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More on the Lead Codices

March 29, 2011

A few days ago on the blog site of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, I mentioned news reports of a cache of lead codices (http://cscoedinburgh.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/lead-tablets-news-story/).  The BBC have now picked up the story of the recently “discovered” miniature lead codices that some early (and insufficiently cautious) voices have mooted as possibly first-century Christian artefacts.  Here’s the link, which includes the best pictures of samples of these items that I know of at present:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12888421

With nothing more to go on than what the news outlets have provided (all, of course, carefully managed by those who have possession and/or access to the items), I’ll offer some reasons for caution in the face of the extravagant claims made by some.  E.g., the director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, is quoted as saying, “They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and “maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.” 

Chill, dude.  Take a breath.  OK, I know that you need to puff public interest in support of your efforts to obtain possession of these items (which he alleges were illegally taken out of Jordan into Israel), and I know that you also want to get as much publicity out of this as possible for your institution, but these comments only make you look silly.

The reported symbols inscribed in the items seem as/more readily to point to a Jewish origin.  E.g., contra Mr. Elkington, the menorah is a frequently found item in ancient Jewish art (often in grave art).   Philip Davies claims to have seen what he takes to be a representation of Jerusalem and a reference to crucifixion.  That might mean a Christian-produced item, but by no means necessarily.

The writing is reported as some kind of Hebrew but coded.  Until the items are competently read, we don’t even know what their contents are.   The items are miniature codices, of a size that suggests private usage, and, so far as I know, suggests a date much later than the first century (there seems to have been an upswing in the production of miniature codices from ca. 3rd century CE onward). 

Finally, the incidence of the forgery of artefacts is so great that any responsible scholar must express profound hesitation about making any judgement on such items until they have been properly analysed.  Especially in light of the “Jesus bone-box” drama, we might all take a few deep breaths and simply call for the items to be put into the public domain for competent study before more rash and pointless claims are proffered.

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31 Comments
  1. Amanda Greenleaf permalink

    If it were Jewish AND mentioning the resurrection of Jesus, that isn’t a contradiction. Many Jews back then and even now, consider themselves Messianic Jews, meaning they believe that Jesus is the Messiah, just like Christians do.

    • You miss the point. (1) The items DON’T mention Jesus or his resurrection, and (2) are almost certainly fakes created to sell items of pseudo-esoterica.

  2. Steve permalink

    I just wanted to publicly eat my words and say you were – unfortunately – 100% right in everything you wrote.

  3. Jame Dunkt permalink

    I read the stuff published in the Mail Online about these lead codices, and then looked a little further.

    I’d say that more than a few dudes who’ve come across your blog, Prof, will have taken quite a few breaths and definitely chilled, as I have.

    Thanks for your cautionary words. Way kewl, totally.

  4. Frank Shaw permalink

    Larry and everyone else:

    I strongly recommend looking at this link which contains Paul Thonemann’s letter to David Elkington:

    https://curiouspresbyterian.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/peter-thonemann-publishes-emails-between-him-and-forged-lead-codices-owner-david-elkington/

    Larry, see you in SFO in Nov.
    Cheers.

    Frank

  5. Jim permalink

    Larry,

    Thank you for such a balanced and cautious approach to this whole issue. Personally, I can’t wait until they do release the contents of these codices so we can assess them for ourselves and see what’s up. But a good reminder to pump the brakes a few times is always handy. ;)

    Jim

  6. Mary O'Brien permalink

    Very interesting find. Would be great if this is real.
    From a different, skeptical, perspective, we need to slow down because everyone involved has a, sad to say, financial, dog in the hunt.
    Museums need tourists. Museums need funding.
    Archaeologists and the labs need funding.
    Governments want national pride and tourist dollars.
    Dealers want reputation and dollars.
    Someone, somewhere, will want a book and tv deal.
    Just slow down a bit.

  7. Sean permalink

    Mostly off-topic, but what is the point of the whole “CE/BCE” thing? To me, it’s quite disingenuous since it’s based on the same event as BC/AD, but it seems like a desperate attempt to avoid any reference to the fact that our calendar is based on what is a singularly Christian event.

    Why not just use the Jewish calendar if you want to avoid Christ?

    • Yeah, people have different feelings about it. “BCE” = “before the common era”; and “CE” = “common era”. I forget who it was but I was told a major Jewish scholar who used “BC” and “AD” was asked about it and he replied, “I take BC to = ‘before Christianity’ and AD to = ‘After dat’.”

  8. If these are genuine, I sincerely doubt they are evidence for “Christianity.” I perused the Jewish Chronicle link listed above, and they have a whole different take on these codices. According to the article, they contain “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 for 13 years.”

