Monday, July 07, 2008

"Gabriel's Revelation": Actual News in Biblical Archaeology

After The Da Vinci Code (admittedly fiction, though coyly admitted) and "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," (purportedly nonfiction, though slyly presented), and The Gospel of Judas (of genuine scholarly interest but exploited for maximum commercial impact) gentle readers have a right to feel skeptical about news articles reporting amazing new findings related to Jesus and all things Christian.

SWNID thinks, however, that the Gray Lady's weekend discussion of the so-called "Gabriel's Revelation" actually has the smell of potentially significant scholarship about it.

For what details are available on this issue, we urge gentle readers to read the Times's piece. We offer the following observations that assume knowledge of what reporter Ethan Bronner lays out with fine clarity.

  • The significant issue potentially raised by this tablet, whether any Jews of the Second Temple period expected a dying-and-rising messiah, is an interesting and important one. It is not so important that it will in any real sense "revolutionize" the typical Christian's understanding of Jesus. But it does have the potential to change the shape of scholarly discussion of Jesus, especially of his death, a subject often avoided by historical Jesus scholarship.
  • Everything depends on the accuracy of Israel Knohl's reconstruction of the text, which like many textual artifacts has portions obscured by the ravages of age. Knohl has been out to prove for awhile that some parts of Judaism before expected a dying-and-rising messiah, so his reconstruction is likely to receive careful scrutiny, as well it should.
  • If Knohl is right--a big if, the matter is a two-edged sword for the understanding of the Christian gospel: (a) to some it will be more historically credible that Jesus could have spoken prophetically of his death and resurrection, something widely questioned in critical scholarship; (b) to some it will be more historically credible that followers of Jesus shaped their story of his death and resurrection less out of the events that happened and more to meet the expectations of at least one extant Jewish sect.
  • On the second edge of the sword noted above, the edge is not so sharp after all. Assuming that some Jews of the Second Temple period did indeed expect a dying-and-rising messiah, one still must explain why among all the messianic groups of the Second Temple period, only one--the followers of Jesus--preached a message that he had died and arisen, or at least that they alone preached such a message with any success at all.
Stay tuned on this one. When the dust settles and some other folks have a close look at the tablet, we'll have a better idea whether Knohl is on to something more than his imagination. But in the end, those who want to understand Jesus as something other than what Christians believe him to be still run up against the monumental problem of explaining how such a fantastical story took shape as it did.

Update: Our colleague-at-another-place Rafael has read what more there is to read in the news on this topic and discussed it more thoroughly than our superficial self. Interested gentle readers ought to delve therein.


carlsweatman said...

As a possible corollary to your final (bullet-)point, if there was indeed a expectation of a dying and rising messiah, then the message/proclamation of such should not have been so scandalous.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

True enough perhaps, and an apt observation, though the expectation was at best a highly sectarian if it indeed existed, and the Christian version likely still deviated from said sectarian expectation, not least, we'd guess, in the way that the followers of the risen Jesus shared his shame even after his rising.