Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jury Out on Recent Major Discovery of Christian Codices

This week newspapers trumpeted the significance of the discovery of 70 lead codices (manuscript volume) that could impact our knowledge of early Christian history.  Some scholars are of the opinion this find may be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

According to the BBC News this could be the earliest Christian writing in existence. 

Tests so far by metallurgists on the badly corroded lead leaves. unearthed in a northern Jordanian cave, suggest the books were not made recently, suggesting they are not a fake.  The jury will have to remain out on the dating of this discovery until all the evidence has been examined. 

Director of Jordan' Department of Antiquities, Ziaf al-Saad advocates the books may have been composed by Christians living in the "few decades immediately following His [Jesus] crucifixion." 

The Jordanian government is arguing the codices were smuggled out of Jordan by an Israeli Bedouin who claims the relics were in his family for 100 years.  Rather than belabor the issue of who owns the books, biblical scholars need to focus on the validity and meaning of this possible unprecedented find.

The Composition of the Codices

The books, which turned up five years ago,  were cast in lead before they were bound together by lead rings. They resemble an ancient spiral notebook. The pages or leaves are the size of a credit card and the text contained within the manuscripts are written in ancient Aramaic - the language of Jewish people living in the time of Jesus. 
Presently a British team of archaeologists, headed by David Elkington, a scholar of ancient religious archaeology, is investigating these objects that may have made the rounds among early Jewish believers in Jesus.  

So far, according to Yahoo News inspection of the codices  contain "a number of images and textual allusions to the Messiah, as well as some possible references to the crucifixion and resurrection." 

In the upper square of one of the book covers, a seven-branch menorah is displayed.  Elkington states the presence of the menorah would be interpreted by early Christians as indicating Jesus.  Since the menorah was placed in the holy place in the Temple, it spoke of the presence of God.  Since Jesus brought the presence of God on earth, the menorah on the manuscript cover, says Elkington, points to Jesus. 

The Validity of the Codices

Are these codices valid or not?  My main concern is the readiness of some Christian scholars to add their twentieth century theological biases to the understanding of this ancient relic.

The so-called reference to the crucifixion of Jesus. Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, emphasizes the early Christian origin of these leaves is demonstrated in the plates cast into a picture map of the city of Jerusalem.  Davies describes:
There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books, too, and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem.
Davies is way too assured when he states, "it is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls." One cannot forget that Jesus was not the only one crucified by the Romans.

Crucifixion was a regular method of execution of Jewish rebels against the Romans rule in the early centuries. A casual examination of the New Testament reveals the two thieves that were crucified next to Jesus at a location outside the city walls that was probably used to execute Jewish Zealots.

When Davies says, "what has to be the tomb [of Jesus}, he needs to rear back before making such bold pronouncements until further evidence is brought forth.  We cannot forget the forgeries of other so-called Christian relics such as the ossuary that was said to contain the bones of James, the half brother of Jesus.

The questionable reference to the resurrection of Jesus. Along with the image of the menorah, a text reads, "I shall walk uprightly," a sentence Robert Pigott, BBC News religious affairs correspondent, says could refer to the resurrection of the Messiah.  He also maintains this phrase appears in the Book of Revelation.  

The presumption this phrase refers to the resurrection is Pigott's conjecture and thus far is not supported by any similar statements from either Jewish or Christian source materials.  Christians should be hesitant to quickly conclude like Pigott that we have an early reference to the resurrection of Christ in the lead leaves. 

The preposterous reference to the sealed book in Revelation  I am amused by the view put forth by the Yahoo article that "since some of the codices were sealed, prompting yet more breathless speculation that they could include the sealed book, shown only to the Messiah, mentioned in the Book of Revelation."

This view is fallacious for several reasons: 

First, the sealed book mentioned in the futuristic vision in Revelation 5:1 refers to a heavenly (not earthly) scene taking place before the throne of God, and only the Lamb of God, Jesus was able to open the book (vs. 6). So these codices could not be the book that could only be opened by Jesus. 

Second, further reading of Revelation 5 shows the sealed book contains the seven seals of judgment to fall upon the earth during the period of the tribulation on the earth prior to the return of Jesus (Revelation 6).  

Third, if the sealed book can only be shown to the Messiah, why are we even discussing this archaeological find?  All the experts would need to open the sealed books would be a pair of wire cutters and the mystery is solved.  Fortunately, the mystery is already solved since we are already told what is contained in the sealed book in the Book of Revelation.

Conclusive Comments

Whether or not the codices are authentic remains to be seen.  For sure, their discovery is exciting and could contain a link to the early Jewish followers of Jesus.  If anything, these codices, assuming they are not forgeries, can provide many unanswered questions concerning the beliefs of the early Jewish followers in Yeshua in the first century. If the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are contained in these manuscripts that would put to rest the liberal Christian view that the resurrection of Jesus was a doctrine fabricated by Gentile Christians in later centuries. 

I would be the first one to celebrate the validation of the widespread faith in Jesus as Israel's Messiah among first century Jews. However, for now the jury is still out on confirming the authenticity of this important archaeological discovery. 


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