Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ancient Christian Books?

I saw a report this morning about a battle heating up in Jordan about returning some apparently ancient relics that some scholars believe were produced by early Christians.

The report contains some interesting stuff that explains why some professors believes they're authentic:

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.

And . . .

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."

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.

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."

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."

It's a pretty wild story and, if authentic, could shed a lot of light on early Christianity.

I, for one, am a bit hesitant to jump up and down with joy over this discovery for two reasons.

First of all, as a commenter on another blog pointed out, we see stories like this come out around this time every year. Remember how, a few years back, James Cameron found Jesus' family tomb? And how, a few years ago, the Gospel of Judas went viral? I wonder if this isn't another case of over-sensationalism since Holy Week is fast approaching.

The other thing that has me worried is the fact that these books weren't really found in an actual archaeological find. The opening paragraph of the BBC article, while implying that they were, really reveals that they weren't:

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.

So we have one Bedouin describing how he found the books and another claiming his family owned them for a century. This wasn't found by archaeologists. There will be no photos of the books in situ. And yes, while this sort of parallels the discover of the Dead Sea Scrolls, until real archaeologists examine the supposed discovery site, I won't be holding my breath.

Still, it is a pretty cool story.

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