One of my ongoing irritants is when an otherwise-respectable news source — such as the BBC — gives its journalistic imprimatur to ‘news’ which is clearly questionable without even thinking too hard or (worse) as a precursor to a documentary which will be appearing later on some television station, such as, well, the BBC. A few months ago I participated in an official discussion about the BBC’s coverage of science stories and pointed out that they don’t seem to appreciate their responsibility in reporting ALL news responsibly because — especially in the area of ‘archaeological discovery’ — they are considered a worthy source for other news agencies to pick up. In other words, if the BBC says it, it must be true (Ipse dixit!). Unfortunately, the BBC has just ‘done it again’ and have given legitimacy to a story which a twelve-year-old might be able to pick apart.
The story seems to have originated in the Jewish Chronicle at the beginning of March 2011 … here’s the incipit of their version:
Robert Feather is out to prove the sceptics wrong. A metallurgist with a passion for archaeology, he has been asked to help authenticate what he believes could be one of the most exciting religious discoveries since the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The West London Synagogue member has previously published a book on the Copper Scroll, the Dead Sea Scroll thought to hold clues about the location of buried Temple treasure.Now he is trying to establish the origins of a mysterious cache of metal books which could be linked to the Kabbalah.
The objects belong to Hassan Saeda, a Bedouin farmer in Galilee who says they have been in his family’s possession since his great-grandfather found them in a cave in Jordan, a century ago.
His collection consists of more than 20 codices (early books), cast mostly in lead and containing cryptic messages in Hebrew and Greek along with symbols such as the menorah. In various places, the Hebrew letters appear to stand for Bar Kochba, leader of the second-century Judean revolt against the Romans; and the talmudic mystic Shimon bar Yochai, who hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years.
“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.”
Okay … let’s stop there and just note some things: we have 20 codices (that’s a rather large number, but not suspicious in itself), made from cast lead (whiskey tango foxtrot … first alarms should be going off), then we get phrases like “Kabbalah-related” and “magical incantation style of writiing” (second set of alarms go off). Alarms might also go off for some with the mention of Robert Feather’s involvement (he has ‘interesting’ interpretations of the Copper Scroll and assorted other things).
Then the article goes on to give some expert opinions:
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.”
Professor Andre Lemaire, an expert in ancient inscriptions from the Sorbonne, was also dubious, saying the writing on some of the codices he had seen made no sense and it was “a question apparently of sophisticated fakes”.
… which are some pretty weighty opinions and should be enough to be ‘end of story’. Of course, it wouldn’t be for a metallurgist dabbling in a field he seems to have no real credentials in, and once again we are presented with the ‘outsider taking on the establishment’, which the press seems to love so very much:
Undeterred, Mr Feather instead cites the findings of Peter Northover, a metals analyst at Oxford University. Conducting tests on two samples of metal from one book, Dr Northover concluded that their composition was “consistent with a range of ancient lead,” and that it was clear from the surface corrosion that the book was “not a recent production”.
One might cynically suggest that a metallurgist might know of some ways to corrode lead convincingly, but we’ll leave that aside for the IAA’s opinion:
The IAA remains unconvinced, arguing that the metal could have been taken from an ancient coffin while the messages could have been fabricated later.
… or indeed, from a stash of lead curses which wasn’t as interesting to the finders. In any event:
But Sasson Bar-Oz, a lawyer representing Mr Saeda, the artefacts’ owner, believes that the IAA did not carry out extensive enough checks. “My opinion, after a lot of time on this project,” he said, ” is that they are genuine.”
Now there is fresh hope for Mr Feather, who was approached to help Mr Saeda because of his expertise in metal. A piece of leather, bearing the image of a crocodile, which also turned up with the metal books, was sent for carbon dating. The results, just back, indicate it is nearly 2,000 years old. But Mr Feather said that the dating needed to be corroborated by other tests, currently being conducted, before he could be confident of its accuracy.
The article continues/concludes with what is, I guess, the ANE-equivalent of ‘appeal to Schliemann’ which we get in the Classics world. That is, whenever someone comes up with a nutty theory about ancient Greece or Rome (say, about Atlantis), they usually resort to saying something along the lines of ‘no one believed Troy was real either’. In this case, the appeal is to something called the Shapira Strips, which I confess I’ve never heard of, and which don’t seem to be a very strong comparison.
So at the beginning of the month, the story was still somewhat obscure, press-wise. Then last week, the Daily Mail picked up the story — this is, of course, the sort of thing which the Daily Mail has no problem presenting as ‘news’. To be fair, they seem to base their story on something which appeared in the Sunday Times, and sadly, that must be behind a paywall now. Whatever the case, the opening grafs of their coverage shows the incredible new direction this story is being taken:
Artefacts discovered in a remote cave in Jordan could hold a contemporary account of the last years of Jesus.
