THE fate of the Jews who followed Jesus is one of the puzzles of the history of monotheism. The New Testament has much to say about a related issue: the dilemmas faced by Jesus’s non-Jewish adherents. There was a hard argument about how much, if any, of the Jewish law and custom such converts should keep. But when it comes to followers of Christ who were Jewish by culture and religious practice, the evidence is hazier. Such people clearly existed: the Epistle to the Hebrews, a deeply enigmatic section of the New Testament, is addressed to those who were steeped in the lore of the Jewish Temple, and wondered how the self-sacrifice of their crucified Master related to the animal sacrifices of their ancestral faith. Then there is a handful of references in other texts to Christians who fled eastward from Jerusalem before the Roman-Jewish war of 66AD. One account speaks of an exodus towards Jordan, after the Christian bishop, James, was attacked in the Temple courtyard.
The subsequent history of the Hebrew Christians has been obscured by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, and by Jewish resentment of Christianity. By the fourth century, a ferocious Cypriot bishop was describing a group of people whom he deemed heretics because they kept the Mosaic law—but who were also loathed by fellow Jews because of their belief in Christ. As in so many conflicts, people who straddled the divide upset both sides.All that helps explain the excitement generated in recent weeks by the emergence of a collection of lead codices, which might, if they are genuine, throw light on the missing links in Christian and Jewish history. Some 70 or so ring-bound “books”, with up to 15 leaves each, are said to have been found, along with other artefacts, in a cave in Jordan, near the place where the Hebrew Christians seemingly took refuge.
They are now in the possession of an Israeli Bedouin, but the government of Jordan has claimed ownership, saying they came to light on Jordanian soil a few years ago. Amid much confusion, the objects’ keeper asserts that they have been in his family for a century. Ziad al-Saad, head of Jordan’s antiquities department, has said this could be the biggest find since the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. David Elkington, who is writing a book about the lead “books”, backs Jordan’s claim, saying it offers the best chance of ensuring the artefacts are open to scholars. An Oxford laboratory, after testing one of the codices, believes the lead might be 2,000 years old.
Two British authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philip Davies and Margaret Barker, have argued, after seeing images, that the codices—and their possible Christian link—should be taken seriously. But a dissonant voice has come from Peter Thonemann, an Oxford University historian who was shown a photograph of a copper engraving, apparently found along with the lead codices; what he saw, at least, was a crude forgery, he insists. But so far, no scientific authority in a position to judge has seen more than a fraction of the objects.
If they are authentic, the lead objects tell a teasing Judeo-Christian story. There is writing in an ancient script, Paleo-Hebrew, which was used by Jews largely for ceremonial purposes. The writing is mostly indecipherable; it may be in code. The imagery features the Jewish feast of Sukkot, which is both a harvest thanksgiving and a celebration of the Jews’ sojourn in Egypt. During this festival, celebrants brandish palm fronds (bound up with willow and myrtle) in one hand and a lemon-like fruit, the etrog, in the other. This is familiar Jewish material, but some may ask what it has to do with Christianity.
A good question. In various forms, most Jewish festivals found their way into the Christian calendar. Imagery and language from Sukkot occur at many moments in the Christian year; in the stories of Christ’s birth, baptism, transfiguration, and most obviously at Palm Sunday, when Christians wave palms (or in Russia, willow twigs) to commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. In Christian commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, it is stressed that Sukkot was associated with the advent of the Messiah and with the coming of all nations to worship in Jerusalem. So images of Sukkot would be dear to the heart of Hebrew Christians.
None of that proves a Christian connection. The imagery might also be consistent with an alternative theory which was aired in the Jewish Chronicle, a British weekly: that the codices belonged to forerunners of the mystical tradition which became known as Kabbalah. But by stirring a discussion about the resonance of certain images to Jews and Christians alike, the lead objects have refocused attention on a deep but contentious commonality.