Messianic hope


An article in today's New York Times has this headline: "Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah, 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 article mostly focuses on the question of whether supposedly uniquely Christian ideas about Jesus's messianic role were in fact unique to Christianity, or if such ideas already existed within Judaism. It has often been assumed that the idea of a a messiah as a suffering figure who would triumph through his own death--rather than as a political figure who would conquer militarily--was alien to Judaism and purely an invention of Hellenizers who took the Jewish concept of a messiah and altered it for their own purposes. For example, Barrie Wilson turned just such a criticism into a major theme of his book How Jesus Became Christian. Yet here we have a suggestion that this motif in fact already existed within at least one strain of Judaism at the time that Jesus lived. Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University, for example, is quoted in the Times as saying, "What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

Whether any of this proves to be true in the long run or not, it does provide food for thought. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at UC Berkeley, points out that Christians might take this in two completely different directions, noting, "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." It is interesting to consider that the first century milieu of Palestinian Judaism was not necessarily as homogeneous as some might have thought. It comes as no surprise that Jesus the historical personage was Jewish, of course; but it is interesting to imagine that even some of the theological interpretations of his life that were supposedly uniquely Christian were in fact also Jewish.

The article only touched on what to me is an interesting implication of what this tablet suggests, assuming of course that the interpretation of the writings on the tablet is correct and that the tablet is not a forgery. I think that the theological implications are fascinating, because this finding points to the idea that a resurrection of a suffering messiah in three days already had pre-existing symbolic and mythological value at the time that Jesus and his followers lived. To affirm that Jesus was resurrected in three days was thus a way for Jesus's followers, after he died, of plugging into a myth and making a statement about what their movement was about and therefore who Jesus was. The truth of myths, after all, lies not in their historical veracity, but in the deeper truth that they point to. The resurrection stories in the New Testament don't agree much with one another, and it is rather hard to get three days and three nights out of a Friday evening death and a Sunday morning resurrection anyway. This is why some have tried to argue that Jesus was actually not executed on a Friday--but that misses the point, because it focused on the details rather than the bigger mythic picture. As one who doesn't believe that those stories are literally true, I think that there is no need to literalize these myths anyway.

The stone tablet says, for example, "In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice." Isn't that precisely the message of hope that Christians are trying to convey when they say, "Hallelujah, Christ is risen"?


Museum Ethics Controversy said...

I would submit that this "ancient tablet" is probably another sensationalist scam, as is clearly suggested by the facts

(1) that no specific information is available on its provenance ("probably found near the Dead Sea" doesn't quite do it for me); and

(2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink or analysis of the stone.

As such, this "news" brings to mind the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus "documentary" designed to financially profit from people's fascination with the "real" Jesus, as well as the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world, with an antisemitic nuance emerging on a government-run North Carolina museum's website. See, e.g., (article critical of exhibits)

and (discussion and further links)