"Are Lead Tablets Discovered in a Remote Cave in Jordan the Secret Writings About the Last Years of Jesus?” the Daily Mail wondered. “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 . . . . They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born”: thus the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent. “Containing cryptic messages in Hebrew and Ancient Greek, the codices were etched in an indecipherable code”, added the Daily Telegraph. “Academics speculate that they are actually the lost collection of codices mentioned in the Bible’s Book Of Revelation . . . [they] appear to refer to the Messiah and possibly even to the Crucifixion and Resurrection”: the Mail again.
The man “at the centre of the gripping revelation that has exhilarated biblical scholars and historians alike” (Telegraph) is David Elkington, who regards the books as “the major discovery of Christian history”. His story has passed through several permutations, the latest of which includes death threats, Mafia-style gangs and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here is what he told me when he emailed out of the blue in September last year.
I’m working with Prof. Philip Davies of Sheffield University and Dr. Margaret Barker on a discovery that I made a few years back of a cache of ancient metal codices. They are comprised of lead and of copper – it is one of the copper codices that brings me to you. We think that it has a possible origin in Alexandria at the beginning of the 1st millennium ad (the Bedouin who brought them to me said that his father found them in northern Egypt). It has an inscription in Greek along the top . . . we are seeking to find an expert who might help in determining what it says. Would you have the time and the knowledge to be able to help?
Who could resist? Photographs of a mysterious-looking copper notebook duly arrived. Strange sequences of Greek letters curled around depictions of a palm tree, a walled city, a crocodile and, oddly, Alexander the Great. Curiouser and curiouser! The three lines of Greek all turned out to be variants on the same two puzzling phrases: “. . . without grief, farewell! Abgar, also known as Eision . . .”. The name Abgar is pretty unusual; might he be attested elsewhere? Half an hour’s work in the library turned up the two phrases in their original context: a perfectly ordinary Roman tombstone from Madaba in Jordan, datable to ad 108/9, and currently on display in the Archaeological Museum in Amman. “For Selaman, excellent man, without grief, farewell! Abgar, also known as Eision, son of Monoath, built this tomb for his excellent son, in the third year of the province.”
The mystical kabbalistic inscriptions on Elkington’s copper codex turned out to be mechanical copies of a line from an ancient tombstone. It is as though it carried the words: “or not to be that is the question whether”. Now, if you were looking to produce a plausible-looking sequence of letters in an ancient language, you could do worse than to pop into the British Museum, pick a stone and copy the letter-shapes. I replied to Elkington informing him that this particular “codex” was a modern forgery, produced by a resident of Amman within the last fifty years or so.
Nothing dismayed, Elkington and his colleagues seem to have decided to go ahead and publish their finds. To judge from the photos which have appeared in the press over the past week, all of these supposed early Christian codices are the product of the same Amman workshop as the book I saw last year. The forger’s repertoire is fairly predictable: pseudo-Christian symbols copied from ancient Greek and Judaean coins (palm trees, Hellenistic kings and so forth) interspersed with gibberish-inscriptions clumsily adapted from real ancient texts, Greek and Hebrew.
One can hardly blame the newspapers: no editor could reasonably be expected to resist the combination of Jesus, the Kabbalah, mysterious death threats and a secret code. But it is a bit depressing that no one thought to consult any one of the dozens of British specialists in the field. As the Jewish Chronicle made clear when it originally reported on the find back in early March, those professional scholars who have had sight of these objects have dismissed them as obvious fakes. There are various reasons why we bother to fund research in the arts and humanities and this episode could have been one of them.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
The Messiah codex decoded
Has anyone else noticed that an awful lot of these annual Lenten "the real troof about Christian origins" discoveries seem to be fakes? Ahem ... James ossuary, anybody? Ahem, ahem... The word from Peter Thonemann, Professor of Ancient History at Wadham College, Oxford, on the lead codices recently "discovered" in Jordan via Daniel O. McClellan from The Sunday Times: