The Earliest Christian Documents?

Tom Gilson, author of the always entertaining and informative (and aptly named) Thinking Christian, has linked to a fascinating article about an archaeological find in Jordan that may prove invaluable to understading the first few years of Christianity.

According to Jordan battles to regain 'priceless' Christian relics, an article on BBC News by Robert Pigott, a collection of "70 or so 'books', each with between five and 15 lead leaves bound by lead rings, was apparently discovered in a remote arid valley in northern Jordan somewhere between 2005 and 2007." These books are written in some type of Hebrew code, but they contain several relatively clear Christian symbols. The books are presently believed to date about 2000 years ago -- within the first few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Photos of the book can be found here.

The question, according to the article, is not really about the age of the books as much as the content. The books are acknowledged to be very old, but it cannot easily be determined exactly what they say. Thus, it isn't even clear to this point whether these documents are ancient Jewish writings or they are among the earliest, if not the earliest Christian writings.

At least one expert is leaning towards the former. According to the BBC article,

One of the few people to see the collection is David Elkington, a scholar of ancient religious archaeology who is heading a British team trying to get the lead books safely into a Jordanian museum.

He says they could be "the major discovery of Christian history", adding: "It's a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church."

He believes the most telling evidence for an early Christian origin lies in the images decorating the covers of the books and some of the pages of those which have so far been opened.

Mr Elkington says the relics feature signs that early Christians would have interpreted as indicating Jesus, shown side-by-side with others they would have regarded as representing the presence of God.

"It's talking about the coming of the messiah," he says.

"In the upper square [of one of the book covers] we have the seven-branch menorah, which Jews were utterly forbidden to represent because it resided in the holiest place in the Temple in the presence of God.

"So we have the coming of the messiah to approach the holy of holies, in other words to get legitimacy from God."

Another person who has examined the books, Robert Feather, seems to believe that they are more Jewish than Christian according to Heavy metal secrets from a Mid-East cave. That article states:

"The first time I heard about the discovery, I was extremely cautious," Mr Feather said. "However, when I was given an opportunity to see and examine some examples…and visit the cave where they were said to have come from, my scepticism was allayed."

The books appear to be "Kabbalah-related and the nature of the content indicates a magical incantation style of writing," Mr Feather said. Before 400 CE, almost all ancient codices were made of parchment. The lead codices "predate any form of codex by several hundred years and this particular material was probably chosen to ensure permanency."

If it is like anything else related to early Christianity, I suspect that the books will take years to authenticate and even longer to translate. This is especially true since the Israeli Antiquities Authority doubts their authenticity describing them as a "mixture of incompatible periods and styles without any connection or logic. Such forged motifs can be found in their thousands in the antiquities markets of Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East." Of course, experience shows that the IAA is quick to doubt authenticity of almost any new discovery from this period.

Still, the idea of what these books might say is, to say the least, intriguing to a archaeologicphile like myself. (No idea if archaeologicphile is a word, but it fits.)


Jason Pratt said…
I was curious about whether a cross was included in the imagery--and indeed that seems to be the case (per the Daily Mail article.)

Which tends to weigh in favor of this being a forgery. While not decisively a problem, the general understanding of Christian art motifs is that crosses were avoided until some generations after the horrors of crucifixion became less blatantly obvious and routine experiences (i.e. not until 4th century and afterward.)

A forger might not know this and would be very tempted to make it 'obviously' Christian by adding a cross.

Still, there is no intrinsic reason why a cross couldn't be an illustration either in an early Christian document. Other factors still have to be assessed. (It's just that when I read that, yep, there's a "cross", then I grinned wryly and shook my head... {wry g})

Jason Pratt said…
A (theological) doctor of my acquaintance, who has been visiting Egypt and Israel this month, knows some archaeology students there (at the University of the Holy Land) who have met the owner of these 'metal books' and have photographs of most of the pages--which my friend has himself examined.

Their professors think its metal and nature show that it is only about 400 years old. They are not aware of any substantiation of its content as 'Christian', and are under the impression that the Bedouin who claims to have found them in Jordan (and removed them to Israel) wants them to be Christian so that he can sell them for the most money.

Jason Pratt said…
I've posted an update to this case here on the Cadre Journal.

Things aren't looking good for those lead plates, thanks ironically to a bronze one.


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