Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Resurrection, BC[E]

First, two preliminary comments.
  1. It's a bitter-sweet thing to see the Bible in the news. On the one hand, our hearts are strangely warmed to see national and even international attention explicitly focused on The Book that We Love, and yet being in the news is rarely a sign of something good. In the case of the Bible, either we find (a) someone who similarly cherishes The Book that We Love speaking embarrassingly or uninformedly (á la Robertson or Dobson, et al.), or (b) someone who castigates said Book, often (though not not necessarily) from a similarly uninformed perspective.
  2. I have attempted to avoid commenting on the story I comment upon here simply because the evidence is neither widely accessible, nor has it been subjected to the scrutiny of the scholarly community. Whether you trust them or loathe them, genuine, bona fide biblical scholars are human and liable to make untenable claims (see here for a recent and poignant example). The contribution biblical scholars make to wider cultural appropriations of the Bible is found precisely in the scholarly community, which reigns in its wilder elements and moves much mores deliberately (= slowly) precisely to avoid some of the embarrassing possibilities that have been actualized in recent years (examples here, here, and here). But this issue has since invaded even my seldom-used Facebook inbox, a sure sign that some sort of comment is in order.
That said, I have been following some (certainly not very much) of the media buzz regarding the so-called "Gabriel's [Vision of] Revelation."1 On the basis of two news items from either side of the Atlantic — one in The Times Online, the other from Time (as in the magazine) — it appears that this story is destined to go the route of the sensationalized biblical news stories that ignite the public imagination and then fades before the scholarly discussion can moderate the popular claims made about this newly discovered tablet. But so far as the public's attention is still focused on this find, a few observations will help thoughtful inquirers (Christian or otherwise) properly assess the significance of this text.

First, the headlines and by-lines attached to these stories seriously misrepresent the actual text in question, even as reconstructed and interpreted by Israel Knohl, the chief proponent of the view that this text refers to a dying-and-rising messianic figure. For example, above the story on Time's website, we read:
A first-century BC tablet, thought to originate from the Jordanian bank of the Dead Sea, that tells the story of a Messiah who rose again after three days from the grave[.]
I immediately have two problems. First, nowhere in the actual report of the tablet's text does it refer to the figure in question as "Messiah." This is especially significant because scholars have been demonstrating for over two decades that messianic speculation in Second Temple Judaism was extremely variegated and disparate, with different Jewish groups nourishing (and being nourished by) different ideas regarding the messiah. This variety and diversity is only multiplied when we include speculation focused on people who aren't identified as "Messiah." And though the news piece doesn't acknowledge this problem, even Israel Knohl seems to be aware of it:
Professor Knohl contends that the tablet proves that messianic followers possessed the paradigm of their leader rising from the grave before Jesus was born.
Notice that, in this quote, the term "messianic" refers to Jesus' followers, not Simon's (see below); all that can be said about the potential parallel this text provides is that Jesus' followers could refer to another group's "leader" experiencing death and resurrection.

Second, in the blurb quoted above, we have a very serious problem with verb tense. The article on Time's website refers to "a Messiah [and we've already noted the problems with this label] who rose again after three days from the grave." But, according to the report, this is precisely what is not included in the text. [nb: Here lies one of the problems of commenting on a text without actually having access to that text; my comments here are based solely on the news pieces linked to above and may be mitigated by the actual text itself.] Here is the report in The Times:
Israel Knohl, a biblical studies professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued yesterday that line 80 of the text revealed Gabriel telling an historic Jewish rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans four years before the birth of Christ: “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”
Notice that, according to Knohl's own reconstruction (which itself is a matter of debate), the text reports a promise from the angel Gabriel to Simon that he would live after three days. As any biblical scholar knows (and this is not rhetoric; this actually is a very basic point among scholars), there are important generic differences between an angelic promise about what would happen and a narrative reporting what has happened. Note that I am not saying one is more historically reliable or accurate than the other, only that there are important differences here. Case in point: Famously, Mark's gospel contains multiple "passion predictions" in which Jesus tells his hapless disciples that he would die and, three days later, rise again. But the gospel also goes on to narrate that resurrection (however incompletely and cryptically, given the ending of that text at 16.8). But, at least according to the news pieces I've seen, nowhere does "Gabriel's [Vision of] Revelation" narrate Simon's resurrection.

