For sale: the earliest European book, £9m

The St Cuthbert GospelThe BBC and others report that “the earliest surviving European book” is being sold, for a mere £9m (over $14m), and that the British Library and others are raising funds to ensure that this historic item stays in the UK. It is a 7th century Latin copy of John’s Gospel, which was found in the tomb of St Cuthbert, originally buried at Lindisfarne in northern England in 698.

As can be seen from the BBC video, this St Cuthbert Gospel is in amazingly good condition. It is described as

an almost miraculous survival from the Anglo-Saxon period, a beautifully-preserved window into a rich, sophisticated culture that flourished some four centuries before the Norman Conquest.

The seller is “the Society of Jesus (British Province)”, i.e. the Jesuits. The story of how they obtained it is told here.

I wish the British Library and its partners success in their efforts to raise the funds to buy this treasure, and look forward to seeing it displayed in London (for part of the year) alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, which are from the same area and period.

I’m glad this book is not being sold on Amazon, although I wouldn’t complain if it was bought through my affiliate link!

Thanks for the link to Christian Askeland of Evangelical Textual Criticism.

Calvin, Preacher of Legalism

John CalvinSome words of Virgil Vaduva, quoted in a post The Toxic Fruit of Legalism by Martin Trench:

He killed fifty-seven people; banished seventy-six. Confiscated property of political and theological enemies; took power by public revolt and despotism; he ruled with an iron fist. … his name was John Calvin; an incredible attorney, stellar theologian, a tyrant and a murderer. …

There is more in Martin’s post, and a lot more in Vaduva’s 2006 article, The Right to Heresy. Vaduva explains how Calvin came to exert supreme power in the city state of Geneva, dominating the elected council in a way rather like how the Ayatollahs dominate the elected government in today’s Iran. And just like the Ayatollahs Calvin and his Consistory ruthlessly enforced public and private morality, with their officers randomly searching people’s bodies and homes for anything which didn’t meet their absolute standards. When the heretic Servetus arrived in Geneva, he wasn’t even given a fair trial before being burned to death.

Now I’m sure that today’s Calvinists would write that they reject this kind of behaviour. After all, so did Calvin, when he wrote, before he arrived in Geneva, in the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (as quoted by Vaduva – these words are not in later editions but may be footnoted in the Battles translation for which I give the Amazon link):

It is criminal to put heretics to death. To make an end of them by fire and sword is opposed to every principle of humanity.

But when Calvin had acquired the power to do so, he put a heretic to death. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Calvinists insist that theirs is a religion of grace, not of works, and that that is what Calvin preached. And indeed that is true as far as justification is concerned. But when it comes to sanctification, there seems to be no room for grace in Calvin’s scheme, but only for legalism. Jesus said

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:31-32 (NIV 2011)

Paul exhorted the Galatians:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV 2011)

But Calvin brought Jesus’ disciples in Geneva (as well as those who believed only outwardly) under a new yoke of slavery, a new law of his own devising. As such his teaching was the very opposite of Christian.

Now I am not suggesting that all of today’s Calvinists are teaching this kind of legalism. Some clearly are not. But it seems very strange to me that, while claiming to be evangelical Christians, they revere so highly someone whose teachings and practice were so antithetical to the gospel message.

P.S. Please don’t think that I endorse the teachings on Virgil Vaduva’s site Planet Preterist, as made more explicit on a linked FAQ page. This site is promoting full preterism, not the partial preterism of Martin Trench which I largely accept. Full preterism includes the teaching that the second coming of Jesus will be

[not] a physical and bodily return of Jesus [but] a return of his spiritual presence

– and that this spiritual second coming took place in AD 70. Thus they have made the same manoeuvre as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and more recently Harold Camping: because eschatological events did not happen in a visible way when their understanding of the Bible says they should have happened, these groups have reinterpreted the events as spiritual and therefore invisible, rather than accept that they may have misunderstood the Bible. That, I would suggest, is one of the clear marks of a false teacher – but not as serious as Calvin’s error of turning Christian freedom into fearful bondage.

Meet the new Dan Brown – me!

