With Easter just past many folks have paused to think about the story of the Passion of Jesus. The story says that a first century Jew from the northern Palestine province of Galilee became a folk hero through his moral and spiritual teaching, purported miracle-working, unjust death on a Roman cross and alleged resurrection three days later. On this last point in particular, his first followers in the decades following his burial held to their testimony of seeing physically die and then later walking around alive again, even though it would cost them their lives as well. A number of sources, including a non-Jewish physician named Luke, researched the matter more fully and recorded many details in a more or less chronological retelling of the story. Since the writing of the original accounts, which eventually made their way into the collection of documents known as the New Testament canon, advocates have sought to corroborate the story and skeptics have sought to discredit it.
In recent months two new archaeological discoveries in the Middle East have added a new dimension to the debate of what really happened 2000 years ago in Eastern Jewish province of the Roman Empire. The discoveries tell the story in metal. The first discovery is set of small metal books, with script and images engraved on the pages which are bound by small rings. They are about the size of a credit card and look amazingly modern in some ways, like an ipod prototype, though scholars estimate that they could date back as early as AD 33. If they do indeed date back that far, they would easily be the oldest Christian documents yet discovered, predating the oldest New Testament Manuscripts by decades. This would put them on par or greater, if possible, than the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the early 1940s. Currently the metal books are somewhat tied up in negotiations, but preliminary photographs of some of the pages reveal photos that clearly confirm the essence of the New Testament: a significant man was crucified, left an empty tomb behind, and received exaltation. The books will likely reveal more important information as they are carefully examined. The challenge remaining now is for the appropriate qualified experts to gain access to all the books so as to make a careful inquiry into the nature, history, and content of the metal artifacts.
The second discovery is much less glamorous, but perhaps more shocking in its naked simplicity. Someone found two first-century Roman nails in a tomb marked with the name Caiaphas. Since Caiaphas was the high priest who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus according to the Christian documents, the researcher guessed that the combination of the name with two Roman nails placed in his tomb could mean that this was the same Caiaphas and these were the actual nails. The odd thing about the nails is that they were bent, which would make sense for use in nailing someone's hands to a wooden beam. A straight nail with a small head could allow the bloody hands to slip off while the bent nails would attach the hands firmly with no slipping. Archeologists continue to examine the nails with the intent of trying to reasonably place them within a time period of history. If they can be satisfactorily dated to the first century, they will be important pieces of evidence for Roman technology with the implication that they could have been similar to the kinds of nails used in crucifixion, a form of public execution that the Romans unquestionably used to eliminate thousands of political enemies. In this way they would be similar to the earlier discovery of a human anklebone with a Roman nail piercing it remaining from another victim of Roman crucifixion.
Metal books and metal nails, left over from the ancient Roman world, both discovered in Israel, the geographic context for the story of Jesus of Nazareth, tells a story. Aspects of the story make it open to historical examination: Galilee is a real place, Rome was a real empire, crucifixion was a real method of execution in the first century, and early followers of Jesus claimed he rose from the dead even in the face of their own death. Other aspects put it beyond the investigation of human science: where is the body of Jesus now, what raised him from the dead, how did you do the alleged miracles? For the advocates of the story, the newest discoveries make sense and provide legitimacy for the outrageous claim that for the first time in history death could not ultimately claim a human life. For the skeptics, the metal books and metal nails simply prove human gullibility. For both groups, the metal books and metal nails keep the debate alive.