The Middle East in turmoil, newly discovered ancient texts carried across borders and offered for sale to the highest bidder: It reads like the Dead Sea Scrolls story. Only this is now and some people say these texts could be a Christian type of Dead Sea Scrolls if they are authentic. That's a big if.
British media first reported on the discovery of 70 lead codices, metal plates barely bigger than a credit card, bound together with lead straps. Their text is in ancient Hebrew and Greek. They also contain Christian and Jewish symbols.
The codices are currently in the possession of an Israeli Bedouin who says they've been in his family for 100 years. However the reports also say that they were discovered a few years ago in a cave in a remote area of northwest Jordan. This is near the area where first century Christians fled when Jerusalem was attacked by the Romans.
The Jordanian government is trying to get them back. "They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls," the director of Jordan's Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, told the BBC.
To which Larry Hurtado says, "Chill, take a breath." Hurtado is Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.
Hurtado says dangling such discoveries in front of the media, before making them available to scholars, is becoming a tired game. "I'm impatient with people who go to the press and claim that they have something of enormous scholarly value and do not provide the materials for independent scholarly analysis. Controlling access to information is not how we do business in scholarship."
Other Bible scholars and archaeologists contacted by Christianity Today were equally skeptical. "Don't get too excited until we know what we have," said Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Archaeologists pointed out that any ancient item discovered out of context faces huge hurdles before it can be authenticated and properly dated.
Then on April 1st, no less, the blog Paleojudaica posted a letter from Oxford University lecturer Peter Thonemann, which identified the text from one page of a codex as a crude reproduction of an inscription from an ancient tombstone that has been on display in an Amman museum for the past half century. "The only possible explanation is that the text on the bronze tablet was copied directly from the inscription in the museum," Thonemann wrote.
When the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries were first announced 64 years ago, the story was thought to be too sensational to be true. The 2,000-year old scrolls also surfaced out of context; the caves in which they were stored were not found until later. But expert analysis by William F. Albright confirmed their authenticity.
Similar documents from the early years of Christianity would be a significant find. But right now the odds of this discovery attaining such significance appear extremely slim.
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Previous articles on archaeology and history include:
Miracle Boat | The surreal, sometimes comical story behind the discovery of the Jesus Boat. (Apr. 22, 2010)
What an Ancient Hebrew Note Might Mean | Scholar says five lines of ancient script on a broken piece of pottery confirm Kingdom of Israel's existence in 10th century B.C. Others are cautious. (January 18, 2010)
Looking Back | Claims to new Sodom locations are salted with controversy. (March 12, 2008)
Wall Eyed | Some archaeologists wonder how lucky a colleague can be. (January 14, 2008)