Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lead Books and the Messiah

Last year a collection of about 70 little books, made up of credit-card-sized lead leaves held together by lead rings, surfaced in Israel. Where they came from is disputed, with one set of claimants saying they were recently found in a Jordanian cave, while a Israeli Bedouin says they have been in his family for a century. Meanwhile, Israeli scholars have started to examine them, trying to figure out what they are. They are written in Hebrew letters, but the language is obscure and much of it may be code. The symbol of the menorah is prominent, but what that means is disputed, because orthodox Jews of the time did not depict that holy object. One of the texts may contain a reference to the Messiah. Initial tests on the lead suggest it is around 2000 years old.

This is very intriguing, to be sure, although the whole business smells like a fake to me. It is not difficult to fake weathering with chemicals, and the dating of old lead is hardly an exact science. I am withholding judgment until I see more data. Meanwhile, though, the web is humming with speculation that somewhere in these lead tablets is the Truth About Jesus. Not that we even know these are Christian texts, and if they are they could well date to centuries after Jesus' time, so there really isn't any reason to hope they will tell use something new about Jesus. But the hunger for texts that will somehow get us closer to Jesus and his apostles is so great that it fills any convenient void with longing. A "scholar" named David Elkington has called this "the major discovery of Christian history," which is pretty big leap considering that we don't even know that the texts have anything to do with Christian history. The first translated sentence to emerge was "I shall walk uprightly," which some people immediately interpreted as a reference to the resurrection; sounds like a perfectly ordinary bit of the Old Testament to me. All Jewish sects of the time had a great interest in the Messiah. So I say, relax, and enjoy these as an intellectual puzzle that may turn out to shed some light on Jewish history in the first centuries AD.

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