Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Revelation of Gabriel: A Basis for the Story of Jesus?

One of the weirder arguments that I sometimes encounter when debating Christians about the literal reality of Biblical accounts goes a little something like "Why would the early Christians make up a story about Jesus dying and being resurrected when there's no ancient Jewish tradition about the Messiah undergoing death and resurrection?"* There's kind of an implicit statement there that early Christians couldn't possibly have concocted form whole cloth any stories about their prophet/messiah/deity. "After all," some folks will claim, "liberal scholars (whatever that means) think of accounts of Jesus as drawing from the OT and old Jewish mythology, so why would the most important part of Jesus' life not have been drawn from an old Jewish source but rather from a contemporary invention?"

That argument has never made a lot of sense to me, since ultimately I think that at some point somebody made all of it up out of whole cloth. Furthermore, both Judaism and by extension Christianity were influenced by other regional religions (See Greenberg for a full discussion.) and the cultural phenomenon of "resurrection deities" is well attested to throughout pre-Christian mythology, including the ancient Middle East. (Mithras, Horus, and Osiris are salient regional examples.) Well, one way or another that argument may soon lose what little weight it had because of a pre-Christian Hebrew tablet that has come to be referred to as "Gabriel's Revelation". The tablet appears to depict the death of a Messiah figure named Simon and make reference to his resurrection three days later.

If true, this would indicate that the story of Jesus may simply be a natural extension of a phase of Hebrew myth-making.

To be fair, the exact translation of the tablet, which is not an engraving but instead written in ink, is open to speculation. As one may suspect, 2,000 year-old ink writing hasn't held up perfectly and the stone itself is broken. Some of the key passages are regarded by some scholars as illegible, but author and scholar Israel Knohl of the Tel Aviv University, believes that the tablet's overall meaning is clear. It should probably also be noted that Knohl wrote a book in 2000 that centered on the examination of pre-Christian messianic traditions, and thus some less iconoclastic scholars are concerned that he may simply be seeing what he wants to see in some of the tablet's more difficult to read passages.

That being said, how this plays out in the coming months should be very interesting and could potentially have far-reaching ramifications for religious scholarship, especially if other scholars independently verify Knohl's translations and share in his interpretations. (Though I imagine it will pass right by the man on the street.) I've been anxiously awaiting Ray Comfort's statement on the matter, but I suspect that none is forthcoming, since actually talking about the details of his religion is something that I've never actually seen him do. That being said, there's an interesting discussion on the subject going on at IIDB, including a marvelously snarky comment by one poster who notes that he "can't wait for [apologists] to pronounce it both "prophecy" and "forgery" in the same breath".

* This statement is often made, inexplicably, alongside claims that Jesus' tribulations were actually prophesied in the OT book of Isaiah by way of its passages about the "suffering servant". See Ehrman's God's Problem for a discussion of how these passages are meant as a metaphor for the Hebrew people rather than a specific holy individual.

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