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Could new discovery trump Dead Sea Scrolls? Scholars intrigued but cautious.

An Egyptologist has announced the discovery of 70 metal books in Jordan that he claims could be some of the oldest known Christian documents. But some evidence contradicts those claims.

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Experts are responding with a mixture of caution, hope, and skepticism to new claims that a recently discovered trove of 70 ancient sealed books may represent some of the earliest Christian documents.

Written on lead in Hebrew and Aramaic, the secretly coded books – or codices – were hidden for centuries in a remote Jordanian cave until a traveling Bedouin found them some five years ago, according to a statement released last week by British Egyptologist David Elkington. Depictions of crosses on the lead-bound leaves, coupled with metallurgical analysis, suggest to Mr. Elkington that these might be early Christian texts that pre-date even some letters in the New Testament.

Others aren’t so sure. All evidence to date suggests Christians didn’t use the cross as a symbol until the 4th century, according to Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. The use of codices also dates to a later period, he said, and metal analysis has yielded no precise dating in this case.

“We have no fact about these that would indicate that they are Christian and date from this [mid-first century] period, except for some vague metallurgists who say they ‘could,’ ” Mr. Shanks says. “On the contrary, we have a number of things – the cross, the codex, [and other symbols] that counter this claim.”

New Testament scholar Craig Evans also hesitates to assume much about the early codices. They could be very significant, he said, if they really do trace to an early Jewish group that regarded Jesus as Messiah. That’s because most of what’s known about first-century communities comes either from Paul’s scriptural letters to Gentile churches, or from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which convey the traditional Jewish beliefs of first-century Essenes. Early Jewish Christians, as Evans calls those with Messianic beliefs, remain less well understood.

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