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Messianic message stirs debate

AFP - Getty Images
A foot-wide stone tablet is said to bear Jewish
messianic messages from the first century B.C.

Scriptural scholars are abuzz over a stone tablet that is said to bear previously unknown prophecies about a Jewish messiah who would rise from the dead in three days. But there are far more questions than answers about the tablet, which some have suggested could represent "a new Dead Sea Scroll in stone."

Do the tablet and the inked text really date back to the first century B.C., as claimed? Where did the artifact come from? Can the gaps in the text be filled in to make sense? Is the seeming reference to a coming resurrection correct, and to whom does that passage refer? Finally, what impact would a pre-Christian reference to suffering, death and resurrection have on Christian scholarship?

Such questions are being addressed this week in Jerusalem, at an international conference marking the 60th anniversary of the Dead Sea Scrolls' discovery. They're also being addressed in reports about the "Vision of Gabriel" tablet that have trickled out over the past few months.

That trickle flooded onto the front page of The New York Times on Sunday, in a story that quoted one professor as saying some Christians would "find it shocking" that Jewish scriptures prefigured Christian theology.

But Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, said that such a linkage really isn't surprising, let alone shocking.

"The really unique thing about Christian theology is in the life of Jesus - but in the doctrines, when I was a kid, you had little stories about the Sermon on the Mount and the people listening to this saying, 'What is this man saying? I never heard anything like this! This is different,'" Shanks told me. "Today, this view is out. There are Jewish roots to almost everything in Christian experience."

This revised view comes through loud and clear in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which chronicle the spiritual and even the sanitary practices of a Jewish sect that existed around the time of Jesus. It was the similarity to the style of the scrolls that first brought the "Vision of Gabriel" tablet to the attention of archaeologists.

How the tablet came to light
The 1-foot-wide, 3-foot-tall (30-by-90-centimeter) tablet has a checkered past: According to the tale that has been woven around the stone, it was found near Jordan's Dead Sea shore and sold by a Jordanian dealer to Israeli-Swiss collector David Jeselsohn a decade ago. A few years ago, Jeselsohn showed the stone to Ada Yardeni, an expert on ancient Semitic scripts, who consulted with another expert, Binyamin Elitzur.

Yardeni's take on the tablet, published in the Hebrew-language journal Cathedra and in the Biblical Archaeology Review, was that the text was of a style going back to the late first century B.C. or the early first century A.D. - right around the time when Jesus would be growing up.

The 87-line text was written in ink, not inscribed in the stone, and it was laid out just the way one would expect on a scroll, in two nearly even columns. "If it were written on leather (and smaller) I would say it was another Dead Sea Scroll fragment - but it isn't," Yardeni wrote.

The text appears to be a set of apocalyptic pronouncements from a personage named Gabriel - hence the name given to the text, "The Vision of Gabriel" or "Gabriel's Revelations." Biblical Archaeology Review has put the Hebrew text as well as an English translation online.

As you'll see by reading the text, there are so many gaps that it's hard to make out exactly what is being said - but even those fragments were intriguing to Israel Knohl, a Biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Back in the year 2000, Knohl had written a book titled "The Messiah Before Jesus," contending that there was plenty of Jewish precedent for the Christian messianic story. When Knohl read the Cathedra article and looked into the tablet further, he saw new evidence for his thesis:

  • He reconstructed one phrase to read, "In three days, you shall live" - which would be an eerie parallel to the Christian account of Jesus' resurrection on the third day of his entombment.
  • He deduced that the phrase was addressed by Gabriel to a "prince of princes" who was slain by an evil king.
  • Based on his previous research, Knohl even suggested that the text referred to a Jewish rebel leader named Simon, who was killed by Herod's army in 4 B.C.

Knohl laid out his case for interpreting Gabriel's vision last year in an essay for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and wrote up a more scholarly analysis for April's issue of The Journal of Religion (which you can read by following the links from this Web page). He's also due to discuss the tablet this week during the Dead Sea Scrolls conference.

The resurrection-in-three-days angle was the attention-getter for Sunday's Times report. But many steps in the scientific analysis of the tablet still have to be verified, starting with the origins of the stone and the inked text.

Faith-based archaeology?
"This story has the big caveat of 'where did it come from?'" Mark Rose, online editor for Archaeology magazine, told me. "Someone knows where it came from, someone found it, someone sold it."

