Conspiracy Theorists, Legitimate Scholarship, and Lead Tablets

(Updates at the bottom)

The Biblioblog-o-sphere is run amok with talk over the lead tablets recently publicized by sensational media.  (There is also a Wiki page here, though it has not been updated to include today’s new updates, particularly the note from Margaret Barker about her misquotes by the Media) Unfortunately the reports so far have been pretty terrible.  Aside from being generally confusing, vague, and full of false claims (which we shall see below), we have a few people standing tall behind these tablets who, probably, ought to sit down and let the experts handle them.  In this post I wish to address the subject as a whole while engaging with many of the already brilliant posts made by those throughout the Biblioblogging community and also offer some additional thoughts which seem to have been overlooked by many in their analyses.  But first, let’s discuss the main players behind the “discovery”.

David Elkington, though I do not know him personally, seems to me a bit dubious in character (doctorate in what, exactly?).  Perhaps I’m the last person to suggest that an uncredentialed individual can’t bring something useful to the academic table, and I would be a hypocrite if I did.  So don’t get me wrong, that is not my argument.   However his situation is much different than mine.  First, he is labeled as an scholar, expert, and archeologist who has, himself, been portrayed as someone who deciphered the script (“but experts like David have deciphered images, symbols and a few words.. .”) rather than the actual scholars and experts who were sent unclear, foggy pictures of the tablets and of the script.  And none of them are saying much, other than expressing extreme caution and care in how we frame these tablets which is the appropriate measure everyone should be taking.

Second, his background is in art, not history.  He calls himself an Egyptologist…what?   Then someone posted a comment up over at Unsettled Christianity (Joel Watt’s blog) about David Elkington, calling him ‘Paul’ (apparently his real name) and saying he is a “conman” and “needs medical attention.”  I do not know if this is true, since I’ve never met him (and to be frank, I have no desire to meet anyone with an association with the likes of Andrew Collins or Colin Andrews), but I will say that, upon some investigating, I did find that David Elkington and Paul Elkington are one in the same:

Name: (Paul) David Elkington

Email: (Email Removed)

Subject: Graphics

Dates: 1980 – 1983

Date: 17 May, 2004

Comments:

BAA was a real inspiration and I’d love to get back in touch with some of the guys I knew there. It was a whole experience that successfully broke my conformist conditioning, even to the degree of finding myself on a lone streak through Corsham town at dead of night!

I’m now a writer/egyptologist and have a few books out at the moment, but studying at Corsham was a great foundation, even though I didn’t finish the course and left somewhat under a cloud which was later identified as ill-health, now cleared, thank goodness. After leaving I had various jobs in film and TV until I got the ‘egypt’ bug and pursued a new career in the field of ancient history and linguistics. I occasionally saw some of the guys in the years immediately after leaving, but I left the country for a couple of years and I’ve seen no one since returning. I particularly remember my room mate at Church Street, Paul Bridger who was a painter. Paul was best man at my wedding in 1986 – I’d love to get back in touch with him again. We had some extraordinary adventures, but who at Corsham didn’t? (Alas, the marriage didn’t last!) I also remember Cathy Humpries and Sheran Hemmings, also painters, John Woodhouse – a year above me in graphics and Mike Smith from the Corsham DIY shop. Can anybody tell me what happened to Bob Craven lately of ‘The Pack Horse’? I can remember having a temporary job back in 1987 as a gardener. One night there was a call for a gardening team to go to the old Beechfield site and ‘tidy things up’. I wish that I had never gone – it was like the opening to Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: mournful and sad now that it was empty of all presence, an echo of the past. Memory flooded into my skull – it was very upsetting, one really grew very fond of the place! I remember my room mates in my first year, Karen Kinton, ceramics and Anthony Parker, Graphics, from Nottingham. Whatever happened to Kate Luck, our Art History tutor? And Robin Whalley? And Julia Garrett? Tutors all.

I fell in love at Corsham and the feeling of it has never left me, I often raid the memory of it all for ideas in my writing and I am sure that some people out there will recognise themselves as characters in certain of my forthcoming books. Long live Corsham, it was a great privilege and it was a joy.

So to some extent, the poster was correct.  Granted, we must be careful when it comes to anonymous posters since they have intentions of their own, and one can never be certain of that agenda.

Now the other individual, Robert Feather (whom Rogueclassicism rightly points out is metallurgist and not a scholar either), of so-called ‘Holy Lance‘ fame, who is championed in these reports is also portrayed as an expert.  Bob Cargill called Feather out on Bible and Interpretation not too long ago:

Others, like author Robert Feather, have written several books touting the Copper Scroll’s connection to treasures from Egypt. The fact that most scholars have wholly dismissed claims by the Barfields, Golbs, and Feathers of the world has not stopped the latter from publishing books and raking in money from a public more than willing to entertain speculation and sensationalist claims over scholarly consensus and sound academic research.

