Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Jordanian lead codices: (2) The inscriptions

THIS IS MY SECOND POST commenting on Samuel Zinnner's comprehensive report on the Jordanian Lead Codices: Son of the Star: Bar Kokhba and the Jordanian lead books, which has been published online by the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books.

You can find the first post, which deals with the materials tests on the codices, here.
The third post, on the quotation of the Abgar-Selaman epitaph in the codices, is here.
The fourth post, with concluding remarks, is here.
For previous posts on the codices, start here and follow the links.

With the discussion of the metals tests out of the way, let me turn to things that I can talk about with more authority — the inscriptions on the codices. As I said in the preceding post, I do not think there is a credible case that the lead codices are genuine ancient artifacts

Dr. Zinner has presented a basic decipherment of the texts and I accept it as essentially correct. But let’s be clear on what that means.

The people who made the codices made use of some coins from the various Jewish revolts, some other Hellenistic and Roman-era coins, and a second-century-CE grave epitaph. These are the sources for almost all of the text of the codices and at least most of the iconography. There is arguably some knowledge of the Bible and late antique and later magical and mystical traditions as well. See p. 214 of the report for a summary of the deciphered content.

They took these sources and copied out some coin texts with all sorts of creative reordering and creation of words that could be made from the letters. There is virtually no connected text; just words and the occasional brief phrase, plus apparently lots of nonsense sequences of letters. Sometimes words are backwards, arranged in geometric patterns, broken up with other letters in between, or some combination of such rearrangements.

Any attempt to make more sense of the texts amounts to a Rorschach test for cognitive dissonance. My own view is that this is exactly what their creators intended. To me the objects look like a modern, or at least comparatively recent, attempt to make evocative texts using the very little surviving material from the coins.

People who had access to very limited artifactual information about ancient Judaism created faux-artifacts on the basis of what they had. They used the coin inscriptions to make up texts that were ultimately meaningless, but always just on the verge of making sense. This was a cover for their lack of information and inability to produce a coherent and convincing ancient text. The texts on the codices offer just enough dots with just enough clear connections to invite their readers to try to connect more dots and make them say more than they do. That is my reading of them or, if you wish, the direction my own confirmation bias takes me.

To Dr. Zinner they look like something far more significant: an elaborate esoteric statement with evocations of nationalist ideology and mystical and apotropaic traditions. He draws on an impressive panoply of sources to make sense of them: Mesopotamian cylinder seals, Ophric gold plates, an ancient Celtic coin, Greek magical amulets, grave inscriptions, the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, late-antique Synagogue iconography, Sefer HaRazim, Babylonian incantation bowls, Samaritan theology, 3 Enoch, the Zohar, other Kabbalistic traditions, medieval and Renaissance magic, etc. This is an incomplete list, but it gives you the idea. His justification for drawing so much on later material is that these late traditions sometimes preserve much older material. This is true, but a very little of that goes a long way.

I do not find his interpretation convincing. If one compares material from a vast range of dates and provenances to the allusive and evocative texts on the codices, it would be hard not to find some interesting connections. I doubt that the analysis would pass muster in a peer-review publication without a great deal of pruning. (Of course, there is potentially a direct way to prove me wrong on that.) And even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that his analysis is mostly correct, I think it would amount to compelling evidence that the codices were produced in the Renaissance or later.

The most I can do in a blog post is suggest to you a broad interpretation of the epigraphic evidence of the codices which is an alternative to Dr. Zinner's. Have a look at the evidence and see which interpretation makes more sense to you. I blog, you decide.

I do not have time to comment on many of the claims in the report in detail, and to do so would try the patience of my readers. But I do want to say a little more about the use of the Abgar-Selaman inscription. I think it a crucial piece of evidence for our understanding of the codices.

That will be the subject of my next post.

Cross-file under Fake Metal Codices Watch. I acknowledge that various elements of the current discussion may point to some of the codices being something other than fake, but I remain to be convinced. See my coming posts for more. In any case, I continue to include this cross-file rubric so that readers can search it to find all my posts on the subject.

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