    Robert Feather, who belongs to a West London synagogue, is of the opinion that these books are ” ‘Kabbalah-related and the nature of the content indicates a magical incantation style of writing.’ ”

    And even the reported image T-cross in front of an open tomb in front of a town wall ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12888421 ) could have a non-Christian explanation. Remember, in the siege of Jerusalem, the Romans nailed about 500 people a day to crosses. So this image could be a warning to rebel Jews of their fate should their revolt fail!

    So these codices are evidence of first-century Christianity? Ils ne sont pas besoin de cette hypothe’se for them to be genuine artifacts from the early part of our Common Era!

  9. Randy Jenkins permalink

    (Editor’s note: I’ve inserted my responses in square brackets within Randy’s comment, with “LWH” identifying each one.)

    Despite the lack of any real expert examination of these lead “books”, nevertheless it is fun to indulge in a little speculation, anyway. I am in no way an expert on any subject which might be associated with this “find” (Biblical scholarship, metallurgy etc.), but I guess that won’t stop me from saying a few things.

    Looking at the possibility of forgery first, in another blog was reference to 4 Ezra 14:46 referencing the “seventy [hidden books] which were written last” of the 94 books supposedly written by Ezra and the five scribes. And there are supposedly seventy little lead books found [in some news reports, but not all, LWH]. This right off the bat is suspicious to my mind.

    Now why would anyone make books out of lead? [As noted, we have examples of texts written on metal. LWH] But for a forger to create 70 little books out of lead and to attempt to artificially age them to pass muster as ancient seems like a lot of work, even for a forger. [Ever hear of the Hitler Diaries?? Forgers can do amazing stuff. LWH] Also, isn’t the proposed 1st century AD time frame a little early for bound books in leaf format made from any material? I thought our modern book format didn’t really get going until late Roman times. [From our earliest Christian fragments, mid/late 2nd cent CE, Christians used/preferred the papyrus codex, esp. for the texts they used as scripture. LWH]

    Could there be something special about the lead material itself? So now let me really speculate: Perhaps the Second Temple used lead in some way as well and this was metal salvaged from the destruction of the Second Temple. This would certainly have lent a kind a sacral element to these books. [Randy, no offence intended, but this line of speculation takes us into the Delta quadrant!]

    I would be interested to hear anyone with biblical-historical expertise speculate on the whole issue of “sealed books”. [Letters were regularly sealed, and books can be as well, when one wants to restrict the reading of them. See, e.g., Daniel 8:26; 12:9. LWH]

  10. Like clockwork permalink

    When i saw this hit the news, my first thought was, “Right on time. Easter’s coming.” After finding Jesus’ body, gay animals (epicted on the cover of Time or Newsweek as gay easter bunnies, ‘discovering’ that Jesus walked on water by walking on ice floes in a storm on a lake in the Middle Wast, etc., etc.,… I think your last paragraph can’t be emphasized enough!

  11. Ronald Clidence permalink

    I hope these are authenic.Christianity needs a “shot” in the arm.Here lately especially in other countries Christians are being shot—–in the back!

  12. >The items are miniature codices,
    >of a size that suggests private usage.

    An early attempt at the Kindle, no doubt.

    Blessings,

  13. El Jefe permalink

    It’s difficult to believe from some of the published photographs that all of these codices are as small as 4-7 cm in length. Some of the published photographs show a codex that is considerably larger relative to the examiner’s hands, more consistent with a liturgical use.

    http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/46028/heavy-metal-secrets-a-mid-east-cave

    • You’re right. Thanks for this link, which gives yet additional reports about the items beyond that in the previous news reports. Intereseting that the Israel Antiquities Authority dismisses the items as fakes.

  14. Fredrick permalink

    Just curious about how they created this type of “book” Is the lead hammered from the back, or “dripped” on like a molten lead fountain pen. How common are books made from metal and why aren’t there more around. I suppose any metal is precious and subject to being “recycled”

    • The lead could have been obtained in various ways, e.g., reused lead. Books on metal are known, perhaps the most familiar the “Copper Scroll” from Qumran. But we also know of lead curse tablets: See, e.g., John G. Gager, ed., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells From the Ancient World (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). To my knoweldge, a metal writing surface often = some kind of magical ambiance.

  15. If genuine, this would be an exciting find! It very well could be what some scholars genuinely hope it to be: writings from the earliest Jewish Christian community. Or, it could be a menu from the Restaurant in the Rocks owned by a Petrean entrepreneur before the Roman invasion.

    Standing by for the verdict.

