Does Archaeological Minimalism Apply Only to the Bible?

Many of us are aware, I’m sure, of the raging debates between biblical maximalists and minimalists, and have even grown accustomed (and perhaps are not altogether unsympathetic) to the inevitable minimalist commentary on the wake of any purportedly significant archaeological discovery in the Bible lands. I was baffled, therefore, when a news item like unto those which have drawn in the past nothing but the sharpest minimalist criticism was posted without trace of condemnation by none other than Jim West, Chief Executive Officer of the Guild of Biblical Minimalists. Our estimable friend excerpts the article, originally posted on Spiegel Online, as follows:

Archeologists have uncovered Martin Luther’s household waste, including beer mugs, toy marbles and a child’s crossbow. The find is being shown in a new exhibition that casts the religious reformer’s private life in a new light. Brother Martin, a stout man, was sitting on the toilet in the Wittenberg Monastery, wearing the black robe of the Augustinian Order, when he was suddenly struck with the fundamental concept of his reformist body of thought. Martin Luther himself noted, in two after-dinner speeches (Nos. 1681 and 3232b), that Protestantism was born in the sewer: “The spiritus sanctus imparted this creation to me on dis cloaca.” [sic] … Excavations in the Wittenberg Monastery have uncovered not only the remains of Luther’s old study, but “a small pit latrine with a lid” in the cellar below, as archeologist Mirko Gutjahr reports. … The digs exposed toys and food remains, broken dishes and grain (dated to the year 1500, using the C-14 method). The archeologists also found his wife’s wedding ring and a hoard of 250 silver coins. The German State Museum of Prehistory will unveil the exhibition of Luther’s personal effects this Friday, to coincide with Reformation Day. The catalogue describes the content of the exhibition as “sensational,” noting that it enables us to reexamine “entire chapters in human life.”

“Now that’s fun!,” saith Jim. But wait a second! How do we know that the “wedding ring” they found in the garbage (!) belonged to Luther’s beloved Katie, any more than we know that the so-called “Seal of Gedaliah” belonged to the character named in II Kings 25:22-26? And for that matter, how do we know that this newly-uncovered latrine is the exact place where, according to popular (i.e., wrong1) belief, Luther had his epiphany, any more than we know that the so-called “Palace of David” was the actual residence of the biblical king? To me this is simply another example of archaeological fudging and journalistic sensationalism, methodologically indistinguishable from fanciful reports of successful excavations of Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Edenunless there exist, shall we say, different evaluative standards for biblical and Reformation archaeological finds. But, as Marion Cotesworth-Hay of Marblehead once put it, “that is a different foxhunt altogether, isn’t it?”

N.B.– Among other things, this post is my shameless attempt to gain access to the above mentioned Guild of Biblical Minimalists by demonstrating that, on odd days and depending on the phases of the moon, I can have sharper minimalistic reactions than Jim West. At the very least I deserve to be included among Those Barely Tolerated by the Guild, though I’m not sure that I wish to be associated with Anson Rainey. Also, this post is a direct response to the Irreverend Mr Ker’s gratuitous accusation that I haven’t “blogged anything of substance in weeks” (!).


1Cf. Steven Ozment (The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe [New Haven: Yale, 1980], 230): “In the late Middle Ages, the descriptions of oneself as being in cloaca, in stercore, or in latrina were common religious rhetoric, actually derived from the Bible and connoting a state of utter humility and dependence of God. When Luther described his Reformation insight as occurring ‘in cloaca,’ he was saying no more than that he received his understanding of the righteousness of God after a long period of humble meditation in the tower room–actually the library– of the monastery.” But note that Luther (and his medieval forebears and contemporaries) did mean a bit more than what Ozment suggests here: as David William Kling has succinctly put it, “He was, in the parlance of friars, in cloaca, literally in the toilet, or down in the dumps, tormented with Achfentungen” (The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times [New York: Oxford University Press, 2004], 128).


11 responses to “Does Archaeological Minimalism Apply Only to the Bible?

  1. This makes me feel better about my own practice of doing my daily reading from the Book of Concord while sitting on the toilet every morning.


  2. Charles, you devil! Don’t you tell me that you take Kolb and Wengert’s beautiful edition with you to the commode! Actually, even taking Tappert would be out of the question, for it contains translations by the Great Ones (i.e., Jaroslav Pelikan and Arthur Carl Piepkorn). ;-)

    Good to hear from you, my friend!


  3. Now you make me want to read that Age of Reform which I got years ago so I’d have what appeared to be a good introduction to the history of Protestantism. The names, the dates, and so on, not the doctrines/heresies. It’s right here at my sinister side, near my copy of Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars….


  4. I have a beat-up and underlined Tappert edition with a broken binding that I bought for $10 at Baker Book House–I have to find some way to get Concordia to send me free books;)


  5. Hey, is most of the stuff in the Book of Concord available (in one form or another) in Schaff’s ‘Creeds of Christendom’?


  6. Kevin> Well, get cracking! It is really a most helpful book, though of course, as is often the case with such volumes, lacking precision at points.

    Charles> For your information, I bought my copy of Kolb and Wengert with my hard-earned money back in 2001. ;-) However, I do agree that Concordia should be giving you some books–get back to blogging, my friend, and the doors of the heavenly (i.e., St Louis) storehouses shall be opened!

    (Meanwhile, Tappert will forever hold a special place in my heart. Oh, Jaroslav! Oh, Arthur Carl!)

    Aaron> Alas, no! The Book of Concord is itself a hefty volume–660 pages of confessional texts in the superb Kolb and Wengert edition (2000).


  7. Charles> Thanks for the link! I was unaware of this online edition, but of course, I have the consolation of Kolb and Wengert close at hand alway. ;-)

    Aaron> Yes, I know — you have uncharitably flaunted your meeting Pelikan in the past. ;-)

    Kevin> You better believe it!

    Also, I forgot to say this earlier: what a wonderful book "The Stripping of the Altars" is! (Incidentally, I found it for $11 at a sale table at Borders — the same sale table, in fact, where I found a copy of Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" for $18. But I digress.) I was shaken for days after finishing it. Before Duffy, I had read considerably on the English Reformation, but evidently not enough: I certainly did not realize before then what a crime the implementation of the Reformation in England truly was.


  8. I’ve not gotten to Duffy yet either. I’m kind of dreading The Stripping of the Altars, actually. For instance, I was never able to finish The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, and that was a-reading well before I was Orthodox. I think that Duffy’s tome may lead to a case of the same.

    Anyhow, some of Duffy’s other ones look much less, um, affecting that way. This reminds me to pick up his Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570 and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, both of which look like a real kick.

    Kali kyriaki!


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