The find of scrolls and 70 lead codices – tiny credit-card-sized volumes containing ancient Hebrew script talking of the Messiah and the Resurrection – has excited biblical scholars.
Much of the writing is in code, but experts have deciphered images, symbols and a few words and the texts could be 2,000 years old.
So now we have 70 codices (possibly a typo), but now — and in keeping with the Lenten season of course — we have a connection to Jesus and the resurrection! Skipping a bit, we get another important detail:
The treasure trove was found five years ago by an Israeli Bedouin and may have been around since the 1st century, around the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and Resurrection.
Note that we’ve gone from these being found by someone’s grandfather a hundred years ago to them being found five years ago. Which is it? Dare we mention that the movie version of the DaVinci Code came out five years ago too? The story continues with some scholarly opinion and just a pinch of ‘intrigue’ thrown in:
There is a thriving market in Middle Eastern antiquities and many shadowy figures involved. One archeologist has allegedly received death threats.
A number of experts have examined the writings, including Margaret Barker, a former president of the Society for Old testament Study with a renowned knowledge of early Christian studies.
She told the Sunday Times how the intrigue surrounding the artefacts was similar to the black market secrecy with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.
Ms Barker said: ‘There has been lots of shenanigans. Vast sums of money have been mentioned with up to £250,000 being suggested as the price for just one piece.’
She has had access to photographs taken of the codices and scrolls, and is wary of confirming their authenticity.
But she said if the material is genuine then the books could be ‘vital and unique’ evidence of the earliest Christians.
‘If they are a forgery, what are they are forgery of?’ she said.’ Most fakes are drawn from existing material, but there is nothing like this that I have seen.’
After a reiteration of the dating tests, the Daily Mail‘s coverage finishes:
However, Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University is convinced the codices are genuine after studying one.
He has told colleagues privately that he believes the find is unlikely to have been forged, say the Sunday Times.
- via: Are lead tablets discovered in a remote cave in Jordan the secret writings about the last years of Jesus?
So the Mail’s coverage ends by taking us into ‘friend of a friend’ territory — folks definitely should see what Davies says at Jim West’s blog (which also suggests the find comes from two years ago) … something strange going on there. So far so good … we’ve seen silliness on the Internet before and don’t really get too excited about it any more. But then the BBC picks up the story, and — perhaps to make it look more serious — dresses it up in the guise of an antiquities dispute. Here’s how their version opens:
A group 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.
A flash flood had exposed two niches inside the cave, one of them marked with a menorah or candlestick, the ancient Jewish religious symbol.
A Jordanian Bedouin opened these plugs, and what he found inside might constitute extremely rare relics of early Christianity.
That is certainly the view of the Jordanian government, which claims they were smuggled into Israel by another Bedouin.
The Israeli Bedouin who currently holds the books has denied smuggling them out of Jordan, and claims they have been in his family for 100 years.
Jordan says it will “exert all efforts at every level” to get the relics repatriated.
Okay … so the five-year vs a-hundred-year problem is given a context, but is still incredibly suspicious. We also seem to have settled on 70 as the number being counted, and the number being counted is 70. The BBC continues with the ‘meat’:
The director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, says the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.
“They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Mr Saad.
“Maybe it will lead to further interpretation and authenticity checks of the material, but the initial information is very encouraging, and it seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery, maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.”
They seem almost incredible claims – so what is the evidence?
The books, or “codices”, were apparently cast in lead, before being bound by lead rings.
Their leaves – which are mostly about the size of a credit card – contain text in Ancient Hebrew, most of which is in code.
If the relics are of early Christian origin rather than Jewish, then they are of huge significance.
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.”
