Thursday, March 31, 2011

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.

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12 Comments:

  • Appreciate you laying out the facts of this story, especially bringing to light many of the problems surrounding this "discovery."

    By Blogger Living the Biblios, at Thu Mar 31, 09:27:00 AM  

  • A very helpful analysis for us amateurs. Thanks.

    By Blogger Greg, at Thu Mar 31, 10:54:00 AM  

  • Hi, I found this site via the german yahoo mail site. Yahoo published the news about the "discovery" even in german. Since I'm in doubt about the seriousity if the yahoo news, I made a further research. Your article made things clear. Thanks.

    By Anonymous Patrick, at Thu Mar 31, 02:42:00 PM  

  • Nice one Todd!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Mar 31, 05:50:00 PM  

  • Thank you for thinking things through. It sure would be cool if they were real, but one must be careful to look before they leap.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Mar 31, 09:27:00 PM  

  • "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." Brilliant.

    By Blogger Chris McKinny, at Fri Apr 01, 05:37:00 AM  

  • Many of the news articles from this press release say "It appears with the image of the menorah and reads "I shall walk uprightly", a sentence that also appears in the Book of Revelation." Is it just me or can no one else find this sentence in the Book of Revelation? The first thing I did was run to find it, but I don't think other Christians did. That scares me what people will take at face value. Please correct me if I am wrong, but between this and claiming they are "sealed" books from Revelation shows it was written by someone who doesn't really know the Bible. We are not expecting to literally find sealed books here on earth. While I'm generally a literalist when it comes to the Bible, since the sealed books are opened either by an angel or Jesus, I'm thinking they aren't going to just turn up under a rock and wait in the Jordanian museum until they get here.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 01, 07:55:00 AM  

  • Hi, I find this quite accurate,it was written by a very close relative of Mr Elkington.
    How do i know? I am Mr Elkingtons son's aunt (Mothers side)


    I have know David Elkington, whose real name is Paul Elkington, but has also been known by many others too, for many years the fact being i am a family member. To put the record straight once and for all Paul is by no means a Scholar of Ancient Religious Archaeology or a Scholar of anything else. Neither is he a Professor, a Lord, (which he has used over the years for his own gain) or have large amounts of letters after his name. He is in fact a conman to which many people would willingly state. This man has emotionly hurt elderly and ill people and sucked them dry financially. I think the uk police would like some truthful answers to a few questions too. He has hurt his own family and disowned his own son who so much would a like a normal relationship with him, but that’s never going to happen because Paul Elkington is far from normal or compassionate, in my opinion he needs medical attention.

    By Anonymous Jo, at Fri Apr 01, 12:53:00 PM  

  • What Jo said is so true. Mr. E. has about destroyed my family as well. He is not above board but a cruel man.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Apr 02, 01:29:00 PM  

  • The Books were originally discovered by a Bedouin from Shibli Village. Whilst trading hay along the Jordanian /Israeli Border he had a chance meeting with a taxi driver. whom he later bought the codices from. He travelled quite freely with them first to Israel and later to Europe. Mr Elkington was paid by the Bedouins to assist with the research after they learnt that the symbols on the works may have some meaning. He was also paid to have them authenticated.During the year the books remained accessible to Mr Elkington and Mr Feather in their UK homes no steps were taken to return to the works to any authority. After research on the books proved inconclusive the Bedouins were handed back the books and returned home.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Apr 05, 04:10:00 PM  

  • please note last post not anonymous
    happy to answer any questions on the books
    Ilan ( Israel)

    By Anonymous ilan, at Tue Apr 05, 04:13:00 PM  

  • Thank you for your very detailed and thoughtful comments in relation to this "discovery". I have read several comments on these 70 lead books, including that Jesus and his apostles were gay. I had to go looking.

    By Anonymous TDS, at Tue Apr 05, 05:13:00 PM  

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