Wednesday, March 30, 2011

That’s not Christian History (necessarily)

Is it the greatest thing since the Dead Sea scrolls?  Maybe.  What it isn’t is definitively Christian.  At least not yet.

Some odd book-like objects were found about five years ago in a cave in Jordan.  Not your typical books, these are inscribed metal plates, bound (in some cases on all four sides) with more metal.  It’s possible that they are early Christian artifacts.  Early dating evidence makes the timing possible.  The location of the find makes it possible.  But the supposed definitive proof is what I like to call nothistory.

This proof is described by Dr. Margaret Barker, identified as a past president of the Society for Old Testament Study, thus:
‘As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck,’ he [sic] said. ‘That struck me as so obviously a Christian image. There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city.
‘There are walls depicted on other pages of these books too and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem. It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls.’

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Margaret Barker is indeed entitled to the title of doctor, but not through the academic route.  Her doctorate of divinity was honorary, granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2008 for her work on the symbolism of the first temple.  Her thesis, not widely accepted, is that there was an earlier Jewish tradition that can be inferred from the symbolism embedded in the physical structure of the first temple, one based on a more mystical faith and including worship of a sacred tree associated with the Akkadian mother-goddess Asherah, but that was replaced by a later, more strictly monotheistic Judaism. She argues that disciples of the older form of Judaism had not yet disappeared by the time of Christ, that a number of them became his followers, and that theirs is the form of Judaism most influential in the teachings of the historical Jesus.  It’s an interesting idea, though her evidence seems (to the non-expert eye, anyway) pretty thin.  More worrying, her inclusion of medieval tropes like infant sacrifice is highly suspect, especially considering that many of her sources were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the fact.  While she is a popular figure in Latter Day Saint circles, critiques of her work are readily available on the web, though a search on “Margaret Barker Bible review” in JSTOR brought up no scholarly evaluations of her work.

The other easy hit is the notion of a Christian crucifixion.  I suggest we all agree that she meant a Roman crucifixion of Christians and move on.

Now let’s get to the actual evidence, or rather, the question raised by the supposed evidence.  That is, is an image of a cross in front of a building with an opening in front of city walls necessarily Christian?  There are three images here to unpack: the city walls, the building with the opening, and the cross.  

City Walls:  I have to wonder what makes city walls depicted in artifacts found in Jordan “almost certainly … Jerusalem”?  City walls of that period pretty much all looked the same, and most of the distinguishing features of Jerusalem’s current walls, like King David’s Gate, are of far more recent construction than the artifact in question.  We have no idea what might have distinguished Jerusalem’s walls from any other city’s walls in the 1st century CE.

A Building With an Opening:  Which apparently “has to be” the tomb of Jesus.  Just for the moment, we will assume that these artifacts are what they are hypothesized to be.  In that case, they were made by people who were intimately familiar with the details of the story of the historic Jesus, if not with the man himself.  They would have known that the tomb of Jesus was not a hole in a building, it was a hole in a cave.  There is, in fact, a building over that cave today, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  There are depictions of Jesus’ tomb that represent the church itself as the tomb.  If, however, you visit that church (as I have), you will be taken deep, down below the street level to peer through the semi-darkness at a niche cut out of the side of a small cave.  That’s what has historically been believed to be the tomb of Jesus.  Why would people familiar with, not the medieval imagination of Christ’s tomb, but the actual location itself, depict it as a building?  Unless we are further positing that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the wrong place and that all those pilgrims prayed at the wrong hole in the wrong cave.  So far, though, no one’s said that.

 And, saving the best for last, The Cross: The notion that a cross symbolized Jesus to his contemporary followers requires four important assumptions.  First, that his crucifixion was performed on a cross-shaped structure.  Second, that crosses were used at the time to symbolize crucifixion.  Third, that crucifixions in the region were assumed to be Roman crucifixions of Christians.  Fourth, that the cross as a symbol of Roman crucifixion of Christians was necessarily seen as representative of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Greek term in the New Testament, stauros, is typically translated as ‘cross’, but in fact meant ‘stake’ or ‘pole’.  Roman crucifixions were done on either stakes (with the hands bound or nailed together above the head) or on Tau shaped crosses, resembling a capital letter T, that left the head unsupported.  Other civilizations also used Y-shaped structures for crucifixion, but the point is that the choices were either stake or T, not a cross, and that the only evidence we have indicates the stake.  A community of people close to the historical Jesus would not have associated a cross with his crucifixion.

