Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Jordanian lead codices: (4) Concluding observations

THIS IS MY FOURTH AND CONCLUDING 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 second post, on the inscriptions on the codices, is here.
The third post, on the quotation of the Abgar-Selaman epitaph in the codices, is here.
For earlier posts on the codices, start here and follow the many, many links.

I cannot prove that the Jordanian metal codices are not ancient artifacts. One cannot prove a negative. But I do not find this possibility credible. Here are my reasons.

There are many anomalies in the metal codices that cry out for explanation. They have an odd mixture of scripts from different periods. They make extensive use of coin inscriptions and motifs from a period of several centuries. The text on the codices consists mostly of words and letters associated with the coins, often disassembled, reordered, rearranged, or encoded. Otherwise they mostly look like gibberish. As far as I can tell, the Hebrew on the codices uses only the paleo-Hebrew script of the coins, although we know from the discovery in the twentieth century of many Hebrew manuscripts from the Bar Kokhba period that the revolutionaries also used the square Hebrew script much of the time. The codices mention two Roman emperors and the mother of one of them, and these people lived around 200 CE, long after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Again, the source for them was at least partly coins. An effort to make sense of the text of the codices requires appeal to a huge range of traditions from ancient Mesopotamian iconography to Renaissance magic. And there is the problem of the inexplicable use and unlikely survival of the Abgar-Selaman inscription, which I have covered in detail in the third post in this series.

Dr. Zinner has offered individual explanations for most of these anomalies. He has put a huge amount of work into his treatment of them. I find some of his explanations plausible and others less so. But one explanation covers all the anomalies at once: the codices are clumsy modern productions.

To put it another way, isn’t it lucky that these ancient artifacts make such extensive – virtually exclusive – use of epigraphic materials that happened to survive to modernity? It happens that the creators of the codices, both in the Bar Kokhba era and a couple of generations later, had a fascination — to the point of obsession — with coin inscriptions and coin iconography. And isn’t it lucky that the one other inscription they used (incomprehensibly to us) happened to be a grave epitaph that just barely survived, battered but still readable, to our time?

Again, we have been here before, haven’t we? Here I invoke my “lottery rule.” If we have to have won the lottery for an unprovenanced object to be a genuine ancient artifact, it probably isn’t.

Where does that leave us?

I cannot rule out the possibility that the “core group” of metal codices are medieval productions. Dr. Zinner leaves this as a live possibility too. The main problem with this idea is the Abgar-Selaman inscription. Did someone in the High Middle Ages dig it up, quote it on the codices, then bury it again until it was found in modern times and put in a museum? That doesn’t sound very likely to me. It still sounds like winning the lottery, although granted the pot is not as big. But if a medievalist wishes to make a case that they belong in this period and placing them there solves at least most of the problems, I am prepared to listen.

The closer we come to the present, the less luck is involved in the survival of the Abgar-Selaman inscription. Could the codices be early modern productions, say of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries? Antiquarianism was certainly alive and well in this period. And a cache of lead books with cryptic Latin and Arabic inscriptions was excavated in Granada, Spain, in the late sixteenth century. They too were ostensibly set early in the Common Era. They were in fact fakes — recent productions. So such ideas were in the air.

The materials tests on the codices seem firmly to exclude a date of creation in the twentieth century, and apparently in the nineteenth as well. That said, I cannot entirely exclude the possibility that a very clever modern fabricator has fooled the scientists. It has happened before.

Let me close with some final observations.

First, I realize that I concluded some years ago that the codices were not ancient artifacts. I think my reasoning has stood up pretty well and I still think the same. The evidence I have discussed in these four posts seems convincing to me. But I acknowledge that to someone starting from a different place, it could all look like a great big heap of confirmation bias - one that I cannot see through my own cognitive dissonance. So, please, do not take my word for it. I have tried to present my views with the evidence and reasoning laid out transparently. But if this subject interests you, take the time to go through Dr. Zinner’s massive, comprehensive report and make up your own mind. In the end, what I think doesn’t matter much. Whatever scholarly conversation there is about the codices in the coming years does.

Second, that conversation has yet to begin. Let us remember that no peer-reviewed research on the codices has been published. Neither for the materials tests nor for the textual and iconographic content.

This is not to deny Dr. Zinner's contribution in this report, which gives us a lot of new information and a carefully thought-out and presented discussion of it by someone who has spent years working with the material. But it has not passed a formal peer-review process in which the ideas presented have been critically weighed by other specialists who had veto power but who nevertheless gave the all-clear for publication. That is an important step that should not be neglected.

The people at the Lead Book Centre are working on this. If and when that formal conversation begins in the journals, maybe we will make some more progress.

Third, I should underline the fact that Dr. Zinner does not present a dogmatic position on what the codices are and when they were made. He puts a lot of effort into making the best case he can that they could be ancient, but he keeps other possibilities in mind throughout. He realizes that some of them must be modern fakes. He allows that some or all of the "core group" may be medieval, or even that all of them may be early modern or even recently modern ritual objects or fakes. I appreciate his openness. As I have said, I do not find the idea that some of them are ancient to be a credible possibility. But otherwise, our views are not too incompatible.

Fourth, a question for anyone who thinks the codices could be ancient artifacts. Can you point to anything in them that we did not know, say, a century or more ago but that we know now thanks to discoveries in the last century (the Judean Desert scrolls etc.)? If a pattern of such things could be shown, that would be a significant argument in favor of their being ancient. If not, it is one more reason to doubt it.

Fifth, I have no idea why the codices were made. If they are fakes, they were faked in a particular context, made to fool particular people. This is a question for specialists other than I, but it remains a question. I would not rule out the possibility that they were made for some artistic or ritual purpose that involved no intent to deceive. I think the case for an apotropaic use is weak, but according to the claims of the metal analysis they were used for something for a period of time.

Sixth, what is the history of the Abgar-Selaman inscription from Madaba? When was it discovered? Where has it been held or displayed and when? Are there earlier references to it? Where exactly was it located originally in situ? Follow the history of the Abgar inscription and it may lead you to the people who made the codices.

I didn't plan for seven final concluding observations, but that's how it came out. Seventh and last, I would like to thank the members of the Lead Book Centre for their work on the codices. And I would especially like to thank Dr. Zinner for producing this comprehensive report. He did it for free on his own time and it is clearly a labor of love. Whatever the eventual outcome of the discussion, what he has done is important and is much appreciated.

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, although nothing I have seen adds up to a persuasive case. In particular, I have reviewed the evidence carefully and I am unconvinced that they are ancient artifacts. 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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