#1 biblioblogger (at least for a few more hours) Joel Watts not only calls me “the preeminent U.K. blogger” but also hails me as the new Dan Brown, in a post Peter “Dan Brown” Kirk on the Miriam Ossuary. All this is because of a comment I wrote on one of his previous posts:

So what story shall we concoct around this one? Something like this?

The young Caiaphas seduced and raped a girl called Miriam/Mary, then cast her aside. She had a son, Yeshua/Jesus, and later married a carpenter called Joseph. The boy grew up hating his father and vowing to overthrow the whole priestly caste, and became an anti-establishment preacher. He also married and had a daughter, named after his mother. Caiaphas had his son arrested and crucified, and took his daughter-in-law and granddaughter into his household. The later followers of Jesus covered it all up by inventing the virgin birth story and removing all references to the wife and daughter who had gone over to the enemy.

That could make a good film plot. It would also be entirely fictional!

In his follow-up post Joel quotes the middle paragraph of my comment, without the context in which I make it clear that I was writing fiction. By doing so he aligns himself with the ignorant people who took The Da Vinci Code as fact, and its villain Teabing’s ravings as the truth about Jesus, despite the book clearly being marketed as fiction. Well, what more would I expect from Joel?

The Miriam OssuarySo what was this all about? As Jim West reports, the Israel Antiquities Authority has confirmed as authentic an ossuary (a box for human bones) with an inscription “Miriam daughter of Yeshua son of Caiaphas, priest of Maaziah from Beth Imri”.

Well, as Justin Bieber will forever be reminded when he examines his armpit, “Yeshua” is the Hebrew form of “Jesus”. Also “Miriam” is the Hebrew form of “Mary”. Actually here the language is Aramaic, but the names are the same. It is certain that someone will try to link these names with the best known Jesus and Mary of the time. So I might as well jump in first, as far as I know, with the idea. But both names were very common, and so to identify specific people without any further details is completely fanciful.

Now I’m sure someone could write a best-selling novel around this plot. Perhaps I could. Perhaps I will. Or would I be promoting false teaching if I did so, even in a work of fiction? It might be a good idea to use a pseudonym. Or maybe someone else will write the novel, or even a book or film claiming to be non-fiction. But if so they had better pay me for the storyline, or risk an expensive lawsuit later. This is my idea, and it will remain so until I sell it!

Not Good Friday but Good Thursday?

The death of Jesus from "The Passion of the Christ"Jeremy Myers puts forward The Case for a Thursday Crucifixion. If he is right, today shouldn’t be Good Friday at all, but we should have marked the death of Jesus yesterday, or on an earlier Thursday in April.

Jeremy’s theory makes some sense, especially of the statements that Jesus’ body was in the tomb “three days and three nights”, which even with ancient ways of counting doesn’t work for the traditional 36 hours from the burial to the Resurrection. This requires that the day after the crucifixion was not a regular sabbath but a special day of rest for the Passover, as clearly stated in John 19:31, which in this case was on a Friday.

Jeremy’s scheme requires that the Last Supper was on the Wednesday. Oddly enough Jeremy wrote this on the very day of publication of Colin Humphreys’ book The Mystery of the Last Supper, in which Humphreys also puts forward the claim that the Last Supper was on a Wednesday. I now don’t really think that this book is an April Fool. But Humphreys does not agree with Jeremy on the day of the crucifixion; one of his arguments is that the trial of Jesus needed more than one night. Also Jeremy makes no reference to Humphreys’ work. So I think it is coincidental that both are suggesting a Wednesday Last Supper on the same day – ironically, the traditional Thursday of the Last Supper.

If the Last Supper was on Wednesday 1st April 33, Humphreys’ proposal, the Passover date on the official Jewish calendar would have been on the Saturday. This doesn’t fit with Jeremy’s theory that the “special sabbath” of John 19:31 was a Friday. So Jeremy and Humphreys may agree on the day of the week for the Last Supper, but probably not on the year. Indeed, according to the calendar given in an earlier work by Humphreys and a collaborator, there is no plausible year in which the Passover (Nisan 15) fell on a Friday. This may prove a fatal flaw in Jeremy’s idea.

