Books May Be Oldest Records of Christian History
Seventy small metal books discovered in a cave in Jordan may be Christianity's earliest written documents.
The books, which are only the size of a credit card, were discovered between 2005 and 2007 in a cave in remote part of Jordan but the discovery was only made public this week. The area of the original discovery is an area to which Christians fled after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD and has also been associated with other important archaeological finds from the same period.
The pages are metal and they are bound by wire. Each ‘book’ contains between 5 and 15 leaves. On them are inscribed images, symbols and words that appear to refer to the Messiah and, possibly even to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. They contain text in ancient Hebrew, most of which is in code.
Initial tests indicate the books date back to the first century AD. If this is true, it means they are the oldest records of Christianity, even predating the letters of St Paul.
One of the few people to have examined the books is David Elkington, a British scholar of ancient religious history and archaeology. He told the BBC they could be “the major discovery of Christian history.”
“It is a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church,” he said.
Unfortunately, a dispute is currently raging over ownership of the books that were discovered by a Jordanian Bedouin who smuggled them out of Jordan to Israel through another Bedouin. Currently Jordan is trying to get the books back, but the Israeli Bedouin who currently holds the books has denied smuggling them out of Jordan, and claims they have been in his family for 100 years.
Mr Elkington is part of a British team trying to ensure that the books are safely repatriated to a Jordanian museum. He believes the most telling evidence of their Christian origin is the fact that the images on the covers of the books feature signs that early Christians would have interpreted as indicating Jesus, shown side-by-side with others they would have regarded as representing the presence of God.
Philip Davies, emeritus professor of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University, agrees that the images on the books are Christian in origin, describing one plate that seems to represent the city of Jerusalem.
“There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb of Jesus, a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books too and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem. It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls.”
Margaret Barker, a Methodist preacher and authority on New Testament history, says the location of the discovery is evidence too that the books are Christian, rather than purely Jewish.
"We do know that on two occasions, groups of refugees from the troubles in Jerusalem fled east, they crossed the Jordan near Jericho and then they fled east to very approximately where these books were said to have been found," she says.
"[Another] one of the things that is most likely pointing towards a Christian provenance, is that these are not scrolls but books. The Christians were particularly associated with writing in a book form rather than scroll form, and sealed books in particular as part of the secret tradition of early Christianity."
She is currently working on photographs of the books to try to decipher the meaning of the ancient hebrew text, most of which is in code.
Susan Gately – Catholic Ireland