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A recent BBC headline read “Jordan battles to regain ‘priceless’ Christian Relics.” What followed is a story about an archeological find that could “change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.”
It’s a fascinating story with an ironic twist.
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the latest sensational archeological discovery was found by a Bedouin in a cave. The Jordanian government claims that, following a flash flood a few years ago, the Bedouin found two niches exposed by the flood. He opened the niches and absconded with their content to Israel. The Bedouin claims that the relics have been in his family for a century.
Regardless of which account is true, everyone agrees on the spectacular nature of the find: 70 books, each containing five-to-fifteen lead pages bound by lead rings, what scholars call “codices.” While the writing, which is in a code based on ancient Hebrew, is still being translated, the images have prompted some to speculate that the find will “perhaps be more significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
The most striking image features a depiction of the walls of Jerusalem with a Roman-style cross and a tomb in the foreground. Another image depicts a menorah, which first-century Jews were forbidden to depict. Phillip Davies of Sheffield University told the BBC that what is being depicted is a crucifixion outside the city walls.
Sound familiar? Other scholars noted that the books were found “approximately” where Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem were said to have gone. Little wonder that people are calling it potentially “the major discovery of Christian history,” and are giddy at the prospect of holding “objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church.”
No wonder Jordan is fighting to have the relics repatriated.
Still, I can’t help but notice a huge irony in this story: While people are arguing and fighting over repatriating Christian relics to the Middle East, no one seems to care about the flight of Christian people from the same region.
Nina Shea, who has been sounding the alarm about the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, sums up their plight this way: “Unless something happens fast there is not going to be a future for Christianity in the Middle East.”
Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute concurs. Increased violence against Christians and government indifference (or worse, collaboration), means that Christian communities in most of the region “are beginning to go, and in a couple of decades, unless the situation changes…They will die out.”
Even places like Egypt where Christians are too numerous to “die out,” they will face increasing hostility, which, in turn, will encourage further emigration. If you want to see what Middle Eastern Christianity looks like, your best bet will be Southern California or Toronto, not Bethlehem.
We find ourselves in an absurd situation where 2,000-year-old Christian relics are more welcome in the lands where Christianity originated than the descendants of those original Christians.
While I welcome this convincing evidence of how Christianity was born there, I am even more interested in seeing that it doesn’t die there.