There are more problems besides. Notice the claim that Prof. Knohl is actually interested in making by way of this text (which, by the way, is the very same point he made in his 2002 book prior to the discovery of this text; such neat confluences between hypothesis and evidence should automatically raise red flags):
Professor Knohl . . . said that New Testament writers could have adapted a widely held messianic story in Judaism to Jesus and his followers. “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.” [my emphasis]
Again, the problem is subtle but important. Scholars have long been resistant to the idea of a pre-Christian Jewish motif of a dying-and-rising messianic figure precisely because the evidence for such a motif was lacking. But even if this text proves that some Jews in the decades before Jesus' birth anticipated a "suffering Messiah" (again, remember the problems that attend to our use of "Messiah" here), the very fact that this text is so distinct from the rest of the extant evidence is significant in itself! That is, even if "Gabriel's [Vision of] Revelation" says exactly what Prof. Knohl claims it says, this does not in any way suggest such a motif was "a widely held messianic story." In fact, it would seem to be a very marginal messianic story, at least until it was taken up by later Christian tradents. But again, there are important generic differences between the Christian stories about Jesus and the angelic promise to Simon.2

As I am already getting weary of commenting on this story, perhaps only one more point will suffice. Here is an extended passage from Time's article:
This, in turn, undermines one of the strongest literary arguments employed by Christians over centuries to support the historicity of the Resurrection (in which they believe on faith): the specificity and novelty of the idea that the Messiah would die on a Friday and rise on a Sunday. Who could make such stuff up? But, as Knohl told TIME, maybe the Christians had a model to work from. The idea of a "dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism," he says. "But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus." If so, he goes on, "this should shake our basic view of Christianity. . . . What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
The problem here is precisely with Knohl's evaluation of the significance of "Gabriel's [Vision of] Revelation," even if we grant his reconstruction tout court. While many Christians may indeed make arguments for the resurrection on the basis that such ideas were unheard of prior to the earliest Christians' proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead, many (perhaps even most) Christians — and especially scholars from a wide spectrum of confessional perspectives — have long insisted that both the event of Jesus' resurrection and his followers' reports of the resurrection were influenced by and took up motifs from "an earlier messiah story." Thus Philip is reported to have explained to an Ethiopian eunuch that Isa. 53 speaks of Jesus' death and resurrection (cf. Acts 8.26–40), Peter is remembered as telling a crowd in Jerusalem that all the prophets had foretold of the Messiah's suffering (cf. Acts 3.18), and Jesus himself is said to have explained to the two disciples travelling to Emmaus and to the disciples as a group that what happened to him was foretold by Moses and all the prophets (cf. Luke 24.25–27, 45–48). More examples could be given. Far from "skak[ing] our view our basic view of Christianity," this text is yet another example of what the NT itself claims happened.

I was pleased to see that Time had consulted with Ben Witherington to provide some balance to Knohl's over-enthused claims. Surely the precise details of the text written on this stone tablet will require further analysis, as will the tablet's significance for modern confessional and scholarly perceptions of Christianity, both as an ancient phenomenon and in its current expressions. The Times's piece similarly acknowledges that other scholars have real concerns about Knohl's reconstruction. We can only hope that the wider public, whether Christian, atheist, or otherwise, can appreciate the surprisingly nuanced comment found at the end of the first paragraph in Time's article:
Such a contentious reading of the 87-line tablet depends on creative interpretation of a smudged passage, making it the latest entry in the woulda/coulda/shoulda category of possible New Testament artifacts; they are useful to prove less-spectacular points and to stir discussion on the big ones, but probably not to settle them nor shake anyone's faith.

UPDATE: Thanks to our surly-colleague-who-shall-not-be-named, I have become aware of a post on this very issue by one Rachel Lucas, who claims, "I am not a Christian nor am I a biblical scholar," and yet clearly sees one of the problems with such sensational reporting. Would that the world's journalists learn to grasp more firmly and clearly what the rest of us find so obvious.

1 The square brackets are necessary because, as with most things regarding this "Dead Sea Stone," there is no agreement in the news pieces regarding the title of this text. This should come as no surprise, since in actual fact there isn't any agreement regarding the contents of this text!

2 This point applies equally to the similar statement found in Time's piece: "If true, this could mean that Jesus' followers had access to a well-established paradigm when they decreed that Christ himself rose on the third day" (my emphasis). One smudgy reference on one stone tablet does not "a well-established paradigm" make.

No comments:

My Visual Bookshelf