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Volume 14, Issue 4: Liturgia

Some Bark

Peter J. Leithart

Sifting through a dusty pile of patristic manuscripts in the Vatican archives some years ago, the Argentine Dominican Jorge Gorges made an astonishing discovery. Between a crude and error-ridden eighth-century copy of Augustine's "Letter 44 to the two Felixes" and a palimpsest containing a portion of the tendentious and pseudonymous polemic of Jerome against Pope Gregory, Gorges found a small leather purse, of obvious antiquity, tied with a sheep-gut cord, from which hung a scrap of parchment (of much more recent origin) with an illegible inscription. Opening the pouch, he carefully removed its contents—a tiny scroll, one Persian and three Roman coins, and a thin, ragged fragment of wood, some twelve centimeters in length and four in width.

Gorges immediately judged the numismatic evidence to be indisputable; the coins were authentic, and in a moment he had formulated the hypothesis that the scroll and wood were of similar age. Gorges found that the scroll was written in two languages. Despite wide experience in linguistics, he was unable to determine the language of the first third of the scroll, and sent it around the Vatican for translation. The last two-thirds were written in a Latin so bizarre in vocabulary, spelling, and grammar that Gorges initially had difficulty translating. Meanwhile, he found a laboratory in Rome that could perform carbon dating tests on the wood fragment. From the moment the purse had fallen onto the table, Gorges later reported, he had a sense of spectacular breakthrough. Just how spectacular, he could not have imagined.
Laboratory tests revealed that the wood fragment was over 5000 years old, and was made of gopher wood. Vatican scholars found that the first part of the scroll was written in a hitherto unknown Semitic language, and, by comparison with Hebrew, Akkadian, and Ugaritic, they began, tentatively, to translate it. Within a month, they released a translation of the first line, which read (including emendations added where the parchment was damaged), "This bark [is] from the gr[eat] boat of the lord over the [wat]ers." The remainder of the scroll was found to be a story of a great flood. Earlier, Gorges had puzzled through the Latin portion, and learned that the scroll claimed that the wood was a relic of the true cross.
It is best to let Gorges describe his conclusions, which he published in a special edition of the popular Vatican Monthly Review of Archeology: "The `lord over the waters' could be none other than Noah, and the scroll that identifies the wood is undoubtedly genuine. There is, moreover, no reason to doubt the authenticity and antiquity of the Latin portion of the scroll, which is written in a Hebraized form of Latin whose provenance could only be first-century Palestine. There is only one conclusion: Somehow, the wood of Noah's ark was preserved and employed in the construction of the cross of our Lord. God not only employed wood both in the first salvation of the world by water and in the final salvation of the world by blood; He employed the same wood. This is the relic of relics, a miraculous sign from God in these our skeptical times, a witness second only to—I daresay, superior to—the revelations of Mary at Fatima."
Gorges published his discoveries (written, appropriately, in a more restrained manner) in several academic journals, and the reaction was immediate. The avenues of attack were the obvious ones—doubt about the translation of the Semitic portion of the scroll, questions concerning the origin of the Latin portion, calls for further tests on the wood fragment, on and on. Some went so far as to charge that the whole thing was a forgery, a charge whose refutation was not aided by the Vatican's firm refusal to let non-Catholics, most especially Free Church Protestants, examine the evidence. Gorges rebutted each critic with energy and erudition, and eventually won the assent of the consensus of archeologists. Gorges died in 1957, to all appearances a vindicated man.
It was thus with considerable surprise (not to say consternation) that I noted in last year's Palestinian Antiquities Annual, which I pulled from a pile of journals while giving my library a spring cleaning, that the controversy has been revived by the billionaire Swiss adventurer, amateur archeologist, and former Olympic speedskater Johann Calsaubon, who, through avenues that remain murky (many suspect bribery or blackmail, if not worse), was permitted to examine the original evidence for himself. In a lecture on a warm spring evening in April 2000 at the University of Geneva, Calsaubon and his team of linguists and archeologists presented an alternative account of Gorges's findings. Two points were conceded: The wood fragment is indeed several thousand years old, and the Latin script claims that the wood is a fragment of the true cross. Calsaubon was highly skeptical of the latter claim, pointing out, in a comment that drew knowing chuckles from the mostly Swiss audience, that there were enough alleged pieces of the cross to build Noah's ark. (According to the report, another, muffled, comment about Mary's breast milk could be distinctly heard only by the dignitaries on the dais.)
Further, Calsaubon's team utterly rejected the Vatican translation of the Semitic portion of the scroll, claiming that the Vatican offering was utterly inept, the result of blunders so elementary that any self-respecting acolyte would have blushed to make them. Calsaubon's alternative translation of the critical first line, now widely accepted, reads: "This bark [is] from the gr[eat] image of the Baal of the [heav]ens." The flood in question is not Noah's flood, but prodigious seasonal rains that the ancient writer attributed to Baal.
During questioning after the Geneva lecture and in interviews since, Calsaubon has refrained from stating whether or not he believes the Vatican deliberately mistranslated the text. Knowing something of Calsaubon's usual appetite for controversy, I suspect he would say that it did.

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