Biblical Scholars Weigh in on Discovery of Metal Plates

Via Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica

Just an update on my last post regarding the supposed discovery of a cache of ancient inscriptions written on metal plates.  This find continues to generate interest and a number of biblical scholars, including Margaret Barker, Philip Davies, and Jim Davila, have expressed opinions on the matter, based on what information they’ve been able to get hold of.

On PaleoJudaica, Jim Davila has a link to a DailyMail article, “Are lead tablets discovered in a remote cave in Jordan the secret writings about the last years of Jesus?” This article is quite sensationalist and left me wondering how the content of the plates went from possibly being related to the Kabbalah to being about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Davila is probably correct to suggest that this is a “silly misunderstanding” of the journalist.

The redeeming virtue of the article is that it quotes both Barker and Davies on the topic.

Speaking of Margaret Barker, the articles notes:

She has had access to photgraphs taken of the codices and scrolls, and is wary of confirming their authenticity.
But she said if the material is genuine then the books could be ‘vital and unique’ evidence of the earliest Christians.
‘If they are a forgery, what are they are forgery of?’ she said.’ Most fakes are drawn from existing material, but there is nothing like this that I have seen.’

For Philip Davies:

However, Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University is convinced the codices are genuine after studying one.
He has told colleagues privately that he believes the find is unlikely to have been forged, say the Sunday Times.

The DailyMail also notes that:

Two samples were sent to a laboratory in England where they were examined by Peter Northover, head of the materials science-based archaeology group.
The verdict was inconclusive without more tests, but he said the composition was ‘consistent with a range of ancient lead.’

Davila  provides links to the Unicode Mailing List of “Menorah- and Hebrew-inscribed lead plates of dubious provenance.” If these list postings are about the same plates, it looks as if there are individuals that are earnestly trying to find scholars who can authenticate the writing on them and are already coming up with some that are offering possibilities. Davila notes that the inscriptions are written in a Paleo-Hebrew script and some of the individuals on the list are suggesting that the dialect may be an archaic form of Samaritan or the Kanaanaean branch of Phoenician.

The links to the mailing list that Davila provides are here and here.

You can also see images of the plates in question here and here.

Davila, who remains skeptical about the discovery, until better analyses come along, posted a preliminary list of nine different criteria that he feels need to be fulfilled before we can start to accept these plates as a true discovery of ancient inscriptions:

1. Publication in a scholarly journal of the metal analysis that shows the lead to be ancient.

2. Publication in a scholarly journal of the carbon-14 tests that show the associated leather to be ancient and of a comparable date to the lead.

Even if the antiquity of the materials is demonstrated, this proves nothing, since ancient materials are sometimes available on which to write fake inscriptions.

3. Publication of the location and details of the supposed discovery and analysis of the site by archaeologists.

4. Analysis of the patina of the script which demonstrates the writing to be ancient. If it is modern and unretouched, this will be obvious. If it has been retouched to seem ancient, this may or may not be detectable (see the controversy over the patina of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash inscription).

5. Full publication of all the texts with good photographs.

6. Analysis of the script by paleographers.

[...]

See here for the full list of criteria he outlines and for the complete post.

I agree that it is important to be very careful with this type of find, especially with all the attention and money that these discoveries tend to generate.  However, if care is taken to analyze them properly, and, if proven to be authentic, this is potentially an incredibly significant find (especially if the text can be deciphered, but also simply for the value of having additional Jewish texts written on metal).

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Very interesting. Lead, huh? Heavy, but impressible–like gold.

  2. DavidC
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Just these two plates? How much information is there, and has it been translated?

  3. Posted March 23, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    IF they are authentic, then there are some fascinating possibilities. My guess is that they contain theurgic formulas associated with messianic figures, such as Bar Kochba and Rashbi.

  4. Raymond T Swenson
    Posted March 25, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    The photos appear to show at least two plates held together by six rings with the appearance of green copper. The implications for the description of the Book of Mormon plates are of course material, if these can be shown to be authentic.
    I am curious about the form of the writing on the plate shown. It appears to be raised letters above the level of the plate surface, not engravings incised into that surface. It is not a simple record engravd into a blank plate, but rather appears to have been first formed in some other material, such as wax, and then cast as a piece. This is distinct from all of the other metal records I have ever seen photos of. It seems an undue amount of effort in fabrication, unless the mold used to cast this plate could also be used to cast additional copies. What would be the purpose of multiple copies of this text? Does this casting technique help date the record, or tell us if it is authentic? What about the menorah figure at the top? While such a figure was included among illustrations painted on the walls of, e.g. the Dura-Europa Synagogue, what is it doing on a written record? Does use of an illustration of that kind tell us about the probable era when it was fabricated (if it was authentic)? Are there other examples of menorah used to decorate sacred texts? Are they Jewish or Christian? The written figures are large, so there is little (if any) information content in the writing.

  5. Dianne
    Posted March 26, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Interesting… I love when Historic things are discovered especially relating to Religion. In this day we have great resources to try to confirm authenticity, it will interesting to watch and see what happens with this. Thanks for sharing this!!!

  6. Posted March 27, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    “I am curious about the form of the writing on the plate shown. It appears to be raised letters above the level of the plate surface, not engravings incised into that surface. It is not a simple record engravd into a blank plate, but rather appears to have been first formed in some other material, such as wax, and then cast as a piece. This is distinct from all of the other metal records I have ever seen photos of. It seems an undue amount of effort in fabrication, unless the mold used to cast this plate could also be used to cast additional copies.”

    Hard to say just by the pictures, but the writing could have been hammered out.

    “What about the menorah figure at the top? While such a figure was included among illustrations painted on the walls of, e.g. the Dura-Europa Synagogue, what is it doing on a written record? Does use of an illustration of that kind tell us about the probable era when it was fabricated (if it was authentic)? ”

    The menorah was predominantly a Jewish symbol, associated of course with temple worship. This does not mean that we can date this to the days before the temple was destroyed.

    “The written figures are large, so there is little (if any) information content in the writing.”

    My guess is that these written figures contain theurgic formulas. If you look at the major text of ancient Jewish magic, the Sefer ha-Razim, there are many rituals, such as wine libations and incense burnings to the angels, all of which mirror the temple service on earth. This is one explanation for the menorah appearing prominently on the plates. This also explains why lead, as this was one of the materials used in Greco-Egyptian magic, and its Jewish derivatives.

  7. David Larsen
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I agree with Allen that it seems that if they are authentic, the most likely content of the plates would be something theurgic, magical, or ritual oriented. I say that because they remind me of the little inscriptions on gold found buried with Orphic Greeks and other such finds — these types of inscriptions often give instructions for the Afterlife, magical incantations for protection against evil spirits, etc.

  8. H.Davis
    Posted March 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    ‘Plates’ as a medium for writing in the ancient world is far from new or proving anything relative to the BOM !They or inscribed plates were known in Joseph Smith’s time for example,and found in books on ancient history.

  9. David Larsen
    Posted March 30, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, H.Davis,
    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim? To me, the idea of Israelite scripture being written down on metal plates doesn’t seem like it would have been common knowledge in Joseph’s day.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] plates: Biblical scholars, as well as LDS scholars, are intrigued by the recent “Discovery of Metal Plates” in a remote cave in the Jordan area. Margaret Barker explains, “If they are a forgery, what [...]

  2. [...] at HeavenlyAscents.com has pointed out an interesting recent discovery (see his posts here and here).  A collection of dozens of books made from metal plates have been found in Jordan that initial [...]

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