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The New York Times reports an interesting new find in Jerusalem: “A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus . . . may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.” According to the Times , one phrase from the stone reads: “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice.”

Wow! Could this be prophesy of Christ’s resurrection? Could this be monumental, reinforcing evidence of Christian theology? The New York Times offers a different theory:

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.

Wait a second; did I miss something? They must know something I don’t.

To clarify things, the newspaper cites Israel Knohl, “an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” who wrote in his 2000 book of “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, the New York Times , adds, “his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus . . . . When he read [this new text] he said, he believed he saw what he needed to solidify his thesis, and he has published his argument in the latest issue of the Journal of Religion . . . ”

The Times continues, “Mr. Knohl contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days . . . . He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.”

So, Knohl says this tablet is novel in that it mentions a suffering messiah. But didn’t Chapter 53 of Isaiah already mention that? Not according to Mr. Knohl—he claims this new finding ought to shake our faith:

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.

That’s certainly an interesting interpretation. But I’m not as convinced as Knohl that these findings rule out the possibility that the New Testament was not adopted but rather fulfilled by Jesus and his followers. “There is one problem” with Knohl’s thesis, says Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University: “In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl’s tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words.”

The debate will continue today, reports the New York Times , at “a conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the [Dead Sea Scrolls] . . . at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah . . . also will be discussed.”



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