Early Christian Lead Books Discovery: Some Problems

My attempts to avoid this grand discovery have not gone well, to judge from the number of emails I have received suggesting that I must not have seen this story.  It’s foolish to think that I can somehow temper enthusiasm by ignoring the report, so I am succumbing to the requests to note the discovery here.  If I had delayed one more day (April 1), I would have at least felt some measure of justification in spending my time on this.

The basis for the story as reported by BBC and others is a press release from David and Jennifer Elkington.  The best available photographs that I am aware of are at the Daily Mail

The discovery is a collection of 70 ring-bound books made of lead and copper.  Other artifacts were made at the site of discovery, including scrolls and tablets. 

In a nutshell, the problems with this discovery include the facts that (1) we don’t know who owns the artifacts; (2) we don’t know where they were found; (3) the artifacts were not excavated by archaeologists but stolen by thieves; (4) nearly all information about the discovery so far has come from a single source of dubious reliability; (5) claims have been made that this find is more significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls; (6) the source of information appears to be positioning himself for fame and fortune.

The discovery was made about five years ago and rumors were circulating on the internet at least by 2007.  The apparent reason that a major announcement is being made now is that consultants (the Elkingtons) to the owner of the items fear that the owner may now try to sell the objects.  This is possible, but any number of other scenarios involving power and greed can be imagined.  Perhaps the Elkingtons were going to lose their access to the items and their attempts to blackmail the owner failed.  Perhaps the Elkingtons never really had much to do with the items in the first place but they had enough information and photographs to make a play.  Perhaps the Elkingtons are truly the potential saviors of a most outstanding archaeological find.

It is not clear if these items are authentic or forged.  The case that they are a modern creation is strengthened by the facts that (1) they were not discovered by scientists but by thieves; (2) no credible authority knows for certain where they were found; (3) no scientific analysis of the artifacts has been published even though they were discovered many years ago; (4) the books are at least partially written in code, a characteristic which may make forgery easier; and (5) Andre Lemaire, a world-class scholar who is not quick to classify illegally excavated items as forgeries, does not believe these are genuine.

On the other hand, I have a hard time believing that someone would forge (if the report is correct) seventy books of this nature.  The work involved is much more difficult on such a scope and unless you’re going to try to sell one each to seventy different antiquities collectors, it seems that you run the risk of diminishing returns.  In addition, a forger runs an increasing risk of detection with the more material he creates.  Success is more likely on a single object that is very carefully prepared. 

Personally I am inclined to believe that this find is genuine.  Professor Philip Davies has examined some of the finds (or photographs?) and he seems to believe that the script is authentic (see also his comments quoted here).

That does not mean, however, that this discovery is greater than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Or even close. 

Such a claim was made by the director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad.  The Dead Sea Scrolls included nearly 1,000 different works, including copies from more than 200 Old Testament books.  It is very difficult to imagine this discovery topping that, and it is irresponsible to make such a suggestion when so little is known about the artifacts and almost nothing has been translated or decoded.

The theory being proposed now is that these books were hidden by Christians who fled from Jerusalem during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70.  The cave where these artifacts were discovered is allegedly in a valley in northern Jordan, and it is in this general area that early church historians state that Christians fled ahead of the Roman siege.

My suspicions of this theory are aroused by the report that these books include depictions of Jerusalem, including markings of the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.  I wonder if Christians at that very early date were already venerating such sites.  When I read books like the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts (both written about AD 70), I don’t get the sense that the early church was creating artwork and establishing holy sites.  My expectation is that such objects would be more appropriate to a fourth or fifth century setting (but I note that Davies believes the script dates to 200 BC – AD 100).

Finally, the role of David Elkington in all of this is very problematic.  In his own press release, he
says of himself that “David is primarily an Egyptologist, specializing in Egypt-Palestinian links that have inevitably drawn him into the field of Biblical studies. He has lectured at universities all over the world and written many papers on ancient history and linguistics.”  There is no indication that he has an academic affiliation, or even any academic training.  From this description, I believe that he does not have even a college degree, though he did go to an art academy. After the current discovery,
I suspect that his resume will be expanded to include “consulting work” for the Jordan Department of Antiquities as well as appearances on CNN and Oprah.

