Monday, July 7, 2008

Does an ancient stone cast doubt on Jesus' resurrection?

Should I call my bishop and lay down my ordination orders? Some are now claiming that Jesus' disciples just made up the whole Easter-resurrection story by appropriating a century-old legend that the angel Gabriel was supposed to have said rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans in 4 BCE.

The source of this quotation is an ancient stone tablet upon which is written (not engraved) 87 lines of text.
JERUSALEM: A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.
There is no reason to believe that the stone is a fake. Despite the fact that sections of the text are obscure, the pile-on to prove that the stone somehow disproves Jesus' resurrection has already begun. I got an email just this evening from a PR guy asking me to interview two novelists who think the stone buttresses their claims that not only is the story of Jesus resurrection a fraud, the Church has known it all along. Sound familiar? It should, since that premise is one of the hoariest of religious fiction. Quite literally, "nothing to see here, move along" when it comes to this unoriginal attempt to knock over orthodox Christianity. This is, in fact, the exact premise of Robert Ludlum's 1976 novel, The Gemini Contenders:
A train winds through Italy towards the Alps with a precious cargo on board. The cargo is a box containing papers that could destroy the Christian world.
Ho hum. But back to the stone. Time Mag quotes Israel Knohl, an expert in Talmudic and biblical language at Jerusalem's Hebrew University:
But, as Knohl told TIME, maybe the Christians had a model to work from. The idea of a "dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism," he says. "But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus." If so, he goes on, "this should shake our basic view of Christianity. ... What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
Okay, so? Now, to be fair to Knohl, he does not say that the stone's presumed text (there is more than one way to translate it than Knohl's way) disproves Jesus' resurrection, only that the idea of a messianic resurrection existed before Jesus was even born. And the idea of a suffering messiah is found in the Isaiah 53.

Bible Archaeology Review has posted both the Hebrew text and an English translation online. It's mighty thin gruel to make such as grand a banquet as Knohl and some others are cooking up. Here are the lines in question, as presented by BAR:
7. Who am I(?), I (am?) Gabri’el the …(=angel?)… […]
78. You(?) will save them, …[…]…
79. from before You, the three si[gn]s(?), three …[….]
80. In three days …, I, Gabri’el …[?],
81. the Prince of Princes, …, narrow holes(?) …[…]…
82. to/for … […]… and the …
83. to me(?), out of three - the small one, whom(?) I took, I, Gabri’el.
84. yhwh of Hosts, the Lord of(?)[ Israel …]…[….]
85. Then you will stand …[…]…
86. …\
87. in(?) … eternity(?)/… \
All the rest - that the presumed angelic prophecy was given to or in description of a Jewish rebel against Rome named Simon, whom the Romans killed in 4 BCE, and that the unintelligible gaps refer to Simon's resurrection - all that is simply speculation and interpolation. However, Knohl will have a news-covered presentation later today in Jerusalem to explain his hypothesis.

Furthermore, as practically any Christian who has attended Sunday School for more than a month can tell you, the Jews' belief in the resurrection of the dead was deeply rooted by the time of Jesus. Not all Jews believed this, notably the Sadducees did not, but most did, notably the Pharisees.

To the apostle Paul - a "Pharisee's Pharisee," by his own description - it was the general resurrection of the dead that was of primary importance. Jesus' resurrection was important, for Paul, only as it related to the general resurrection yet to come. Hence, Jesus is the "first fruit" of the general resurrection, the pathfinder and the proof that God's promises are true. if someone had said to Paul that there was already a concept of a dying and rising messiah before Jesus came along, Paul would have almost certainly have answered that God was no doubt preparing the people for the message of the resurrection of Jesus so that they could more quickly embrace his rising as God's seal of promise.

Knohl does make a very important point, related at the bottom of the IHT run of the story.
Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and "Gabriel's Revelation" shows it.
This is a crucial point. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it,
Most radical Jesus scholars have argued that the passion and resurrection predictions by Jesus found in the Gospels were not actually made by Jesus-- they reflect the later notions and theologizing of the Evangelists.

But now, if this stone is genuine there is no reason to argue this way. One can show that Jesus, just as well as the author of this stone, could have spoken about a dying and rising messiah.
Knohl continues,
"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."
Where does Knohl seem to get the idea that Jesus' passion and rising are unconnected to the redemption of Israel? Not from the Gospels, which present Jesus as weeping precisely because he realizes he will not bring about Israel's redemption. Furthermore, more than anything else, the long line of Jewish prophets had excoriated Israel for the sinfulness of the people, which they usually describe in graphic detail. That the redemption of Israel can be somehow unconnected with the forgiveness of the sins of the people is simply unsupportable by the Jewish Scriptures. Furthermore, Jeremiah's prophecy to which Jesus specifically related his suffering and resurrection says, at the end, "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

In short, I agree with Dr. Witherington (and implicit in Knohl's words) that the stone's (disputable) text reinforces that the quotes of Jesus in the Gospel in which he speaks of his own death and resurrection are true quotes rather later retrojections. The stone seems to confirm, rather than rebut, the Gospel accounts.

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