen, holding the skull of Goliath he "uncovered".
Don Verdeen movie poster, with Sam Rockwell as Don Verdeen, holding the skull of Goliath he “uncovered”.

New at the Box Office (December 11, 2015) is Don Verdean, a film satirizing the world of biblical archaeology. It’s a hard job trying to satirize the field of biblical archaeology – which regularly makes outrageous statements about finds which allegedly support this or that thing in the Bible which themselves seem to be satirical. And what Yosef Garfinkel pronounces about Gath or what Eilat Mazar says about the City of David is often sidesplittingly hilarious – even if unintentionally so.

Yet Don Verdean looks like an entertaining watch for those who see the funny side of biblical archaeology and evangelical culture:

The problem is, as The Atlantic comments, many of those who will get the main joke in Don Verdean have problems laughing at themselves:

Can American Christians take a joke? The question will be tested by the new film Don Verdean, a satire about a Christian archeologist who tours churches showcasing the “biblical” artifacts he has unearthed—from the shears used to cut Samson’s hair to the Goliath’s skull…

Don Verdean probably never had a chance. It’s a satire set in American church culture, which means it will offend those Christians who don’t find that funny,” writes Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic at Christianity Today. “And a lot of its humor relies on the audience’s insider knowledge of the obsessions and verbal tics of a subculture to which many of them don’t belong.”

The line between a giggle and a groan is often thin, and much religious comedy is just ridicule offered in bad taste. But when done right, religious humor in film, television, literature, and stand-up can be a gateway to important conversations and even instill listeners with humility. So Christians need to learn to laugh at themselves.

I’ll be keen to see it, anyway. But I do like to laugh at biblical archaeology.

Aren Maeir on Goliath of Gath / Tell es-Safi: Confluence Archaeology and Biblical History

Schuldenrein

The Indiana Jones show on Voice America, hosted by Dr Joseph Schuldenrein, examines various issues in archaeology. The March 11, 2015 show features an interview with Dr Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi/”Gath” archaeological dig.

The mp3 may be downloaded here. The iTunes file is here.

Goliath gets a mention, too:

A Confluence Archaeology and Biblical History
Episode Description

To be called a Philistine is to evoke an image of one that is hostile or indifferent to culture and arts. The real story of these ancient people may suggest the contrary. The last thirty years has produced an abundance of new archaeological information about the Philistines during the biblical period. The Indy Team focuses on one area today, Goliath’s hometown Gath. Most scholars believe that biblical Gath was located at the site known as Tell es-Safi, one of the largest biblical sites in Israel. We start our interview today with the findings at Gath, a veritable mine of archaeological evidence ranging from the Chalcolithic period (5th mill. BCE) until modern times, and delve into the recent developments in biblical archaeology. Dr. Aren Maeir, director of the Gath/Tell es-Safi Project, shares with us the discoveries of this biblical site and how they may clarify or change our understanding of the history mythologized in scripture.

Given the biblical association of Goliath and Gath, and the identification of Tell es-Safi with one of the two locations that the Bible gives for Gath, the excavations and their director Aren Maeir have been a popular topic at Remnant of Giants. You can also read these other posts about Tell es-Safi and Aren Maeir:

We must be Aren Maeir’s biggest fan!

“Searching for Goliath”: Aren Maeir’s Skype Lecture on the Philistines and Tell es-Safi/ “Gath”

Professor Aren Maeir (Bar Ilan University and director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project) delivered a lecture on the Philistines called “Searching for Goliath” on January 18, 2015. He lectured from a lab at Tell es-Safi, via Skype, to students from Grand Valley State University (Allendale, Michigan).

H/t: Aren Maeir

Does Rapha’ appear on a 9th-Century BCE Jar at Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”)?

In two articles, one co-authored with Esther Eschel, Aren Maeir suggests that he may have found a further example of the term or proper name רפא (rapha’) on a ninth-century BCE jar found  at  Tell es-Safi/(“Gath”). That means that the jar was inscribed during Philistine rule, before the later Judean rule of the city.

The term רפא (rapha’) is sometimes apparently just a proper name (“Raphah”; e.g. 1 Chronicles 8:2). Yet it is also used to describe various giants, including the Goliath of Gath who opposed David’s elite soldiers  (2 Samuel 21:18-22). The plural of the term is the more familiar רפאים (Rephaim), which the Bible uses to describe various ancient heroes and kings, as well as (in Deuteronomy) entire races of giants.

