(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)
Dates: 1980 – 1983
Date: 17 May, 2004
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.
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.
Filed under: Ancient Near East, Archaeology, Belief, Biblioblogging, Blog Memes, Classical History, Life, Minimalism, New Testament, Scholarship | Tagged: April DeConick, christianity, curse tablets, David Elkington, Dilettante, James McGrath, jesus, Jesus tablets, Jim West, Joel Watts, Jordan, Judaism, lead tablets, messianic tablets, Paul Elkington, pseudo-archaeology, pseudo-christianity, pseudo-scholarship, Robert Feather | 22 Comments »