Why a world premiere of precious biblical artifacts is in quiet Oklahoma
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'We want to make archaeology great again'

Why a world premiere of precious biblical artifacts is in quiet Oklahoma

Through August 19, a select few in the middle of America's vast Bible Belt can see rare First Temple objects -- that most may only ever see online

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar at a reception in Jerusalem's King David Hotel on June 10, 2018. (courtesy)
    Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar at a reception in Jerusalem's King David Hotel on June 10, 2018. (courtesy)
  • Isaiah bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which may have belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)
    Isaiah bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which may have belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)
  • A much younger Brent-Nagtegaal, then a Herbert W. Armstong College student, at the Ophel excavations (courtesy)
    A much younger Brent-Nagtegaal, then a Herbert W. Armstong College student, at the Ophel excavations (courtesy)
  • A seal impression of King Hezekiah unearthed in the Ophel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology (ourtesy of Eilat Mazar; photo by Ouria Tadmor)
    A seal impression of King Hezekiah unearthed in the Ophel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology (ourtesy of Eilat Mazar; photo by Ouria Tadmor)
  • Herbert W. Armstrong students digging at the Ophel excavations in 2018. (Eilat Mazar)
    Herbert W. Armstrong students digging at the Ophel excavations in 2018. (Eilat Mazar)
  • A student from Armstrong College holds a coin discovered at the Ophel archaeological dig outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, where a hoard of rare bronze coins from the Jewish Revolt was recently discovered, dating to circa 66-70CE. (Eilat Mazar)
    A student from Armstrong College holds a coin discovered at the Ophel archaeological dig outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, where a hoard of rare bronze coins from the Jewish Revolt was recently discovered, dating to circa 66-70CE. (Eilat Mazar)

A rare world premiere exhibit of ancient biblical-era artifacts was launched this week at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma. Located in the middle of lush green fields, the massive, pillared auditorium — complete with a water sculpture at its entrance — is an unlikely forum for the first ever display of tangible proof of the biblical King Hezekiah and Prophet Isaiah.

For the first time in the world, seal impressions or bullae discovered in 2009-2010 in Jerusalem’s Old City at the Ophel excavations conducted under Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar are on show to the general public in the exhibit “Seals of Isaiah and King Hezekiah Discovered.” Other finds, such as a large cache of 2,000-year-old coins from the Jewish revolt discovered earlier this year in a cave near the Ophel, are also having their premiere.

Still more rare First Temple Period artifacts are also on display, largely taken from Tel Lachish and Tel Beersheva excavations. The weapons, ceramics and weigh stones are striking. But the explainer films, interactive programmed tablets, reproductions of key finds, including the British Museum’s Lachish relief, as well as a huge scale cross-section of Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem, all shore up the historicity of the biblical story and the 8th century BCE Assyrian siege. This narrative is clearly spelled out in the showcases throughout the attractive auditorium lobby.

The exhibit is the fruit of a 50-year partnership between a group of steadfast Christians and generations of the archaeological Mazar family. And it is impressive.

But who will see it?

On June 10, the exhibit was simultaneously launched with a bi-national festive opening in Edmond and at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Some 500 people attended in Oklahoma, with a video link to the 100 Israeli VIPS milling in the majestic Jerusalem landmark. There were speeches from Mazar, Deputy Minister Michael Oren and Gerald Flurry, chairman of the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation, the Oklahoma-based group.

Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City, is located smack dab in the Bible Belt. Several church bus tours are already scheduled to make their way there, according to the exhibit’s curator, Brad MacDonald, bringing 40-50 visitors each.

But in conversation in Jerusalem the day after the grand opening, vice president of the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation Stephen Flurry seems untroubled when he estimates that only some 10-15 individuals will trickle in each day.

That’s where the exhibit’s smart online presence takes up the gauntlet.

Interested surfers can attend the exhibit virtually through its dramatic YouTube videos, highlighting the thoughtful artifact display and the surrounding explanatory material.

In many ways, the Armstrong Foundation’s online presence is of much more relevance than its onsite exhibit.

Only a click or two brings a viewer to a seemingly endless font of information about the artifacts themselves and the biblical history. It is all housed on the WatchJerusalem.com website, one of the several media outlets connected to the foundation, its associated Philadelphia Church of God, and its seminary, the Herbert W. Armstrong College.

There is no pretense of scientific skepticism in the exhibit. The foundation’s goal is to “bring the Bible to life,” says Flurry, who lives outside of Birmingham, United Kingdom, at a second Armstrong College seminary.

King Hezekiah Bulla on show at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma, June 2018. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo: Reese Zoellner/Watch Jerusalem)

“We wanted a focused story based on the biblical narrative. By the time you leave, you’ve gotten the story,” he says.

Archaeology is a tangible way to connect with the holy text. The partnership with Mazar, Flurry says, is natural. “She really considers the Bible to be a resource and has great respect for the Bible,” he says.

