I’ve seen a few comments out there on the blogs about the David Jeselsohn tablet I read about in the New York Times today, so I thought I might add my own 2¢.
For those who didn’t read an article about it this weekend, you can check out this one at the NYT’s webpage: Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate On Messiah and Resurrection (by Ethan Bronner, 7/6/2008, front page of today’s print edition). Apparently, a large stone tablet from the later part of the first century B.C. with Hebrew writing on it (actually ink on stone, not engravings) is beginning to get more attention than it had in the past for some of its possible translations. The dating and authenticity of the stone and the writing is generally uncontested.
I don’t really want to get into all the details — for that, I would recommend that you read the article. Let me get to the “good stuff”.
One particular guy, Mr. Israel Knohl, the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University, believes that the stone’s writings demonstrate that there was a tradition amongst Jewish thought in the years leading up to the birth and ministry of Christ about a suffering messiah who would die for the liberation of Israel and come to life again after three days. According to the article, this same Mr. Knohl…
…posited in a book published 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalyptic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus.
He believes that this tablet may provide an example of that previously missing evidence that will “solidify his thesis.”
Here is the key piece, from the NYT article, to read in trying to understand why Mr. Knohl thinks this stone might help his case:
The slaying of Simon [a slain Herodian commander posited by Knohl as the subject of the stone’s text], or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet – “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” – and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.
To make his case about the importance of the stone, Mr. Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words “L’shloshet yamin,” meaning “in three days.” The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is “hayeh,” or “live” in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.
Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Mr. Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”
To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” Mr. Knohl contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.
Mr. Knohl’s take on his theory: “This should shake our basic view of Christianity.” He argues that the followers of Christ simply adopted a more ancient idea and adapted it for their own Messiah fantasy.
If you think that Mr. Knohl may be stretching a bit, you would not be alone. Mr. Moshe Bar-Asher — described by the NYT as the president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and professor emeritus of Hebrew and Aramaic at Hebrew University — is publishing his own 25-page paper about the tablet in the months ahead, and he has some (carefully chosen, in my opinion) words concerning his colleague’s conclusion. He says (again, from the article):
“There is one problem,” he 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.”
Personally, I suspect he is understating the degree of Mr. Knohl’s “one problem,” yet I readily admit that one NYT article is not much for me to use as a basis for judgment.
And, personally, Mr. Knohl has more than “one problem,” methinks. We are told of his earlier book, “his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped…” He is quoted later as saying, “This should shake our basic view of Christianity.” Please forgive me for saying that detect the presence of a man on a mission.
I’m not saying that it is impossible to draw rational and accurate conclusions while in the possession of a personal agenda — a thesis to which one is too fondly attached, and for which one is in constant search of evidence that may provide support. But when the “crucial lines of text” possess “a lot of missing words,” such agendas are eager and energetic “helpers” in our attempts to fill gaps in our knowledge.
Even if Mr. Knohl is correct, I don’t personally feel that my “basic view of Christianity” must be shaken. In fact, if he really does think that it should be so shaken, then he is ignorant of the true size and weight of the Rock that supports and upholds that view.
True Christians should never fear the truth — our God is, in fact, the God of truth (e.g., Deut. 32:4, Isaiah 65:16), and a love of the truth plays a vital role in our salvation (2 Thess. 2:10). It may be that the future will be a scoffer’s paradise (cf. 2 Peter 3:3), even more so than the world is today, but truth is more than a matter of the current Thesis-of-the-Day. It is eternal and can outlast any bias or personal agenda. Given enough time, only ideas rooted in truth will escape the dustbin of history.
Perhaps further investigation will validate Mr. Knohl’s — in my opinion, hasty — analysis. Perhaps it will not. Regardless, if he truly is intent on shaking something, I hope for his sake that he eventually finds his way to more vulnerable targets that will provide him more satisfaction and success. His current target has weathered more powerful storms than I would suspect he is capable of generating.