Friday, April 01, 2011

The 'metal books from Jordan'

The internet is awash with reports about the alleged discovery in Jordan of 70 books, all or partly metal and supposedly of Christian origin. The reporting can be infuriating, such as when Christian Today in the opening line of its article claimed that 'If the finding is found to be authentic, it would constitute the earliest known Christian writings.'

What bunkum!

If the findings are genuine they would only constitute the earliest known Christian writings if they were shown to be older than all others. I also find it very hard to see how such texts, if genuine, found without a datable archaeological context could ever be dated as early as Christian documents already known. You can't give an archaeological date to either a flooded cave or to something that's been in the family for 100 years.

Now a lot of good scholars will simply refuse to comment until they have seen the artefacts, or until proper information is published. However, I do not think it is illegitimate to comment on what one can see in the photos. This is not to affirm that the artefacts are genuine.

What can be seen?

The fourth image down here with three binding rings, shows on its third page (i.e. quite well into the book) that an entire page is covered with a picture. Likewise the image at Wikipedia which is of a book with five binding rings similarly shows a middle page entirely dominated by an image.

In other words most of what is being shown to us is picture books.

The only bit of writing I've been able to spot was on this photo from the BBC above.

What I see, starting second from the right on the bottom line is a jumble of palaeo-Hebrew taw, followed by a misshaped palaeo-Hebrew lamedh followed by a Greek digamma etc. Or it could be a Palmyrene aleph, followed by a Palmyrene nun, followed by a letter which doesn't occur in the Palmyrene alphabet. It could be a previously unknown script or a forgery. However, given the nature of the way scripts evolve, it is very hard to imagine that a group of Christians who fled from Judaea in the first century would use a script like this.

If the dots (?) over the fifth and sixth letters from the left are diacritics then the script is probably no earlier than the fourth century.

If the script is genuine and is in an intelligible Semitic language, I would predict that the letter like a capital gamma would be a vowel letter, probably waw or yodh.

The x letter, which occurs twice is likely to be an aleph or a taw.

Any more thoughts on decipherment?

Are there any more images with 'letters'?


  1. I'll be honest, sounds a bit like the Davinci code. Quite happy to be proven wrong, but I currently side with the group that says 'let a group of known, reputable scholars look at it - unhindered' first....

    I can even think of things to promote this - which is what makes me wary! I mean, secret Christian code, from the first or second century, what the Christians really believed, etc, etc... Its all media generated hype so someone can make a buck - until proven otherwise....

  2. I quite agree. There are commercial interests here.

    However, I think we do need to distinguish between the media hype (which almost certainly has only the most tenuous connection to fact) and the artefacts themselves, which to my mind have a greater chance (i.e. intrinsic probability) of being connected with reality than the spin put on them.

  3. I recommend Larry Hurtado's blog where he discusses the finding. You will find the link to his blog in the right sidebar.

  4. Note that he has five blogposts thus far.

  5. This is a testament to the stupidity of the media when it comes to sensationalizing issues relating to Christian history. A metal codex?!?!

    Given the amount of forgeries which appear on eBay, this statistically almost has to be a fraud.

  6. If the image is shown in mirror view (I really have no way of knowing) the gamma-like character could be a misshapen Aramaic Pe or Gimel.

    There's another image with discernible characters here:

  7. Two more views of that page:

  8. Hi Peter, hope you are well. Do note that it is "Christian Today," not "christianity Today" where that claim was made!

  9. Two questions:
    1. Is it conceded that more than one language's alphabet appears on a single "page"? (I can make out a second century -- BC and AD -- Chi and Sigma, but they do not appear to be part of any [Greek] word, nor do they have to be second century BC/AD)
    2. Are there any other known lead/metal codices of the first two centuries AD? If not, when is the first known such codex?

  10. I pray that the metal books shed more light on the meaning of Christianity and gives the world of non-christians a better look at the truth of Christ.

  11. If you read the book of Mormon you will find that this was a common method of creating records in antiquity.

  12. Discounting the media hype, I am looking forward to hearing from the scholarly community on these. If they are indeed early CE, I am curious about what light they might shine on either early Rabbinic Judaism or Christianity.