His press release notes that he is “the author of ‘In the Name of the Gods’, the highly acclaimed academic thesis on the resonance and acoustical origins of religion.”  I don’t know what led Mr. Elkington to believe that his own book is “highly acclaimed,” but I see that the publisher is Green Man Publishing Limited.  They appear to have been in business for about one year. The book description provided by the publisher begins this way:

Everything that exists does so because of vibration.
Matter comes into being because energy vibrates – any science book will tell you that. But understand the science of vibration, learn how to use it and you will have the key to…
Well, everything….
The Earth vibrates, bell-like and deeply, within itself and as a consequence of incoming cosmic rays. In the alpha state man’s own mind is in harmony with the resonance of Mother Earth. Take the Ancient’s knowledge, and the right vibration in the right place can link you to the secrets of the Earth and of the Cosmos too. This spiritual technology requires a sacred laboratory; an acoustically designed building, appropriate in shape and position – like the Great Pyramid for example. Now the mysterious Ancient Egyptian ceremony of ‘the opening of the mouth’ begins to make sense: Sound: The Word.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, let me put it in plainer language: David Elkington has experience in selling horse dung to gullible audiences.  And it seems to me that he aims to profit off of his role in this affair.  Despite his claims that he “has worked to date entirely on a voluntary basis,” he is smelling the money.  He appears to already be selling photographs of the discoveries (via rexfeatures.com).  He has certainly been careful to watermark with his name the photos he has made available to the media.  More than that, the press release states: “Preparations are being made for a documentary film about the discovery, in conjunction with a leading television network, and the publication of a book.”  If you don’t think he’s planning to cash in, I’d like to talk to you about funding my personal research on international recreational activities.

There may be something to this discovery, but first the artifacts must be confiscated by the officials and assigned to reputable scholars.  In the meantime, I would not trust anything coming from the mouths of antiquities thieves or Mr. Elkington.

Various scholars have commented on this matter, including Michael Heiser, Jim Davila (also here and follow links), Larry Hurtado (also here and here), and Doug Chaplin.


Notes From the Field – Tel Burna: Excavating Libnah(?)

Tel Burna’s spring 2011 season has begun in earnest – the last three days have seen the Master’s College IBEX program (Israel Bible Extension), a pre-military group of Israelis from Kibbutz Beth Guvrim, and several other volunteers continuing the work started in last summer’s inaugural excavation.  The first two days of the excavation have been summed up on Tel Burna’s blog by the co-director of the site, Joe Uziel, they can be viewed here and here.

The finds thus far have been rich and are beginning to illuminate some of the stratigraphic layout of the site. Our current excavations are being carried out in two main areas – Areas A and B.

In Area A we are continuing to uncover remains from all of the Iron II with high concentrations of architecture and pottery from the Iron IIc (7th cent. BCE). The discovery of the 7th cent. at Burna, at the very least, allows the site to continue to be considered near the top of the contenders for the identification of biblical Libnah. Its presence shows that the site was occupied during the time of Josiah who married a certain “Hamutal…of Libnah” (2 Kings 23:31; 2 Kings 24:18). Additionally, we have continued to expose the eastern course of the Iron II fortification walls – it is our hope that this season will reveal the different phases of this massive fortification.

Excavating the eastern course of Iron II fortifications – see continuation in adjacent square

Based on our surface survey of Area B (Shai and Uziel Tel Aviv 2010) we were expecting to find primarily Late Bronze Age remains (1550-1200 BCE) on the western platform – the results have not disappointed. So far the vast majority of the pottery excavated in Area B dates to the Late Bronze Age. It’s always nice when survey results match excavation results. On a more exciting note there have been several special discoveries in this newly opened area – including a rather unique find – a ritualistic mask with a very large nose and eye holes, a well-crafted stone dish, and a nice tabun/tannur.

Small stone vessel (made from chalk) from Area B
Partially preserved “cultic” mask from Area B

Excavations will continue through the end of next week and will be renewed this summer on June 12-July 1 – see here for registration details


Zahi Hawass Reappointed

After protests against his leadership, Zahi Hawass resigned from his post as head of Egyptian antiquities.  Now he has returned, according to Ahram:

Zahi Hawass‎, chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced that he had been re-‎appointed as Minister of Antiquities following a meeting with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf ‎on Wednesday. ‎ Hawass first took up the newly-created post in the cabinet when ex-president Hosni ‎Mubarak installed him late in January.‎ After a number of artefacts had been declared missing in the wake of the 25 January revolution the Egyptian archaeologist had stepped down from his post.