While Feather might be a great metallurgist, he does not have a background in history (he writes technical manuals).  So the fact that he and Elkington have bizarre, if not outright tragic, beliefs about the past (see Elkington’s odd beliefs here and here) which are more “New Age-y” than real scholarship leads me to automatically wonder on the authenticity of these tablets.  In other words, we’re talking about dilettantes and I’m sure Jim West agrees.

Now, the only thing keeping my interest at all is the involvement of legitimate scholars (like Philip Davies and Margaret Barker) whom I respect; but while Philip has admitted to seeing only pictures and one tablet slab, he is urging caution until a more thorough investigation beyond his (seemingly) cursory involvement–and rightly so.  He writes:

I have seen images and also seen one actual lead sheet. I have said nothing publicly yet, but privately I have said only that I think they are unlikely to be forgeries, but I did not use the word ‘genuine’ because it’s not clear what that would mean.

I do not know what these are are, or exactly how old. Like everyone else, I am waiting to see what further scientific tests show.

I am not so sure I agree with Margaret Barker’s assessment that these are evidence of Christian teachings as early as 33 CE, since that is rather specific for something that has not yet been dated and presented to the Academe.

But that is part of the problem, isn’t it?  There are all these absurd claims being made by the media and it is impossible to know which is true and which is false; we already know Philip Davies was misquoted in one of the earlier press articles as saying the tablets were “genuine”, a statement rather unlike Philip to those of us who have the pleasure of knowing him.  So what can really be gleaned from all of these sensational news articles?

As April DeConick pointed out, there is a lot of confusion here.  An example she uses is the claim to the number of codices found–is it 70 or 20?  But there are so many other discrepancies.  When were these plates discovered?  Was it 5 years ago or 2 years ago?  Is the provenance known or were they found by a Bedouin and kept for years?  Were they smuggled out of Jordan or were they there the whole time?  And what’s up with the code?

That is something odd.  Why is this script in odd forms and code?  And why is there more than one type of script (paleoHebraic and Greek, some have said)?  “Coded script” has meant “spellbook” for many scholars studying magic and mysticism in antiquity, even for early Christians, particularly in the second and third centuries, which raises another problematic aspect of the date of composition given by Barker.  Philip has said there is a “T” shaped cross which he felt was especially “Christian”.  But the cross was not a Christian symbol until, at the earliest possible dating, the second century (Hershel Shanks, one of the individuals who got behind the James ossuary–also proved to be a forgery–actually is less forgiving about the date than I am, suggesting that the cross was not used until the fourth century); it would make no sense for the first Christians to have used the cross as a symbol only to abandon it and then bring it back two hundred years later.  So are these Christian spellbooks from the second century?

And why is it made out of lead?  Lead?  Really?  While some have pointed out the irregularity of lead tablets (April DeConick and David Meadows, as well as others), lead curse tablets are well known to classicists (see also Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World by John G. Gager for Christian examples from the second-sixth centuries; cf. Night’s Black Agents by Daniel Ogden, 138-145, and Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook by Ogden, particularly Ch. 10, 210-226 for a great deal of translated tablets).  Ogden remarks that often in tablets from Egypt and the Near East, even if written in Greek, Hebrew names and words were used, though garbled, as well as images (not unlike those found on other lead tablets).  And these do not have to be curses in a negative sense, but binding spells and prayers have been found on lead slabs as well.  This practice goes back 2400 years.

And what of this supposed talk of resurrections?  I have not read anything from either Philip or Barker of ‘resurrection’ language.  I have to wonder if, these are indeed curse or binding tablets, this language refers to the same sorts of language about the resurrected spirit (rather than a body) which is meant to read the tablets after they cross over.  After all, we know from other lead curse tablets that the spells or prayers are meant to be enacted by those who have crossed over (i.e. ghosts or those from the underworld, or those in heaven or by angels or God, etc…) beyond life.

So is it possible these tablets are not necessarily ‘forged’ (though apparently it is possible that some scholars have already staked their career on them being forged–and Daniel O. McClellan has posted photos of the tablets from the emails which do indeed look to be faked) but are simply being hyped as something they aren’t (i.e. early Christian texts dating to the life of Jesus instead of being lead spellbooks or curse scrolls from late Antiquity)?  I don’t know if either are the case here.  Of course I can only speculate with everyone else since nothing of substance is known.  Even if there are only 20 codices and all of them have several lead tablets in each, the press and those involved have only given the description of perhaps a handful.  So for those who want answers directly, the news is pretty bleak–and bleaker still if there in fact 70 books, since that would greatly increase the amount of information we don’t have.

