A Suffering and Resurrected Messiah—Before Jesus?: Bombshell Archeological Find Causes Stir Among Biblical Scholars

In the New York Times today is a bombshell article on an ancient tablet discovery at the Dead Sea in Jordan that PREDATES Jesus, but that may refer to a suffering messiah who raises from the dead after three days. If confirmed, what this means is that Christians may have used an already pre-existing and circulating messianic story as a template for the structuring of their own narratives of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection. Needless to say, this is a very big story and has the potential to revolutionize scholarly, and eventually popular, understandings of Christian origins. Money quote from the NY Times article:

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.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to increase.

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding all Jesus-era artifacts and writings, both in the general public and in the fractured and fiercely competitive scholarly community, as well as the concern over forgery and charlatanism, it will probably be some time before the tablet’s contribution is fully assessed. It has been around 60 years since the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, and they continue to generate enormous controversy regarding their authors and meaning.

The scrolls, documents found in the Qumran caves of the West Bank, contain some of the only known surviving copies of biblical writings from before the first century A.D. In addition to quoting from key books of the Bible, the scrolls describe a variety of practices and beliefs of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus.

How representative the descriptions are and what they tell us about the era are still strongly debated. For example, a question that arises is whether the authors of the scrolls were members of a monastic sect or in fact mainstream. A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin on Sunday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah, as one iconoclastic scholar believes, also will be discussed.

Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.

“I couldn’t make much out of it when I got it,” said David Jeselsohn, the owner, who 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.”

Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai.

Ms. Yardeni, who analyzed the stone along with Binyamin Elitzur, is an expert on Hebrew script, especially of the era of King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. The two of them published a long analysis of the stone more than a year ago in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language quarterly devoted to the history and archaeology of Israel, and said that, based on the shape of the script and the language, the text dated from the late first century B.C.

A chemical examination by Yuval Goren, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the verification of ancient artifacts, has been submitted to a peer-review journal. He declined to give details of his analysis until publication, but he said that he knew of no reason to doubt the stone’s authenticity.

It was in Cathedra that Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first heard of the stone, which Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation,” also the title of their article. Mr. Knohl posited in a book published in 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.

When he read “Gabriel’s Revelation,” he said, he believed he saw what he needed to solidify his thesis, and he has published his argument in the latest issue of The Journal of Religion.

Mr. Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ day as an important explanation of that era’s messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, 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.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. “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.”

Ms. Yardeni said she was impressed with the reading and considered it indeed likely that the key illegible word was “hayeh,” or “live.” Whether that means Simon is the messiah under discussion, she is less sure.

Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C. His 25-page paper on the stone will be published in the coming months.

The article is reported by Ethan Brunner. The title of the article is “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.” Here’s the link to the article at the NY Times website:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/world/middleeast/06stone.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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21 Responses to A Suffering and Resurrected Messiah—Before Jesus?: Bombshell Archeological Find Causes Stir Among Biblical Scholars

  1. Peter Kaufman says:

    It is highly probable this stone tablet text is yet another sensationalist scam, as is clearly indicated by the facts

    (1) that no specific information is available on its provenance (the hearsay-reports that it was found in Jordan near the Dead Sea are vague and unconfirmed); and

    (2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink.

    As such, this “news” falls right in line with the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus “documentary” designed to make a profit off of people’s fascination with the “real” Jesus, and with the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world. See, e.g.,

    http://spinozaslens.com/libet/articles/dworkin_ethicsofexhibition.htm

    and

    http://blog.news-record.com/staff/frontpew/archives/2008/06/dead_sea_scroll.shtml.

  2. This really doesn’t do much in the “debunking” of Christianity. This tablet is still of Jewish origin which is where Christianity seeks its prophecies for the justification of Jesus’ messianic title and mission. If anything this leads to more support for Jesus’ mission as a dying and rising messiah.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Peter Kaufman:

    Perhaps you missed the part of the article that says that Yuval Goren did a chemical analysis on the tablet, has submitted his findings to a peer reviewed journal, and, though not providing details because his journal article is not yet published, has no reason to doubt the stone’s authenticity.

    As to the stone’s original location, the key is that the style of writing appears to locate it in a time prior to Jesus. This would be extraordinarily hard to fake. Other factors obviously lead experts to conclude that the stone is from the Dead Sea area.

  4. santitafarella says:

    brooksrobinson:

    I’m not sure how you can conclude so quickly that our understanding of Christianity is not fundamentally altered should such a finding be confirmed.

    The writers of the gospels, having a template, from a previous generation, of the notion that messianic leaders suffer and resurrect casts very large doubt upon the historicity of their own accounts.

    How can it not? It makes more problematic the question of where the gospels are being strictly literary and theological and where they may be attempting to be historical.