Here is a picture of the jar, along with a larger view of the fragments on which the inscription was found:

rpa

There is a big problem with reading these Phoenician letters,  however, as Aren Maeir and Esther Eschel discuss in the articles. The first letter (reading  right-to-left) is only partial, and does not clearly look like any particular ninth-century r. It could be a d or an ayin. But it is very hard to tell. The second letter is probably a p, but a g is not ruled out by the authors. The final letter (on the left) is also unclear, and while plausibly an aleph, it could be a l.

With this level of uncertainty, Maeir and Eschel conclude,

we tentatively prefer the first suggested reading of  רפא … but one should not rule out the other possible readings

Maeir also suggests that the Tell es-Safi inscription might be compared with stamped-handle inscriptions from no earlier than eight century BCE, which had previously been uncovered at Tell es-Safi, and which also probably evidence the name רפא. If so, “the רפא family might be seen as an important family/clan on a local scale over several generations”. Possibly. But as there is a fundamental uncertainty in reading the letters of the inscription, further conclusions are likewise uncertain. Still, it is an interesting possibility.

The studies also consider the meaning of the רפא root as “healer”, but dismiss it due to the lack of a definite article (and the lack of sufficient space for one in the gap in the jar to the right of the inscription).

I suggest another possibility. The term may be related instead to Akk. rabā’um (‘to be large, great’), and its derivative rabium (< rabūm; ‘leader, chief, prince’). Notably, the well-known personal name Hammurabi is alternatively spelled Hammurapi at Ugarit (ca. 1200 BCE). By the ninth century BCE, the term in West Semitic may arguably have settled with the spelling r-p-ʾ. The derivation is suggested or supported by Joseph Aistleitner, Georg Sauer, George E. Mendenhall, Samuel E. Loewenstamm, and (with more extensive reasoning) Michael L. Brown. The term is sometimes paired with “king” (mlk) in IA Palestine, as on Samaria Ostracon 24 – which may support the parallelism with r-p-ʾ=’prince’. If so, and if the letters should be read this way, the jar may have belonged to a prince or nobleman, rather than to a family with the name רפא.

See:

Maeir, Aren M. ‘The Rephaim in Iron Age Philistia: Evidence of a Multi-Generational Family?’ Pages 289–97 in ‘Vom Leben umfangen’: Ägypten, das Alte Testament und das Gespräch der Religionen. Gedenkschrift für Manfred Görg, eds. S. J. Wimmer and G. Gafus (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014).

Maeir, Aren M., and Esther Eshel. ‘Four Short Alphabetic Inscriptions from Iron Age IIA Tell es-Safi/Gath and Their Contribution for Understanding the Process of the Development of Literacy in Iron Age Philistia.’ In ‘See, I Will Bring a Scroll Recounting What Befell Me’ (Ps 40:8): Epigraphy and Daily Life—From the Bible to the Talmud Dedicated to the Memory of Professor Hanan Eshel, edited by Esther Eshel and Yigal Levin. JAJSup. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, forthcoming.

Maeir, Aren M. ‘The New Seal from Jerusalem: The Gath Connection.’ The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) weblog. 2 March 2008.

Quote of the day: Aren Maeir on Philistine foreskins

OpalimThe quote of the day is from Aren Maeir, chief excavator at Tel es-Safi (“Gath”), regarding the approach in a recent book by Avraham Faust:

Clearly, a more in-depth dialogue between the interpretation of the archaeological remains and the modern, scientific interpretation of the biblical text is required. Bluntly put, even if a sackful of Philistine foreskins were found in an early Iron Age Judahite site, this does not prove that the story of David occurred, as described in the book of Samuel or that all the stories described in this book are true!

– Aren M. Maeir, Review of Avraham Faust, The Archaeology of Israelites Society in Iron Age II (Eisenbrauns, 2012)Review of Biblical Literature, September 2013

Indeed. And have a read of Aren’s whole review of Avraham Faust, which is a significant and weighty response. Aren wears a “velvet fist” in his review, being both broadly appreciative and deeply critical of Faust’s work.

(I admit, though, that I felt a little uncomfortable at Aren’s juxtaposition of the words “bluntly” and “foreskins” in that quote. For as LXX Joshua 5:2 makes clear, circumcision – of the living, at least – should always be carried out with a very sharp knife.)

h/t: Aren Maeir, “Something Interesting That Was Just Published“, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog, 1 October 2013