Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Resurrection Tablet

Some Christians have been writing about the recent news stories regarding a pre-Christian tablet that allegedly refers to some sort of resurrection of a messianic figure. See, for example, Ben Witherington's blog. Some critics of Christianity have picked up the story, such as Richard Dawkins' web site and Debunking Christianity. The New York Times article mentions some of the problems with the tablet and its use by Christianity's critics, and Ben Witherington and his commenters mention some other problems. But one of the commenters on the blog writes:

One argument I've heard against Christianity quite a few times is that early Christians copied earlier "groups" (can't think of the proper word). Doesn't this article seem to confirm that?

In all reality shouldn't Christians be a little worried that the Jesus they have grown to love and worship could be a fake who tricked people into thinking he was the Messiah?

How many different concepts in Christianity are supposed to have been borrowed from how many different sources now? Wasn't the Christian resurrection claim supposed to have been derived from pagan religion X? Or was it pagan religion Y? Or Z? Or wasn't it from some Jewish source? Or maybe it was from this latest Jewish source that's being discussed. Or maybe it's another pagan or Jewish source that will be found a few years from now. Apparently, just about everything in Christianity was borrowed from just about everybody.

I realize that critics don't make that claim. And I realize that one critic isn't responsible for what another critic argues. But I'm exaggerating to make the point that the argument for Christian borrowing seems to be largely overused and unverifiable. It's Play-Doh in the hands of a lot of critics who use it in a lot of different, and contradictory, ways.

If we grant all of the critics' assumptions about what the tablet says, it does have some significance in weakening the case for Christianity. But not nearly the level of significance that some people are suggesting. If the concept of an individual resurrection prior to the general resurrection, or a resurrection of a suffering Messiah in particular, is found in this tablet, then that concept isn't as unique to Christianity as some people have argued.

I'm reminded of a comment Eric Svendsen made a few years ago, regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. Some Roman Catholics were suggesting that they had found a document that in some way supported their reading of Matthew 1:25, although the vast majority of the relevant literature was still contrary to their position, even if their interpretation of this one document were granted. Eric responded by summarizing their argument as something like: "Our position is no longer impossible to defend! Now it's just nearly impossible to defend!"

As one of the commenters on Ben Witherington's blog notes, we have a large amount of literature from the centuries leading up to Jesus' birth, from His contemporaries, and from the generations that followed shortly after. Finding a concept in one tablet from that era doesn't change the fact that it's absent from and contrary to the vast majority of the sources of that time. If the critics' reading of this tablet is correct, we still have to ask how likely it is that the tablet or its ideas influenced early Christianity and what the nature of that influence was.

The argument for Jesus' resurrection involves many lines of evidence. The uniqueness of the resurrection concept is just one line among others, and it's one that some Christians don't even use. And the resurrection is one argument for Christianity among others. Critics would still have to address fulfilled prophecy, the other miracles of Jesus, and the miracles of the apostles, for example. This tablet doesn't make a major difference for or against Christianity.

15 comments:

  1. "If the concept of an individual resurrection prior to the general resurrection, or a resurrection of a suffering Messiah in particular, is found in this tablet, then that concept isn't as unique to Christianity as some people have argued."

    Would this not lend credibility to the New Testament's use of the Old Testament? Would this not possibly show us where the early Christian polemic against the Jews came from, about how the Old Testament Scripture where actually now the Christian's scriptures?

    I also am not sure I understand why everyone is having an orgasm over this find. I agree, that the tablet is interesting, but that still does not affect the problem of eyewitness testimony that we find in the New Testament. It is almost as if people think that because a supposed idea exists prior to a purported event, that the said event could not have happened, but I find that this does not follow.

    The Old Testament does after all speak of a suffering servant that will atone for the sins of the people. The only thing I can see this doing is leading to some revisions of certain arguments for the resurrection, but it does not consign the argument to the flames.

