In a story that has “Academic Seeks Publicity Gig” written all over it, the New York Times breathlessly revealed a couple of months ago that some professor had found a stone with ink writing on it dating from shortly before the time of Christ (they guess). It’s broken and faded and lots of text is really hard to read. But that didn’t stop the professor from trumpeting it as yet another devastating blow to the Christian understanding of Jesus.
The story begins by delivering a huge non-news flash to anybody familiar with Christianity.
Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.
Naturally, we are told that it’s Christians, not journalists, who will be astounded to discover that Jesus was a Jew: Such reportage reminds one of the high school sophomore who gleefully wonders what all those fancypants scientists will say when they find out that light is both a wave and a particle.
“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,” Boyarin said.
Jesus was Jewish? Golly, my Christian world is toppling!
Moving on, we get a brief description of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the debate about the role of the Qumran community in Jewish life. After this, we return to the main story, where it turns out the Big New Discovery is not really new:
Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.
“I couldn’t make much out of it when I got it,” said David Jeselsohn, the owner, who is himself an expert in antiquities. “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.”
Fair enough. It takes a while to figure out what you’ve got sometimes. But after the big buildup, we still want to know: what have they got?
Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai.
That should be our first clue that, whatever it is, we’re not going to be reading a text like the gospels and we may well not be reading a text particularly penetrable by exegesis — ever. But we soldier on and discover the first archeological evidence of scholarly hot-doggery here:
It was in Cathedra that Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first heard of the stone, which Yardeni and Elitzur dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation,” also the title of their article. Knohl posited in a book published in 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalyptic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus.
Note the sentence I have highlighted. In translation it means, “Here’s a scholar desperate to make a name for himself, a find considerably less rare than a Dead Sea Scroll. What is more, you’ve got a scholar with a theory (in this case, that there was the notion of a suffering messiah in pre-Christian Judaism), which he was advancing before he had any actual evidence to back up his theory.” In short, you’ve got a scholar looking to force whatever evidence he can find into the template of his theory, for the purpose of “shaking the world of Christology”. This does not bode well for good scholarship.
Now he thinks he’s found something he can cram into the template. What exactly has he found?
In 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, 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.
To make his case about the importance of the stone, Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words “L’shloshet yamin,” meaning “in three days.” The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Yardeni and Elitzur, but Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is “hayeh,” or “live” in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.
Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”
To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” Knohl contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.
And that’s it. We have a rock with some garbled text of an extremely illusive genre of writing (apocalyptic) containing a couple of dubious lines that could mean fifty things. That’s a mighty frail reed with which to beat orthodox Christianity to its knees. But, of course, the good professor is playing to the Mainstream Media which is almost wholly ignorant of orthodox Christianity. So he dilates on this extremely modest data in a way that makes him a natural for membership in the Jesus Seminar:
“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. “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.”
Um, No. It should not shake our basic view of Christianity. Even if the professor’s theory is completely correct and the notion of a suffering messiah who rises in three days is indeed the message on this stone (still a highly dubious bit of exegesis), nothing is “shaken” except the notion of liberal scholarship that Christianity is not the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and that Christianity is a deformation, not the fulfillment of themes already present in Judaism before Christ.
The article goes on from there and lets Knohl fantasize at will. From this extremely sketchy evidence, he draws fanciful conclusions:
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.”
There are two dynamics at work here, and both are pernicious.
The first is the “Heads I win/Tails, the Church loses” method of exegesis popularized by the Jesus Seminar. If Jesus is reported as saying or doing something that reflects his Old Testament or Jewish background, that means the gospels are simply putting Jewish ideas into the mouth of Jesus and and attributing them falsely to him. Conversely, if Jesus says something that is not a direct reflection of the Old Testament or Jewish culture, that means the apostles are inventing deeds and sayings and attributing them to Jesus after the fact. The goal is to minimize the proposition that a) the gospels record what Jesus actually said and did and b) what Jesus said and did was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Knohl is straining to argue against the Church’s teaching that Jesus is the unique crucified and risen Messiah and thinks he has found the way to do this by pointing out that there is evidence to suggest that a suffering messiah was a Jewish concept before Christ.
What Knohl is entirely overlooking in this story is that Jesus and his followers did not merely “adopt” a “cultural theme” of suffering or resurrection after three days. What separates the men from the boys is that Jesus actually rose after three days. Simon’s bones remain where he left them — assuming, of course, this sketchy document really does say what the good professor is bound and determined to make it say in order to fit his theory.
Beyond this, it is baffling how any scholar could say that the theme of a suffering Messiah is not present in pre-Christian Judaism when they have Isaiah 53 staring them in the face. And this brings us to the second pernicious agenda that Knohl seems to be pursuing: the increasingly popular suggestion that the only Jew present at the Crucifixion was the one being crucified. Knohl claims that Jesus knew of this highly dubious stone and based his entire mission on it. From there, Knohl then proceeds to claim total knowledge of the inmost working of Jesus’ mind! And very conveniently, it turns out that, in Jesus’ heart of hearts, he believed “To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”
Such a claim is of a piece with growing attempt over the past few years to exonerate the Jerusalem leadership of any complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus and to fundamentally attack the basic Christian understanding as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, both Jew and Gentile. To do this, Jesus is painted as a sort of religio-political radical whose goals were some kind of fuzzy piece of self-oblative zealotry. His one and only foe is Pilate. The Jewish elders have nothing to do with his execution. And his death is not intended as a sacrificial act for the sins of the world but, at best, a sort of failed attempt to redeem Israel from political oppression, a little like a Belfast hunger striker.
According to this narrative, his followers then picked up on whatever detritus was laying around in the culture (in this case, an obscure rock with lines about a suffering messiah who rises in three days) and ran with it, getting the whole thing muddled up with amazing speed into what we now call “Christianity”. (Speed was of the essence here, since the basic picture of orthodox Christianity, with its Jesus who dies for the sins of the world, is already pretty much in liturgical concrete by the time Paul starts writing his letters 20 years later).
Unfortunately for Knohl’s claim, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who is five centuries older than the dubious text of “Gabriel’s Revelation” does not simply affirm Israel in their okayness or tell them that they are the good guys and the Romans are the bad guys. His vision of redemption far surpasses some political squabble with a Gentile oppressor. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was “smitten for the transgression of his people” (Isaiah 53:8). So far from denying that his shed blood is for the sins of the people, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “makes himself an offering for sin” (Is 53:10). He “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5). In short, he looks a whole lot like Jesus Christ, a fact not lost on his earliest disciples (Acts 8:27-35).
In the end then, this Latest Real Jesus is, like all the others, a teapot tempest. The good professor moves from shaky data, to extremely dubious hypotheses, to absolutely preposterous mind-reading of Christ himself, all in the service of an agenda he was advancing before he ever had any data to support it: finding something—anything—that will “shake the world of Christology, as he had hoped.” It’s a leap upon which nobody would bet ten cents if we were talking about Napoleon or Tutankhamen, but which the press dutifully blathered about for nine days or so.