The Philadelphia Church of God poured half a million dollars into supporting the excavations this year, including student expenses. Flurry estimates many tens of thousands more were spent on this exhibit. These expenses are disproportionately large swaths of the church budget, which flows from a 5,000-strong membership and up to 20,000 additional donors.

Uncomfortable with the money talk, Flurry admits when pressed that the grant for the dig “is not something we sneeze at. We just have a different work than traditional Christian churches: We’re putting our resources into getting the message out to the world about the soon-coming kingdom of God.”

An exhibit like this is a way to raise awareness of the truth of the Bible.

At the same time, says Flurry, the scientific integrity of the finds is  eminently respected. He repeats a mantra-like quote attributed to scholar Mazar that is used on the exhibit’s promotional material: “Let the stones speak.”

Stephen Flurry, president of Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmond, Oklahoma (left), and archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar at a reception in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on June 10, 2018. (courtesy)

An unlikely 50-year partnership

Mazar takes the podium at the posh King David Hotel on Sunday evening, addressing a crowd well beyond its walls.

“This is a celebration day for all our friends and especially for the lovers of Israel and the Bible,” she says, before quickly outlining the greatest hits of the 5,000 years of Jerusalem’s history. She touches on a clear record of the name of “Yerushalem” on Egyptian papyrus from 4,000 years ago and King Herod’s renovation and expansion of Solomon’s Temple 2,000 years ago.

And then she turns to another historic event: The decades-old partnership between the Mazar family and this group of Sabbath-observant Christians.

“Exactly 50 years, right after the unification of Jerusalem, in February 1968, Prof. Benjamin Mazar, my grandfather, started archaeological excavations on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem right at the foot of the walls of that 2,000-year-old Temple Mount compound. At the end of that year, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Ambassador Cultural Foundation, became the most significant financial supporter of the excavations,” said Mazar.

Herbert W. Armstrong (left) and Prof. Benjamin Mazar present the Jerusalem excavations to the Japanese Ambassador. (courtesy)

Armstrong’s journey to becoming a Christian “cultural ambassador” is a tale in itself. Born in 1892 to a Quaker family in Iowa, he was an advertising man in Oregon before becoming a more observant Christian. Initially, he found truth through the Oregon Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day) where he was ordained in 1931. With differences in theology, he quickly left that church, and in 1933, he began a popular radio devotional, which soon blossomed into the Radio Church of God in 1934.

A media genius, Armstrong began to produce free monthly prophetic publications, filled with his visions of this world and the world to come. At their peak they had a circulation of some 8 million copies and an estimated 20-30 million readership, according to Flurry.

Armstrong’s church evolved into the Worldwide Church of God in 1968, with a multi-campus seminary called Ambassador College, a popular television ministry that would make any evangelical star jealous, and later a humanitarian nonprofit called the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, founded in 1975.

Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar (left) with Gerald Flurry, chairman of the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation, at the Ophel excavation in Jerusalem. (courtesy Eilat Mazar)

At the King David event, Mazar described how Armstrong, after meeting her grandfather in 1968, began sending over hundreds of Ambassador College students, “thus enabling the excavations to be carried out for 10 continuous years as the largest excavations in Israel.

“But something else had happened of no less importance: A miraculous bond of friendship, love and esteem was created right from the beginning between Mr. Armstrong and Prof. Mazar. Such a strong bond that not only lasted until the end of their lives, but continued to inspire us all,” said Mazar.

After Armstrong’s death in 1986, his ministry fell into disarray with infighting and scandal. After several disciples repudiated their former leader’s teachings and fought to gain control of the Worldwide Church of God empire, in 1989, an excommunicated Gerald Flurry decided to start from scratch.

Flurry took up Armstrong’s mantle, founded the Philadelphia Church of God, and attempted to restart Armstrong’s mission. In 1997, after a drawn-out battle, Flurry began to republish Armstrong’s writings.

Stephen Flurry, president of Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmond, Oklahoma, at The Times of Israel Jerusalem office, June 11, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“We had to fight to preserve his legacy,” says Stephen Flurry, Gerald’s son.

Like Armstrong’s church, the Philadelphia Church of God also observes the Sabbath on Saturday.

“We teach the Bible, from Genesis to [the Book of] Revelation,” says Flurry, “and a lot comes from the Hebrew Bible.”

The church’s major holidays coincide with Jewish holidays, including Passover, in which the members eat unleavened bread, and the Feast of the Trumpets, and Feast of the Tabernacles.

Also in the footsteps of Armstrong’s church, there is a marked multimedia presence, with international television broadcasts, a monthly magazine and several websites, including the online news sources The Trumpet and Watch Jerusalem, which uploaded the King David event as well as the entire body of exhibit materials.

