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.
The stone itself predates Jesus by about a century, but, as is often the case, the all important lines are reconstructions; thus, it needs more scholarly attention to determine whether or not it says what people have reconstructed it as saying. Famous Hebrew University scholar, Israel Knohl has a Journal of Religion article on it:
So, the actual reading is contested or contestable, and in the most interesting spot--as is oddly so typical (although, I have a feeling that our imaginations fill in the spaces with more interesting things than were originally there). Knohl's early work primarily is about the Pentateuch. I just finished his book, The Sanctuary of Silence, in which he argued against scholarly consensus that "H" or the Holiness School (HS) was lated than "P" or the Priestly Source of the Pentateuch and actually is P's editor. He managed to convince the giant on Leviticus studies, Jacob Milgrom. His second book is also about the Pentateuch. This earlier work is definitely creative and original (although he has not convinced everyone), but I cannot comment on his later work. And I have yet to read the article in Journal of Religion--Knohl has posted it for free here. But, others will have to confirm if this stone says what he says it says. Or, at least, if this is the most plausible reading.
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.
Regarding Mr. Knohl’s thesis, Mr. Bar-Asher is also respectful but cautious. “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.”
Moshe Idel, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, said that given the way every tiny fragment from that era yielded scores of articles and books, “Gabriel’s Revelation” and Mr. Knohl’s analysis deserved serious attention. “Here we have a real stone with a real text,” he said. “This is truly significant.”
Mr. 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.
“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,” Mr. 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.”