A three-foot-tall tablet believed to be from mere decades before the birth of Jesus and is scrawled with Hebrew made the front page on the New York Times this Sunday. Supposedly containing talk of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days, it could revolutionize Christology since the assumption has been that the resurrection story was not unique to Jesus but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.
Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially Zechariah, Haggai, and the apocalyptic Daniel. The language scholars have dated the text from the first century BC based on the size and shape of the script, and chemical analysis has not given any reason for doubt either.
Israel Knohl, professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University, says that the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, at least according to the first century historian Josephus. Knohl is part of a group that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ time, claiming that it is important to explain the era’s messianic spirit (This is also my view of Christ studies). As he notes, the death of Herod saw Jewish rebels seek to throw off the yoke of oppression, so a major Jewish independence fighter could easily provoke messianic overtones.
The assertion that ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’, as the stone has come to be known, tells the story of a messiah figure named Simon is of course hotly contested, with the expected absence of key text. But it seems to me that the real issue here is that the accepted beliefs about the gospels, that Jesus makes numerous predictions about his suffering as messiah that just weren’t present at the time, are now revoked. Rather than being dropped in by the gospel writers years after his death, Jesus may very well have said these things and gone about fulfilling the contemporary beliefs of what a messiah is destined to do.
While the organized church will almost assuredly claim that ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’ is apocryphal, I actually think it might do more to strengthen their claims. Whether one believes that Jesus is our lord and savior, it is almost without question that he thought he was. And to see that he very well may have done everything possible to fulfill that destiny himself, rather than having holes in his history plugged by gospel writers attempting to merely place what actually happened as preordained, makes it harder to dismiss the gospel’s claims. In other words, perhaps the gospels are not so much a revisionist history as we might have initially believed.
Despite the new information presented on this tablet, I am still pretty cautious about making any broad claims. For one, I am not a Biblical scholar, but also because my own reading leads me to believe that even if the suffering of a messiah was a common belief at the time of Jesus’ life, there are significant differences in the gospels that can be chalked up to a bit of revision in the history being reported based on the time in which it is written. I wrote a bit about this in May after I read Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan.
I suppose that while my views haven’t really changed, especially as I haven’t even read ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’ myself yet, I find it fascinating that this tablet could revolutionize the interpretation of the gospels, and that I may be able to see the changes take place over my lifetime. Kind if like being around when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and being able to look forward to all the literature for laypeople on Gnosticism.