And of the information we do have, I don’t even think we can say with certainty these are Christian tablets–something I have been saying since the very beginning.  Even with the inclusion of a “T’ symbol and certain messianic images, I’m certain that most scholars (not the rag-tag band of pseudoscholars discussed at the beginning of this article) recognize that these sorts of symbols predate Christianity and there are more sects of Jews from the second temple period than for what we have records (we know of at least 33 sects by name, but there were many, many more we don’t have names for and probably more we don’t even know about).

So it is quite possible that these are easily Jewish rather than Christian, and I’m not so sure that the verdict is easily drawn at all from the evidence.  I highly doubt that the media has more information than the scholars and experts out there, so the seasonal (Easter is around the corner!) drive to promote Christian artifacts is quite strong, it seems, since the first claims made by BBC and others were that these were the “secret writings of the last years of Jesus”–yet Jesus is not even discussed in any of the press releases!  And then there is the claim that these are indeed Christian documents and are probably the earliest yet found!  Again, it’s rubbish.  And unfortunately those most likely to fall prey to these sorts of bogus claims are those without any knowledge of the historical background and information–so everyday laypeople which make up most of the population.

And now on top of that you have the conspiracy of it all, so eloquently pointed out by David Meadows:

Of course, it wouldn’t be for a metallurgist dabbling in a field he seems to have no real credentials in, and once again we are presented with the ‘outsider taking on the establishment’, which the press seems to love so very much.

And it is one that laypeople seem to love as well.  Now add this kook’s crazy story about violence and threats, and you might as well be reading a Dan Brown novel:

I met with British Archeologist David Elkington who heads the British research team investigating the find during early March 2010 and was sworn to secrecy about this discovery and the huge implications that could follow. There is still much more going on behind the scenes than has so far been disclosed. David and his wife, whom I also met had been given armed protection which was the result of both of them being shot at during this investigation and also receiving more death threats. Someone it seems does not want the information on these tablets released.

I must again restate that David/Paul is not an archaeologist.  That aside, this is beyond dubious.  I feel like this is all one big April Fools prank.  When will Philip come out and say “Surprise, I got you!”

In conclusion, I will again stress caution and agree with Larry Hurtado and what he recommends: “Chill, dude.  Take a breath.”  But not only must we be cautious in our speculations and our excitement with this very odd, rather specious find that seems to reflect a tabloid newsreel rather than scholarship, but we must also be careful with our language.  These are not Jesus scrolls, or messianic tablets, or anything really–they’re nothing but inscribed lead tablets until the whole of the Academe can examine and weigh in on them.  They might be elaborate forgeries by two dilettantes or they might be legitimate finds but dated much later than what the dilettantes and newsreels are claiming.

**UPDATE 4/1/11**

The email from Peter Thonemann, posted over at Daniel O. McClellan’s blog is indeed authentic.  This severely hurts the case for the tablets authenticity and makes Elkington look even more suspect.

Also Margaret Barker responds to my inquiry about her statements about the tablets here.

** UPDATE 4/4/11 **

I have posted a new roundup from the weekend, including picture-comparisons from where some of the images on the tablets might have come.  I believe we can now say that the tablets we have been allowed to see are indeed fakes.

 

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22 Responses

  1. just to clarify, I am aware of lead curse tablets an did suggest them as a possible source of the lead. but curse tablets are incised, not cast as far as I’m aware … I don’t know of any cast lead texts and await an example of that …

  2. Thanks for the clarification; According to this site (http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/beginners/creating-materials.shtml) there are curse tablets cast and cut in rectangles. I would have to investigate this further, though.

  3. I interpreted that to mean the sheets were cast but the letters incised … these things seem to have cast letters … or is that me misreading photos?

  4. This site as well: http://www.csad.ox.ac.uk/rib/ribiv/jp4.htm

    “While the planned corpus will include only writing tablets, we also welcome information on other types of ‘documents’ that are currently being found with metal detectors. Military diplomas are texts incised on bronze issued to auxiliary soldiers on their discharge from the army to record their acquisition of Roman citizenship. Individual copper alloy letters from monumental inscriptions are sometimes found which have become detached from their stone setting. Metal artefacts often bear writing of some sort, whether cast, incised or punched. Maker’s stamps and graffiti on vessels, weapons, jewellery, tools and equipment provide evidence of the organisation of production, military supply, commerce and property ownership. Inscriptions on votive plaques or tablets, sometimes in precious metals, may record their dedication to a deity and the name of the donor. Other items, including relatively everyday artefacts, may also register their donation to a deity, while some bear a motto or a record of their being given as a gift. Small rectangular lead labels were attached by cord to either bundles of documents or batches of goods in transit, while lead tags sometimes sealed the ends of such cords. These tags can indicate the goods supplied or those who sent or received them. Metal ingots and lead weights bearing stamps and inscriptions are also not infrequent finds. These sorts of items from Roman Britain are catalogued with descriptions in RIB II.”

