Ancient Tablet Causes Debate Among Scholars

Biola professor responds to the debate surrounding the ancient tablet that may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

Jul. 10, 2008 By Jenna Bartlo

Debate was kindled this past week after an ancient tablet was discovered to have more significance than the owner, David Jeselsohn, an Israeli-Swiss collector, ever imagined. The 87 lines of Hebrew on the three-foot tall tablet may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days. According to The New York Times, scholars believe the tablet dates back to decades just before the birth of Jesus.

“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 article stated.

Jeselsohn, bought the piece about ten years ago from a Jordanian antiquities dealer. A few years ago, he showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing.

“You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,” she had told Jeselsohn, according to the article.

Here, Craig Hazen, founder and director of the master’ program in Christian apologetics at Biola, discusses the implications and significance of the tablet.

How significant is this ancient “Gabriel Tablet” in terms of archaeological finds?

It is really a very exciting artifact. To put it in perspective, it would be like finding one more written piece belonging to the collection we call the Dead Sea Scrolls. But in this case it is just one document with one message—and many holes and difficulties in the text.

Why do news reports say that the message of the Gabriel Tablet is “shocking” and “challenging?”

Well, you don’t necessarily see that kind of language in academic journals when scholars are presenting their findings. Reports in the academic forums are generally more measured. But keep two things in mind. First, these words are used in newspapers and news magazines. They need the story about this tablet to be newsworthy to justify its publication. So using this kind of language helps to get a green light from the editor and ramp up the popular interest. Second, to give the benefit of the doubt to the popular media, I can easily imagine a reporter picking up this kind of rhetoric from interviewing even the most dispassionate archaeologist or ancient historian. Why? Because finds like this are few and far between and the excitement among scholars over a new document or artifact can run very high for a period of time. Attention-grabbing terms like “shocking” tend to fade very quickly, though, once sober analysis of such finds begins in earnest.

How does the Gabriel Tablet discovery differ from recent news-making announcements such as the purported Gospel of Judas, the Family Tomb of Jesus at Talpiot, or the Ossuary of James?

For the most part the only thing these artifacts you mention have in common is that they are old and that they relate in some way to ancient Palestine and Jesus. Of all of the items you list, the Gabriel Tablet is probably the least controversial. This discovery has not yet been exploited by groups like National Geographic (Gospel of Judas) or film director James Cameron (the Jesus Family Tomb) for money and publicity. The Gospel of Judas and the Jesus Family Tomb were announced with the intent of capturing headlines and driving people to buy books and DVDs. There is some historical value to each of these finds, but their real place in the historical record was stretched beyond recognition in order to attempt to embarrass the Christian faith and make money. As for the Ossuary of James (a bone box thought by some to contain the remains of the brother of Jesus), some have concluded that was a forgery, but the jury may still be out on that one.
Interestingly, no one is yet seriously challenging the authenticity of the Gabriel Tablet. Virtually every one who has examined it has concluded that the script and Hebrew construction are consistent with late 1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D. Scholars might be speculating for years, though, who wrote it and for what purpose.

What then is the controversy? Why would anyone consider it “shocking?”

This is very interesting Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic literature. A tablet like this is valuable, even with all the holes and missing words, because it gives a small window into the mind of religious thinkers of the period. But what has made it controversial is the way one particular hole in the text is being filled in by a speculative scholar in Jerusalem. Professor Israel Knohl believes that part of the text is about a messianic figure named Simon (not Simon Peter of the New Testament) and that the text should read “In three days, you shall live, I Gabriel command you.”
But not even Professor Knohl thinks this has direct bearing on the New Testament accounts. He simply believes that it demonstrates that the idea of a messiah rising from the dead after three days was already a part of common Jewish thinking and so may not have been unique to the Gospel accounts. This interpretation is at this point very controversial because of the extrapolations Professor Knohl is making in the text to get this reading. (If you would like to read an English translation of the Gabriel Tablet yourself you can see it here: http://bib-arch.org/news/dss-in-stone-news.asp.)

Could the message of the Gabriel Tablet be a challenge to the traditional Christian views of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

I don’t see how it could be. Let’s assume Professor Knohl is correct in the controversial way he fills in the holes in the text. It certainly would support the idea that a concept of a messianic figure rising on the third day was circulating at some level. However, this only counts against the traditional Christian view if one wants to make a huge naturalistic and fallacious leap to the conclusion that because the concept was circulating, that proves it was the actual source of the Christian resurrection account. And again if Professor Knohl’s interpretation turned out to be accurate (and one does not commit a cause-and-affect fallacy) it could actually be used to show that some Jews at the time of Jesus were in tune with a dying and rising messiah, which could be used to bolster the Christian position.
However, when the dust settles I don’t think Professor Knohl’s interpretation will win the day. His conclusions are highly speculative and I think research being published in the next few months will show that alternative interpretations are equally strong if not stronger.

Is there anything helpful to the traditional Christian position on the Gabriel Tablet?

Yes, there is. The text is helpful in confirming that not all Jews at the time of Jesus had abandoned the idea of a “suffering messiah” in the tradition of Isaiah 53. I believe this is a very important point in Jewish evangelism. We don’t want to make too much of just one text like this, but being able to show some ancient evidence of an interpretation of Isaiah that resonates with Christian teaching about what the messiah must suffer can be very helpful.

Why do controversial and seemingly anti-Christian interpretations of texts and artifacts seem to be proliferating?

I could probably write a whole article on that, but let me boil it down to this: Mainstream scholars are simply too quick to reject the New Testament documents as reliable historical sources. The Gospels are so well attested historically, that what they set forth about the life and times of Jesus should be the most important measuring stick for other kinds of discoveries like The Gospel of Judas, the Jesus Family Tomb, the James Ossuary, the Gabriel Tablet, the Shroud of Turin or anything else that is dug out of the ground or discovered in the back of a monastery. Given the historical gravitas of the New Testament documents, new finds that seem to stand against their teaching have an abysmal record of success.

Read The New York Times article

Craig J. Hazen, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the master’s program in Christian apologetics at Biola and is the author of a breakout new novel called Five Sacred Crossings.

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