HT: Jack Sasson


Archaeology Conference in Tzfat

Joe Lauer sends word that a conference entitled “Ancient Tzfat and the Galilee – Archaeology, History and Heritage,” will be held tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, 9 am – 5 pm, at the Yigal Allon Center in Tzfat (Safed).  From Arutz-7:

New discoveries in the old city of Tzfat will be revealed for the first time at a special conference to take place March 31st at the Yigal Allon Center in Tzfat. The conference will be held on behalf of the Northern Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the University of Haifa, the Tzfat Municipality and Tfzat College. The conference will focus on archeology, history and heritage. The Israel Antiquities Authority states that ancient Tzfat (also known as Safed) is a unique, urban heritage, dating back to the Mamluk period in the 13th century. Tzfat is home to the Ari synagogue where prayer services have taken place for over 500 years in a row and houses one of the world’s oldest known Torah scrolls. 

A press release in Hebrew may be found here and here.


Seven Years of Drought in Israel

The rainy season in Israel is over and the results are not good.  This marks the seventh consecutive year of drought.  From the Jerusalem Post:

This year, the North received much more water than the center and the south, reaching a bit more than 90 percent of Israel’s average rainfall, according to Schor, but he cautioned that this is not worthy of celebration. […] To be 100% average, Schor explained, is not sufficient, particularly because this is the seventh consecutive year in which we are “taking more water than we get.” Overall, including the South and Center, the country achieved an accumulation of only 70% of average, he said. Meanwhile, despite heavy rains in the past few months that have brought water levels in the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] above the red line, Schor warned that “we are missing almost four meters of water” from the reservoir.

The full story is here.


Bible Reference Finalists

The Christian Book Expo has listed award finalists for 2011.  In the “Bible Reference” category, four of the five nominated books have been praised here before.

A Visual Guide to Gospel Events, by James C. Martin, John A. Beck, and David G. Hansen

Crossway ESV Bible Atlas, by John D. Currid and David P. Barrett

The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation and Effect on 
Civilization, by Larry Stone [not noted on this blog]

Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, by Carl G. Rasmussen

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, John H. Walton, General Editor

If judging on the basis of unique value to a Bible student, I would give the award to the five-volume (3,000-page!) commentary set.  The other books are more affordable, and all make 2010 an outstanding year for works in the field.


NY Times: Excavating in Ashkelon

The Travel section of the New York Times features an article by a volunteer to last summer’s excavations of the Philistine city of Ashkelon.  Sam Roberts writes:

The expedition is a mix of Outward Bound and summer school. The classes are all outdoors — below ground, mostly — in deep pits excavated in grids marked on a 130-acre bowl atop an eroding cliff that overlooks the beach below. The site is part of a national park, populated by picnickers and jackals and mongoose, with guest appearances by the pink, black and white-crested hoopoe, Israel’s national bird. The accommodations are vastly improved from the first year when, with the group camping out near the dig, the director stumbled into a cesspool and had his pants stolen. These days, the accommodations compare very favorably with sleepaway camp and the hotel food is tolerable (it’s served at a buffet, so at least there’s plenty of it). […] What is striking, too, is the juxtaposition of ancient ruins and modern technology. Each artifact and the daily changing dimensions of the dig are meticulously digitized. “Every field book is typed onto a laptop, every bucket is assigned a bar code to enable us to communicate the results to the archaeological community faster,” said Dr. Daniel M. Master, an archaeology professor at Wheaton College and the expedition’s new co-director with Dr. Lawrence E. Stager, a Harvard archaeology professor and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, who has overseen the dig for 25 years.

The article includes information about qualifications to volunteer at Ashkelon as well as the cost and deadline.  (The cost doubles for those getting academic credit from Harvard.)  The writer includes the Israelites as among the ancient groups that lived in the city, but I’m having difficulty recalling when that could have been.


En Gedi Never Fails to Disappoint

This article by Yoni Cohen may be the most worthless piece of reporting I’ve seen in years of reading the Jerusalem Post.  I can’t imagine that it took more than five minutes to write, nor can I understand why the Jerusalem Post is not exercising some editorial oversight over an article linked from the site’s front page.  Perhaps these days it’s all about getting the “clicks,” but ultimately I think it’s a bad strategy.

The five photos are all blurry (to my eyes), but the three brief comments currently posted are more helpful than the article itself.

[This blog post took less than five minutes to write, but this illustrated page about En Gedi took much longer to create.]