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  2. First of all, it should be noted that the rest of the New Testament is highly ANTI-syncretistic. If there are any similarities, the starting assumption that SHOULD be made is one of coincidence OR surface-similarity.

    Second, the idea of resurrection in Scripture comes from Daniel 12 which (according to conservatives) was written or finished in one of the centers of the Persian Empire, Babylon. The ideas in Daniel's prophecy could have easily spread to other religious thinkers seeing that Daniel was thought of as a Diviner.

    Third, after reading some relevant literature, I believe that the New Testament got it right when it saw the resurrection of the Messiah in Isaiah 53 (not to mention Daniel 9).

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  3. Well, I just read the article (which I should have done prior to writing the above comment). I few quotes stand out:

    “Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.
    [If what they say about the tablet is true, I would be the latter.]

    "A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin on Sunday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah, as one iconoclastic scholar believes, also will be discussed."
    [Well, it seems that the issue is still debated and the guys who do believe it are known to be on the fringe.]

    "Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai."
    [Two of the prophets that prophecy of the Messiah's death. If the stone does speak of the Messiah's resurrection, then this means that the parallelomaniacs will have to eat crow since the idea of a resurrected Messiah was drawn from monotheistic Hebrew ideas and not pagan ones.]

    "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."
    [Which hardly explains Christianity since the Christian Messiah took the opposite stance and would be least likely to have gained followers unless He really did rise from the grave.]

    ""What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”"
    [This sounds like the guy is seeing what he wants to see.]

    "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.”"
    [How are those any different since the New Testament sees the Church as the continuation of the people of God in the Old Testament?]

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  4. GatesOfSplendor wrote:

    "I also am not sure I understand why everyone is having an orgasm over this find."

    The reasons would vary from one individual to another, but one of the reasons for critics of Christianity would be their desperation. The historical evidence we have leans heavily in favor of Christianity. Anything that seems like it could be construed as pointing in the opposite direction, even if it's ambiguous or of minor significance, is seized upon. What documents or archeological artifacts do they have to support their highly speculative theories? What eyewitness sources do they have? Many people overreact to this sort of discovery for much the same reason that a starving beggar rejoices over finding some scraps of food in a dumpster.

    You make some good points, and much of what you've said was also noted by the commenters at Ben Witherington's blog. If we're capable of figuring such things out within seconds, minutes, or days of hearing about the tablet, so are the scholars and critics who are using this tablet to argue against Christianity.

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  5. Here's a blog entry on this subject by Jim West, with many relevant links:

    http://jwest.wordpress.com/2008/07/06/the-messiah-tablet/

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  6. You can read an English rendering of the text at:

    http://bib-arch.org/news/dssinstone_english.doc

    It's highly fragmentary. I didn't notice anything that seems to be a probable reference to resurrection (as distinguished from resuscitation, assumption, and other concepts) after three days.

    And I noticed that the number three seems to be prominent in the text, in multiple contexts. The three day figure may have been chosen to correspond with other uses of the number three within the text. The similarity between the number three here and in early Christianity may not be of much significance. The gospels associate the number with Jonah, for example (Matthew 12:40). Hosea 6:2 uses the figure three with reference to a rising. There are many ways that the number three could be arrived at, and its use in two references to a resurrection is something that could plausibly be coincidental.

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  7. It is highly probable this stone tablet text is simply another sensationalist scam, as is clearly indicated by the facts

    (1) that no specific information is available on its provenance and

    (2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink.

    As such, this "news" falls right in line with the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus "documentary" designed to make a profit off of people's fascination with the "real" Jesus, and with the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world. See, e.g.,

    http://spinozaslens.com/libet/articles/dworkin_ethicsofexhibition.htm

    and

    http://blog.news-record.com/staff/frontpew/archives/2008/06/dead_sea_scroll.shtml.

