A few years back, folks who keep up with archaeology in the Middle East began to hear of a surprising find somewhere in the hills of Galilee — a group of codices made of lead.
“Codices” is plural for “codex,” a name given to the earliest records that were put together in book form rather than on clay tablets or scrolls.
For obvious purposes, lead was not a good material for books that might be carried around, but for secret, cultic documents, thin sheets of lead — much more permanent than papyrus or parchment — could be just the trick.
But the lead codices, which vary from typical book size to tiny plates smaller than a credit card, are a mystery. No one knows exactly where they were found, for one thing, so many scholars won’t touch them. The man who currently “owns” the artifacts is a beoduin who owns a trucking business and lives in the Arab village of Shibli-Umm al-Ghanim, about midway between Nazareth and the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee.
He claims to have inherited the cache from his grandfather, who he said found them after heavy rains washed away the capstone to a hidden underground cave. Authorities suspect, however, that he bought the codices from someone in Jordan and smuggled them across the border with his trucks. I should point out (see the first comment below), that many scholars are convinced they are all modern fakes, for a variety of reasons, and not really antiquities at all.
I’ve known the codices existed for some time, but had not seen pictures until recently, when The Mail Online published several photos with an enticing caption, asking if a man’s face on one of the artifacts could be the earliest known portrait of Jesus.
The plates are put together like books, but bound with coils of lead wire on all four sides, as if they were never meant to be opened. Some are inscribed with what appears to be a strange form of early Hebrew or Aramaic, though some also have Greek readings that are intelligible but nonsensical.
Amog those who believe they are authentic, some have speculated that the plates were made by an early messianic Jewish sect that may also have been followers of Jesus (reportedly, tests have shown that the metal could have been smelted in the first century). Ordinary Jews would never have put a face on one of their books — but perhaps those who thought they have found the Messiah would have.
So, the question remains open as to whether that’s the face of Jesus on the outside of the book (whether it’s modern or old), and whether what’s inside would match up with that assumption.
Not unlike the question that followers of Christ ought to ask — is our Christian cover matched by what’s inside?
Inquiring minds want to know.
[Photo by David O’Neill/DK Images]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.