Last week we looked at a breathless BBC report that began:
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.
I was super excited by the report but then I read Early Christian expert Larry Hurtado's blog that urged caution.
And now? Well, it turns out that the "earliest Christian writing" might be something more like "a fairly recent fraud." You can read many different academic blogs for details, but there are about 20 different reasons to doubt that these writings are even authentic, much less that they will change anything about our understanding of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
Rice University Biblical Studies professor April DeConick was suspicious when the main source for the BBC story was David Elkington. The BBC described him as "a scholar of ancient religious archaeology who is heading a British team trying to get the lead books safely into a Jordanian museum" but that doesn't seem accurate. He has written books about the centrality of vibration and one about the codices in question.
When Elkington issued his press release, one scholar remembered an exchange he'd had months ago. Peter Thonemann reported that he'd received an email from Elkington in September. Elkington claimed he was a biblical historian and was working on the metal codices. He claimed then that a Bedouin had said his father had found them in northern Egypt. In the current press release, he claimed Bedouin had found them in Jordan. He said he was having trouble finding the type of Greek used and was wondering if Thonemann could help.
Thonemann then received photographs of a codex that looks just like the ones in the BBC photos. He replied that the text had been incised by someone who didn't even know Greek since they didn't distinguish between the letters lambda and alpha. The text had been lifted from an Aramaic/Greek inscription published in 1958 and republished in 1986. Here's how he ends his response:
The text on your bronze tablet, therefore, makes no sense in its own right, but has been extracted unintelligently from another longer text (as if it were inscribed with the words: 't to be that is the question wheth'). The longer text from which it derives is a perfectly ordinary tombstone from Madaba in Jordan which happens to have been on display in the Amman museum for the past fifty years or so. The text on your bronze tablet is repeated, in part, in three different places, meaningless in each case.
The only possible explanation is that the text on the bronze tablet was copied directly from the inscription in the museum at Amman by someone who did not understand the meaning of the text of the inscription, but was simply looking for a plausible-looking sequence of Greek letters to copy. He copied that sequence three times, in each case mixing up the letters alpha and lambda.
This particular bronze tablet is, therefore, a modern forgery, produced in Jordan within the last fifty years. I would stake my career on it.
So after all the hype, how has the media done on correcting the story? Well, the Christian Science Monitor at least included skeptical voices in its report. The Deseret News gave major space to those debunking or questioning the report. Christianity Today never fell for the hype.
The BBC hasn't corrected their story or written a follow-up. Ditto for The Telegraph and Fox News, among others. And this is while the scholars quoted in the original report are saying they were misquoted.
There are so many lessons here. The mainstream media need to do a much better job of checking in on academic blogs and other social media tools that are readily at their disposal. They need to be more skeptical, in general, and specifically when dealing with obvious problems. Antiquities fraud is a serious issue and the model of hyping a discovery in the press is a common route for less-than-savory characters involved in the trade. It's understandable that a reporter and editors can be had, but when they discover they've been had, they need to correct quickly.
And maybe we can have a moratorium on "crazy new discovery about Jesus" stories that happen to run within a few weeks of Easter each year.