So let’s get back to setting off alarms. First we have this ‘cast lead’ thing again … I would be very happy if anyone can point me to an example of a cast lead codex of any kind from any period. As far as I’m aware, this would have been utterly unprecedented at the time. Even Roman military diplomas (in bronze) were incised. Of course, if these ‘books’ were so important, one has to wonder why such a malleable medium such as lead would be used. So that alarm bell is ringing loud and clear. Then we hear (again) of things being written in code, which sets off more alarms. Claims of Jews being forbidden to depict the menorah is utter garbage as well as a simple google image search for ‘menorah mosaic’ will show, and so the alarm bells accrue. Finally (for now, I suppose) alarm bells must go off if one of the folks involved is given the label “scholar of religious archaeology”, which clearly indicates we ain’t dealing with a professional in this area. Indeed, David Elkington has been working in the area of ‘religion’, as can be seen from a webpage which reviews his book, In the Name of the Gods (inter alia):
He trained as an artist at the Bath Academy of Art where an interest in the relationship between Christian myth and sacred sites was fuelled. Research for ‘In the Name of the Gods’ began in earnest in the early 1980s when he walked through Europe and the Middle East on a quest to understand and appreciate the mind of Ancient Man and his relationship with particular sites upon the Earth. 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.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how seriously we can take Mr Elkington’s scholarship. The BBC coverage continues with some more from Professor Davies:
Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, says the most powerful evidence for a Christian origin lies in plates cast into a picture map of the holy city of Jerusalem.
“As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck. That struck me as so obviously a Christian image,” he says.
“There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books too and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem.”
Book found in Jordan The books were bound by lead rings
It is the cross that is the most telling feature, in the shape of a capital T, as the crosses used by Romans for crucifixion were.
“It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls,” says Mr Davies.
… and Ms Barker:
Margaret Barker, an authority on New Testament history, points to the location of the reported discovery as evidence of Christian, rather than purely Jewish, origin.
“We do know that on two occasions groups of refugees from the troubles in Jerusalem fled east, they crossed the Jordan near Jericho and then they fled east to very approximately where these books were said to have been found,” she says.
“[Another] one of the things that is most likely pointing towards a Christian provenance, is that these are not scrolls but books. The Christians were particularly associated with writing in a book form rather than scroll form, and sealed books in particular as part of the secret tradition of early Christianity.”
… then curiously, the BBC coverage closes with a section that isn’t attributed to anyone:
The Book of Revelation refers to such sealed texts.
Another potential link with the Bible is contained in one of the few fragments of text from the collection to have been translated.
It appears with the image of the menorah and reads “I shall walk uprightly”, a sentence that also appears in the Book of Revelation.
While it could be simply a sentiment common in Judaism, it could here be designed to refer to the resurrection.
It is by no means certain that all of the artefacts in the collection are from the same period.
But tests by metallurgists on the badly corroded lead suggest that the books were not made recently.
The archaeology of early Christianity is particularly sparse.
Little is known of the movement after Jesus’ crucifixion until the letters of Paul several decades later, and they illuminate the westward spread of Christianity outside the Jewish world.
Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history.
This sounds like it was taken verbatim from a draft of a documentary proposal.
To sum up, it seems clear to me that this supposed ‘discovery’ stinks on a number of levels:
- the ‘code’ content aspect is suspicious
- the subject matter is suspicious
- the material and method of manufacture is suspicious
- the story of the find is suspicious
- some of the people involved are suspicious (I’m sure things might be said about all those involved, but I don’t have time to dig)
- the opinions of the IAA and Andre Lemaire are pretty much being ignored at this point in the story’s development
All of the articles have photos which are worth looking at, by the way, but all in all, this seems to be just a yet-to-be-written-completely sequel to the James Ossuary … hopefully this story doesn’t flood my mailbox because of the BBC coverage.
But don’t take my word for it, see what some of the Bibliobloggers have been saying:
- Lead Codices about Jesus— the Latter Years? (Ben Witherington)
- Lead Tablets News Story (Larry Hurtado)
- THE LATEST ON THE HEBREW-INSCRIBED LEAD PLATE (Jim Davila)
- Secret Writings’ About the Last Years of Jesus? (Jim West)
- Philip Davies on the ‘Newly Discovered’ ‘Jesus Plates’ (Scrolls, Whatever) (Jim West)
- More on the Lead Codices (Larry Hurtado)
- The Latest on the Lead Books from the BBC and around the Blogosphere( James McGrath)
UPDATE (a short time later): while checking to see if Google had picked up this post yet, I note that David Elkington has (not surprisingly) has actually written a book called The Lead Codices, which came out last May and curiously doesn’t seem to be in stock anywhere. You don’t suppose some media outlet — say, the BBC — has purchased the documentary rights or has purchased the documentary from the purchaser of the documentary rights? Hmmmmmmmmmm ….
UPDATE (a short time after that): seems I’m not the only one who sees DaVinci Code connections: Possible Da Vinci Code Prequel Unearthed | Gawker
UPDATE (August 13, 2012) … it appears as if David Elkington has appeared once again on Coast to Coast and there is an upsurge in interest in this post; as such, I am pointing folks to The Jordan Lead Codices Information Page at the Biblioblog reference library, wherein the totality of the claims made by Elkington are pretty much laid to rest.