And another key part of Armstrong legacy was the connection with biblical Jerusalem, and the relationship with the Mazar family, which was rekindled in 2006, through granddaughter Eilat and Stephen Flurry.

The Armstrong International Cultural Foundation, which originated as the Philadelphia Foundation in 1996, began to fund her excavations and send seminary students in 2006. In February 2018, it funded Mazar’s entire three-month dig.

Herbert W. Armstrong College students participating in Dr. Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the Ophel, Jerusalem. (courtesy)

A matter of belief — and trust

Brent Nagtegaal, the foundation’s Jerusalem representative, is sitting in the uniquely fruit-scented lobby of the King David Hotel ahead of Sunday’s event. He has participated in every Mazar dig since the restarted relationship in 2006. Mazar, he says, has shared “special memories” of digging with the Ambassador College students as a child. Today, he says, she is like a mother figure to this generation of Armstrong College students who volunteer.

“It feels like a direct continuation of the same legacy,” says the Australian Nagtegaal.

A much younger Brent-Nagtegaal, then a Herbert W. Armstong College student, at the Ophel excavations (courtesy)

For his part, Flurry makes clear the foundation is enthusiastic about continuing this partnership and creating a lasting legacy. The church’s “brethren are very devoted,” he says.

“Eilat, whenever she gets a license, she digs. And we’ll do everything we can to be there,” says Flurry in The Times of Israel offices. (In an email to The Times of Israel, Mazar writes she has been unable to obtain permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority to continue her Ophel excavation for the past five years.)

In digging up proof of Jerusalem’s Israelite past, much of Mazar’s work directly amplifies the stories found in the Bible. For the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation, it is an opportunity to use archaeology as outreach.

“We want to make archaeology great again,” laughs Australian exhibit head curator Brad MacDonald, sitting on a dainty couch next to Nagtegaal in the King David ahead of the Jerusalem event.

“We are actively looking for opportunities to play a role or collaborate and make it sexy — something young people can get into,” says MacDonald.

Herbert W. Armstrong students digging at the Ophel excavations in 2018. (Eilat Mazar)

According to a recent analysis of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, “Recent surveys have found that younger adults are far less likely than older generations to identify with a religion, believe in God or engage in a variety of religious practices.” The studies are borne out internationally. Could archaeology be a workaround?

Acknowledging that religion is a sticky subject, both in Israel and in the United States, Nagtegaal replies that archaeology is “not religion, it’s history. It bolsters the accuracy of the Bible.”

First Temple iron arrowheads from Tel Lachish, on show at the Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond, Oklahoma, June 2018. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo: Reese Zoellner/Watch Jerusalem)

Suspension of disbelief

Accuracy is definitely the goal in all research, including archaeology. But when the subjects of study are long dead, many facets are open to interpretation.

The main stars of the Oklahoma exhibit, the Hezekiah and Isaiah seal impressions, are one such example. Could they really have belonged to the biblical king and his chief adviser?

Isaiah Bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which potentially belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. ( Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)

According to Mazar, “the identification of the seal impression of King Hezekiah is very certain, beyond any shadow of doubt, as you can read for yourself.” She reads out the clear Hebrew inscription at the King David event, “‘Belonging to King Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, King of Judah.'”

The other seal, she acknowledges, is much less certain. Upon its publication earlier this year as a goodbye present to the longtime, retiring editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review Hershel Shanks, the claim that the seal impression was connected to the famous prophet was met with skepticism. In her King David Hotel presentation, Mazar herself introduces the find as “maybe the seal impression by Prophet Isaiah.”

Discovered among dozens of other finds also from the 8th century, only 200 meters from each other, the impressions were used to seal containers, papyrus documents and letters, and even fabric bags.

Mazar says that this broken 1-centimeter impression bearing the name Isaiah was used to seal a linen bag.

“You may ask yourselves how come the prophets had to seal a linen bag? This is when you have to imagine… that this bag may have held the bunch of dried figs used by the prophet Isaiah to cure King Hezekiah from a life-threatening skin disease. Not just figs, dried figs. These figs had to be sealed, they were very special,” she says.

She offers this link to a biblical story not as proof, but rather as a possibility.

“But there is a major problem with the identification of Isaiah,” she says, explaining that “whoever imprinted the seal on the soft clay, possibly the prophet Isaiah himself,” left a fingerprint which damaged the suspected last letter — aleph — of the word navi, Hebrew for prophet. Without that letter, it appears to be a father’s name, which was customary to be inscribed on personal seals.

Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar at a reception in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on June 10, 2018. (courtesy)

“But really? What are the chances in the world that this Isaiah is just another person, with a father named Navi?” she asks.

“This is a question left for each and every one of you to decide,” she says, “Or to leave open until more seal impressions leave us with a definite answer.”

Mazar, with the help of the Armstrong Foundation, will clearly continue to search for these tangible answers.

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