Hailed by some Christian scholars as potentially the most significant discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls, 70 metal books are set to be the center of an international legal showdown of biblical proportions.
When a British team unveiled in March metal texts believed to date back to the final days of Christ, biblical scholars were abuzz with possibilities: early Christian diaries, secrets of the Bible, the sealed texts of the book of Revelation.
The question of ownership of the credit-card-sized books, which may bear the earliest likeness of Jesus Christ, and just how they ended up with an Israeli Bedouin truck driver have raised doubt over whether the messages allegedly sealed in lead some 2,000 years ago will ever be decoded.
A father of four from an Arab village in northern Israel, Hassan Saeda approached British experts four years ago with books that he claimed were inscribed in ancient Hebrew. After detecting religious symbols on the texts and a metallurgy report dating the books to the early 1st century AD, the books went from a probable hoax to potential treasure-trove, says David Elkington, author and member of the British team. "I fundamentally believe that what we have are the earliest-ever Christian documents."
Mr. Elkington says the texts' supposed origin – a cave on the eastern bank of the Jordan River where early Christians are believed to have sought refuge from Roman persecution – added weight to the theory that the codices may shed light on the birth of Christianity.
While the nature of the texts has been debated by scholars, how and when the books were unearthed have proved to be an even greater point of contention. Mr. Saeda claims his grandfather stumbled upon them in 1920 while tending to his flock. But Elkington and the Jordanian government have a different theory.
"We have scientific evidence that the codices were illegally excavated from Jordan and sold to Mr. Saeda by a Jordanian Bedouin, and we [will] set out to prove just that," says Ziad al-Saad, director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. Jordanian authorities claim to have found additional texts on the black market and are taking them for further testing.
Since the controversy erupted, Saeda has returned to Israel and has refused scholars further access to the codices, while the Jordanians and Elkington have joined efforts to repatriate the texts to Jordan. Since Jordan announced that it will pursue diplomatic channels to "retrieve" the texts, Israeli antiquities officials have expressed willingness to meet with the Jordanian side, although they deny any involvement with the texts. Their previous lack of response was a source of anxiety in Amman rooted in an ongoing legal contest over the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Although Jordan officially severed ties with the West Bank in 1988, it has retained its claims to the scrolls – believed to be the oldest Hebrew Bible ever discovered – alleging that the texts were annexed from sovereign Jordanian territory during the 1967 war, a claim Israel refutes.
According to Moawiyam Ibrahim, archaeologist and Jordan's representative to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, this historical sense of "loss" of the scrolls triggered a sense of "urgency" in Amman when news of the codices emerged.
More than just a matter of national pride, tourism is also at stake. Tourism is a major pillar of Jordan's and Israel's economies, generating $2.1 billion and $4.3 billion, respectively, in 2010, and both countries compete for the lucrative pilgrimage market.
But the looming legal battle may prevent the books from ever reaching a museum. With mounting pressure from the Jordanian government and the media exposure generated by the claims, Elkington and Mr. Saad say Saeda is looking to make a quick and easy sale. "If these books are sold to private collectors, the world will never see them," says Elkington.
Saeda admits he has fielded offers, but claims a "higher calling" has prevented him from cashing in on what may be the greatest discovery in biblical archaeology. "I could sell these texts right now, but I believe these are the words of God."
He has a solution to the international feud over the codices: Place them in a permanent worldwide exhibition. "These manuscripts don't belong to just one country. They belong to all the countries in the world and all the faiths of the world."