    It also raises the question of self-fulfilling prophecy. All four gospels seem to suggest that the original disciples were clueless as to what would happen to Jesus after he died. This tablet raises the specter that there may have been no cognitive dissonance to overcome—but rather, an expectation that the followers of Jesus were watching for certain things to happen.

    It’s long been known in psychology that expectations effect what individuals see, and understand to have happened. For example, social psychologists have long noted that UFO citings and abduction claims tend to follow templates derived from post-WW II science fiction magazines and films (saucers, aliens with big heads, and so on).

    In other words, popular stories and eye-witness accounts of strange happenings often conform to templates already present in a culture. This latest tablet discovery raises the question of whether the stories around which Christianity evolved came from already existing templates, and thus functioned as self-fulfilling prophecies. This is not unimportant to know in evaluating the truth-claims of Christianity, especially if one insists that the stories in the gospels must be read as inerrant accounts of historical events.

  5. santitafarella:

    “This tablet raises the specter that there may have been no cognitive dissonance to overcome—but rather, an expectation that the followers of Jesus were watching for certain things to happen.”

    If this tablet is accurately dated and studied in an unbiased fashion and it is proved to be before the Christ, one still has to prove that the majority of common Jews held this notion to be true. Which studies have already proved this to be non-existent in Jewish Messianic thought. The “Messiah’s” previous to Jesus where killed by the Romans, yet their followers dispersed and they were never talked about again, like a fad. If this concept was in Jewish thought, the followers would have stuck with the cause until they began to realize their “Messiah” was not going to rise again. There are already glimpses of a suffering Messiah found in Jewish texts such as the Psalms, but if you ask a Jew today, their Messiah will not suffer and will bring world peace. Just as the Jews of the 1st century would have said, their Messiah will expel the Roman Empire. The glimpses of Psalms were only realized after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  6. santitafarella says:

    brooksrobinson:

    You may be right. There may be nothing to this. Jesus’s disciples may have been clueless as to Jesus’s death and resurrection—until they experienced them.

    But this discovery suggests that Christianity may well have started among followers who did expect such things, and that there was already an evolved template that preceeded their expectations and desires.

    In other words, what was generally unknown among your typical, walking around Jew in Palestine in the first century, may in fact have been known among some small sectarian groups, such as those at Qumran and the followers of Jesus, or at least by Jesus himself.

    The founders of Christianity, and its early followers, may have been initiates into an earlier religious tradition reflected on the tablet (that the messiah would suffer and resurrect). It doesn’t mean that a broad segment of the population in Israel at the time would have known this tradition–and I don’t think that scholars are suggesting that they would.

  7. Santitafarella:

    “may well have started among followers who did expect such things”
    Perhaps, but a case study such as the one done by Larry Hurtado in his book “How on Earth Did Jesus become a God?” demonstrates that the devotion to Jesus was early, (to within a few months to a year after his death), and did not follow the preconceived notions of the Messiah in Jewish theology at the time of Second Temple Judaism. Jewish thought put a resurrection of man in an end time judgment. However they believed that some men could be in a sense resurrected early, such as Enoch or Elijah. But these men would have to be righteous before God and Jesus was considered cursed by God since he was hung on a cross. To the Jews this meant you were cursed by God.

    “may in fact have been known…or at least by Jesus himself.”

    It is clear in the gospels that Jesus had a self awareness of his mission including his resurrection and deity. Its clear through the gospels, that the disciples did not anticipate Christ’s death and resurrection.

  8. santitafarella says:

    I’ve never heard of Larry Hurtado, but I think you must be overstating what his book “demonstrates” because there is no written Christian texts or artifacts from the early months after Jesus’s death that he could appeal to as evidence for his claim.

    I Thes. is the first book written in the NT, and it dates to 50 CE.

    And what would have constituted devotion to Jesus in the first year after his death is a completely open question. What little we do know seems to suggest that there was a lot of diversity of understanding about who Jesus was. There seems to be a lot of tension, for example, between Paul and James, the brother of Jesus.

    What evidence is there that these two men understood Jesus in the same way? And on what basis does one decide that Paul was right about Jesus, and that James might have been wrong? It seems that James has the stronger claim, being Jesus’s brother, but what exactly did James believe about Jesus? That’s a very thorny question, as I’m sure you know.

    As to the preconceived Messianic notions surrounding Second Temple Judaism, I agree with you–Jesus was a surprise. But what is in dispute, and doubly-so if this new tablet finding is confirmed, is whether the early Jesus sect and the Qumran community would have been similarly suprised.

