Archaeology keeps conjecture in check. So might the find of 70 wire-bound, corroded metal books shed light on one of the world's most well-known figures. Scholars of history and of faith are all abuzz about what may be the biggest find since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a West Bank cave in 1947.
Back in college I took an elective course in the Old Testament. Our professor was not a typical academic; he was an active archaeologist and strong believer in measuring evidence against faith. The truths in unearthed artifacts and other scientific evidence do not shake faith, he said; they strengthen it. From him we learned that the "Red Sea" on today's maps could not have been famously parted; they weren't there, but near a different water body many miles away.
That pales in comparison to this find.
The credit-card sized books have been dated by metallurgical tests to around the first century A.D., shortly after Jesus' death. They were found five years ago in a wet cave in Jordan, where Christians fled Roman persecution around 70 A.D. Other artifacts from that time period were previously discovered in the same area.
The find was not immediately made public. The Israeli truck driver, Hassan Saeda, who has them claims he inherited from his grandfather who stumbled on them by accident. It wasn't until later that Saeda had them evaluated in England. The British team announced in March they are not a hoax, although the jury's still out on their contents.
Experts are cautious, unsure whether or not these little picture books (mostly images and a few words) are the codices referred to in the Bible's Book of Revelations. According to the U.K. Daily Mail, one of the images may be the earliest known depiction of Jesus. Other depictions include an apparent crucifixion, a tomb, and a Jerusalem city map.
Unfortunately the analysis was cut short. Mr. Saeda returned with the books to Israel. The Jordanian government is trying to recover them for further study, possibly with the help of Israel. Both governments fear the books may already be on the black market and could end up in a private collection. The Jordan Department of Antiquities disbelieves Saeda's inheritance claim and say he actually bought them from a Jordanian Bedouin. The two countries still argue over legal claims to the Dead Sea Scrolls; both economies derive billions of dollars annually from religious tourism.
Saeda told the Christian Science Monitor he favors sending them on a worldwide exhibition, although he has yet to allow further access to them. Let's hope he will; a find of such rare historical magnitude belongs to no man.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.