Sunday, July 06, 2008

An ancient tablet and the idea of resurrection

When it comes to religions, there are no copyrights. It is no surprise that the surrounding cultures, religions and prevailing customs provide much of the foundation material for new religions (for example, 20th century religions, Scientology and Raelians, have their religious narratives rooted in modern popular culture and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Turning back 2000 years, here is an interesting article about an ancient tablet that shows that the idea of a Messiah who will rise from the dead after three days may have pre-dated Jesus:
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.

It seems that the text on the tablet is from the late first century BC, and perhaps refer to the political climate after the death of King Herod in 4BC:

Mr. Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ day as an important explanation of that era’s messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet — “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” — and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

And here is where it connects to the larger picture:

Mr. Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and “Gabriel’s Revelation” shows it.

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”

Academically, this is an interesting story and reminded me of the discovery and the translation of The Gospel of Judas, that challenged the standard narrative about the betrayal of Judas. But I can see why it may also ruffle some feathers.

Read the full story here.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I found your blog while searching for blogs with topics similar to mine.

To me as a Christian, this discovery does not seem like a big deal, theologically, at all. Part of the Christian faith is that the resurrection of Jesus was foretold by prophecies from the Old Testament, which are often in the form of allegories. Though not included in the canon of the Bible, this writing is consistent with the idea that before Jesus, revelation was full of foreshadowing.

Salman Hameed said...

If this is the case then you are absolutely correct that it should not pose any problems. But there are always others who have different interpretations - and then the question comes in how to resolve the discrepancy: should one re-interpret the doctrine based on new findings or should one reject historical and/or scientific findings in favor of faith? But I'm glad that it works out for you.

Anonymous said...

It does put a different complexion on things. It becomes plausible that there is truth to the story in the Gospel of Judas as you allude to, where Jesus arranges with Judas for his betrayal. From this perspective Jesus could have wanted to fulfill the prophesy and may even have believed he would rise from the dead. Personally I always thought there was too much similarity between Jesus' death and resurrection and the similar stories of Baal, Adonis and Tammuz for there not to be a connection. There was a grove of Tammuz in Bethlehem and the young women used to weep for him every year. He too was reborn from a cave. It's easy to see how this could have evolved into a belief that a messiah instead of a god would die and be reborn. Still, finding tangible proof of it is quite exciting.

Salman Hameed said...

Good connections - cannot agree more! I didn't know about the story of Tammuz - very cool. This is exactly what I meant by religions borrowing from surrounding traditions. Of course, this all gets mixed in with Mesopotamian and Hittite stories and how these were adopted by later groups.

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