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  8. Here's an article in which Israel Knohl argues for his position in more detail:

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=850657

    He concludes:

    "The Gabriel Revelation thus confirms my thesis that the belief in a [slain] and resurrected messiah existed prior to the messianic activity of Jesus. The publication of this text is extraordinarily important. It is a discovery that calls for a complete reassessment of all previous scholarship on the subject of messianism, Jewish and Christian alike."

    Notice the terms "extraordinarily important" and "complete reassessment", based on a highly speculative reconstruction of a single and very fragmentary text.

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  9. "Notice the terms "extraordinarily important" and "complete reassessment", based on a highly speculative reconstruction of a single and very fragmentary text."

    It's funny that he makes that conclusion since this is but one stone tablet out of the thousands of pieces of relevant literature which existed in the sects of early Judaism at the time of Christ which has yet to be discovered.

    It's funny how some fringe 'scholars' take one text which they don't know how influential or representative it was and let their imaginations run wild.

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  10. Carbon dating the ink? What ink?

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  11. overreach

    The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English | Date: 2008
    o·ver·reach / ˌōvərˈrēch/
    • v. 1. [intr.] reach too far: never lean sideways from a ladder or overreach.
    (overreach oneself) defeat one's own purpose by trying to do more than is possible: he was an arrogant egotist who overreached himself. (of a horse, dog, or other quadruped) bring the hind feet so far forward that they fall alongside or strike the forefeet: the horse overreached jumping the first hurdle."

    addendum

    (usage example) "It is a discovery that calls for a complete reassessment of all previous scholarship on the subject of messianism, Jewish and Christian alike."

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  12. After reading the transcription of that tablet, I have to wonder how on earth anyone gets the idea that the type of resurrection we're talking about in Jesus' story existed prior to Jesus. Just because it mentions "three days" a couple of times, suddenly we've got a resurrection like that of Jesus? The whole thing just seems to be blown way out of proportion to me. But then again, I don't read Hebrew, so maybe it makes more sense if you actually read that. All the same, I agree that this has little effect on Christianity. All it would do would call for a bit of reconsideration on some of the arguments put forward by NT Wright and others. But as you point out, and I think this is an important point, just because there's one other thing that mentions it does not negate the fact that the vast majority of evidence suggests that this view of resurrection was an anomaly. Even 1 Cor. 1:23 seems to suggest this was the case at the time.

    Besides, I'd have to have some good reason to trust the accuracy of the dating, as it could well be after the time of Jesus anyway, considering how close it is already.

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  13. Jason,

    I appreciate your work on this topic. I found this blog from the link you posted on BW3's blog. After reading the English translation of the text on the stone, I'm even more skeptical of the claims being made, especially by Knohl. It's certainly worth noting that he had developed his theory before finding the stone, but lacked any textual evidence to support it. The way he has seized upon this very fragmentary source as supporting his pre-conceived theory should certainly give any serious scholar pause. Your comment (which made me LOL) that "many people overreact to this sort of discovery for much the same reason that a starving beggar rejoices over finding some scraps of food in a dumpster" is quite apropos here!

    I noticed, as you did, the recurring use of the number three not just in connection with a number of days but with other things as well. We already know the number three was highly symbolic in Jewish apocalyptic literature, and in the OT. The English translation that I read on the link from Jim West's blog ommitted the irregular imperative of "live" that Knohl claims to have seen.

    This is looking more and more like rampant speculation in support of one man's pet theory. If he thinks this is going to result in a complete revision of scholarship regarding early Christianity, I'd say the poor man is deluded. It's more likely that within five or ten years he'll be remembered (if at all) as yet another crackpot.

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  14. Leslie wrote:

    "Besides, I'd have to have some good reason to trust the accuracy of the dating, as it could well be after the time of Jesus anyway, considering how close it is already."

    That's a good point, and it's something I'm going to be watching for.

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  15. John Fraser wrote:

    "The English translation that I read on the link from Jim West's blog ommitted the irregular imperative of 'live' that Knohl claims to have seen."

    And it's not as if all of the people who are questioning Knohl's reading are conservative Christians.

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