Friday, April 01, 2011

Newly found Christian relics may be fakes

The new find of supposed ancient Christian writings may well be a fake. You may have seen the recent story on the BBC news about the discovery of writings from the first century in a cave in Jordan. This story and subsequent retellings of it contained lots of speculation about the find: Have we found proof that Jesus resurrection was some sort of trick? Have we found some others stories about Jesus that are not in the Bible? The fact is that this find has not even been authenticated yet and the process of authentication takes a long time.

What do we know for certain? A Bedouin from Jordan claims to have found umpteen lead tablets in a cave a few years ago. However they are now in the possession of an Israeli who says that they have been in their family for a hundred years. The tablets have some writing on them and are bound together with wire in book form. The writings have been examined and photographed. But they have not yet been totally deciphered. The few words and symbols that we do understand indicate that they might be from the first century.

The director of the Jordan Department of Antiquities thinks that they could be early Christian writings and might even be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. David Elkington an expert who is investigating these relics and trying to get them to a museum in Jordan is quoted by the BBC as saying that they could be "the major discovery of Christian history".

What the BBC failed to mention is that the Israel Antiques Authority dismiss the idea that this find is of any value. A report in the Jewish Chronicle said that experts “absolutely doubted their authenticity”. Church Mouse - a Christian blogger on current affairs whose judgement I trust - gives us some insight in the way that media works, “…in each re-telling,” he says, “the critical bits are left out and some additional piece of speculation is added in”.

But what if these relics aren't fakes? Is it possible these writings could have a profound impact on the Christian faith? Could they prove the Bible wrong? Could they lend credence to other writings that have been discovered such as the alternative Gospels?

I was interested to see in a recent post Scot McKnight pointing to a book Who Chose The Gospels. This book investigates the idea that the four gospels were not accepted until the council of Nicea. The thought that for hundreds of years other Gospels were competing for acceptance sounds intriguing. But the evidence actually indicates that the four we have now were accepted very early on and the others regarded as the work of false teachers.

I would suspect that any writings that are too different from traditional beliefs similarly could be dismissed as the work of Christian sects that were never accepted. But I still think that archaeological finds can help us understand the historical, linguistic and cultural context of the Bible. Writings such as the alternative gospels may well be worth reading along with other writings from the time.

If and when this find is authenticated and deciphered it is possible we could gain some new insight into the world of first century Christians but I doubt it will shake Christianity in the way some have suggested.

Update: It now looks almost certain that they are fakes. Here is Church Mouse's recent post.


Matt said...

So far all we've got to go on is speculation, which is a bit of pain. Sadly archaeology isn't like an episode of CSI where they can translate the thing quicker than you can drink your tea.

If they prove genuine, then this is a very exiting time for Christianiy. If not, then it's business as usual.

David Derbyshire said...

That's right it's a long process. Perhaps when we are old men we will see some reference to this archeological find in the New New NIV Study Bible.

David Derbyshire said...

I've added a little update at the end as it looks more and more like I was right first time. These are fakes!