On Faith and Forgeries

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Encounters with the biblical world often involve objects holding an uncanny power to transfix and even transform human consciousness. In the year 326 C.E., Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, is said to have discovered the remains of the true cross in Jerusalem, as well as nails from the crucifixion. On that spot, her son constructed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a pivot of Christianity ever since.

Even today, remnants of the biblical world continue to surface like uncharted reefs along the shore, looming up and weirdly fascinating our nominally secular minds. One such set of objects, recently emerged, is a series of lead plates that appear to be embossed with writings and images and bound into books or "codices." What are they, how have they been received, and what does their reception tell us about our willingness to believe?

It appears that an Israeli Bedouin farmer named Hassan Saeda has in his possession a series of around 70 of these small lead codices. Depending on different versions of the story, either they were in his family for a century or they were found about five years ago in a cave in Jordan and from there smuggled into Israel. The Israel Antiquities Authority, evidently aware of the finds, has pronounced them to be of dubious antiquity and a "mixture of incompatible periods and styles without any connection or logic." But Jordanian authorities have launched a campaign to recover the "stolen artifacts," which, they allege, "really match, and [may] perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls"—if not "the most important discovery in the history of archeology." 

Of greater significance is the swirl of media and popular interest in these credit-card-sized objects—especially, as it happens, in England. Leading the charge was an individual described as a "scholar of ancient religious archeology" who is himself an object of some controversy. Nevertheless, the BBC, the Telegraph, and the tabloid Daily Mail all featured the story prominently and with unusual enthusiasm. Referring to an embossed figure on one of the scrolls, the Daily Mail gushed: "LOST FOR 2,000 YEARS: COULD THIS BE THE FIRST PORTRAIT OF JESUS?" The news stories spoke of "cryptic messages" in Hebrew and Greek, adding tantalizingly that one phrase read "Savior of Israel." Another image is said to depict a cross, something else described by a scholar as "what has to be the tomb" of Jesus, and a map of the city of Jerusalem.

No doubt, from the point of view of publicity, it helped that all this happened in the days leading up to Easter. Alas, however, the judgment of the Israel Antiquities Authority is sound. Writing on lead plates is unknown in antiquity, and the same appears to hold for the practice of binding plates into books. True, the "Copper Scroll," one of the Dead Sea finds from Qumran and seemingly a list of hidden treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem, is a partial exception, but so far a unique one. There are also decorated lead coffins from Roman-period Palestine. But the "first portrait of Jesus" (to borrow the Daily Mail's hyperbole) appears to have been roughly copied from likenesses of the sun-god Helios found on a mosaic or coins; the script is a mishmash of letter-forms from different periods; and the "code-like" Greek phrases are copied from an inscription on a Roman tombstone on display in Amman.

In short, like so many objects before them, the lead codices seem to be fakes of a kind that goes back to the earliest days of organized Christianity. At least ten different churches and monasteries from Egypt to England have claimed to have the head of John the Baptist, and at least four others claim to possess his hands. Forgeries based on a smattering of scholarship and a great deal of artistic license have also dogged the field of biblical archeology for over a century. The real question is why they still attract the avid attention of the press, laypeople, and even some scholars.

One answer has to do with the degree to which Christianity remains tied to revelation and miracle. Actual or implied encounters with the divine in the physical world are inherent in many facets of Christianity, including not only relics but sacred ritual, sacred music, and sacred buildings. The fact that the possibility of revelation has been systematically purged in some denominations of modern Christianity makes the interest shown by the British all the more remarkable: testimony to the deep-seated and utterly human desire for personal experience of the numinous.

Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Jews seem relatively immune to this impulse. As it happens, the story of the lead codices first broke in London's Jewish Chronicle. It appears that the "scholar of ancient religious archeology" had approached a metallurgist, a member of a London synagogue who had previously written about the Copper Scroll. In the latter's opinion, the codices were "Kabbalah-related, and the nature of the content indicate[d] a magical incantation style of writing." Yet neither this nor the possibility of a more ancient provenance appeared to excite the interest of the paper's readers.

This is not only a matter of Jews being more thoroughly secularized. Pilgrimages and miracle-seeking are hardly unknown to Jewish history or to contemporary Judaism. Hasidic rebbes and many Sephardi rabbis have been reputed to work miracles, and tombs of holy men, with their implications of holiness and healing powers, are sites of veneration. But there is a difference. By and large, Jewish relics and talismans, from the incantation bowls buried under houses in Babylon to the ubiquitous hamsa or hand of Fatima (or Miriam) that hangs around the necks of Jewish women today, may be endowed with magical or protective power, but they are not themselves revelatory. Nor, outside of the fringes of today's star-struck Kabbalah movement, do they produce miracles. Rather, the essence of God's message to the Jewish people resides, and is to be sought, in the text.

Still, and setting aside the counterfeit nature of the lead codices themselves, it is heartening to see how strong within "secular" Western society remains the desire to believe in a transcendent reality. As the media continue to pronounce the death of Christianity in Canada, Great Britain, and the Continent, the rapid growth of Evangelical churches in those same places, not to mention the explosion of Christianity in Africa and China, belies the obituaries. Whether and how attachments generated through things compare with the grip of an idea expressed, as in Judaism, in words, are questions for another day. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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