Recent Articles at Bible and Interpretation

Various articles posted at the Bible and Interpretation in the last month have drawn my eye.  Some I hoped to interact with here, but as time passes, I realize it may just be best to point you directly to them.

Why the fishing town Bethsaida is not found along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Fred Strickert explains that the reason why et-Tell (aka “Bethsaida”) is today distant from the Sea of Galilee is silting by the Jordan River.  He also wonders if the site may have been elevated by seismic activity since biblical times.  El-Araj is not a viable candidate for Bethsaida, he says, because the site was not settled in the first century.

From the Seal of a Seer to an Inscribed Game Board: A Catalog of Eleven Early Alphabetic Inscriptions Recently Discovered in Egypt and Palestine.  This article by Gordon J. Hamilton considers three new inscriptions from the Middle Bronze, one from the Late Bronze, and seven from the Early Iron Age (including inscriptions from Gath, Tel Zayit, Tel Rehov, Beth Shemesh, and Kh. Qeiyafa).  The bibliographic data alone is very useful.  With regard to the Gath ostracon, note Maeir’s response.

On Archaeology, Forgeries and Public Awareness: The “James Brother of Jesus” Ossuary in Retrospect.  Gideon Avni believes that the obviously forged inscriptions of the James Ossuary and Jehoash Tablet will be regarded as little more than a footnote in history books.  Since a number of scholars consider the case to still be open, this article unfairly denigrates other conclusions by acting as if they don’t exist.

Zedekiah Cave or the Quarries of King Solomon in Jerusalem: A Subsurface Stone Quarry for Building the Second Temple by King Herod.  Zeev Lewy of the Geological Survey of Israel has written a fascinating report suggesting reasons why Herod’s engineers selected a certain type of stone for use in the Temple Mount.  This also explains why the massive quarry was accessed through a single small entrance.

The Bible and Interpretation has many other recent articles, and they now also have a mechanism for supporting their work.


Archaeological Remains from the Temple Mount

The April issue of the Smithsonian magazine features a well-researched article by Joshua Hammer on the Temple Mount Sifting Project.  The article weaves the history of the Temple Mount with an account of the archaeological project headed by Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig.  The report has much of interest, and I recommend reading the whole.  Even those very familiar with the issues will likely learn something new.  A few brief quotes may stir your interest:

“That earth was saturated with the history of Jerusalem,” says Eyal Meiron, a historian at the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Eretz Israel. “A toothbrush would be too large for brushing that soil, and they did it with bulldozers.” Yusuf Natsheh, the Waqf’s chief archaeologist, was not present during the operation. But he told the Jerusalem Post that archaeological colleagues had examined the excavated material and had found nothing of significance. The Israelis, he told me, were “exaggerating” the value of the found artifacts. And he bristled at the suggestion the Waqf sought to destroy Jewish history. “Every stone is a Muslim development,” he says. “If anything was destroyed, it was Muslim heritage.” […] Barkay says some discoveries provide tangible evidence of biblical accounts. Fragments of terra-cotta figurines, from between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., may support the passage in which King Josiah, who ruled during the seventh century, initiated reforms that included a campaign against idolatry. Other finds challenge long-held beliefs. For example, it is widely accepted that early Christians used the Mount as a garbage dump on the ruins of the Jewish temples. But the abundance of coins, ornamental crucifixes and fragments of columns found from Jerusalem’s Byzantine era (A.D. 380–638) suggest that some public buildings were constructed there. Barkay and his colleagues have published their main findings in two academic journals in Hebrew, and they plan to eventually publish a book-length account in English. But Natsheh, the Waqf’s chief archaeologist, dismisses Barkay’s finds because they were not found in situ in their original archaeological layers in the ground. “It is worth nothing,” he says of the sifting project, adding that Barkay has leapt to unwarranted conclusions in order to strengthen the Israeli argument that Jewish ties to the Temple Mount are older and stronger than those of the Palestinians. “This is all to serve his politics and his agenda,” Natsheh says. […] Barkay and I get into my car and drive toward Mount Scopus. I ask him about Natsheh’s charge that the sifting project is infused with a political agenda. He shrugs. “Sneezing in Jerusalem is an intensely political activity. You can do it to the right, to the left, on the face of an Arab or a Jew. Whatever you do, or don’t do, is political.”

You have to love Natsheh’s logic.  He allowed the removal of the evidence and now claims that Barkay’s work is worthless because the material wasn’t found in situ!  The full article begins here.