Guest essay: Did a meteorite destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

October 31, 2021 • 10:45 am

Introduction by JAC:  Peter Nothnagle sent me an email with a lot of the information below in it, and I realized that a). he already knew more than I about this issue (for one thing, despite quite a few readers sending me the link to the original paper, I didn’t read the paper, though Peter did), and b). he should get credit for his analysis. Therefore I asked if he could write a short post about the issue of the meteorite/bolide exploding in the Middle East, creating damage that could have given rise to the myth of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorroah. Peter kindly obliged, and I turn you over to him:

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Sodom and Gomorrah In the News

Peter Nothnagle

Professor Ceiling Cat (emeritus) tells me that he has received “gazillions” of emails drawing his attention to a recent scientific paper that proves – yes proves! (to some readers) the Biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here’s the scoop.

A few weeks ago an article was published in Scientific Reports (which appears to be part of Nature) which discussed discoveries at the archaeological site of Tell el-Mammam, near the Dead Sea. Its conclusion was dramatic, and stated right in the title, A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. The authors examined many lines of archaeological evidence, including an alleged 1.5 meter-thick “destruction layer” containing “high-pressure shock metamorphism”, “high-temperature melted minerals”, and even “human bones in the destruction layer”. The destruction was dated to about 1,650 BCE. They conclude that a large meteor or comet exploded in the atmosphere and destroyed the city and surrounding towns. Although the authors primly state that connecting the site with God’s smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Genesis 9:1-28 “is beyond the scope of this investigation”, that seems to be where they’d like to lead the reader. It just might be an example of the common definition of Biblical archaeology, “a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other”.

Now I’m no expert in any of this stuff; I’m just an interested reader. Archaeology is, however, a hobby of mine, and I did smile at the discovery of “human bones in the destruction layer” – heck, I’ve found human bones where a water pipe was being repaired on a side street in Poitiers, France! Human bones are just part of the “background noise” of any place that’s been occupied for many centuries. If the authors of this article don’t know that, I wonder what they do know!

Oh, I answered my own question. Retraction Watch is on the case, and in a piece critical of the article they noted that “the senior author of the study was one Phillip Silvia, an ‘engineer, theologian, archaeologist’ and the director of publications at Trinity Southwest University, an apparently unaccredited evangelical school located in a strip mall in Albuquerque, whose motto is ‘Flexible Adult Higher Education Upholding Biblical Authority.’” Retraction Watch also uncovered some obvious evidence of Photoshopping in the article’s photos. Fishy, to say the least.

Another internet sleuth has written a hilarious series of tweets about this story. Trinity Southwest University is located in Albuquerque, where he himself lives, so he paid them a visit. It turns out to be a storefront in a strip mall, “conveniently located between a Chinese take-out place and a nail salon”, but sadly he found it locked up tight. The university’s phone number is 505-33-BIBLE. The article’s author’s PhD. Is from… Trinity Southwest University, and his dissertation topic was. . .this same archaeological site.

The author is quoted in the Retraction Watch piece partially answering his critics, calling it “a classic example of character assassination substituted for a rational discussion of the evidence”. It’s an interesting point – when does examining a researcher’s possible biases go too far, become an unfair and prejudicial ad hominem? I look forward to readers’ discussion in the comments.

I brought this matter to PCC(e)’s attention as it seems to be another blot on the integrity of scientific journals. The publisher of this article, Nature‘s Scientific Reports, may be familiar to WEIT readers. They say that every submission goes through screening by one of their editors who is “an active researcher in your field”, then peer review, and a final editorial review, before publication. Maybe so, and to be fair, the rest of the articles look pretty legit to my untutored eye. But they sure seem to have missed some obvious problems with this one, and they didn’t sniff out glaring and unreported conflicts of interest by several of the article’s authors, who have books for sale covering this same topic. By the way, publishing an article in Scientific Reports will cost you two thousand dollars – that’s their “article processing charge”. It must take a lot of processing!

