Some years ago I proposed a thought experiment as a way of grasping something of the strangeness of scripture:
It makes for an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened if the early Jewish Christians had been driven from Jerusalem into the desert. What if, under threat of destruction from an invading Roman army, they had concealed their writings in caves and then, like the sectarians of Qumran, had disappeared off the screen of history? And suppose that nineteen hundred years later those writings were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and fell into the hands of a culture that had never known the Christian church. What would that culture make of them? We can hardly subtract the influence of Christianity from modern Western culture, even from modern secular rationalism. But this is only a thought-experiment: how would people react to these writings and their claims about a Jewish teacher called Jesus without all the intellectual baggage of Christian tradition, without the preconception that this a definitive story about God, perhaps without much of an idea about God at all?
Remarkably, it appears that something very close to this may actually have happened. The BBC reports today that some time between 2005 and 2007 a stash of about 70 small books with sealed lead pages was discovered in a remote valley in northern Jordan. A flash flood uncovered two niches inside a cave. There is some classic archaeo-skullduggery involved in the story—the books were allegedly smuggled into Israel and are now in the hands of an Israeli Bedouin who claims that they have been in his family for 100 years; so it may yet turn out to be a scam. Larry Hurtado voices some scepticism. But scholars who have seen them are inclined to think that they are authentic and that at least some of them are very early Jewish-Christian texts. The suggestion is that they may have been deposited by Christians who fled from Jerusalem into the hills of Jordan around the time of the war against Rome (cf. Matt. 24:16).
In a press release Professor Philip Davies, who is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University, is quoted as saying:
My own scrutiny suggests to me and to several of my colleagues that the form of the archaic Semitic script corresponds well to what was used in the era 200 BCE - 100 CE. The codex format of the documents is also known to have been adopted by Christians from about the first century CE. However much of the writing appears to be in code and many of the images are unfamiliar. The possibility of a Hebrew-Christian origin is certainly suggested by the imagery and, if so, these codices are likely to bring dramatic new light to our understanding of a very significant but so far little understood period of history.
One particularly intriguing detail is mentioned. Sealed books feature in the book of Revelation. One of the few fragments of text to have been translated reads “I shall walk uprightly”, alluding to resurrection, a sentence which supposedly is also found in Revelation, though unfortunately the BBC article does not give the reference. It’s all rather tenuous, but any such connection made between the thought-world of Revelation and the circumstances of Jewish-Christian communities around the time of the war against Rome would obviously have massive significance.
But what really excites me about this whole business is the potential it has to cast an authentic historical light on Christian origins. We little appreciate the extent to which our minds and imaginations—and therefore our reading of the New Testament—have been conditioned by 2000 years of densely layered theological reflection. Perhaps this “find” will be like a flash flood that washes away enough of the interpretive sediment to give us a glimpse of—and a feel for—the pre-Christian strangeness of the New Testament story.