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Dead Sea tablet ‘casts doubt on death and resurrection of Jesus’?

14 July, 2008

Here’s an excerpt from a recent article in The Times, London:

Dead Sea tablet ‘casts doubt on death and resurrection of Jesus’

The death and resurrection of Christ has been called into question by a radical new interpretation of a tablet found on the eastern bank of the Dead Sea. The three-foot stone tablet appears to refer to a Messiah who rises from the grave three days after his death – even though it was written decades before the birth of Jesus.

This of course caught my attention. How exactly does it cast doubt on Jesus’ death and resurrection? Just because it appears someone earlier talked about such things? Well what exactly does the tablet say? The article goes on:

The ink is badly faded on much of the tablet, known as Gabriel’s Vision of Revelation, which was written rather than engraved in the 1st century BC. This has led some experts to claim that the inscription has been overinterpreted. A previous paper published by the scholars Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur concluded that the most controversial lines were indecipherable.

Okay…so we can’t even be sure what the tablet says–and how does this ‘cast doubt’ on the work of Christ? A picture of the tablet gives some idea  of what ‘badly faded’ and ‘indecipherable’ mean.

But another scholar feels he’s accurately translated and interpreted the controversial lines:

Israel Knohl, a biblical studies professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued yesterday that line 80 of the text revealed Gabriel telling an historic Jewish rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans four years before the birth of Christ: “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.” Professor Knohl contends that the tablet proves that messianic followers possessed the paradigm of their leader rising from the grave before Jesus was born. He said that the text “could be the missing link between Judaism and Christianity in so far as it roots the Christian belief in the resurrection of the Messiah in Jewish tradition”.

I think this story is telling on a number of fronts. It shows how quickly the uniqueness of Christianity is often criticized; it shows how this uniqueness is often misunderstood; it shows a real lack of belief in God’s providence in history and the Spirit’s bringing about God’s purposes through means; it betrays a rationalistic assumption that Jesus’ work is presented as a sort of ‘brute fact’ or mere piece of data that can be assessed apart from the whole context in which it occurred, and apart from our own prejudices and assumptions. In other words, before we go claiming that an ambiguous tablet from the Dead Sea ‘means something’ for Christ’s death and resurrection, we should have some idea of what Christ’s death and resurrection mean in the first place.

There are too many things going on here to discuss here, but by way of thoughtful approach to these things, here’s an excerpt from John Murray discussing some important aspects of our knowledge of (and acknowledgment of) the reality and meaning of the resurrection of our Lord:

‘…the apostles whom he had chosen: to whom he also showed himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing unto them by the space of forty days, and speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:2-3).

When Jesus rose from the dead he did not show himself to all the people but to ‘witnesses chosen before of God’ (Acts 10:41). We might have thought otherwise, that he would have met the challenge of the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Matt 27:41, 42) by demonstrating something greater than to have come down from the cross, namely, resurrection after three days in the tomb. But it was not so. Divine wisdom dictated a different mode of demonstration. Luke is careful to observe this and underlines again the place of the apostles in witnessing to the certainty of the resurrection. To them he presented himself alive; they received the convincing, infallible proofs. It is necessary to bear in mind that there is no such thing as brute facts. Facts belong to a context and as evidence they must be properly interpreted. The chosen witnesses were able to evaluate the evidence and receive it for what it was, convincing proof. So incontestable were Jesus’ appearances as the living one who became dead but lived again (cf. Rev 1:18 ) that no alibi was possible. The constancy and boldness with which the apostles bore witness to the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:21; 2:31; 4:2, 33; 17:18; 1 Cor 15;4; 1 Ptr 1:3) certify to us the conviction they entertained and the significance they recognized as belonging to it.

The form of expression Luke uses should be noted: Jesus ‘presented himself alive’. It was the same Jesus the apostles knew as having suffered on the cross, as having died, and as the One who had been buried. The identity and continuity are significantly stressed. The transformation undergone by the resurrection is sufficiently marked by the emphasis placed upon ‘alive’. But it was the same person in the same body in which he suffered. Here again, in what is perhaps an unsuspecting way, testimony is given to the only [resurrection] doctrine of which the New Testament knows anything. It is that Jesus came from the tomb of Joseph in that body that had been laid there. It was a physical resurrection in accord with Jesus’ own words to his disciples: ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have’ (Luke 24:38, 39). Yes, the living Saviour, alive for evermore, is the same Jesus who suffered and died. We cannot know him as the living One in any other identity. And we cannot know him in his vicarious suffering and death on our behalf in any other identity than that defined by his resurrection and the endless life that is his by the great event of the first Lord’s day.

  1. Darren permalink
    16 July, 2008 1:35 am

    Yeah, my ears perked up at this story too. The short TIME article I read seemed so certain that prior notions of a suffering servant and resurrection would shake Christianity, that I had to reread it to make sure I didn’t miss something. It’s not like it’s news to Christians that a suffering Messiah and resurrection were actually not made up out of the blue with the New Testament. I mean, there’s something out there called the Old Testament too….

  2. 16 July, 2008 7:51 am

    TIME learns BT…newsw at 11.

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