    I think that in your posts above you are repeatedly conflating things whose diversity and complexity should be acknowledged. There was not one Judaism among 1st century Jews and one Christology among 1st century Christians. Instead, there was enormous diversity and conflict about these things, and there were peculiar sects with peculiar beliefs. Some sects may have held beliefs that had little circulation beyond the sects themselves. This is where archeology can bring a great deal of light if a text or tablet from such a sect is stumbled upon.

    What this table discovery hints at is that at least one sect in early Judaism, a full generation prior to Jesus, was thinking about the Messiah in terms of suffering and resurrection.

    It’s very interesting and important and opens up many questions that might once have seemed to be in the category of ‘settled.’

    Isn’t scientific scholarship fun? Just when you think you know something, an inconvenient piece of evidence comes along and demands accounting for.

  9. Santitafarella:

    Hurtado is a professor of New Testament language,literature, and theology from Edinburgh University. Its not an overstatement of his book (He’s also done a more scholarly book on this subject as well) and when the pieces are put together it makes sense. Paul’s writings can be dated within 17-20years of Jesus’ death/resurrection. Paul’s letters presuppose a cultic devotion to Jesus in a manner that puts him on the same level as God. In other words, at the time of Paul’s first and earliest known letters the Christian devotion and reverence to Christ was already in place. Paul himself stated in his letters that he received these teachings, and did not alter them, from the disciples after his conversion experience. Which is dated within 2years of Christ’s resurrection. So if this devotion is in place at the 2year marker, and Paul had been persecuting Christians for bit at this point, its clear that devotion to Christ on this level was in place within a few months of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    Scientific scholarship is very fun… I enjoy reading all that I can on the historical findings of the Bible, especially the New Testament. It never ceases to amaze me though the attempts to discredit Christianity (not saying this article does) with fictitious information. I’m curious to what your belief is? Obviously I’m a Christian.

  10. PS too many commas in “Paul himself stated in his letters that he received these teachings, and did not alter them, from the disciples after his conversion experience.”– I know that you are a writing instructor for a college so I thought I’d catch my mistake before you did 😉

  11. santitafarella says:

    brooksrobinson:

    It’s nice having a dialogue with you–and don’t worry about mistakes–I understand this is the Internet.

    As for your observations above, I’d ask you to look at what Paul actually says: He says he received the gospel, but he does not make clear from whom—as a direct revelation from God, or from an apostle (and if from an apostle, which one).

    And to get to a year or two within the death of Jesus for the establishment of the Orthodox gospel, you’ve got to take for granted the historicity of Acts, and the notion that Paul represented normative Christianity in the first 20 or 30 years after the death of Jesus. These two assumptions I find questionable.

    As for my own religious beliefs, I’m a free thinker, an agnostic. But I’ve always liked the Woody Allen line where he asks his father whether he believes that God exists. His father says: “I don’t know how my toaster works. How do I know if God exists?” I try to stay open to surprise on such matters.

  12. Santitafarella:

    Its nice having a dialogue with a friendly voice… so often I get hostile voices and opinions. Yours is quiet refreshing in that sense.

    “He says he received the gospel, but he does not make clear from whom”
    If your referring to the instance in 1Corinthians 15, the sort of belief formula given there, its in Aramaic revealing its source as Galilee. Also the Greek words used in that phrase indicate this to be an oral tradition. Paul indicates this is something given to him that he handed over to the church in Corinth. In Galatians 1:18 Paul states that after three years(after his conversion on the road to Damascus) he visited Peter, which is where he probably received the first hand knowledge. Why I say this, is because the Greek word “historeo” which is used for the word you see in that verse, “to visit” or “to get acquainted with,” is a word often implied for personal gathering of historical facts. So to New Testament scholars this seems to be the point where Paul probably received the orally passed knowledge of the gospel events. So with this understanding, by 35/36AD Paul had his conversion experience, his personal revelation from Jesus (Gal 1:12), and then shortly there after, he received a first hand account of the gospel events. In other words the Christian understanding of Jesus would have to of been developed within three years after Jesus’ death.

    “I’m a free thinker, an agnostic.”

    I’m a free thinker as well ;), just a theist.

    Check out my blog and let me know what you think.

    Brooks

  13. santitafarella says:

    brooksrobinson:

    I’ll check out your blog, and thanks for the dialogue today.

    I was indeed referring to Corinthians—good eye.

    The way you get to an orthodox message within three years of Jesus’ crucifixion is interesting, and sounds possible. I’d have to think about it some more. I certainly do concede that, at minimum, Paul was already teaching a well developed orthodoxy in 1 Thessalonians.

    It’s always nice to talk to a free thinker–theist or atheist. I’ve met my share of agnostics and atheists who have not been free thinkers. They strike me as every bit as scary as any dogmatic theist.

