For two minutes I was Indiana Jones. For two minutes I was responsible for a discovery that would be housed in the one of the great museums. For two minutes I had pinnacled the proverbial Mount Everest of Biblical Archaeology. For two minutes my friends and colleagues cheered on my victory. For two minutes, days of dusty, hot, fruitless labor had finally surrendered their reward: a real, 2,000-year-old Roman coin from the deep soil of Et-Tel, the Biblical Bethsaida. For two minutes.
I was in Israel in the summer of 2000, digging Bethsaida with an archeological study group from Ouachita Baptist University in conjunction with the University of Nebraska. World-renown Biblical Archaeologist, Dr. Rami Arav, was there leading our excavation. Before our plane could even clear US airspace, I had already promised my team that I would find a coin. It was my obsession. Dr. Arav is a romantic, old-school archaeologist—using classic tools and methods—trowels, sifting screens, buckets, handbrooms, line levels, wheel barrows, and mostly human sweat. So it became clear very quickly that the journey to my ancient mammon was going to be hard work. I refused to give up, even on that morning—one of our last days there.
I knew this ball of dirt in my hand was different the minute I encountered it. I had already cleared hundreds of potsherds from my section of earth. You treat the first little 500-year-old potsherd you find like it's a million dollars, until you realize that the parking lots are paved with them. A week in, I was already jaded to aged pottery. But this new find fit all of the descriptions of an ancient coin—provided to us every single day in Dr. Arav’s afternoon lectures. It was a small dirt clod with something that looked like shale sandwiched in the middle—a little greenish hue tinting the soil. It was the right size and the right color. I held it between my thumb and forefinger and studied it with one eye against the Galilean sky—an investigative posture that surrendered no new information but made me feel quite important. Not to be made a fool, I showed it first to Kevin. His tired eyes got bright. “It really could be one, Bart.” Then I showed it to Dr. Hays. “Hmph. Yeah? Maybe so.” Which was indeed a promising affirmation from my dear Old Testament professor. With great excitement I stood tall on my square of perfectly recessed dirt and raised my hand, calling out “Coin! Coin!” The important people scurried over. We had been at this too long for amateur false alarms. Dr. Arav’s assistant, Elizabeth, was the first to take it from my gloved hand. She smiled. She never smiled. She continued to smile as she gently passed it to Dr. Arav. “Let’s get this cleaned up,” he said, glancing at me with a look of approval. I returned to dusting off the cobblestones in my square of antiquity, two feet down, keeping one eye on the special artifact’s tent—twenty yards away. An official crowd had gathered around my find—evidence that it had passed yet another test towards positive identity. It seemed certain.
Two minutes later Dr. Arav returned to my corner of the dig site with something clenched in his right hand. I dusted off my gloves on the tops of my pants and held out both hands, unfolded like I was receiving Holy Communion. “Israeli Military Apparel Button, 1960s,” he proclaimed in his unmistakable accent. “What?” I was dumbfounded. “IDF. Jacket. Button. No Coin.” He turned to face the entire dig site, “False alarm! Back to work!” I was devastated. I sulked back to my trowel, muttering something about the poor woman in Luke 15. Unfazed by the whole course of events— characteristically even-tempered and calm—Dr. Hays peeked out from his deep hole in the ground next to me, “Watch where you’re standing, please.” I’m sure he meant it as a friendly reminder of the dust I was recklessly kicking up into his hole in my huff, but it meant something more in that moment.
I had become so focused on my “coin” that I had forgotten where I was working—where I was indeed standing. The cobblestones I had dug to in my square and were now standing on top of were part of the original entryway into Bethsaida’s main city in the First Century. These were precious stones that Jesus and his original band of rogue fishermen had once stood upon, 2,000 years before. I took off my right glove and ran my hand across the dusty stones in an act of worship. I took off my heavy boots and soiled socks, placing my bare feet down on that walkway where my Savior once had stood. I had become so focused on the prize that I forgotten the splendor of where I was standing. Come to find out, the prize wasn’t really even worth anything.