The field of biblical archaeology has had its share of controversies over artifacts that may or may not be genuine - most notably the ossuary of James and the "lost tomb of Jesus." Rose said the tablet would have to face the same kind of scrutiny - and could well end up in an archaeological limbo, neither verified nor debunked.

"You want to look at these stories as having to do with faith? Well, there's a lot of faith involved," he said.

Shanks, who was caught up in the earlier debate over the ossuary (a.k.a. the "Jesus box"), has faith that the tablet ultimately will prove genuine. Some of the most exacting judges of antiquities have been taking a close look at the artifact - and the tablet appears to be passing the tests so far.

"I don't think that you'll find any competent scholar who will call it a forgery," Shanks said.

What does it all mean?
Even assuming that the stone tablet (and the ink writing) are accepted as dating back to the first century B.C., scholars will likely struggle over how the scriptural fragments are pieced together. Perhaps the best way to firm up Knohl's textual interpretation is to find parallel texts elsewhere, as others have done with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Then there's the question of what effect the "Vision of Gabriel" might have on Jewish and Christian belief.

During the troubled times into which Jesus was born, Jews yearned for the rise of a messiah who would emerge as a powerful military leader and throw out the Roman-backed regime.

"You have in Christian theology a very different kind of messiah, a messiah who's going to shed blood and atone for your sins," Shanks observed. "Where the hell did this come from, baby? Are there elements of this in Jewish messianism?"

The Dead Sea Scrolls have already shown that the idea of a suffering messiah was part of the cultural milieu back then. If the tablet's text and its three-day messianic interpretation are verified, it could shrink the theological gap between pre-Christian Judaism and early Christianity even further. But that shouldn't come as a shock, Rose said.

"Is this going to redefine the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? I don't think so," he said.

Believers might say the "Vision of Gabriel" is yet another scriptural foreshadowing of Jesus' actual death and resurrection - while skeptics might say the text provides more evidence that the gospels fit into a tradition of untrue messianic tales.

What do you think? Will the "Vision of Gabriel" become a religious bombshell? Will it fizzle out? Or will it turn out to be just one more interesting twist in the saga of scriptural scholarship? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 10 p.m. ET July 7: For what it's worth, in today's AFP report on the tablet, Knohl is quoted as saying the text could "overturn the vision we have of the historic personality of Jesus." I suspect many of the commenters would contest that claim. An unnamed Israel archaeologist, meanwhile, is quoted as saying, "It's very strange that such a text was written in ink on a tablet and was preserved until now. To determine whether it is authentic one would have to know in which condition and exactly where the tablet was discovered, which we do not."

Update for 11:55 a.m. ET July 8: Keep a watch for the September-October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, which will have an article by Knohl on the tablet. And if you're intrigued by ancient Jewish lore, you simply have to plug in to the PaleoJudaica blog, which has been covering the "Vision of Gabriel" controversy for months.

Update for 2 p.m. ET July 8: Ben Witherington III, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary, got back to me after his morning seminars on the church fathers and added some insights. Here are the main points:

  • As we've mentioned already, the first task is to confirm that the ink-on-stone text is authentic: "Writing on stone - not engraving, but writing - now, that's weird. ... The problem, of course, is that this thing is unprovenanced. We don't know which cave this came out of."
  • Witherington thinks Knohl is overreaching in his interpretation of the text's significance. "His view is that 'we now know where the gospel story came from. ... It came from this Jewish belief.' My response to that is that you've connected more dots than we have on the page."
  • As numerous commenters have already noted, there's ample foreshadowing of a suffering messiah and the concept of resurrection in the Old Testament. For those who are keeping score, Witherington noted Isaiah 53, Daniel 12 and Daniel 7. "You could come up with this idea with absolutely zero connection between whoever wrote the stone and whoever wrote the gospels. I don't see this as having any major shocking impact on the discussion."
  • Nevertheless, the "Vision of Gabriel" is not a yawner for New Testament scholars: "It's important, if authentic, because it provides more evidence - if we needed it - that Jews believed in bodily resurrection. ... There is a school of interpretation out there, represented by the 'Zeitgeist' movie, saying that these ideas of resurrection came from Egypt. What this would show is that, no, this is something that was in Jewish literature. We have absolutely no need to posit a pagan origin for these kinds of ideas."

For more from Witherington about the tablet and its potential significance, check out the discussion on his blog.