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Postscript by JAC: I asked a friend who had published in Nature Scientific Reports about the quality and vetting of papers by the journal, and got this reply:

Scientific Reports is an open access, pay-to-publish, low-review intensity journal, on the PLoS One model. In other words they don’t publish anything but they will accept any coherent paper with a low threshold for rejection. The whole point is to make money. Science has a similar model (Science Advances).

Sodom and Gomorrah afire; Jacob de Wet II, 1680

21 thoughts on “Guest essay: Did a meteorite destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

    1. Apologies to our host – I emailed him a link to a Science Advances paper the other day about recently observed social distancing in bees infected with mites, but without realising that the journal is not as reliable as its parent publication. I see from Wikipedia that it is peer-reviewed, but its 2019 (!) “article processing charge” was $4,500, which suggests not everything is as it should be.

  1. Clicking on the “a hilarious series of tweets” link brings up “Hmm…this page doesn’t exist. Try searching for something else.” Any chance this link could be checked? I’d love to see the humor. Thanks!

    1. I see lots of humor just thinking about the strip mall in Albuqerque. Anything that took place in that New Mexico destination must be true. And with 2 Q’s in the name….say no more.

  2. Peter Nothnagle. Was he the same guy who did that entire essay on Jesus’s historicity around Easter a few years back?

  3. Every paper I read in Sci. Reports in my own field was sloppy and contained suspicious and/or plain wrong results. This might be a result of pay-to-publish paradigm (called open access), which I think sets wrong incentives for publishers.

  4. Any explanation vouchsafed for how the Tunguska-sized airburst transmogrified Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt?

    1. I heard a lecture by the estimable Robert Cargill who explained that the “turned into a pillar of salt” just-so story was probably inspired by naturally-occurring salt columns around the Dead Sea, formed by falling water levels. His photos were indeed very eerie.

      1. Yes, I’ve heard that explanation, too, Peter. But if one takes at face value the contentions in the Scientific Reports paper (which I, of course, do not), that explanation seems to bespeak a bit of overdetermination.

  5. It is of interest that two of the coauthors in the Science Advances paper (Ted Bunch and James Wittke) are participants in the long-running imbroglio at PNAS over whether an impact event caused the Younger Dryas climate blip around 10,000 years ago, Bunch & Wittke being in the impact camp. And someone missing from the new Bunch paper is Steven Collins, who helped get the Tall el-Hammam impact scenario going in the first place, and like Silvia apparently has somewhat diaphanous academic credentials.

  6. Ceiling Cat, I think you are mistaken about Scientific Reports being a “low-review intensity journal”.

    I’ve published there *four* times, and each time, the reviewer comments were extensive, leading to major revisions of each manuscript. I got more-intensive reviews at Scientific Reports than I have at journals that are highly respected for my areas (impact factor 3-6).

    They do charge a publication fee, which is annoying.

    I also note that both Sam Harris and Nicholas Christakis have published in Scientific Reports. So, I wouldn’t write off the venue based purely on the number of things they publish or some crappy ones squeaking through.

  7. The first amber flag was in the abstract. An airburst event … not in itself incredible. But ascribing both this site just north of the Dead Sea and Abu Hureyra in Syria to airbursts … 6 to 7 hundred km apart, and at least several thousand years apart. That’s implying a much higher flux of medium-sized bolides than we’ve evidence for. Two hits in fairly close proximity in a couple of thousand years is a high implied flux. Which if it’s not repeated over the rest of the world, indicates how much the monotheist’s god hates the Levant.
    Lots of blinding with science in there. All this high-temperature flash melting, but not any quenching mineralogy in the melt minerals … I’d have to read closer to put a finger on “that sounds iffy”, but it sounds iffy. Even if the heating rates can be arbitrarily high, the cooling rates are pretty much constrained by physics of the materials.

  8. I’ve got an out of print book called “Worlds In Collision” which explores the idea that the earth had a close collision with the planet Venus during Biblical times. Interesting idea. In any case those are historical accounts that suggest a comet, meteorites, or some kind of astronomical phenomenon.

    1. If you mean Immanuel Velikovsky’s old chestnut from 1950, that one’s credibility expiration date expired many decades ago.

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