These calendar issues are interesting, but I will leave it to others to look into further details.

Last Supper April Fool

The BBC reports today research by Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University which concludes:

The Last Supper was therefore on Wednesday, 1 April AD33, according to the standard Julian calendar used by historians.

Humphreys has even managed to get a book published on the subject, by no less than Cambridge University Press. And there is a detailed article about it on the university’s Research News website.

Thanks also to Dave Faulkner who first alerted me to this.

Leonardo da Vinci's representation of the Last SupperSo who is this Colin Humphreys? A historian? A biblical scholar? No, a “metallurgist and materials scientist”. In fact he is Sir Colin Humphreys CBE FREng, Professor and Director of Research at the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. Impressive credentials for a scientist. No doubt he is a leading world expert on gallium nitride, “probably the most important semiconductor material since silicon”. But what would he know about the Last Supper?

The whole thing looks like an April Fool. As Humphreys clearly isn’t a fool, I suspect that this time the BBC and the Cambridge University Press have been fooled.

But at least something good could come out of this folly. The BBC article reports that

Prof Humphreys believes his findings could present a case for finally fixing Easter Day to the first Sunday in April.

If this book helps us to move away from the stupidity of this year’s very late Easter, then it will have done a service to us all.

Or could this be another case of The spoof that wasn’t?

Gagarin's God: found not in space but on earth

Yuri Gagarin (first day cover)Today the world celebrates fifty years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. He was an unlikely hero. Although a highly trained pilot, as the BBC reports, he

had no control over his spacecraft during the historic flight.

And he didn’t even complete a full orbit of the earth.

But what did he see, or not see, in space? And what did he say, or not say? It became a staple theme of atheistic Soviet propaganda that during his flight he said

I see no God up here.

But no such words appear in the official transcripts of his communications. A few days later he did apparently say, in response to a question very likely from an important communist,

No I didn’t see God. I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.

On the other hand he also said, at least as reported at Wikipedia,

Someone who never met God on Earth, would never meet Him in space.

And it is known that he was a practising Orthodox Christian who had his daughter baptised shortly before his flight.

Of course Gagarin did not see God in space. He clearly understood well that God is not an old man sitting in the sky, hidden from human view only by the atmosphere. It is probably a reflection of the naivety of the Soviet propaganda machine, rather than of the naivety of the popular Russian idea of God, that Gagarin’s alleged words were ever considered a serious argument for atheism. As even their famous peasant become cosmonaut clearly understood, God is to be found not in space but here on earth.

New papyrus may be one of earliest New Testament texts

Tommy Wasserman of Evangelical Textual Criticism writes that an early manuscript of the book of Hebrews has been discovered. He quotes Brian Small writing about

a newly-discovered (three weeks ago!) papyrus fragment containing a portion of Hebrews 11. It was discovered in a funerary mask and is dated to the second century!

Small apparently wrote this on his blog Polumeros kai Polutropos but then deleted his post – still available as a Google cache. Probably the deletion is related to the accusations made against Small in comments on Wasserman’s post by someone who is not prepared to give their name. My policy is to ignore anonymous accusations as irresponsible gossip.

P52 recto: John 18:31-33 (2nd century)The discovery is apparently among the collection described by Dr Scott Carroll as “some of the earliest biblical texts known to-date”. I think he means New Testament texts, as these are certainly later than the Dead Sea Scrolls which include much of the Hebrew Bible. But no images are available of this new discovery – the image I am showing here is of a different second century New Testament papyrus fragment.

Wasserman is careful in what he says about these discoveries:

we have to be extremely cautious about the claimed second-century date. …  of course there is … a real danger to through out sensational claims about “earliest biblical texts known to-date,” etc (which media just loves).

Well, I’m sure he is right to distrust the media, as I do, especially in the wake of the fiasco of the forged ancient lead books. But if this fragment is indeed as old as is claimed, while it will not exactly be “the major discovery of Christian history” as was claimed for the lead books, it could be the discovery of the year or even of the decade in terms of confirming the antiquity of the New Testament text.

Contents of the ancient lead books revealed!

