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The Ark of the Covenant: Real or Fake?

July 2, 2009

Last week I posted on the apparent news that the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Pauolos, was going to reveal the Ark of Covenant to the world. In the comments on that post, jacob commented “Who cares about a fake ‘Ark of the Covenant.’ ” This is a good question. An even better question to my mind would be what exactly would indicate that the Ark was real or fake?

A good question to go along with first is how much of the Ark needs to be original for it to be real? Perhaps we are expected to believe that a box made with rudimentary  tools on the side of Mt. Sinai is going to be miraculously preserved from the ravages of time and misuse. But I doubt it. The very fact that traditions on how to build the Ark are continued down into the post-exilic period in the priestly sources makes one wonder if their retention was to provide a blueprint for future restoration or replacement.

If we look at other ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the cultic accoutrements we find that provisions are also made for the restoration/replacement of other items. The mīs pî ritual in ancient Mesopotamia provides detailed instructions for the induction of a new cult image. Similarly, the Hittite text CTH 282, “Establishing a New Temple for the Goddess of the Night,” provides a ritual whereby a new cult image in a new place was created while providing continuity to the past. In both texts the new cultic items are not really “new” (or in our parlance, “fake”) they are original. Indeed, Michael Dick has gone so far as to explain ancient rationals towards cult images in terms of the Christian sacrament of the Host. Once the ritual is performed, the image is real.

To my mind this dove tails nicely with  an ancient paradox known sometimes as “The Ship of Theseus.” Plutarch wrote this of that ship:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same. (full text here)

The ship of Theseus was replaced so that no part of it was original, yet the ship wasn’t a recreation or a fake. Why not the same with Ark? If the Ethiopian Orthodox have an Ark, who’s to say it isn’t real?

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