April 19, 2011

Newly discovered Christian codices both timely and fake


Fraudulent lead codices.

In the realm of biblical scholarship the big find often turns out to be more dubious than Judas Iscariot’s presence at a dinner party. In recent years we’ve seen a few suspect “discoveries,” with perhaps the most foppish being the claim concerning the discovery of Jesus’ tomb. This find, put forward and manipulated by filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici has now been neatly laughed off the stage, but not without some effort. A somewhat naive media loves to report findings like these without looking into the whole story, especially when the timing is right. In the last month another major find has been reported and then debunked, this time quickly because, um, it was that bad.

At the end of March of this year a series of stories came out concerning lead codices (books) that were recently discovered and could be, as one reporter put it, “the major discovery of Christian history.” The blitz of worldwide reportage originated form a single press release made by a somewhat infamous pseudo-archaeologist named David Elkington. Since the press release and its immediate and widespread news pickup, the codices have been looked over and dismissed by the archaeological community. Some of the reasons for dismissal are rather comic, involving the forger’s ignorance of Greek and Aramaic forms and most comically the plagiarism of 20th century sources.

So how does something obviously this false get reported so widely? What led the BBC to write that, “Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history” without any scholarship to back it up? The need for content.

The blog LiveScience reported on the hoax, including these comments from Aramaic scholar and translator, Steve Caruso:

“I was a little bit surprised that they did take on as much media coverage as they did,” Caruso said. “The media took the press release hook, line and sinker without doing serious investigation. If they had they would have found that David Elkington, who brought them to the forefront, is in the fringe of academia.”

Some good photos and good timing probably gave the artifacts a boost. “I think there were a lot of really, really good photos, and the whole thing seemed convincing on the surface. People are looking for something to write about in the Easter season and this is something that would make great news.”

Why does this all remind me of my recent apartment hunting in New York?

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.