Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters” on Roman coins


This is an odd one, and it’s something that seems to have passed by the notice of most “alternative” archaeologists. It concerns some claims made by a genuine academic archaeologist that relate to coinage of the late first century BCE and early first century CE, which he believed demonstrated that the chronology of the career of Jesus of Nazareth have been dated wrongly. These matters of chronology are not the focus of interest here (indeed, they are abstruse and relate more to biblical exegesis and religious history than to archaeology as such): it is the claim that coins minted in the eastern (predominantly Greek speaking) part of the Roman Empire contain what are claimed to be “microletters”. These are microscopic letters that are alleged to have been created on the coin dies by the moneyers who struck them. It is an unusual claim, but coming from an academic archaeologist, ought to be examined carefully. After all, academics never make mistakes, do they?

Jerry Vardaman

Dr Ephraim Jeremiah (Jerry) Vardaman (1927-2000) Source

The discoverer of the “microletters” was Ephraim Jeremiah (‘Jerry’) Vardaman (1927-2000), a lecturer in archaeology and religion at Mississippi State University in Starkville (Mississippi, USA), where he was the founder and director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology from 1973 to 1981, and from which he retired in 1992. He had previously been a Baptist Bible chair teacher at Tarleton State College (now University), an adjunct teacher of Old Testament at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1958 and assistant professor and associate professor of New Testament archaeology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, USA) from 1958 to 1972. He also taught at the Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, perhaps after his retirement from Mississippi State University; he was certainly leading seminars there in 1998. His bachelor’s degree was awarded by Southwestern Seminary and he obtained two doctorates, one from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 (on Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel) and the other from Baylor University in 1974 (on The Inscriptions of King Herod I). He undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford (UK) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He excavated extensively in the Middle East, at the sites of Bethel, Shechem, Ramat Rachel, Caesarea, Ashdod, Macherus and Elusa. All in all, this is an impressive curriculum vitae and one that means we should take Dr Vardaman’s ideas very seriously.

Jerry Vardaman’s claims

Although Jerry Vardaman never published any peer-reviewed papers on his discovery, his paper “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos I (Eisenbrauns, 1989) introduced the concept of microletters:

These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth… On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters.

Microletters

An example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 1

Apart from this chapter in a relatively obscure publication on biblical chronology, there are no formally published reports of the discovery. A series of three lectures, delivered to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998 has been in circulation for some time; they can be downloaded here as poor quality pdfs 1, 2 and 3. That is the total of Vardaman’s output on the subject of microletters, although it should be noted that he also claimed to identify them on stone-cut inscriptions.

The academic response was almost non-existent. There were no (reported) attempts by others to validate Vardaman’s alleged discovery, no critiques of his technique and, most worryingly, no public statement on the matter by Nikos Kokkinos, alleged to have been the co-discoverer of microletters. Nikos Kokkinos is well known as an expert on ancient coinage and on the coinage of the Herodian dynasty in particular, but he seems never to have published anything claiming to have detected microletters on the objects he studies. He is someone who is unafraid of courting controversy (he was one of the co-authors of Centuries of Darkness, a radical attempt to revise the chronology of the ancient Near East and Aegean that has not met with the approval of the majority of scholars), so this failure to mention them is very surprising. The only response seems to have been a review, “Theory of Secret Inscriptions on Coins is Disputed”, by the prominent numismatist David Hendin in The Celator (Volume 5 no 3 (March 1991), 28-32). The magazine published a rebuttal to Hendin’s criticisms by Jerry Vardaman, which added no new evidence to his published work.

Critique of the “microletters”

Another example of microletters on a coin

Another example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 2 (reverse)

The lack of acknowledgement by the wider academic community is not necessarily a result of a general unwillingness to look at Jerry Vardaman’s ideas, nor is it the closing of ranks against novel hypotheses (a claim that many “alternative” archaeologists make to explain why mainstream archaeologists tend to ignore their works). It is a direct result of Vardaman’s failure to publish his results adequately by submitting them to peer-reviewed publications. It is also because of the audience to which he pitched his ideas: instead of presenting them to numismatists and epigraphers, who would be those best placed to evaluate them, he concentrated on the religious studies audience, particularly those of a biblical literalist bent. In some ways, this is not surprising (Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister), but it is worrying.

A third example of microletters

A third example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 3

One possibility for the lack of wider discussion of “microletters” is that other archaeologists simply did not believe that they exist. There are enormous problems with them, of course. Although Vardaman does not supply scales to his drawings of the coins, the letters he claims to have detected are tiny, less than half a millimetre in height. They could only have been added to the coin dies using a very fine, hard-tipped scriber of some kind, although he produced no archaeological evidence for this type of tool. We must also ask ourselves why an ancient coin die-maker would have added words and phrases that would have been invisible to the coin users. And why did he use a mixture of Greek and Latin on coins that have regular inscriptions only in Greek? How have letters so small survived the day-to-day wear to which all coins are subject so that Vardaman could discover them? How are they visible beneath the patina that develops on all archaeologically recovered coins? If corrosion products have been removed or stabilised, how have the microletters survived the cleaning process? These are insurmountable difficulties and Vardaman was never questioned about them.

Microletters reading REX JESVS

Microletters reading REX JESVS

There is a more serious problem, though. As well as the promiscuous mixing of Greek and Latin words in the microletter inscriptions, there is at least one instance published by Vardaman of the letter J, used in the name Jesus. This letter simply did not exist in either the Greek or Latin alphabets of the time of Jesus: it was invented by the Italian humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to represent a sound for which the existing Latin alphabet of Early Modern period had no character. It was based on the final -i in Roman numerals in medieval manuscript traditions, where ii, iii, vii and viii were conventionally written ij, iij, vij, viij, a purely decorative feature. It can not have been “microinscribed” on a coin of the first century CE.

