Although the name Erich von Däniken may be more familiar, Zecharia
Sitchin is arguably the most important proponent of the ancient
astronaut hypothesis over the last several decades. One cannot go into
a Barnes & Noble and not find his books prominently displayed in
the New Age section. Why? Because both Sitchin and his readers have
cast him as something von Däniken is not: a scholar of ancient
languages and texts. Sitchin’s name therefore carries academic
authority in defense of the idea that extraterrestrials visited earth
millennia ago, spawning the human race through genetic manipulation and
fostering civilization’s major advancements, including Judaism and
Christianity. That may sound silly, but tens of millions of readers
take it seriously. But should they?
One of the advantages Sitchin has had over his career is the fact
that few people could question his “translations” of ancient Sumerian
tablets or the Hebrew Bible, or some obscure Aramaic text. He had
readers over an academic barrel, not because his work was academically
sound, but because these fields are so arcane. Realistically, how many
people do this sort of work?
The answer is “not many,” but I’m one of them.
Since 2001 I’ve tried to alert people to the fact that Sitchin is no
expert in any ancient language. If he was certain things would be
transparent and true.
First, scholars provide their credentials to the public, not for the
purpose of boasting, but to enable the non-specialist to verify
expertise. It might sound trite, but this is one of the reasons
doctors, lawyers and auto mechanics put diplomas, licenses, and
certifications on their office wall. The public needs to know the one
rendering a service is competent and willing to be examined for
expertise. Sitchin has no credentials and has never offered any. All we
have is the foreword to his books describing him as a journalist and an
expert in a range of ancient languages. Just because his publisher
markets his work well doesn’t mean it’s true. What Sitchin should do is
tell us where he got his training so readers can verify his credentials.
Second, genuine scholars don’t make mistakes in their areas of
expertise that a trainee or beginner would commit. The ancient language
blunders committed by Sitchin are truly startling. I’ve documented
Sitchin’s inability to tell Aramaic from Hebrew, to understand simple
Hebrew grammatical features (e.g., subject-verb agreement), and the
fact that the Sumerians and Mesopotamians would disagree with his
interpretation of their own vocabulary.
This last example is the easiest for non-specialists to follow and
judge Sitchin. The Mesopotamian scribes who inherited and utilized the
Sumerian script for their own written language (Akkadian) created
bilingual dictionaries (called “lexical lists” by scholars) between
their language and Sumerian. Akkadian is very well known (it is
related to Hebrew) and so we can get firsthand definitions to Sumerian
words. Simply put, they are at odds with Sitchin’s phony translations.
Third, bona fide scholars are driven by the desire to be accurate.
Hopefully the motivation is honesty, but at the very least, scholars
know that other members of their guild will see their work and judge
its quality. In academia this is called “peer review.” Scholars who
want to contribute to their field offer articles and books that will be
reviewed and publicly critiqued by their peers. Peer review is critical
in fields like medicine since the ideas put forth in medical journals
can mean life or death. That may not be the case in ancient studies,
but peer review is the primary means to validate or reject quality
scholarship. A simple author search in a religion or humanities
database available at any college or public library will reveal that
Zecharia Sitchin has never put his theories forward in scholarly
publications where they can be reviewed by experts in the fields in
which he is supposed to be expert. Instead, he writes for the
non-specialist who cannot evaluate his work. That Sitchin has no
peer-reviewed publications is an indictment on his desire to have his
work tested, and perhaps even his ability to write anything that
experts would not think ridiculous.
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