    See also: Artefacts in Roman Britain: Their Purpose and Use By Lindsay Allason-Jones, 152

  5. Ah, now I see your meaning. Of that I am unsure. I don’t believe the script is cast…(maybe the images). Which tablet gave you the impression the script had been cast? I might have missed it. We are also working with subpar photographs. Though according to Jim Davila they are (possibly?) inscribed: http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/

  6. my issue is with cast writing on this sort of scale … we’re not talking a single word but 70 pages … if the letters are cast (as opposed to incised, like a diploma or curse tablet) that implies a mold with reverse lettering. we might also infer mass production … from the available photos, much casting of images is there, can’t find a series of words

  7. I think the general perspective from the poor quality images we have is that the script is inscribed. I don’t know what that would mean (maybe the image leafs are mass produced?), but I think that a case could potentially be made for curse tablets (when you consider all the data). When they are from, if they are all authentic, what they might say, and what function they served, are questions which might have to wait until we have better pictures and more information. Maybe they are from another scribal school or some pedagogical enterprise. All very interesting speculations of course.

  8. I think we’ll have to wait to see some images with clear words … the most common photo has some sort of plant that does seem cast … there was another close up photo of a series of dots which seemed cast …

  9. I’ll ask some of my colleagues who have seen some images and let you know what their impressions were. I have a strong hunch they have inscribed text, since there seems to be two or more different types of coded script between the codices (Greek, a form of Hebraic–possibly even some Samaritan). But that remains to be determined overall. I got a look at some of the pictures from the Unicode board, which might be connected to the codices:

    http://www.unicode.org/mail-arch/unicode-ml/y2007-m09/att-0179/01-DSC02868.JPG
    http://www.unicode.org/mail-arch/unicode-ml/y2007-m09/att-0170/01-bok2.bmp

    I am not sure what can be said, but have a look.

  10. thanks … the second one seems definitely cast … the letters are catching the light differently; the first seems cast as well if the letters are compared to the border running along the bottom. the letters in the second seem awfully shiny

  11. Also updated, with new photos of said plates: http://danielomcclellan.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/peter-thonemann-on-the-lead-codices/#comment-1518

    According to Peter Thonemann, assuming the email is authentic and the plates are from the same corpus, the script in inscribed (and if a forgery, done so by modern instruments). Keep in mind too that things can be mirror-inscribed, in that they are done from the back and protrude in the front. That might be why these are reflecting light.

  12. never heard of mirror inscribing either … oh well, the additional photos seem cast as well … I’ll look again in the a. m . on a higher res screen. thanks!

  13. I wouldn’t worry about it; it’s really up in the air. I just can’t believe that people would make essentially 140 casting plates or more for each tablet (assuming 70). It seems more probable that they would just inscribe the tablets if they were going to forge them. Maybe we just need to wait for the documentary to make our decisions. ;-)

  14. [...] Larry doesn’t like to be played when it comes to scholarly issues. James McGrath and Tom Verenna provided roundups of responses. The rogueclassicist thinks the whole thing is silly. April DeConick [...]

  15. having looked this a.m., i think we’re definitely dealing with at least some cast ‘pages’, whether all of them are the same remains to be seen (or not), of course. the motive for casting rather than inscribing, presumbably, would be to eliminate tool marks which could be used to identify them as fakes.

  16. I just got word that Peter Thonemann’s email, posted over at Daniel O. McClellan’s, blog is indeed authentic. This severely hurts the case for the tablets authenticity and makes Elkington look even more suspect. Also, Margaret Barker has confirmed that she was greatly misquoted in the news articles as well.

  17. [...] Conspiracy Theorists, Legitimate Scholarship, and Lead Tablets [...]

  18. [...] what do you know, they are frauds. A fraud! In [...]

  19. Great post, Tom. Thanks for the trouble you have gone to.

    I mentioned the Thonemann analysis to Philip Davies over on the Biblical-Studies list and he replied, “Many thanks – I had tried to read ‘Alexander’ but was frustrated by the confusion of letters. This makes very good sense. What is disturbing is that I was not told of this deciphering. But it adds to
    some evidence I am collating that some at least of these are pretty modern, after all.”

  20. [...] Conspiracy Theorists, Legitimate Scholarship, and Lead Tablets [...]

  21. [...] March 31, 2011: Conspiracy Theorists, Legitimate Scholarship, and Lead Tablets [...]

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