A stone tablet written in Hebrew is generating debate as some scholars are saying its words point to a suffering messiah who was killed and rose again three days later decades before Jesus of Nazareth.
Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley told The International Herald Tribune, "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."
The tablet itself, about three feet tall and containing 87 lines of Hebrew in two neat columns, is a rare find because its words are written in ink, rather than engraved. Experts who have analyzed the writing date the stone from the late first century B.C., and a chemical examination conducted by a professor at Tel Aviv University showed no reason to doubt the date.
The content of the writing, however, remains much in doubt, as evidenced by a handful of articles on the stone and several due to be published in coming months.
The stone tablet and its owner, David Jeselsohn
The tablet was discovered roughly ten years ago, purchased from a Jordanian antiquities dealer and stored until recently in a private collection in Zurich. According to the Tribune, news of the tablet excited scholars last year when Ada Yardeni, an Israeli scholar of Hebrew scripts, published a long analysis of the stone in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language history and archaeology quarterly.
David Jeselsohn, the tablet's owner, told the Tribune, "I didn't realize how significant it was until I showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing, a few years ago. She was overwhelmed. 'You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,' she told me."
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, "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."
Knohl told the Tribune that he interprets the tablet to tell of a messianic figure named Simon, whose death was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus. The tablet, Knohl contends, was likely written by Simon's followers and demonstrates that messianic followers even before Jesus looked to their leaders rising again, thus nullifying the frequent claim that Jesus' resurrection was a uniquely developed story.
If Knohl's interpretation of "Gabriel's Revelation" is correct, it would lend evidence to his previous theories, published in his 2002 book, "The Messiah before Jesus."
Knohl is one of several scholars who suggest Jesus may not have been unique in his claim to face suffering, death and resurrection, but that sources, like this tablet, suggest a common messianic story that New Testament writers may have merely been copying.
"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," Knohl told the Tribune. "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."
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. The Dead Sea Scrolls, originally discovered in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea, contain pre Christian-era copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, the oldest known copies at the time.
The Scrolls continue to be studied and debated, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Scrolls' discovery, begins a three-day "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Contemporary Culture" conference today. Israel Knohl is scheduled to speak at the conference about the "Gabriel's Revelation" stone.