Crosses were important symbols at the time, though not of crucifixion.  The cross as a symbol in the Mediterranean predates both Christianity and the Roman Empire.  The most popularly known is the Egyptian ankh, which looked slightly different, having a loop at the top.  The contemporary Christian version, the right-angled intersection of two straight lines, was used by a number of civilizations with a number of different meanings, including the joining of the male and female.  The first use by Christians was in the third century, which was described by Tertullian (a Christian who lived in Roman Carthage from 160-220 CE) thus:

The cross is adored with all the homage due only to the Most High; and for any one to call it, in the hearing of a genuine Romanist, by the Scriptural term, "the accursed tree," is a mortal offence. To say that such superstitious feeling for the sign of the cross, such worship as Rome pays to a wooden or a metal cross, ever grew out of the saying of Paul, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ"--that is, in the doctrine of Christ crucified--is a mere absurdity, a shallow subterfuge and pretence. The magic virtues attributed to the so-called sign of the cross, the worship bestowed on it, never came from such a source. The same sign of the cross that Rome now worships was used in the Babylonian Mysteries, was applied by Paganism to the same magic purposes, was honoured with the same honours. That which is now called the Christian cross was originally no Christian emblem at all, but was the mystic Tau of the Chaldeans and Egyptians

Which brings us to assumption three, that a crucifixion would be assumed to be a Roman crucifixion of Christians.  Crucifixion was certainly practiced in the Levant by the Romans, but also by the Persians and Seleucids.  Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon all (apparently, I’ve seen the citation but not the original texts) confirm the Persian practice.  Under the Seleucids, the Judean ruler, Janneaus Alexander, was reported to have crucified 800 Pharisee prisoners in front of their wives and children.  As for the Romans, crucifixion was but one of many forms of the death penalty, which ranged from the mercifully quick beheading, through the symbolically rich punishment for patricide of being sewn into a leather sack with a cock, a dog, a serpent and a monkey and thrown into the ocean (or a lake, if the ocean wasn’t handy), and culminating in the slow, painful death from asphyxiation and/or thirst and exposure (depending on the method, though infection and blood loss could also come into play) of the crucifixion.  As Josephus reported, in the aftermath of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, this ‘most wretched of deaths’ was meted out to hundreds of Jews.  Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus was hardly a singular act, either in its place or time.  

Finally, the most common symbol archeologists and historians associate with early Christians is the fish, not the cross.  The standard interpretation is that, at a time when crucifixion was common, the cross was seen as a symbol of horrific punishment, not of divinity.  While the (contested) use of the cross as a Christian symbol may date to the third century, at the end of that century, when Constantine had a vision telling him he would be successful in battle if he fought under “A heavenly divine symbol” he chose the Chi-Rho, not the cross.  (That is, as recounted by Lacantius.  Eusebius claimed that Constantine was convinced of the truth of the Christian faith when the sun’s rays formed a cross over a battlefield.  Constantine was Lacantius’ patron and appointed him to tutor his son, making Lacantius much more personally connected to Constantine than Eusebius, who was bishop of a distant province, an inveterate political manipulator, and whose account was written conveniently after Constantine’s death.)

It’s not that these artifacts could not be Christian.  They could.  But the leap from an image of a cross in front of a building with a hole in it in front of a city wall to ‘this must be the cross of Jesus before the tomb of Jesus before the walls of Jerusalem’ is a leap of faith, not of history.


  1. Given the ahistoricality of the imagery, forgery seems quite possible, doesn't it? Though it could just be a matter of bad over-interpretation and be related to something else entirely. The fact that they're declaring it definitively Hebrew though it's in code seemed odd to me, but perhaps there were known Hebrew codes from that period.

  2. The issue of forgery is an obvious one, which is the most reasonable explanation of why the experts cited are, shall we be polite and merely say: not of the sort one would expect? Most of the biblioblogosphere has focused on that issue and done quite a good job of pointing out that there is a great deal of doubt as to authenticity. I felt no need to go down that path, nor do I have any particular expertise there. Instead, I wanted to get at a different question, that of the validity of the interpretation if the objects are real. This strikes me as at least as important a question at this stage - whether, if they are real, they are historically important. Or, more to the point, whether they are historically important in the ways that are being discussed by the believers.

    I don't think I said the imagery is ahistorical, but rather the opposite. At the time, the cross had many meanings and the city walls could have been any of many cities. Thus, the image described does fit the landscape and symbolism of the time, just not in particularly Christian ways. That's the point I was trying to make. If they aren't a forgery, and so far all anyone has said is that they have not been properly authenticated, not that they are provably fake, they are at least as likely to refer to Seleucid or Persian or some other tradition as Christian. Probably more so.