Biblical Archaeology Finds to Watch
Are Moses and Jesus corroborated by extra-Biblical artifacts? Here’s the good and the bad about two interesting yet controversial finds.
Was Ancient Hebrew the First Language?
An article on Science News, accompanied by a photo of a rock with scratch marks, is titled “Oldest alphabet identified as Hebrew.” Bruce Bower’s sub-headline states, “Controversial claim argues that ancient Israelites turned Egyptian hieroglyphics into letters.” Further down, a diagram shows the markings transliterated from one of several slabs. The “stone slabs” were found “at several Egyptian sites” not specified, and are thought to be 3,800 years old, putting them into the time of the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt before the Exodus.
The meaning of the letters depends on the work of one Douglas Petrovich:
Israelites living in Egypt transformed that civilization’s hieroglyphics into Hebrew 1.0 more than 3,800 years ago, at a time when the Old Testament describes Jews living in Egypt, says archaeologist and epigrapher Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Hebrew speakers seeking a way to communicate in writing with other Egyptian Jews simplified the pharaohs’ complex hieroglyphic writing system into 22 alphabetic letters, Petrovich proposed on November 17 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
The abstract of Dr. Petrovich’s upcoming paper begins on page 105 of the ASOR November 16, 2016 Paper Abstracts. Bower’s summary includes some eye-catching possibilities from Petrovich’s translation of the squiggles. Once he figured out the script, he found some Biblical names:
Several biblical figures turn up in the translated inscriptions, including Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his half-brothers and then became a powerful political figure in Egypt, Joseph’s wife Asenath and Joseph’s son Manasseh, a leading figure in a turquoise-mining business that involved yearly trips to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, is also mentioned, Petrovich says.
In the comments after the article, Petrovich interacts with some critics, providing more detail and some corrections to Bower’s write-up. Petrovich is working on a book about his thesis. Other scholars are apparently taking this work seriously. The ID site Uncommon Descent mentions this article with interest. One commenter there thinks, “If this stuff holds up, it will be the final nail in the coffin for the longstanding JEDP style hypothesis.” The JEDP hypothesis (also called the documentary hypothesis) contended that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, but that different parts were written at different times and then stitched together by redactors. Perpetrated under the evolutionary assumption Moses could not have written such sophisticated material so long ago, the JEDP hypothesis has come under fire increasingly over the last century, now that earlier sophisticated writings have been found from other cultures.
Are the Lead Codices the Work of Early Christians?
A set of 70 codices made of lead plates bound together like notebooks, found in a Jordanian cave in 2008, has a checkered history of interpretation. They caused a media flap in 2011 with claims they contained the first image of the face of Jesus. Now, the UK’s Daily Mail claims the tablets contain interpretations of Jesus’ ministry that run contrary to the New Testament:
The tablets suggest that Christ was not starting his own religion, but restoring a thousand-year-old tradition from the time of King David. They also suggest the God he worshipped was both male and female.
Todd Bolen of Bible Places Blog, a Bible scholar and professor who lived in Israel many years, is our go-to guy for evaluating sensationalist claims. On March 11, 2011, he gave his first impressions of the codices, leaving room for the possibility they were authentic, because they didn’t seem like the kind of artifact a forger would make. He took great issue, however, with the leading promoter of the codices, a certain David Elkington, who Bolen feels has no credibility as a scholar and appears highly motivated to make money off the tablets. The artifacts themselves, additionally, have doubtful archaeological provenance, Bolen thought, because they were not found by archaeologists in situ, but had been shuffled between questionable characters in Jordan, including thieves.
On April 4, 2011, Bolen followed up with additional evidence of forgery. He also poured cold water on the sensational write-ups coming from the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, adding more cold water in his April 11, 2011 blog entry that criticized the yellow journalism resulting from Elkington’s questionable claims. He was glad in his April 26, 2011 blog entry that the codices were seized by Jordanian police, saying, “This should allow a more thorough and honest investigation than has been done to this point.” By May 17, 2011, he joined in Thomas S. Verenna‘s condemnation of irresponsible journalists covering the story. Yet Bolen did not dismiss the artifacts themselves. “It is not clear if these items are authentic or forged,” he said in the March 11 entry. “….Personally I am inclined to believe that this find is genuine.” He based that partly on analysis of the inscriptions by a colleague. He took issue strongly, however, with the outlandish claim that they equal the Dead Sea Scrolls in significance.
