Lost Bible writings found in a desert cave
Ancient books have been found, possibly written by contemporaries of Jesus. They may throw light on the origins of Christianity. But are they hoax or history?
For those intrigued by faith and history, the excitement is almost unbearable. A British team is studying 70 books, each the size of a credit card and covered in lead: what might they mean?
The historian David Elkington, is in no doubt. They are 'the major discovery of Christian history,' he says. 'It's a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church.'
He's referring to strange manuscripts that survived for almost 2000 years in a cave in Jordan. With pages made of lead and bound with metal, they're said to date from the 1st century and contain coded references to early Christianity.
Ziad al-Saad, the Director of Jordan's department of antiquities, agrees. He claims these books may have been made by followers of Jesus in the two decades immediately following his crucifixion.
'They will perhaps be more significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls,' he says, referring to an amazing find in Qumran in January, 1947.
Then, a stray goat led a young shepherd to caves in the barren cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. Going inside, he stumbled upon 972 texts from the Hebrew bible; 2000 years old, they were the oldest such manuscripts ever found.
This new discovery is surrounded by more mystery. We're told they were found in a remote valley in northern Jordan between 2005 and 2007.
A flash flood exposed two niches inside a cave. A Jordanian Bedouin investigated and found the books, each containing 5 to 15 pages and cast in lead.
Yet now the books are in Israel. The Jordanian government believes they were smuggled there by another Bedouin. But the present owner says they've been in his family for 100 years.
Meanwhile, adding to the interest, many of the books are sealed, prompting academics to speculate they are actually the lost collection of manuscripts mentioned in the Bible's Book Of Revelation.
What do these books promise us? Most tantalizing is information about the 'missing years' of Christianity between the crucifixion of Jesus in 30AD and the first writings of the apostle Paul around 50AD. Currently, we know almost nothing of this crucial time.
To touch the earliest years of Christian spirituality, before the church existed, could revolutionise our understanding.
But first, two key questions need to be answered. Are these books as old as they appear? And are the relics of Christian origin rather than Jewish?
If the answer to both is 'Yes', then we do indeed have a find on our hands.
- Do you believe we can find truth in the past?
- Maybe these books will improve Christianity in some way. How do you think it could be improved?
- Imagine you were the one who found the books in the cave and describe what happened. What were you doing when you came across them and how did you react to the find? Give us your diary entry for that day.
- Class debate: Does religion, ancient or modern, still matter?
Some People Say...
“Organised religion kills spiritual feeling.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So are they Christian in origin?
- Early evidence is positive. Professor Philip Davies was 'dumbstruck' by a cross he found in the text. 'That struck me as an obviously Christian image,' he said. And sealed books were part of the early Christian tradition.
- But they're not your normal book.
- No, they're cast in lead, presumably for protection. And though the text is in ancient Hebrew, most of it's in code.
- And isn't the oldest Christian church in Jordan?
- It is, yes. And we do know that many Christians fled there from persecution in Jerusalem.A We'll have to wait to discover their significance and authenticity. Many such discoveries have proved to be fakes or misdated. And then the translation will take a while. It won't be done by tea-time – but may be worth the wait.