    • Well, yes, in pricniple the items could be these or a number of other things. I find it unlikely that they’re from a Jewish Christian group of the first century. There’s no other evidence (or reason for thinking) that earliest Jewish Christians wrote texts in Hebrew (those from “Palestine” would have spoken Aramaic). If the report of paleo-Hebrew is reliable, this suggests a scribal/learned copyist able to use archaic script. The use of lead is unusual (cf. the metal scrolls from Qumran). The credit-card size of the items (ca. 4-7 cm) is very curious, such sized items typically for personal usage, not community reading. The “codex” form (in this case metal tablets connected with bindings) is no automatic signal of a Christian provenance. Early Christians seem to have preferred the codex (esp. for their scriptural texts), but they didn’t invent the bookform and weren’t the only users of it.
      Let’s desist from speculating what the items might represent, and join in a chorus of demands that they be put into the public light and submitted to a proper and patient anysis by people competent to do it.

      • Emmett permalink

        I have some scant knowledge of paleo-Hebrew script, and from what I can discern on the photographs, this is indeed a variant. Some of the letters are written differently, (e.g. back-to-front lameds), but this is in line with several other variations of this archaic script, and could theoretically be used for dating purposes when compared to other uses of these pecularities. Paleo-Hebrew did not drop completely out of use until after the Bar Kochba rebellion in AD135, and apparently its use here is coded in some way (a form of atbash?). But given the level of sophistication used in modern forgeries, such as the James ossury, it would not be surprising if any well-educated charlatans had covered all these bases. It is a shame that these artefacts were not discovered in situ by archaeologists. It will be interesting to hear from any metalurgy-specialist archaeologists on the ageing of the lead, but even if the lead was found to be ancient, it would still take a detailed forensic analysis to determine that the inscriptions are not a later (i.e. modern) addition, and that they have not been artifically aged.

  16. interested reader permalink

    Wait… they found the bone box of Jesus?… :-)

    (Ok, just kidding about your wording in the last paragraph.)

    Good analysis and a much needed call for scholarly caution.

  17. Steve permalink

    The problem with this kind of thing is we all want it to be real and the fakers know that. But otoh there are several serious people involved with this thing and several years work before this press release came out, so it’s not another jesus bone box at least. As for the guy from Jordan, be fair – his target audience is at home, not the academic community.

    • What is the basis of your information about “several serious people involved . . . . and several years work” behind the press release? I’ve seen no one quoted in the press releases who is (1) a recognized epigrapher of Hebrew, (2) a qualified archaeologist, or (3) a qualified professional in the analysis of the materials in question (i.e., the lab work).
      The “guy from Jordan” is supposed to be a senior administrator of a state facility, and his comments were offered to the Western press, not his own home audience.
      And one more observation: It’s not an accident that items that have been referred to querilously for a year or two suddenly appear in the press just before Easter. Anyone remember when they chose to highlight the “Judas Gospel”? It’s a good time for “religion” stories, that’s all.

      • Steve permalink

        Dear Professor Hurtado, I apologise if my previous message seemed disrepectful, especially since this is your particular area of expertise. In fact, your subsequent message addresses many of the points I would have made – namely, that if these objects are to be properly examined, a commercial deal (and that means a lot of hype a la judas) is unfortunately the only way. My understanding (second-hand) is that the person involved has been over two years putting this deal together including book and tv. The only point of my original post was to say that whereas the jesus bones were obvious rubbish from the start, this thing has a fighting chance, lets say a 10% chance, to be genuine. And if it’s genuine, it hardly matters if it’s 1st century christian or 3rd century jewish, it’s a very very exciting find which maybe could explain a lot of how the codex and the christian community came to be associated. Thanks for your attention – Steve

      • I took no offence at your previous comment, but was simply querying its basis. And can I say that putting together a TV deal is not what you’re supposed to do with something of putative historical significance. Why haven’t the owners provided access by competent scholars? Something to hide? Some aim to get the hype in before they’re found out? No accusations. Just damn good questions.

      • Kevin George permalink

        “Why haven’t the owners provided access by competent scholars? Something to hide? Some aim to get the hype in before they’re found out?” If I had found these a few years ago, it would be because I didn’t know any competent scholars. More recently I have become acquainted with one, but most people probably wouldn’t know who to go to. A bit of hype might help in finding the scholars.

      • Oh, the owners weren’t in any doubt as to where to find proper experts. Their problem was to get around the experts and go for hype.

  18. Joe permalink

    Professor Hurtado: I didn’t know you were from California. “Chill, dude. Take a breath.” I love it! It’s so ‘cool’ to hear such a blunt comment from a scholar of your calibre. Look forward to having more interaction in our own dialect. Thank you for all your hard work and contributions in NT scholarship.

    • I’m not from California, just indulging in a bit of off-hand slang (one of my several vices).

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