Possible Contemporary Evidence of Jesus or Another Hoax?

In lieu of the impending discussion over yet another unprovenanced find with possible links to contemporary evidence for the figure of Jesus, I post this (a few snippets from the main article, click the link to read it all):

Artefacts discovered in a remote cave in Jordan could hold a contemporary account of the last years of Jesus.

The find of scrolls and 70 lead codices – tiny credit-card-sized volumes containing ancient Hebrew script talking of the Messiah and the Resurrection – has excited biblical scholars.

Much of the writing is in code, but experts have deciphered images, symbols and a few words and the texts could be 2,000 years old.

Some academics are sceptical about the discovery because there have been numerous hoaxes and sophisticated fakes produced over the years.

Many of the codices are sealed which suggests that they could be secret writings referred to in the apocryphal Book of Ezra – an appendage to some versions of the Bible.

Texts have been written on little sheets of lead bound together with wire.

The treasure trove was found five years ago by an Israeli Bedouin and may have been around since the 1st century, around the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and Resurrection.

There is a thriving market in Middle Eastern antiquities and many shadowy figures involved. One archeologist has allegedly received death threats.

Ms Barker said: ‘There has been lots of shenanigans. Vast sums of money have been mentioned with up to £250,000 being suggested as the price for just one piece.’

She has had access to photgraphs taken of the codices and scrolls, and is wary of confirming their authenticity.

But she said if the material is genuine then the books could be ‘vital and unique’ evidence of the earliest Christians.

‘If they are a forgery, what are they are forgery of?’ she said.’ Most fakes are drawn from existing material, but there is nothing like this that I have seen.’

Two samples were sent to a laboratory in England where they were examined by Peter Northover, head of the materials science-based archaeology group.

The verdict was inconclusive without more tests, but he said the composition was ‘consistent with a range of ancient lead.’

However, Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University is convinced the codices are genuine after studying one.

He has told colleagues privately that he believes the find is unlikely to have been forged, say the Sunday Times

The remote desert caves in Israel which yielded The Dead Sea Scrolls. They were found between 1847 and 1956 hidden in pottery jars. Experts say the intrigue surrounding the artefacts is similar to the black market secrecy associated with discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls

via Are artefacts discovered in a remote cave the secret writings about the last years of Jesus? | Mail Online.

I just don’t buy it.  Jim West has made some appropriate and fitting comments about the find on his blog:

A bevy of tests need to be administered, the ‘script’ needs to be deciphered and translated, and the materials must be independently authenticated as ancient before we can even begin to talk about some astonishing discovery.  And even then, since the little objects were ‘found’ and no archaeological context for their discovery is available, they will nonetheless always remain tainted as untrustworthy.  Without provenance, without context, there is no meaning.  This is true of both texts and artifacts.


I believe his last point is the most apt.  More tests have to be run and much more must be discussed before we can label these authentic or inauthentic.  Is it possible these were written by early Christians?  Yes, of course.  Were they contemporary to the figure of Jesus’ life?  Perhaps, but that is yet to be concluded.  I have asked Philip to make a guest post on my blog about the findings, if he is willing.  I’d be interested to seeing what he has to say rather than what someone else says he said.

In any case, the article is misleading in that (a) it assumes contemporaneous composition with the figure of Jesus, (b) that it was written by a Christian sect (references to messiahs and resurrections might have been more common than we give credit; we only know of 30+ sects of Jews in antiquity by name, and there were definitely many more than that which we simply know nothing about, all holding different views about the messiah–if any were expected by them at all–and different eschatological views as well), and (c) it assumes it trustworthy to some degree even though it is unprovenanced.

Before anyone asks, if these do turn out to be authentic and contemporaneous, that will obviously effect my perspective of the historicity of the figure of Jesus in a big way.  But I’m not holding my breath.

***UPDATE 3/22/11*** An official press release of the find has been published and I have blogged it here.  Also Philip Davies offers additional comments here.  Jim Davila offers the following here:

Reader Justin Kerk has referred me to a 2007 discussion on the Unicode mailing list of “Menorah- and Hebrew-inscribed lead plates of dubious provenance.” These may be the plates currently in the news.

Follow the rest of the blog post as there are some interesting observations along with pictures of some of these codex plates (assuming they are the same).

13 Responses

  1. Without provenance, without context, there is no meaning.

    Surely if we took this seriously, we would date the entire corpus of Christian Scriptures to the second century.

  2. Why would you think we lack context for the Christian corpus? We can very easily establish terminus ad quem vs terminus a quo without them being provenanced. The dates of literature, widely circulated and discussed, is easily determinable. The nuances might complicate the range, but I think that your statement is a little overstated.

  3. Perhaps you can enlighten me about the existence of texts that reference the extant Christian Scriptures that are reliably dated to the first century.

  4. Define “reliably.”

  5. Whatever definition you want to use, Websters uses:

    able to be believed : likely to be true or correct

  6. […] Possible Contemporary Evidence of Jesus or Another Hoax? […]

  7. Context means a little more than being able to say that a text can belong anywhere between, say 35 c.e. (Casey) and 150 c.e. (Bauer). Context addresses geography, society, class, ideology . . . . All of these are guessed at from the gospels themselves, that is, from circular arguments.

  8. By your definition, we certainly can’t establish a reliable dating to the second century either, Evan. In truth, all dating is tentative. You might be right, but I don’t think you have a strong case. And I don’t think the case for an early dating is strong either. That doesn’t mean that rules them out entirely. It means, essentially, that someone needs to establish a stronger case. If you believe you can do that, you are welcome to publish a paper in any academic journal or series which subjects its contributions to peer review.

  9. […] Possible Contemporary Evidence of Jesus or Another Hoax? […]

  10. I think we can reliably date John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Norman Conquest, the date of the battle of Actium, the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the appearances of Halley’s comet and the origin of the universe with varying degrees of certainty, so I would dispute that all dating is tentative.

    The primary issue is in methodology. In most cases, the date of a work is not pushed decades prior to its first mention in other literature.

  11. Evan, that is clearly a false analogy. We’re talking about the Gospels, so in a sense we’re talking about all similar literature. Let’s not play games.

  12. […] Possible Contemporary Evidence of Jesus or Another Hoax? […]

  13. […] 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 […]

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