On Tuesday I reported on what was being billed as “the major discovery of Christian history”, a new discovery said to be “as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls”: 70 books made of lead, said to be from the 1st century AD and of Christian origin. Today I am excited to read about the contents of these books, which have been revealed by Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church. Thanks to Jeremy Myers of TILL HE COMES for the link.

"Priceless" Christian relicsThis is indeed a sensational revelation, fully justifying the hype “the major discovery of Christian history”. It seems that these books contain the oldest and most reliable texts of much of the New Testament. And these texts differ from the ones we have had up to now in some startling ways. Read Alan’s post to find out more.

Now of course Alan’s post completely contradicts the one by Jim Davila supposedly proving that these lead books are forgeries, which I quoted in my earlier post today. But both Alan’s and Jim’s posts are dated April 1st. Which of them is an April Fool? I will leave it for you, my readers, to decide.

"The major discovery of Christian history": a forgery

On Tuesday I reported on what was being billed as “the major discovery of Christian history”, a new discovery said to be “as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls”: 70 books made of lead, said to be from the 1st century AD and of Christian origin. But even by the next day the credibility of this discovery was coming into question, as I noted in a comment, because of revelations about the identity of David Elkington who was publicising this matter.

One of three photographs of the ‘copper codex’Now there seems to be proof that these books are forgeries, or at least that one of them is. Elkington asked Peter Thonemann, who is a Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Oxford, to examine three photographs of one of the discovered books (this one is apparently made of copper or bronze, not lead) showing some writing in Greek. Jim Davila of the blog PaleoJudaica has posted Thonemann’s reply to Elkington and copies of the photographs.

In his letter to Elkington Thonemann gives a full transcription and translation of the Greek text, which is meaningless as it stands. But he has discovered the source of this text. This leads him to the conclusion:

The text on your bronze tablet … has been extracted unintelligently from another longer text … a perfectly ordinary tombstone from Madaba in Jordan which happens to have been on display in the Amman museum for the past fifty years or so.  …

The only possible explanation is that the text on the bronze tablet was copied directly from the inscription in the museum at Amman …

This particular bronze tablet is, therefore, a modern forgery, produced in Jordan within the last fifty years.  I would stake my career on it.

Strong words indeed from a scholar. If this one book is a forgery, then it is reasonable to suppose that the others allegedly discovered with it are also forgeries. I suppose it is possible that someone has mixed genuine antiquities with forgeries. But if they have they have so greatly compromised the value of the genuine ones as to make them worthless.

So let’s forget this sorry story, except perhaps as a warning not to be carried away by unverified hype.

Thanks to P.J. Williams of Evangelical Textual Criticism for the link to Davila’s post.

New discovery "as important as Dead Sea Scrolls"?

The BBC Today Programme has a report In pictures: Biblical bounty?, an illustrated outline story that

Ancient sealed books, discovered in a Jordanian cave, may shed new light on the early years of Christianity.

Ancient sealed books, discovered in a Jordanian cave, may shed new light on the early years of ChristianityThe books have survived because the pages are made of lead. But all this seems rather speculative given that “the text in Ancient Hebrew” is mostly in code. The link with early Christianity seems to be in some of the images, but these can surely be interpreted in other ways.

The BBC reports some extravagant claims about this discovery:

the books may have been made by the followers of Jesus a few decades after his crucifixion. … “as important as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls” … “the major discovery of Christian history”.

Well, we will have to see. If the text can be decoded and confirms the claims about who wrote these books and when, then indeed this could be a discovery of the first importance. But failing such confirmation the books will be no more than a historical oddity, worthy of a place in “a Jordanian museum” but not of worldwide attention.

UPDATE after half an hour: There is more on this story in another BBC report, which is largely about how these books have ended up in Israel and how the Jordanians want them back. The following may be of particular interest:

Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, says the most powerful evidence for a Christian origin lies in plates cast into a picture map of the holy city of Jerusalem.

“As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck. That struck me as so obviously a Christian image,” he says.

“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 the cross that is the most telling feature, in the shape of a capital T, as the crosses used by Romans for crucifixion were.

“It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls,” says Mr Davies.