Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Gabriel Revelation

An article published yesterday in the New York Times about the discovery of an ancient stone tablet written in the first century B.C. is causing quite a stir on the internet. The text on this tablet draws from the Old Testament books of Daniel, Zechariah, and Haggai, and contains an apocalyptic vision from the angel Gabriel.

Although the text on the tablet was written (not engraved) and the text is so faded that many of the readings are illegible and disputed, one scholar named Israel Knohl insists that he can make out the readings.

Knohl says that this text contains a prophecy by the angel Gabriel to the “prince of princes” (cf. Daniel 8:25 where the Prince of Princes is apparently God). Knohl identifies this prince of princes as a commander in the Herodian army to whom Gabriel says “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” and “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.” Another passage speaks of “blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.”

According to the New York Times article, Knohl thinks this tablet “should shake our basic view of Christianity.” Why does Israel Knohl think this? Probably because in 2002 Knohl wrote a book called, The Messiah before Jesus; The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I reviewed this book for a library journal called CHOICE several years ago. In Knohl's book he argued that some hymns in the Dead Sea Scrolls describe an Essene messiah figure who claimed divine status and believed he was the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Knohl argued that Jesus was influenced by this earlier “messiah” and expected to be rejected, killed and resurrected after three days.”

According to the New York Times article, Knohl’s “theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus” (emphasis mine).

The New York Times has it wrong. Knohl believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls actually contain textual evidence for an Essene messiah figure even before the Gabriel tablet was discovered. The reason Knohl’s theory failed is because it flew in the face of what critical scholars had been teaching about Jesus for well over a hundred years.

According to most critical scholars, the Jesus of the New Testament was largely a creation of the early church. Radical Jesus' critics don’t even think that Jesus thought of himself as a messiah, much less a son of God.

When Knohl came along and said, in effect, yes, Jesus did think of himself as a messiah and a divine being, that didn’t fit well with critical scholarship and Knohl’s message was largely ignored. Knohl thinks that this stone tablet will confirm the theory he outlined in his earlier book. But would this tablet and Knohl’s theory shake the foundations of Christianity as many on the internet are already suggesting?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument that this tablet turns out to be an authentic first century B.C. artifact. Let’s further assume that that Knohl’s speculative reconstruction of some practically illegible words is accurate, and that the text contains a prophecy based on the Book of Daniel about the future death and resurrection of a “prince of princes.”

Far from discrediting Christianity, it actually lends credibility to what we find in the Gospels. According to the Gospels, Jesus believed that his life’ and death were the fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures (Luke 22:37; 24:15-27). Although this was certainly not a widespread belief, why would it come as a great shock if we discovered that other Jews of that era also interpreted Old Testament prophecies in similar fashion?

But Knohl believes that Jesus patterned his ministry on this earlier “messiah” figure whom Knohl believes was a commander in Herod’s army. If we want to find a pattern for Jesus’ ministry, we might look to Ezekiel 34, Isaiah 53, Pslam 22 or Zechariah 9:9 and 12:10, but the idea that the Gospel writers were patterning their story of Jesus around a military hero is just silly.

Nevertheless, the internet is buzzing with stories of how this shakes the foundations of Christianity. Tim Etherington summed up the situation pretty well. He says, in effect, that on the one hand the critics generally argue that the idea of a dying and raising messiah was not part of the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ day so the Gospel writers must have made it up. On the other hand, Knohl and his internet followers come along and basically argue that since the prophecy about a resurrected hero was part of Jewish tradition, Jesus and/or the Gospel writers must have borrowed from it.

So regardless of whether a resurrected messiah was part of the Jewish tradition or not, the critics will try to spin the evidence against the Gospels. And given the fact that Knohl’s reading is based on a faded text, a broken tablet, and disputed speculative reconstructions of illegible words that, even if accurately reconstructed, would not damage Christianity in the least, the reaction by many on the internet to this tablet shows how desperate some people are to latch on to anything, regardless of how flimsy or silly, to give them an excuse to dismiss the claims of the New Testament writers.