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To Biblical Experts, He's a Voice in the Wilderness

Television * Scholars dismiss claims by amateur archeologist Michael Sanders that he's found key religious sites, but two specials will air on NBC.

March 03, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amateur archeologist Michael Sanders persuaded a production company to finance his expedition to the Middle East for more than a million dollars.

He got NBC to air two hourlong "Biblical Mysteries" specials, starting Sunday night, in which Sanders says he has found the location of the original stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, as well as the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But what the Irvine resident hasn't gotten is the remotest respect from professional archeologists and biblical scholars. "There's about one of these guys every month," scoffs Marc Brettler, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Brandeis University.

Adds Sidnie Crawford, a research associate at Harvard Divinity School: "In an area that has just been excavated and searched more than any other area of the world, it stretches credulity."

Sanders, who concedes that he has no formal archeological training, says the two biblical cities and the stone tablets--which, according to the book of Exodus, were handed to Moses by God--are just the start. Sanders says he's raising money for an expedition to Turkey, where he will locate the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden.

The professional community's disdain has not deterred the TV network, which will air the first special on the Ark of the Covenant and Ten Commandments at 7 p.m. Sunday, with the second, on Sodom and Gomorrah, to follow the next Sunday.

John Miller, the NBC executive who bought the show for the network, says he was intrigued when Sanders first approached him. Other NBC shows about ancient history, such as the miniseries "Noah's Ark," had scored well in the ratings, but he says the network couldn't finance the trip.

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When Channel 4 in Great Britain jumped in, NBC licensed it for viewing in the U.S. at a cost of half the usual prime-time special.

"While there might be other Bible scholars, he's the one who happened to come in my door," Miller says.

At one time, "60 Minutes II" was interested in producing a segment on Sanders, a producer with the show says, but it dropped out when NBC got involved. Instead, the show will run in the unenviable time slot opposite the top-rated news magazine.

Many academic experts say Bible stories are myths that may be embellished from a historical occurrence, as opposed to more conservative religious groups who take a literal view. Scholars even debate the existence of biblical kings Solomon and David and whether the Exodus from Egypt occurred.

A city destroyed in an earthquake may have turned into the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, according to the Old Testament, God destroyed because its citizens were sinners.

"Serious Bible scholars do not take these stories as historical fact," Brettler says. "If I had money to spend, I would not spend it on looking for Sodom and Gomorrah because these have the character of religious stories, rather than the character of historical truth."

Even if Sanders found a city, scholars say, who's to say it's Sodom or Gomorrah? It's not like there will be a sign saying "Welcome to Gomorrah."

"Suppose you find a pillar of salt?" says Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. "That doesn't mean that's Lot's wife."

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Sanders, 61, shrugs off his critics. "If you want to set up a debate with your friend at Brandeis University, I would be pleased to have a debate with him," he says excitedly, gesticulating with his arms to accentuate his points.

He says that although he doesn't know whether God performed the miracles, "the historical events described in the Bible are, in fact, historical events, not fairy tales."

Prominent archeologists support his work, he says, but he would not provide their names.

"[My work] will put a new face on the archeology of the Near East," he says.

Sanders, bearded and gray-haired, tells of a life full of adventures. He was born in England, and claims to be descended from King David himself. A 7-foot-long chart of his genealogy is framed on the wall of his three-bedroom house.

He says he has studied parapsychology and at one point became an advisor to royal families in the Persian Gulf.

He grew up Jewish, he says, but he will not discuss his current religious beliefs.

Does he believe in God?

"That's an extremely complex and a complicated question that cannot be explained in a short newspaper article. I'll write a book on it."

Sanders says he was led to Sodom and Gomorrah when he looked at photos of the Earth taken from the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994. The photos, he says, showed two anomalies in the Dead Sea, which lies between Israel and Jordan, and has often been suggested as the region where the two cities existed.

In November 1999, Sanders and a film crew went to the Middle East for five weeks, traveling through Israel, Egypt and Jordan in their quest to prove his theories about Sodom and Gomorrah and the Ten Commandments.

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To look for the cities, Sanders rode in a two-man submarine to become the first person to dive to the bottom of the Dead Sea.

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