The discussion of a recent discovery of a tablet with a possible later first century B.C. reference to a messiah dying and rising after three days has the world of historical Jesus studies paying close attention.
A current translation appears here. (Scroll down a bit, and note it is in two parts.) Craig Bloomberg is not impressed with the “translation” conclusions. Darrell Bock point out a key spin on one phrase.
What’s the excitement?
Some Christians assume that there was absolutely no precedent anywhere in second temple Judaism for the idea of a suffering messiah, and certainly not for a messiah that dies and rises in three days. Recent defenses of the resurrection bank heavily on the complete absence of any idea of resurrection other than a general resurrection of the godly at the end of time. The disciples in the Gospels have no understanding of Jesus speaking of himself as a suffering, rejected, dying and raised in three days messiah.
If the current case for the tablet were to be true in every respect, then this would be evidence for a pre-Jesus belief in some version of all of the above.
How much does this affect Christian belief?
Absolutely not at all.
How much does it potentially affect the way Christians defend their beliefs? Depending on the particular kind of apologetics being evaluated, there could be some impact.
Hostile skeptics will take this discovery and make Dan Brown-esque conclusions that this tablet rocks Christianity to its foundations, proving that the early Christians borrowed an already extant belief and applied it to Jesus. Perhaps, some will claim, Jesus is an entirely created character on which this belief has been hung.
Before we start closing churches and proclaiming the death of the Christian God, I’d like the attention of the class please.
1) This is the first piece of evidence that such a belief existed in pre-Jesus Judaism. The entire scholarly result- both Christian, secular and Jewish- has been in agreement that such a belief was not part of pre-Christian Judaism. Now there is one piece of evidence.
2) There is considerable question about what this tablet says. It is written in ink on stone, and the translation is going to be piecemeal and less than authoritative. Remember what happened with the recent translation of the Gospel of Judas. In the rush to make that document part of anti-Christian evidences, tremendous errors and scandalous assumptions were made. National Geographic was humiliated when more serious scholars took a look at the initial work.
While the scholarly work on this tablet seems to be viewed as sound, we need to remember that the rush to draw conclusions frequently proves to be wrong headed. The translation provided above would convince any careful scholar to be very, very judicious about making claims of meaning or relation to Christianity.
3) The dating of the tablet and its association with the Dead Sea community of Essenes are less than firmly established, and both are critical. Again, the present evaluation appears sound, but even Ben Witherington wrote an entire book on the reliability of the James Ossuary, which turned out to be a fake.
4) The connection between Christianity and previous movements, groups and sects in Israel is a largely unknown history. The New Testament is clear that the suffering/rising Messiah was not the popular understanding. If someone in pre-Jesus Israel had suggested it and whether that group had any contact with Jesus or the early Christians are both unknown.
It seems there is some evidence for ideas occurring in both early Christian thought- especially the Gospel of John- and in the Essene writings. Long ago, J.R.R. Tolkien told the young C.S. Lewis that ALL the “good dreams” – mythology and stories- of the world were preparing the human race for the “true myth,” the most true story of all: the Gospel story.
If the tablet reveals that a strand of that story appeared before Jesus, this has no affect on the historicity of the event at the core of Christianity.
Only those determined to have Christianity completely cut off from history will find the discovery potentially distressing.
Take this tablet, study it, and call me in the morning a year or so from now.