Note: a follow-up comment to this post can be found here.
Last week the BBC reported on an apparent struggle by Jordan to gain return of small books with pages of lead. Robert Pigott’s article claimed
They could be the earliest Christian writing in existence, surviving almost 2,000 years in a Jordanian cave. They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.
As a number of commentators pointed out, the warning signs were there from the beginning.
- There were conflicting reports about how long the books (‘codices’) had been known, one saying they were found in the last five years, another claiming they had been in a family’s possession for 100 years.
- There were even conflicting reports about how many codices were involved, either 20 or 70.
- Early on, expert comment had cast doubt on them.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), however, has dismissed the idea that the books are of any value. Experts who examined some of them, it said, “absolutely doubted their authenticity”. According to the IAA, the books are 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.”
- Even the material of the codices raised suspicion; there have been writings on copper and gold, but never on lead, and why would the writing appear to be cast, rather than etched? Iron would turn red on aging as it rusted, but lead should turn white, the colour of lead oxide.
- Moreover, the individuals associated with the lead codices did not look reliable. Robert Feather, a metallurgist with interests in the Dead Sea Scrolls, has some unusual views on the Copper Scroll. And David Elkington, who with his wife has been involved ‘in a cloak and dagger escapade to safeguard the priceless religious artefacts’, is described as follows on a webpage review of one of his books.
For 20 years David has been led on a revelatory trail through world mythology, linguistics and philology into geophysics, architecture, acoustics, music, neuro-physiology, theology and still further into the all-encompassing, resonant atmosphere of the planet. As his research continued, surprising results emerged. For several years, David has been working with Dr Keith Hearne, the ‘father of lucid dream research’, on a new area of psychology – Geolinguistics – which sees the development of language as a direct result of the Earth’s physical environment.
Given all these things, and the paucity of information being passed on by the intermediaries, it seemed strange that not only the media but some scholars appeared taken in by the extravagant claims of the director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad:
They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Margaret Barker, a scholar in Derbyshire (whose views are well-known in academic circles but do not command a wide following) was quoted as saying the codices were likely to be Christian, and Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, commented:
As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck. That struck me as so obviously a Christian image…It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls…I have seen images and also seen one actual lead sheet. I have said nothing publicly yet, but privately I have said only that I think they are unlikely to be forgeries, but I did not use the word ‘genuine’ because it’s not clear what that would mean.
(He was rather more cautious this morning in a radio discussion with me.)
In fact, it turns out that all the items are almost certainly fake, and that David Elkington has known this for some time. Last September he consulted an expert at Oxford, Dr Peter Thonemann, about some similar bronze tablets, and Thonemann had no trouble demonstrating that they were fakes. The clue was in the writing:
The text was incised by someone who did not know the Greek language, since he does not distinguish between the letters lambda and alpha: both are simply represented, in each of the texts, by the [same] shape…The text literally means ‘without grief, farewell! Abgar also known as Eision’. This text, in isolation, is meaningless.
It turns out the section had been copied, without understanding, from a grave inscription that has been exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Amman for the last 50 years. Thonemann concludes his letter to Elkington: ‘This particular bronze tablet is, therefore, a modern forgery, produced in Jordan within the last fifty years. I would stake my career on it.’
Dan McClellan has since shown that the lead tablets include images reproduced from the bronze ones using the same mould.
So, why was this story given any time at all? After all, such forgeries are appearing all the time.
I believe that the most significant reason is the continuing set-up by the media of academic ‘objectivity’ over against gullible faith. This is seen in the headline of today’s article in the Telegraph:
Could this couple’s Bible ‘codices’ tell the true story of Christ’s life?
The implicit suggestion here is that the stories we already have are unreliable. Journalists are looking for a story, and people like the Elkingtons are gasping for the oxygen of publicity for their eccentric ideas. But academics are drawn into this too; Francesca Stavrakopoulou has been parading this idea on BBC 2 for the last three weeks.
It is a strange myth to keep peddling, not least in view of the very large proportion of academics who are themselves working from a faith perspective, both within universities and within theological colleges and seminaries. It is damaging for the churches—but this incident shows it is also damaging for the reputation of theology and biblical studies as academic disciplines. Given the impending shortage of Government funding of Higher Education in the Humanities, this does not look like a smart move.