A tablet with messianic overtones reputedly from before the time of Christ has become a topic of debate in biblical and archaeological circles. While one scholar claims the find could “shake our basic view of Christianity,” a Catholic Professor of Scripture suggests the tablet is actually evidence for the historical probability of Christian belief.
The three-foot tall tablet bears 87 lines of Hebrew which speak of a messiah who will suffer and rise from the dead after three days. The tablet was probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan and has been characterized as a “Dead Sea Scroll in Stone,” the International Herald-Tribune reports.
David Jeselsohn, an Israeli-Swiss collector, discovered and purchased the tablet about a decade ago from a Jordanian antiquities dealer.
"I couldn't make much out of it when I got it," said Jeselsohn, who reportedly is himself an expert in antiquities. "I didn't realize how significant it was until I showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing, a few years ago. She was overwhelmed. 'You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,' she told me."
Jeselsohn and Yardeni examined the tablet in a scholarly article in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language quarterly discussing the history and archaeology of Israel. Yardeni dated the scroll to the late 1st century, B.C. An unpublished chemical examination reportedly did not challenge the tablet’s authenticity.
Israel Knohl, a professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has cited the tablet as evidence of his theory that the belief in a suffering messiah existed before Jesus.
A New View of Christianity?
"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," he said of the tablet, speaking to the International Herald Tribune. "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
Knohl claims that the messianic figure on the tablet could be Simon, a man who, according to the first-century historian Josephus, was slain by a commander in the Herodian army. Knohl says the tablet’s writers, who he believes were Simon’s followers, depicted the slaying of Simon or a suffering messiah as a necessary step towards national salvation. Three lines of the tablet say “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice,” while other lines speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.
A partially illegible line on the tablet also clearly begins with the words “In three days…” In Professor Knohl’s interpretation of the obscured following words reads “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.” The following line speaks of “a prince of princes.”
Knohl argues the tablet is about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.
Knohl further claimed the discovery of a wider belief in a suffering, dying, and resurrected messiah has implications for the Christian view of the life and death of Jesus.
"His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come," Knohl said. "This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel."
Another scholar who studied the tablet, Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language, said Knohl’s interpretation was not certain.
"There is one problem," Bar-Asher said. "In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl's tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words."
"You can't have it both ways ..."
Dr. Timothy Gray, a professor of Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told CNA that the news of the tablet was “very fascinating,” saying “everything seems to point to its authenticity.”
He said the text seems to draw heavily upon the Book of Daniel. Scholars know from the work of Josephus that many Jews immediately before and during the time of Jesus focused on the Book of Daniel because of his prophecies related to a messiah coming to usher in a Kingdom of God.
“A focal point of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God, and Jesus makes many allusions to Daniel. That really seems to cohere with this view of Jesus.”
Gray said that Jewish expectation of a dying messiah is shown in Daniel’s prophecies, noting that Daniel chapter 9 talks about how an anointed messiah will be cut off and killed.
According to Gray, a standard view of modern biblical scholarship holds that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels where He predicts His Passion and His death cannot be authentic because, scholars believe, most Jews had no expectation of a suffering messiah. Such scholars attributed these words of Jesus to later additions made by the early Church.
Knohl’s minority contention that there were Jewish ideas of a suffering messiah before Jesus, Gray said, is echoed in the work of Catholic biblical scholar Brant Pitre.
The interpretations of scholars reported in the International Herald Tribune, Gray said, was “very striking” for its insistence that any evidence must undermine Christianity.
“On the one hand, scholars argue no Jewish tradition about a messiah suffering shows that the Church added this idea. And once you show a document, an ancient document to point to, showing that they did interpret a prophet like Daniel to expect a suffering messiah, well then people say ‘Well this proves Christianity can’t be true.’”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Gray said.
“The point is that our people in modern media and modern scholars will use any evidence as disproof of Christianity, even if it illustrates the evidence of Christian belief. And this evidence clearly points to the historical probability of Christianity, to the historical Jesus.
“‘No evidence of a suffering messiah in the Jewish tradition, therefore the Church invented these things,’” Gray summarized. “Now we find out there is evidence, and instead we find the historical portrait of the Gospels is more probable than we thought, the response is ‘well, see, this disproves Christianity.’”
The inconsistent media and scholarly reaction to the discovery of “Gabriel’s Revelation,” Gray thought, was comparable to Jesus’ description in Luke 7 of the “people of this generation,” who were like the children in the marketplace saying “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.”