The lead codices—this year’s ‘Gospel of Judas’?
Published: 17 April 2011 (GMT+10)
Ed. note: After the publication of this article, scholars with access to the codices or better images of them exposed them as forgeries—the text was taken from existing inscriptions, and the imagery from coins and various other places. We leave the article in its original form, however, as it may be instructive for people wondering how to think about future sensational alleged artifacts.
Conveniently during the Lenten season, the BBC recently reported on a collection of lead codices that “could be the biggest find in archaeological history”, according to the head of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, “bigger than the Dead Sea Scrolls.”1 Right on cue, it was also picked up by Fox News and other news agencies.
The search for ‘relics’, some preliminary thoughts
There is the natural tendency for Christians to want to have ‘proofs’ of our faith so that we can convince others. So when people claim to have found something ‘extra’ like the James ossuary, or extra-canonical gospels, the Shroud of Turin etc, there’s the natural tendency to want to embrace them as a ‘proof’ of the truth of the Bible. But this ignores all the solid evidence we already have. This includes:
- The Resurrection attested to in writing as early as 15–20 years afterwards in Paul’s writings.
- The entire New Testament canon, written within 60–70 years of Christ’s ministry by eyewitnesses or those informed by them.
- First-century historical corroboration by the non-Christians Josephus and Thallus, and early second-century witnesses Pliny the Younger and Tacitus of the ministry, death, and claimed resurrection of Jesus.
So as tempting as it is to look to the latest ‘discovery’ for evidence of our faith, whether or not a certain find happens to be genuine or not should have no bearing on what we believe.
Contents of the find
According to the BBC the find consists of 70 lead codices (books), mostly around credit-card-size, but including pictures of at least one much larger codex, bound with lead rings. The text is mostly in coded Hebrew (some reports say Greek and Hebrew; one of the available images has what could be interpreted as some form of Greek characters, mixed with non-Greek characters that one person claimed looked like Armenian, but not containing anything really readable2), containing some pictographs, which are mostly Jewish, but some which could be interpreted as Christian. Other reports, however, put the count at “more than 20.” The lead is said to be ancient, based on ‘a type of weathering which is impossible to achieve artificially’. A piece of leather also dated at 2,000 years was also found at the site.3 It would have been nice to get a bit more detail and consistency.
There are two leaves in the codices that have the media much more excited than the scholarly community. The first to be reported on was an alleged map of Jerusalem featuring the city walls and a cross in front of an empty tomb. But this interpretation is disputed, and the cross didn’t become the major symbol of Christianity until after it became a legal religion. The other is what is interpreted to be a picture of Jesus with a crown of thorns on His head. But it could just as easily be Herakles or any other figure; unless the text on the page can be deciphered there’s no ground for identifying the figure as Jesus or any other specific figure.
Media reports versus reality: a plea for caution
While news stories tend toward emphasizing the more ‘fantastic’ possibilities of the significance of the codices (no one would be tempted to read “Politicians squabbling over probable forgeries”, after all), scholars are urging caution. For one thing, the contents of these codices haven’t been released to the scholarly community for analysis, and until that happens, all we have are the hypotheses of people who, even if we put it in the most charitable light possible, have a lot to gain from hyping these as the earliest Christian texts. The few qualified scholars who have seen the texts are deeply suspicious of them. As Dr. Ben Witherington III has said:
It [the collection of codices] needs to go through a battery of authenticity tests as to age etc. Epigraphers need to analyze the language. Historians of art need to analyze the images. And Hassan needs to be carefully cross-examined by a bunch of scholars. Then the codices need to be placed into the hands of a panel of competent scholars to study at length, if and when the authenticity tests show they are ancient, and not yet another modern hoax.4
It is impossible to give a definitive analysis of the codices while the contents are being so closely guarded, but it is possible to give a few preliminary comments:
- It is very difficult to find information about the codices beyond the news stories and blog posts derived from those news stories, and what has been released seems to be contradictory. This could mean that the news agencies have muddled the details, in which case we can’t draw conclusions until we have a better and more thorough idea of what the codices actually entail, or someone is having trouble keeping their story straight, which would point to fraud. Jordan and Israel are squabbling over who gets to keep these potentially priceless (if genuine) artifacts and this has complicated things even more.
- There is a huge market for forged artifacts of this nature, the financial reward, let alone the fame such a discovery would bring, would be ample motivation to fake something like this. But on the other hand, if they were going to forge an early Christian document, wouldn’t it be more intuitive to put it in Greek, rather than Hebrew? And why not mention Jesus outright to make the connection indisputable? And why have it in code which might never be deciphered?
- Even if the find turns out to be genuine, it will still remain to be seen whether it should be associated with Judaism or Christianity. Indeed, some other sources link them not with Christianity, but with Kabalistic Judaism (a mystical sect of Judaism).5,6 That sort of discrepancy either means that it’s so unclear what we have that widely divergent opinions can exist side-by-side, or that the collection of codices contain some that are unrelated to each other (i.e. there’s some of both).