Explaining non-existent “microletters”

So what are we to make of Vardaman’s hypothesis? Well, it’s bunk, pure and simple. It is Bad Archaeology of a very obvious kind: Jerry Vardaman was seeing things that just don’t exist. We have to ask ourselves why he did so. He does not seem to have set out to hoax people and seems genuinely to have believed in the existence of microletters. The well known atheist historian Richard Carrier has suggested that in later life, Vardaman was suffering from a “chronic mental illness”. This may be going too far. Jerry Vardaman was certainly deluded about the existence of his microletters and continued to assert that he was correct, without bringing forward any evidence, until the end of his life. I suspect that his religious convictions had a part to play in his insistence on their reality.

As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible; the well known problem of the impossible date for the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke, who appears to date it to 6 CE during the governorship of Quirinus in Syria, has led to a variety of ingenious explanations. Vardaman was of the view that there were two governors of Syria named Quirinus: the one mentioned by Josephus and well known to history and an earlier, more shadowy figure, who was governor in 12 BCE, the date Vardaman preferred for the birth of Jesus. His microletters formed a major element in his identification of the supposedly early Quirinius (as did microletters on stone inscriptions), who is otherwise unknown. Vardaman’s desperation to confirm the account of Luke in the face of the enormous difficulty posed by the implied date of the census that would have brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem led him into serious errors of judgement: he literally saw what he wanted.

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  1. I found this post odd because you say there has been no academic response besides Hendin (1991), but then link to Carrier’s online response at the end, but only in regard to his opinion on Vardaman’s mental state. Yet Carrier’s critique gives the exact same details yours does about why the microlatters aren’t real, so surely it would have been better to acknowledge this.

    • The point I was making is that those who are best placed to evaluate the claims – numismatists and archaeologists – were strangely silent, as if they were unaware. Hendin’s critique is the only one I have found by someone with the relevant expertise. Richard Carrier’s critique is part of a much longer examination of the Gospel according to Luke’s date for the nativity, which is why I didn’t link to it earlier in my post. I suppose I ought to have done for the reasons you give. If Richard Carrier reads this, I apologise!

  2. Can these coins still be found in the British Museum’s coin collections?

    • From what I understand, the coins that Vardaman drew were from his excavations in Israel rather than in the British Museum. If he was examining coins at the Museum, Nikos Kokkinos ought to know which they are but as he’s never made any public statements about Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters”, we don’t know which ones he studied. I would assume that the coins are still there: it is very unusual for an institution of the size, importance and prestige of the British Museum to deaccession and dispose of items.

    • xana
    • December 30th, 2012

    Why can’t you people use occam’s scissor? Obviously Y-H-V-H miraculously engraved them.

    Kidding, obviously a case of graphical pareidolia.

    What I find hard to believe is that such a scholar wouldn’t know about “J”…. come on, really?

    • krissmith777
    • June 11th, 2013

    When you say,

    As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible

    I see your point, but here is where I take issue. There are implications from his “discovery” that would lead in the opposite direction. We would expect a forgery to place the events that Christians and Historians have usually accepted. It is usually said Jesus died in the 30s AD…But his conclusions lead to Jesus dying in the early 20s

    And since Luke dates John the Baptist’s ministry as starting in 28 AD and therefore Jesus’ as starting later, that would lead to these coins throwing off the dates in the Gospel of Luke..

    If this was intended to back up Biblical litteralism, it actually throws it under the bus.. So this is not what I would expect from a forgery.

    Arthur E. Palumbo talks about this in his book “The Dead Sea Scrolls: And the Personages of Earliest Christianity” on pages 175-77.

    • James F. Bays
    • January 25th, 2014

    I attended Mississippi State from 1987 through 1989. As a student, I took an intro to archeology course under Dr. Vardaman. One day I met with him at the Cobb Institute Library for an unrelated matter. When I arrived, Dr. Vardaman was working on a light table making tracings from enlarged photos of Roman coins. I asked him what he was doing, and he, somewhat reluctantly, told me that he was tracing some micro letters that he had found on a number of the coins. I asked to see the letters, and he showed me the scratches that he had isolated on the coins. Once pointed out, I too could see the lettering and the phrases. I asked him how the lettering got on the coins. He told me that he was not sure, but, perhaps, they had been scratched on with a diamond tip stylus. I then asked when he first noticed the lettering. He told me that he first noticed the lettering while doing some work with the coins at the British Museum. I then asked him, what does the lettering mean. He told me that he wasn’t sure, but they could be an extra biblical reference to Jesus. Finally, I asked him if he was going to publish something about the micro letters. He told me that he couldn’t publish anything until he was sure about his findings, because “publishing this sort of thing could be career suicide.” We then moved on to our other business and never really discussed the coins or micro lettering again. Over the years I’ve wondered what became of Dr. Vardaman and his micro letters. A Google search brought me here. I’m sorry to see that the micro letters, his interpretations, and his handling of them have tarnished Dr. Vardaman’s reputation.

    • Yes, it’s a strange story. Dr Vardaman seems to have been an otherwise reputable (and remarkably accomplished) scholar. I suppose that many of us have our little pet theories that we don’t always want to admit in case others point out how much they involve more fantasy than fact…

  1. June 10th, 2013
  2. July 7th, 2013
  3. February 7th, 2014

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