Monthly Archives: March 2011

Peter Thonemann on the Lead Codices

(HT Daniel Peterson and Bill Hamblin) Peter Thonemann at Oxford has staked his career on the conclusion that the lead codices being discussed recently are forgeries executed within the last 50 years. The following is an exchange that took place between him and David Elkington late last year (Dr. Thonemann has confirmed to me that this exchange is authentic):

Lead Codices, or: One Born Every Minute

Over the past few days, you may have seen a spot of press attention about a cache of lead codices ‘from a remote cave in the north of Jordan’, which allegedly have some connection with early Christianity etc.:…a-mid-east-cave

…and so forth.

On 15 September 2010, I received the following email out of the blue from a certain David Elkington (whose name you will find in all these various news reports) – I’ve edited out only those bits which would reveal the mutual acquaintance:

“Dear Dr. Thonemann,

In relation to a discovery that I have been investigating in the Middle East I was given your email address by a friend […]. I am a biblical historian and specialist in the field of Christian and Hebrew origins. I’m working with Prof. Philip Davies of Sheffield University and Dr. Margaret Barker on a discovery that I made a few years back of a cache of ancient metal codices. They are comprised of lead and of copper – it is one of the copper codices that brings me to you. We think that it has a possible origin in Alexandria at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD – (the Bedouin who brought them to me said that his father found them in northern Egypt). It has an inscription in Greek along the top. A putative investigation has failed to find the meaning, dialect or type of Greek used and we are seeking to find an expert who might help in determining what it says.
Would you have the time and the knowledge to be able to help?

If you can I would be terribly grateful – I could email you a photograph of the codex as soon as you would like, however I would very much like to discuss it in person if at all possible […].

I look forward to your reply

Best Wishes

David Elkington”

I replied that I would be delighted to have a look. (Possibly worth noting in passing that in this email, the codices are said to come from “northern Egypt”; in the current press coverage, they are said to come from “a remote arid valley in northern Jordan”.) I received on the 13 October the following three photographs of this ‘copper codex’ from Mr Elkington:

As you will see, the ‘codex’ concerned is identical in fabric and design to the ones being touted on the BBC and elsewhere; the Greek lettering is very similar in style to the ‘Hebrew’ on the codices depicted on the BBC news website. There can be no reasonable doubt that it forms part of the same ‘cache’ from the Jordanian desert (or Egypt) – note especially the metal ‘ties’ at the left of the last photograph.

After having a close look at the photos, I replied later that same day:

“Dear David,

A surprisingly easy task, as it turns out!

The Greek text at the top of your photo no. 0556 reads: ΛΛΥΠΕΧΛΙΡΕΛΒΓΛΡΟΚΛΙΕΙΣΙΩΝ, followed by ΛΛΥΠΕ in mirror-writing.

This text corresponds to ΛΛΥΠΕ ΧΛΙΡΕ ΛΒΓΛΡ Ο ΚΛΙ ΕΙΣΙΩΝ, i.e. ἄλυπε χαῖρε, Ἀβγαρ ὁ καὶ Εἰσίων, followed by the word ἄλυπε again, in mirror writing. The text at the bottom of your photo no. 0532 is the first part of the same text again: ΛΥΠΕΧΛΙΡΕΛΒΓ, i.e. [ἄ]λυπε χαῖρε, Ἀβγ…

The text was incised by someone who did not know the Greek language, since he does not distinguish between the letters lambda and alpha: both are simply represented, in each of the texts, by the shape Λ.

The text literally means ‘without grief, farewell! Abgar also known as Eision’. This text, in isolation, is meaningless.

However, this text corresponds precisely to line 2 of the Greek text of a bilingual Aramaic/Greek inscription published by J.T. Milik, Syria 35 (1958) 243-6 no.6 (SEG 20, 494), and republished in P.-L. Gatier, Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie XXI: Inscriptions de la Jordanie, 2: Region centrale (Paris 1986), no.118. That inscription reads, in its entirety, as follows,

1 Σελαμαν χρηστὲ καὶ
2 ἄλυπε χαῖρε, Ἀβγαρ ὁ καὶ Εἰσίων
3 Μονοαθου υἱὸς υἱῷ τειμίῳ τὸ μνῆμα
4 ἐποίησεν ἔτους τρίτου ἐπαρχείας

’For Selaman, excellent and harmless man, farewell! Abgar, also known as Eision, son of Monoathos, constructed this tomb for his excellent son (i.e. Selaman), in the third year of the province’.

This is a stone tombstone from Madaba in Jordan, precisely dated to AD 108/9, on display in the Archaeological Museum in Amman.

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.

All good wishes,

Peter Thonemann”

Well, he can’t say I didn’t warn him

UPDATE: Between April 2 and 5 I updated the introduction to the email exchange and added the entirety of it. The original post on March 31 quoted only Thonemann’s response to Elkington’s email and stated that I could not verify the authenticity of the exchange.


James White on Rob Bell on Mithra and Attis

James White has a video up on his blog responding to an older video by Rob Bell which apparently discusses the relationship of the Jesus tradition to the traditions of Mithra and Attis. I haven’t seen Bell’s video, beyond what White shares in his video, and don’t know where he’s going with his discussion, but his characterization is poor and highly rhetorical, and it seems to rely on old Golden Bough ideas about genetic relationships between these ideologies. Irrespective, White takes issue with Bell’s discussion and makes the following comment, which is what I’d like to address today:

We don’t have to look outside of the context that the Bible itself provides for us to look for Jesus and a proper explanation of who Jesus was and what he did.

