Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection

A NY Times article entitled Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection opens with the following paragraphs:

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.

Ben Witherington III has this to say about the stone’s significance:

If you read the article you will discover that one eclectic Jewish scholar is now suggesting that the Christians got the idea from this stone or its source, and then predicated the idea of Jesus. It would be just as simple to argue that Jesus knew of this idea, and predicated of himself. What this stone then would show is that there was in early Judaism some concept of a suffering messiah whom God might vindicate by resurrection before the time of Jesus.

This is not entirely surprising in view of Isaiah 53 in any case. But the real implication of this for Jesus’ studies should not be missed. 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. There is in any case a reference to a messiah who dies in the late first century A.D. document called 4 Ezra.

Long story short– this stone certainly does not demonstrate that the Gospel passion stories are created on the basis of this stone text, which appears to be a Dead Sea text. For one thing the text is hard to read at crucial junctures, and it is not absolutely clear it is talking about a risen messiah. BUT what it does do is make plausible that Jesus could have said some of the things credited to him in Mk. 8.31, 9,31, and 10.33-34. I will have more to say about the relevance of early Jewish material for the study of the historical Jesus shortly, in a lengthy review of David Flusser’s final and interesting Jesus book The Sage from Galilee.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.