Ancient Tablet with Hebrew Writings Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection
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.
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.
The tablet, called "Gabriel's Revelation," is broken and faded, making much of its content debatable. The words tell of a vision, supposedly given by the angel Gabriel, of the apocalypse.
Lines 19 through 21 of the tablet contain words, which translated read: "In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice."
Line 80 of the tablet begins with the words "L'shloshet yamin," meaning "in three days," but then fades. Some scholars see the next word as illegible, but Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says the word is Hebrew for "live," followed by even more difficult-to-read words that he claims complete a command meaning, "I three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."
Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, however, remains skeptical of Knohl's interpretation of the tablet.
"There is one problem," he told the Tribune. "In crucial places of the text there is a 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 the text there are a lot of missing words." Bar-Asher plans to publish his own paper on the tablet in coming months.
If the stone tablet does represent a "Dead Sea Scroll on stone," the debate over its meaning will likely continue for many years.