Earliest Christian writing ever?

Yesterday I had a mini-meltdown when the BBC site was offline for an hour or so. I must be more reliant on them than I had realized! One of the stories I was trying to read was written by BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott, headlined "Jordan battles to regain 'priceless' Christian relics":

They could be the earliest Christian writing in existence, surviving almost 2,000 years in a Jordanian cave. They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.

A group of 70 or so "books", each with between five and 15 lead leaves bound by lead rings, was apparently discovered in a remote arid valley in northern Jordan somewhere between 2005 and 2007.

The story provides all sorts of fascinating details -- how the niches inside the cave were exposed, how they were marked, how a Bedouin opened the plugs and what he found. We learn that the Jordanian government believes the goods were illegally smuggled into Israel by another Bedouin. For that Bedouin's part, he says he didn't and that they've been in his family for 100 years.

We don't get a lot of information about the various Bedouin tribes involved. I saw my first Bedouin as I traveled in Jerusalem to and from the Dead Sea. It was really interesting to see that some Bedouin are completely nomadic while others have partially or fully settled into communities. (The picture above I took from the car on the way to Arad.) The camel is of part of a herd being run by a group of young Bedouin. It might have been nice to know a bit more about what tribes the men were from or even whether they were both Sunni.

Here's a quote explaining the significance of the find:

The director of the Jordan's Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, says the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.

"They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Mr Saad.

And there are many other promising quotes and claims about the evidence that these are that important. By the time I was done, I was so excited I could hardly stand it.

Then I read a blog post from Larry Hurtado's blog that gave me pause:

The reported symbols inscribed in the items seem as/more readily to point to a Jewish origin. E.g., contra Mr. Elkington, the menorah is a frequently found item in ancient Jewish art (often in grave art). Philip Davies claims to have seen what he takes to be a representation of Jerusalem and a reference to crucifixion. That might mean a Christian-produced item, but by no means necessarily.

The writing is reported as some kind of Hebrew but coded. Until the items are competently read, we don't even know what their contents are. The items are miniature codices, of a size that suggests private usage, and, so far as I know, suggests a date much later than the first century (there seems to have been an upswing in the production of miniature codices from ca. 3rd century CE onward).

Finally, the incidence of the forgery of artefacts is so great that any responsible scholar must express profound hesitation about making any judgement on such items until they have been properly analysed. Especially in light of the "Jesus bone-box" drama, we might all take a few deep breaths and simply call for the items to be put into the public domain for competent study before more rash and pointless claims are proffered.

It's a good reminder for reporters, too. Sometimes people will have an interest in hyping a particular claim. Make sure you balance out their perspective with a few other voices who can offer caution. It doesn't take away from the story -- simply improves it.

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