This statement is demonstrably false and promotes an incredibly naive approach to the New Testament. It seems to me to be a bit too aggressive a reaction to those who assert the dependency of the Christ tradition on Greco-Roman religion. The significance of the gospels to Christianity, and the existence of an historical Jesus, is in no way compromised by the notion that they were written to interact in some capacity with religious ideas current during the time period. Additionally, asserting that there’s no relationship whatsoever between the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus and Greco-Roman religion is simply uninformed. In Acts 17 Paul repeatedly and explicitly couches his presentation of God in vernacular he pulled from Greek literature and cult. He points to their altar to the unknown god and identifies that god with the Jewish God. Then he cites two Greek poets. The first quotation likely comes from Epimenides or other poets who quote or allude to him, and the second clearly comes from Aratus’ Phaenomena. In both instances, Paul presents the poets’ statements as legitimate expositions of his theology. Does he mean to entirely identify their presentation of God with his? No, of course not, but he recognizes the currency of those ideas among the demographic to which he is speaking, so he couches his presentation in terms that will resonate with them and will provide a bridge from their ideology to his.

If Paul can do this, why can’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Their books were written in Greek, meaning their target audiences were either Greek speaking Jews, Greek speaking non-Jews, or both. Either James White rejects the notion that the gospels had any non-Jews as intended readers, or they had non-Jews as intended readers, but for some reason or another intentionally avoided accommodating them at all in their literary conceptualization of Christ. There’s absolutely no evidence for either, and plenty of evidence against both. It’s no coincidence that “God Most High” is a term common to both Jewish and Greco-Roman ideology (if Paul was on the Areopagus in Acts 17 he would have been in front of the cult place of the “Most High God,” who was “not admitting of a name, known by many names”). I think it’s no coincidence that the word we translate “gospel” is used in parallel ways in reference to Jesus in Mark 1:1 and in reference to Augustus in the Priene inscription. I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus is presented as a god that is not recognized as such when he comes to visit his people, just like Dionysus. I would also point out that ancient Christians and Jews also didn’t think it a coincidence. Philo spends quite a bit of time in De Vita Contemplativa describing the Therapeutae as a Jewish analogue to Dionysus. The author of the Letter of Aristeas has Demetrius describe the Jewish God as Zeus known by another name. Justin Martyr recognizes that the relationship is not coincidental. We’ve already seen the example of Paul. In light of all this, there’s simply no support for White’s assertion outside of naive dogmatism. The notion that the Christian tradition developed absolutely independent of the culture in which the transmitters of that tradition lived is absolutely indefensible. To best understand the Jesus presented in the gospels, you have to understand the culture into which they were published.

Worship in Early Judaism and Christianity

As I try to finish up my review of James Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, I’ve decided to start cataloging instances of worship in early Judaism and Christianity that is not directed at God. By “worship” I mean prostration before someone; sacrifice, hymns, prayers, or other kinds of liturgical praise offered to someone; sympathetic magic directed at someone; etc. A few examples pop into my head:

– 4Q246 1ii:7: All the nations will bow down before the people of God
– Rev  3:9: The “Synagogue of Satan” will come and worship before the feet of the Philadelphians
–  Hecataeus states (according to Diodorus’ Bibliotheca Historica 40.3.6) that the Jews “fall to the ground and worship” before the high priest (obviously this source is probably not reporting things accurately)
– A number of incantation bowls from late antiquity call upon angels by name to help ward off evil and protect people

Obviously this research is still in very early stages, but it should prove interesting!

Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity

I’m finishing up a great collection of essays in a 1999 OUP book called Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. You should check it out if you’re interested in early Jewish, Christian, or Greco-Roman monotheism. Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction, Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede
Towards Monotheism, M. L. West
Monotheism and Pagan Philosophy in Later Antiquity, Michael Frede
Monotheism in the Gnostic Tradition, John Dillon
The Cult of Theos Hypsistos between Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Stephen Mitchell
The Chaldaean Oracles: Theology and Theurgy, Polymnia Athanassiadi
The Significance of the Speech of Praetextatus, Wolf Liebeschuetz

Pacific Northwest Regional SBL Program Draft

For those who may be interested, a draft of the program for the Pacific Northwest’s regional SBL (May 13–15 at Gonzaga University in Spokane) is available as a PDF here. I am presenting on Friday at 5:00 pm in the Hebrew Bible session. You will notice fellow bloggers Nijay Gupta and Michael Heiser on the program as well. Matthew V. Fox will give an address, entitled “What is God Getting At? The Message of the Theophany to Job,” at the banquet on Saturday. I’d be interested to hear who else is planning to be there. Perhaps we can arrange to meet for dinner that Friday night.

Get Your Votes In!

Voting is open for the bibliobloggers top 10, but votes are only leaking in. Email your own personal list, up to 10 blogs, to bibliobloggerstop10 (a) Make sure to include a link to your blog in the email. Happy voting!

Update on John William Wevers Prize

I received an email from Leonard Greenspoon regarding the John William Wevers prize. The deadline for submissions has been extended to June 15. You can find more information here.