A 2,000-year-old inscription, written in ink on a stone, is being called "a Dead Sea Scroll on stone." But New Testament scholars scoff at the idea that the inscription "should shake our basic view of Christianity," as one scholar told The New York Times.
The inscription has been dubbed "Gabriel's Vision" since the phrase, "I, Gabriel," appears several times in the broken text. It was apparently discovered somewhere in Jordan about a decade ago, and was more recently purchased by an Israeli-Swiss businessman from an antiquities dealer. The legible parts of the Hebrew text are stylistically similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so far no scholar has raised doubts about its authenticity despite its murky provenance.
An analysis of the inscription appeared in the Hebrew journal Cathedra a year ago and in Biblical Archaeology Review earlier this year. But few people outside the scholarly world paid attention until The New York Times featured an interview with Hebrew University professor Israel Knohl, who claims additional insight into some of the hard-to-read areas of the text.
Knohl says one illegible word is the Hebrew word for "live," which led him to translate one sentence as, "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you." He concludes the inscription is about a leader of the Jews who will die and be resurrected after three days.
That's in contrast to the typical Jewish image of a triumphant messiah, who is usually seen as a powerful leader like his ancestor King David. It suggests there were other perspectives on messianism in the first-century Jewish world from which Christianity sprang.
Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, says Knohl may be reaching too far with his translation. "The problem here is that there's not enough text to be able to be really confident about what the passage itself is reading in order to build a theory around it," he says.
Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, agrees that Knohl offers a lot of conjecture to fill the gaps and holes in the text. "But what if he's right?" Witherington asks. "It just means that there were more persons in early Judaism, other than Jesus and his followers, who were talking about a dying and rising messiah. That's not a problem for Christianity, as far as I can see."
Bock doesn't see much of interest for scholars. "The text deals with some type of angelic communication, but beyond that it's very hard to tell what all is going on," he says. "The connection to messiah is virtually absent."
But Witherington calls it an interesting document, beyond the rarity of an ink inscription on stone. He thinks scholars will continue to be drawn to it.
"It's some kind of prophetic, apocalyptic Jewish text," he says. "I think this stone is as significant as many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it doesn't seem to have any value for the discussion of Jesus except by way of general background text, like the Dead Sea Scrolls."
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Several newspapers, including The New York Times and Haaretz, reported that the tablet might threaten the faith of some Christians. GetReligion's Mollie Ziegler Hemingway points out that such concerns assume Christians' belief in the Resurrection depends on the originality of the idea.
Time quotes Ben Witherington explaining that, if the current interpretation of the tablet holds, "it at least sets to rest the notion that the various gospel quotes attributed to Christ foreshadowing his death and Resurrection were textual retrojections put in his mouth by later believers."
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