    I think that’s the real division between people–whether you’re someone patient enough to walk in the shoes of others, and see things from different perspectives, and with enough sympathy to have a dialogue—or whether you’re impatient and walled-off, and won’t look at another person’s evidence.

    I think of Rush Limbaugh as someone who is walled off in this way—taking a kind of pride in not ever looking, with sympathy, at what the other side has to say, but always staying on his side of the bright red line, and only reading books or talking to people who think like him.

  14. santitafarella:

    Thanks for checking out my blog.

    “The way you get to an orthodox message within three years of Jesus’ crucifixion is interesting, and sounds possible.”

    This thinking is common in the fields of New Testament studies. Unfortunately its the side you never hear about, you tend to hear about the more dramatic issues such as The Da Vinci Code, “Misquoting Jesus”, or the hidden top-secret books of the Bible the church kept hidden from us all. What cracks me up about those fads, is there not really new, its just someone puts them, for whatever reason, back into the limelight again. In reality people should be hearing about Dr. Craig Blomberg, Larry Hurtado, and Craig Evans, to name a few, who are well respected in their fields and have done a lot of work for the scholarship of the New Testament.

    Goodday

  15. Neil says:

    Archeology has always been the Bible’s best friend, so I don’t think this will have any big impact. Skeptics try to say that Christians copied the resurrection from other pagan religions, but those accounts have been debunked and would be meaningless even if true if Jesus really rose from the dead. Now they’ll claim they were follwoing a script. Sure.

    One of the interesting ways to approach the resurrection is that virtually all historians (well over 90%) – including the skeptics – concede that Jesus died on a cross, the disciples really believed that Jesus rose physically and that the Apostle Paul thought so as well (and the preconception theories don’t work on hostile skeptics like him). There is also virtually no disputing that Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Phillipians, and Philemon, which record key doctrines and traditions at early dates.

    More here – http://www.risenjesus.com/challenge/frameSet.html

  16. Matt says:

    well, there are many among the Christian groups who think this validates Jesus, while those who hope Jesus is fake think it proves Him false. There are so many ancient testaments of Jesus’s existence, miracles, teachings,death and disappearance from the tomb, that to doubt His existence is ludicrous. If He did indeed exist, do miracles, teach, and rise from the dead, then this tablet at worse would be coincidental, and at best, prophetic. The burden of proof against Christ is still on His enemies, and unless they can prove that this tablet was written before Jesus and that all four gospel writers used it and it alone to fake a resurrection story (which is already attested to by non Biblical sources) then this is not proof against Jesus, or even evidence. The Jews must also understand that according to the Bible and ancient Jewish writings, the coming of the Messiah is supposed to have happened a LONG time ago, so if Jesus isn’t the Messiah, there is none.

  17. santitafarella says:

    matt,

    a couple of quick things:

    —first, an agnostic or atheist does not have the burden of proof to prove a negative. burdens of proof fall upon those making a spectacular claim. if someone claims, for example, that multicellular life exists on mars, the burden of proof rests with the person making this claim, not upon the person who finds the claim improbable.

    —second, academic scholars tend to agree that matthew and luke used mark and the sayings source Q to write their gospels, and so, strictly speaking, only ONE of the three synoptic gospels functions as a fully functioning primary source for scholars. further complicating the “testimony” is this: we don’t know who wrote “mark,” and we don’t know where or when, exactly, it was written, or where “mark” got his stories. also, it is written in greek, not aramaic (the language of jesus). and so we have problems of translation at work with “mark”—in language, culture, time, and space.

    —lastly, a dying and resurrecting messiah tradition within judaism prior to jesus obviously puts christianity in the precarious position of at least wondering whether the gospels are, in fact, written as “self-fulfilling prophecies.” since we know so little about the authors of the gospels, we are unlikely ever to find out whether or not they knew of this tradition and molded their narratives in accordance with it. it is a point on which agnosticism functions as the most reasonable position.

  18. squeehunter says:

    HOSEA 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.”

    The text is too fragmentary to connect the “three days” line to the “prince of princes”. I’ve looked at a line drawing of the stone itself and there is something between two or three words between the ideas and there’s no punctuation to help. Everyone is reading back into this with too modern of ideas. It’s just as likely about the national restoration of Judah and Israel spoken so much about by the prophets.

  19. danceswithcrayons says:

    Dear Santi,

    National Geographic channel, as part of their ‘Expedition Week’, is airing a television program about this stone tablet tomorrow evening (Friday, November 20).
    Hope this link works:
    http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/expedition-week/4290/Videos/07367_00

    Love, Jane

  20. santitafarella says:

    Jane,

    Wow. Thanks for the tip on that.

    —Santi

  21. Pingback: Three Pretty Good Reasons to Doubt the Resurrection of Jesus « Prometheus Unbound

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