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Another Easter Hoax?

April 23, 2011
 The impression on this booklet cover shows what could be the earliest image of Christ

The First Portrait of Jesus?

Christian readers of my blog are not complaining, but some of them have noted that Jewish and Muslim features are more common as we count down to publication of Three Testaments, so, it being Easter and all, let me look at a possible phenomenon of special interest to Christians. It seems that every year around Easter the secular news magazines, especially Time and Newsweek, vie with each other for some sensational “revelation” about Jesus. In the twentieth century, much of that was based on scrolls, books and artefacts found in Egypt and the southern or Judean parts of Israel. Such finds are more likely to come from elsewhere in the twenty first century.

In our Book One (Torah), Marc Brettler makes the point that “We have a number of texts from Mesopotamia - from both Assyria (northern Mesopotamia) and Babylon (southern Mesopotamia). Israel and Judah were often vassals of one or the other of these prestigious civilizations, and elites would have known, and been influenced by its literature. In addition, the Judeans spent part of the sixth century in exile in Babylon, where many came into direct contact with Babylonian literature and traditions. Surprisingly, given the tradition of Israel having been enslaved for many years in Egypt early in its history, the influence of Egyptian literature is much less evident.”

Likewise in Book Two we adduce evidence from Chapter Seven of Mark’s Gospel and elsewhere, that in addition to travels in Israel and possibly Egypt, Jesus did journey through areas now known as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, if not further. In Book Three we acknowledge how Islam began in Mecca and Medina, but how its centre of activity soon moves to Baghdad and Damascus, again in the areas north and east of Israel. On these bases, I predicted that future discoveries of interest to the extended family of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar are more likely to come from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan than the deserts south of Jerusalem and in Egypt. Well, the book is not even out yet and guess what?

Seventy small “books” were purportedly found five years ago by Bedouin tribesmen among the nomadic Arabs in Northern Jordan, and only now revealed after some analysis at British universities. The several “pages” of each book are made of lead. National Geographic says this may have been when writing was switching from scrolls to book style, and before materials were decided upon. Most of these books were bound and sealed with coils of wire, front and back.

As we know, Jewish Christians in the early church were among the first to experiment with book style, and these metal books were purportedly found in a cave in an area of northern Jordan where Christians hid for a couple years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. A flash flood in 2005 revealed two niches which had been disguised by mud in the cave wall. Under each lid, decorated with religious symbolism, there was a stack of these “codices,” as scholars call such books. The contents appear to be Christian slogans and teachings, written in Hebrew and in code, much like the Book of Revelation.

The cover of one shows a face above the title, “The Saviour of Israel,” now claimed to be by far the earliest portrait of Jesus, crown of thorns and all, said to be before 70 CE, within the lifetime of those who knew him. Is this find a hoax, like the “discovery” of the burial bone box of James a few years ago, or is it genuine? At first blush, the very idea of sacred text on such metal plates seems absurd, but a little research tells a different story. I found five examples:

The engraved gold plate attached to the front of the head dress of the Jewish high priest dates to sometime well before 1000 BCE. In Exodus 28:36, Moses was commanded to "make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it as an engraved seal, 'Holy to the Lord.'”

Among the artifacts discovered in a 1970s excavation of tombs from the First Temple era at Ketef Hinnon (near Jerusalem) were two small silver plates dating to the seventh century BCE, containing the words of priestly benedictions from Numbers 6:24—26, regarded as the oldest portions of biblical text ever found.

In 161 BC, Judas Maccabaeus concluded a treaty with the Romans, which Josephus says was engraved by the Jews on bronze tablets and kept in Jerusalem as a record. When Simon was proclaimed by the Jews as both high priest and prince some twenty years later, his responsibilities were exhibited on bronze tablets and set up in the temple in a conspicuous place to support his authority.

The best known example of Hebrew writing on metal plates is the Copper Scroll (3Q15) among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran from the first century CE, perhaps contemporary with the codices in question, likewise deliberately hidden.

Some of the early analysis suggest that the recently “discovered” codices are not of early Christian origin, but from the third century, associated with the beginnings of Cabala writings. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew ritual magic text Sefer ha-Razim of the late third century CE does contain several references to writing on metal plates or amulets.

This cursory research suggests that the Jews had a long history of producing sacred texts on metal plates as amulets, inscriptions and literary documents. If any of you would like to see more on this, you might like to google one of the British press articles using the words “Hidden Cave First Portrait Daily News.” The British and German media have been engaged on this through April. It would be ironic if, having been burned by one hoax after another, Time and Newsweek took a pass on a find which, if genuine, would rank with the Dead Sea Scrolls. If it does not pan out, I stick with my prediction in Three Testaments that the north of Israel and Jordan and the south of Lebanon and Syria as well as Iraq may produce the next generation of textual discoveries.

Meanwhile I hope the above image (of Jesus?) on one lead book cover will transport well on the internet, as Jewish and Muslim colleagues join me in wishing our Christian friends Happy Easter.

Posted by: Brian Arthur Brown