- Even if the codices turn out to be Christian, it still has to be proved that they are early. I am extremely skeptical about the claim that they could be the earliest Christian documents. Some reports say that they’re possibly written in the 30’s by Jesus’ followers. Well yes, they might have been written by Jesus’ followers in the 30’s, we don’t know enough about the codices to rule out anything at this point. But such speculation is irresponsible at best.
- The codex (book) form didn’t become really popular until after the first century; codices for private use would point to a date more in the third or fourth century. The credit-card-sized sheets used for the pages were also used for writing curses, which would then be deposited at the temple of whatever god was going to be exacting the required revenge. If the lead is old, they could have just altered some of these curses.
- Most of the imagery shown in the pictures of the codices seems to be much more Jewish than Christian, and that which is said to be specifically Christian is open to other interpretations. The actual images which are said to constitute the strongest proof of the Christian nature of the documents are disappointingly vague and have no parallel in early Christian imagery. While it is possible that they are so early that they give us an insight into as-yet unknown aspects of Christian imagery, that seems to be a bit optimistic given the other information we have about them.
- The primary ‘scholar’ involved with the find, a Mr. David Elkington, is described by the BBC and others as a scholar of “ancient religious archaeology.” This is not the name of a recognized field of study, and his academic credentials are suspiciously hard to find. In 20017 he was said to be studying for a PhD in an unspecified discipline; his research released in the book In the Name of the Gods has been anything but favorably received by the scholarly community.8 Why would such a no-name, non-credentialed scholar be the one given access to these potentially important codices?
- Mr. Elkington makes a few blunders that make him seem either incompetent or dishonest. For instance, he is quoted in the BBC article as saying that the menorah isn’t depicted in Jewish art. But even a novice knows that it’s common in Jewish art—one finds it all over the place
- It should be noted that the ‘Shapira strips’ are brought up in multiple stories as a possible similar occurrence of something thought to be a forgery but later proved genuine. But contrary to some stories, the Shapira strips are universally still thought to be forgeries, despite some futile attempts to revive interest in them after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority and Professor Andre Lemaire are widely quoted as doubting the value and authenticity of the codices. According to the IAA, the books are "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,” and Prof. Lemaire said that the writings on the codices made no apparent sense and that it was “a question apparently of sophisticated fakes”.9 In short, the only known qualified experts to look at them have argued that they are forgeries.
Recently, it has come to light that Oxford’s Dr. Peter Thonemann has staked his career on the assertion that at least one of the codices (this one a copper one) is a forgery produced in the last 50 years. This is based on some of the ‘Hebrew’ on the codices being lifted from an Aramaic/Greek inscription first published in 1958 from a tombstone.10 This evidence seems particularly damning and is convincing evidence of a rather unintelligent forgery. As such, this doesn’t bode well for the collection as a whole. The major news organizations are however, at the time of writing (5 April), still running irresponsible stories about the codices being ‘the earliest Christian documents’ and them containing ‘the earliest picture of Jesus’. Christians should neither be over-excited at the prospect of ‘new revelation’ such documents could give about earliest Christianity, nor should their faith be challenged by them.
Answering some of the claims about early Christianity?
• It is known that Christians used sealed books to store their secret teaching.
Nothing of the kind is ‘known’. The practice seems more Gnostic than Christian.
• These codices might be the sealed books referred to in Revelation
Well, to be precise, Revelation refers to sealed scrolls. And they didn’t physically exist, as John saw them in a vision. Is some reading comprehension, the most basic knowledge of apocalyptic literature, and the smallest amount of restraint really too much to ask for?
• The books quote “I will walk uprightly” from Revelation
It would help if any of the sources would say where in Revelation it’s quoting from, as this phrase isn’t in Revelation. Psalm 84:11 and Isaiah 57:2 are much more convincing parallels than anything in Revelation.
- R. Piggott, ‘Jordan battles to regain “priceless” Christian relics’, bbc.co.uk, 29 March 2011, last accessed 31 March 2011. Return to text.
- http://www.unicode.org/mail-arch/unicode-ml/y2007-m09/0184.html. Return to text.
- http://rogueclassicism.com/2011/03/30/lead-codices-silliness/. Return to text.
- Ben Witherington III, “Lead or mislead—the curious case of the lead codices” The Bible and Culture, patheos.com/community/bibleandculture, 4 April 2011, last accessed 5 April 2011. Return to text.
- For instance, Rocker S., ‘Heavy metal secrets from a Mid-East cave’, thejc.com, 3 March 2011, last accessed 31 March 2011. Return to text.
- http://www.diggingwithdarren.com/blog/2011/03/23/newly-found-lead-codices-christian-or-kabbalistic/. Return to text.
- http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/conference/speakers/david.htm. Return to text.
- A summary of some of Mr. Elkington’s ‘unique’ ideas can be found at http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/conference/review023.htm. Return to text.
- Rocker S., ‘Heavy metal secrets from a Mid-East cave’, thejc.com, 3 March 2011, last accessed 31 March 2011. Return to text.
- McClellan, D., ‘Peter Thonemann on the lead codices’, danielomcclellan.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/peter-thonemann-on-the-lead-codices, 31 March 2011, last accessed 5 April 2011. Return to text.