This is where the story gets interesting. The lead codices have resurfaced in the media with new results of dating methods that show they date back 2,000 years. Once again, the Daily Mail is at the forefront of sensationalist coverage, giving Elkington free rein to announce his ideas about what Jesus believed and taught. That’s a separate question from the date of the artifacts, which both Science World Report and Christianity Today agree look old, if the dating methods yielded correct results. From the Science World Report article:
Now, to prove if the tablet is legit, the series of tests was conducted by Professor Roger Webb and Professor Chris Jeynes at the University of Surrey’s Nodus Laboratory from the Ion Beam Center. They confirmed that the tablet is compatible with a comparative sample of ancient Roman lead coming from the excavation site in Dorset.
In a press statement, the experts mentioned that the tablet they tested “does not show the radioactivity arising from polonium that is typically seen in modern lead samples, indicating that the lead of the codex was smelted over one hundred years ago.”
Furthermore, the crystallization analysis points out that the tablet is between the years 1800-2000 years old. The experts shared that “this provides very strong evidence that the objects are of great age, consistent with the studies of the text and designs that suggest an age of around 2000 years.”
The codices, therefore, could present the earliest extra-Biblical mention of Jesus before the Tacitus inscription. The UK Mirror (another sensationalist newspaper) repeats the claims about an alternative view of Jesus, noting that the tablets also refer to Peter, James and John.
Getting the dates right is an important step. Even accepting the antiquity of the objects, thereby disproving forgery, leaves enough wiggle room between the error bars to put the codices into the first, second or third centuries AD. Many questions remain about the authors of the texts, the identity of the “face” on one tablet, and the translation and interpretation of the text, which could differ from the age of the lead plates themselves. Answers need to come from more credible scholars than Elkington.
Clearly, the last word is not with us on either of these finds. While interesting, we have, as Peter said, “a more sure word of prophecy” in the Scriptures themselves. How can anyone improve on the clear, cogent writings of the eyewitnesses of Jesus, like Peter, John, Paul, Mark, Jude, and close associates of the apostles, like Luke? How can one improve on five lengthy books written by Moses about contemporary events in Egypt? Those provide the supreme canon against which other sources must be measured.
The secular media gets fascinated by extra-Biblical sources about Jesus and Bible characters, especially if they allegedly differ in some way from the Bible, and most especially if they present a politically-correct Jesus they can feminize or turn into a Hindu guru or non-supernatural moral teacher. The Gnostic gospels and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code come to mind. Beware. Such claims usually rely on questionable artifacts stretched beyond what the original information can bear, sold to the gullible by hucksters seeking fame or fortune.
The doctrine of inspiration (that the Bible is God’s word) includes the doctrine of preservation. The word of God does not entail secret missing portions that people needed to wait centuries later to dig up in some remote cave in Jordan or find under a hill Cumora in New York. The doctrine of inspiration includes consistency. It doesn’t allow a self-proclaimed prophet to appear six centuries late to contradict what the Lord Jesus said, or another to appear in New York with the “real” uncorrupted gospel. The doctrine of inspiration also includes the concept of perspicuity, meaning that the ordinary meaning of the text is clear. We don’t need to use the Bible like a crystal ball, looking for hidden messages or codes.
We don’t re-interpret the Pentateuch based on what a rock in Egypt says. We don’t re-interpret Jesus based on what some lead tablets say. Those authors were not inspired to communicate God’s word to man. For all we know, the authors of the lead codices were members of a cult who had heard of Jesus and the disciples but made up their own ideas about them, just like Gnostics did in the second century, or like off-brand teachers do today. At best, archaeological finds confirm the historicity of the Bible and shed light on cultural and historical events of the time. These two discoveries might have value in those regards. Evaluation will require further analysis by scholars having the technical specialties in epigraphy, ancient languages and ancient customs. We share them only as developments worth watching.