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Scholars begin to unlock mystery of lead books

19 May 2017


Talisman? A page from one of the lead books, showing the holes from the binding

Talisman? A page from one of the lead books, showing the holes from the binding

A TEAM of scholars has announced that they believe the lead books uncovered in Jordan in 2011 are genuine.

The script on the books is obscure, and their purpose is still unknown; but symbols used on them connect with Solomon’s Temple, and the names “Jesus” and “Simon” have been found. Another reference is to Simon bar Kokhba, who led the rebellion against Rome which ended in 135 CE. Thus the scholars believe at least some of the books to be ancient, or possibly later copies of ancient artefacts.

The provenance of the books — formed of tiny metal pages bound together with rings — has been in dispute. David Elkington, who took many photographs of the books, made claims for them in a press release in March 2011. The Wikipedia entry for the books, which are also called codices, states that they are believed to be forgeries.

The current Jordanian authorities have been unimpressed by Mr Elkington’s account of the books. Similar lead books have been reported in Cairo, Libya, and elsewhere, and several have appeared for sale online. More are appearing all the time. Many have been sold as tourist souvenirs, some of them obvious forgeries. A commonly told story is that they were found by a grandfather in a cave.

This dismissal of the books is being challenged by a group of nine scholars, assembled two years ago with the purpose of deciding whether the books were worthy of further study. A summary statement read out at a press conference on Tuesday, answered in the affirmative.

The group includes two emeritus professors of biblical studies, three former presidents of the Society for Old Testament Study, linguists, and metallurgists. They worked independently of Mr Elkington, and their work was hampered by copyright disputes over his images of the books.

The chairman of the evaluation panel is Robert Hayward, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew at the University of Durham. One member is Dr Margaret Barker, who was asked to look into the books by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams.

A key finding is a metallurgical analysis by the University of Surrey, which shows that the metal of the book that it tested was “not less than 100 years old”, thus ruling out a modern forgery. The text on the metal pages is proud of the background, not inscribed, making forgery and alteration difficult.

Dr Barker said on Tuesday that she hoped to find a university home for the work in order to engage young scholars, and also to involve experts from a wider range of fields, including astronomy. She would like to see conferences held in Jerusalem and Jordan, and involve people working in the region. 

What is on the pages?Jean Claude BragardA diagram of the image on the page, showing symbols and text

IT IS the text that has most excited the scholars. They have found a mixture of Palaeo-Hebrew, and some Greek characters. A breakthrough in interpretation came when a member of the evaluation panel, Dr Samuel Zinner, identified several unusual Hebrew characters. These represent two letters, and have been key to deciphering the text, which is often set out on a grid, able to be read up, down, left to right and vice versa, and diagonally.

Besides the text, there are pictures and symbols, mostly linked to the Temple in Jerusalem, built in the mid-tenth century BCE and finally destroyed in 70 CE. The images include seven-branched lamps, palm trees, eight-pointed stars, bowls of temple offerings, and diagonal crosses — an important early Christian symbol. Dr Barker showed an example of her interpretative process on Tuesday, arguing that the vocabulary emerging referred to passages in Isaiah and Revelation, and Johannine writings.


Why were they made?

SOME of the books are bound by rings on all four sides, suggesting that they were kept not to be studied but as a form of talisman. There are several mentions of sealed books in the Bible: in Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation.

The scholars write: “The forms of some of the letters suggest that they were written after 135 CE, but the item with that letter form may have been copied from something older. . . The books were clearly something to be preserved, possibly in secret. The curious form of writing suggests this, too.”

Links could be made with the Kabbalah: esoteric, mystical interpretations of scripture that existed at the time of the Early Church and influenced sections of it.

More work needs to be done, the scholars say, before the meaning and purpose of the books can be fully understood.

Dr Barker said on Tuesday that she believed that the books would result in a “paradigm shift” in the understanding of the Second Temple period, as the Dead Sea Scrolls had done.

“The significance for Christians is that we can no longer think that the founders of the Christian faith were humble fisherman in Galilee,” she said. “They were very learned heirs to the Temple tradition.” She referred to Acts 6.7 (“a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”).

The scholars have made several films of their discoveries, which they showed at a press briefing at St Ethelburga’s, London, on Tuesday, and can soon be viewed on www.leadbookcentre.com.

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