In July of 2008 a flurry of academic journals and news sources reported a new archaeological artifact that might “shake our basic view of Christianity”—especially about first-century messianic expectations and the resurrection accounts.
The find was a large stone tablet on which was written eighty-seven lines of Hebrew text in ink, but much of the text was missing. The message of the text, thought to be composed just before the time of Jesus, is being called Gabriel’s Revelation. A scholar named Israel Knohl created headlines about this artifact by filling in some of the missing text with words that line up with his idea that the notion of a suffering and dying messiah who rises on the third day was part of the consciousness of Judaism before Christianity emerged and is therefore the source of the stories about Jesus.
Gabriel’s Revelation is a Hebrew apocalyptic text written on the face of a thick stone tablet measuring three feet by one foot. One would expect the inscription to be engraved into the stone, but the message here was painted onto a smooth surface of the tablet using ink. The text is arranged in two columns with a total of eighty-seven lines. The arrangement of the text is very much like that on a scroll; hence some scholars have been calling it a “scroll on stone.”
The tablet was cracked into three pieces in its journey through the centuries, but all the pieces are accounted for. The Hebrew lettering on the tablet, however, did not fare so well. It is a very poorly preserved artifact and a good deal of the text is either gone or indecipherable—but this is, of course, a key reason for the mystery and the current controversy surrounding it. Paleographic analysis (that is, a study of the script and materials of writing) place the date of composition from the late ﬁrst-century BC to the early ﬁrst century AD—the same general time frame that has been assigned to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In both appearance and apocalyptic tenor, the Gabriel Tablet appears to have more than a little in common with these other ancient Hebrew texts from the Qumran community.
Although scholars are comfortable with the date range of the writing on the tablet, they really have no idea who wrote it or anything about its provenance. The tablet surfaced about a decade ago in the possession of a Jordanian antiquities dealer. It was then purchased by David Jeselsohn, an Israeli collector living in Zurich, who kept the artifact at his home. Although a knowledgeable antiquities patron himself, Jeselsohn did not know the importance of the coffee-table-sized stone occupying three square feet of his living room.
Eventually he showed it to Ada Yardeni, an expert in ancient Hebrew scripts, paleography, and epigraphy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Yardeni, in collaboration with Binyamin Elitzur, recognized the text as the work of a professional scribe and clearly from the ﬁrst-centuries time frame already mentioned based on “the shape and the form of the letters.” According to a New York Times report, chemical analysis of the artifact done by a renowned expert in archaeological dating, Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, conﬁrmed the proposed date range from paleography. The question of the basic time-frame of composition seems for the most part closed, but where it was and who had it for 2,000 years is still wide open.
After spending some quality time with the Gabriel Tablet, Yardeni and Elitzur published an article in 2007 in the Hebrew language periodical Cathedra. In that article they offered their best attempt at a transcription of the lines of ancient Hebrew. Their own English translation was published on the Web site of the Biblical Archaeology Review and shows all of the missing and illegible parts according to their expert analysis. This is important because these two textual scholars were most concerned with reconstructing and reading the actual text and less concerned with broader interpretation or how it might “shake the very foundation of Christian history.”
It was in Cathedra that Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first heard of the stone. Mr. 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.
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.
To make his case about the importance of the stone, Mr. 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 Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. 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.
Lines 80 and 81 read as follows (of course, ellipses, brackets, and question marks indicate missing and unreadable text):
80. In three days li[ve], I, Gabri’el …[?],
81. the Prince of Princes, …, narrow holes(?) …[…]…
Israel Knohl rendered the same two lines this way:
80. In three days, live, I Gabriel com[mand] yo[u]
81. prince of the princes, the dung of the rocky crevices … ..
Mr. Knohl believes the sentence can be reconstructed as follows: “Leshloshet yamin hayeh, ani Gavriel, gozer alekha” (“In three days, live, I, Gabriel, command you”). The archangel is ordering someone to rise from the dead within three days. To whom is he speaking?
The answer appears in the following line, Line 81: “Sar hasarin” (“Prince of Princes”). The sentence reads: “Leshloshet yamin khayeh, ani Gavriel, gozer alekha, sar hasarin” (In three days, I, Gabriel, command you, prince of princes.” Who is the “prince of princes”?
The primary biblical source for the Gabriel Revelation is the narrative in the Book of Daniel (8:15-26), in which the Archangel Gabriel reveals himself to Daniel for the first time. Gabriel describes a “king of fierce countenance.” This king “shall destroy them that are mighty and the people of the saints… he shall also stand up against the prince of princes” (Daniel 8:24-25).
The author of the Gabriel Revelation seems to be interpreting the biblical narrative as follows: An evil king arises and virtually destroys the Jewish people, the “people of the saints.” He even manages to overcome and slay their leader, the “prince of princes.” This is the leader who will be resurrected in three days.
“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,”…“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.”
Ms. Yardeni said she was impressed with the reading and considered it indeed likely that the key illegible word was “hayeh,” or “live.”
Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C.
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.”
Gabriel’s Revelation: http://www.equip.org/articles/gabriels-revelation/
Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/world/middleeast/06stone.html?_r=4&hp=&pagewanted=all&
Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Sequel?: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1820685,00.html
‘In three days, you shall live’: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/in-three-days-you-shall-live-1.218552