My thanks to OJA, Debra, and TH (from elsewhere) for sending me the link to the NYT article entitled, “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.” This article is especially noteworthy in that I have decided to keep tabs on hyped media stories from now on and award the most hyped my annual “Aaarggghhh Factor” award.  This will be the first candidate.  You can read the article in its entirety, but I’ve pulled a number of quotations from it for comment.  I’d call it “much ado about nothing” but “much ado about what’s already in your Bible” is better.  Pardon me, but ….  Aaarrgghhh!!!!

I feel better now, so let’s get started.

Here’s the first choice quotation, from a scholar I really enjoy, Daniel Boyarin:

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

MSH: Jesus . . . can be understood . . . in light of Jewish history of his time . . . ?!  Uh . . . no kidding.  You don’t say?  I’ll give Boyarin a pass here, because this “revelation” is about as basic as it gets in biblical studies.

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.

Boyarin is right if he’s talking about Christians who are more familiar with Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now” board game than the Bible.  Christianity was part of Judaism?  You mean it arose from Jewish theology?  NO DUH — read the book of Acts!  That’s what the whole New Testament book is about! Trouble is, many Christians really are this biblically ignorant, and so Boyarin’s quotation has merit.  Aaarrgghhh!

Next quotation:

Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.

I actually read this article months ago (the “Israeli scholar” was Israel Knoll), but I didn’t do the math when OJA asked me about the new inscription.  When I read this, there was no stir about the inscription, so I thought OJA’s note was something new.  For those who’d like to read the article, you can download it HERE.

Here’s an extended quotation related to the inscription’s content:

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

To make his case about the importance of the stone, Mr. Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words shloshet yamin, meaning in three days. The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is hayeh, or in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.

Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Mr. Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says Sar hasarin, or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of a prince of princes,” 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.

The last paragraph is simply erroneous. The book of Daniel does NOT identify the “prince of princes” as Gabriel. Most scholars believe it’s Michael. I don’t; I think it’s a deity-level figure (part of my dissertation), but I won’t digress, since this mistake isn’t important for the content of the scroll that’s making news.

Now we can move into the important stuff:  Knohl is Jewish, and so he has a different interpretation of certain prophecies (especially messianic) from the get-go. He also has a very Jewish view of the New Testament. In short, he has his own set of biases that play into what he says the rest of the way.  Here are some examples:

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.

This presupposes that there is no hint of a suffering Messiah in the Old Testament.  This is silly.  What about Isaiah 53? you might ask.  Me, too.  Many (perhaps most) Jews (scholarly or otherwise) don’t believe that Isaiah 53 is speaking of a suffering PERSON / Messiah (they take it as referring to the nation of Israel), and so they a priori rule that out — hence Knohl acts like the suffering messiah of this inscription is put forth as big news.  It’s only big news if you follow Knohl’s presuppositions.  Otherwise, it’s a yawner. He continues:

This should shake our basic view of Christianity, he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. 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.

No, Mr. Knohl, this would FIT Christianity — it’s only a surprise given your assumption about Isaiah 53. The second part of this is correct — most critical scholars think the “resurrection after three days” was added later. It’s not clear if Knohl agrees.  At any rate, these scholars ASSUME that resurrection from the dead after three days isn’t found in the New Testament.  Pardon me again, but . . . Aaarggghhhh!

Did we forget about the Old Testament story on which Matthew draws for the three day resurrection?  Matthew’s gospel notes (Matt. 12:39-40; the speaker is Jesus):

39 But he answered them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

You say, what the heck does Jonah in the belly of the fish have to do with resurrection and three days? What is Matthew thinking?  Well, first off, let’s observe that the Jonah story IS in the Jewish Scriptures (how this was missed by the scholar-skeptics I don’t know; I don’t expect anyone at the NYT to actually have read anything in the Bible, though). Second, let’s note that Matthew is a JEW, and one whose writing technique is widely regarded (by skeptic or otherwise) as the most akin to Jewish midrashic interpretation, ever so common in Jesus’ day.  For sake of simplicity (erring in precision here), midrash was like a system of allegorical or analogical interpretation, where the interpreter would see something in a text (of the OT here) and interpret it allegorically (not literally) or “symbolically.” Everyone in NT studies knows about Matthew and Midrash — even Jewish scholars (at least I thought so). Now for the resurrection and three days stuff.

What was it about the Jonah story that prompted Matthew to cite it as part of his record about Jesus–that he would spend three days dead and then rise again? He uses the three days of Jonah (Jonah 1:17) as an analogy, but why? The answer is in Jonah 2:2 (and I’m using the Jewish Publication Society translation here):

In my trouble I called to the Lord, And He answered me; From the belly of Sheol I cried out, And You heard my voice.

Did you catch the reference to “Sheol”? Sheol is a very common word for the grave in the OT. The writer of Jonah casts being in the belly of the fish three days as being in the grave three days.  Matthew picks up on this (better, he recalls it as something Jesus taught about himself). Here’s the point: The Jewish Scriptures cast Jonah as being “in the grave” three days and then getting out.  That much is right there in the text.  It IS a step forward (a midrashic step) for Jesus and Matthew to take this and make it messianic.  That part (the application) is new when it appears in Matthew — but the rising after three days IDEA is not.  Marrying it to the messiah was new.  And up until this new inscription surfaced, Matthew’s midrash on Jonah was the earliest connection of the two ideas.  The new inscription therefore doesn’t CHANGE anything Matthew taught (or that Jesus applied to himself).  Rather, we just have an earlier witness to the combination of ideas.

Now here’s a logic quiz for those who think this is shocking, or means we have to look at Christianity any differently because someone other than a New Testament writers applied an idea to the messiah prior to the New Testament:  Does this ever happen elsewhere?  That is, did Jews who lived and wrote earlier than the New Testament era and the gospel writers ever look at the OT and speculate about messiah?  Did they ever write about how this or that passage might relate to messiah?  Did later New Testament authors ever agree with some of those non-New Testament writers?  The answers are, in order, Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes – dozens of times!  The point: there is nothing shocking about having “New Testament like exegesis” of something prior to the New Testament?  Do we really think that all other Jewish theologians were too stupid to ever be right about any of their speculations or interpretations of messianic material in their Scriptures? Anyone who thinks this just hasn’t read the apocrypha or pseudepigrapha (Jewish writings between the biblical OT and NT) — the New Testament writers draw on this earlier literature on a number of occasions and weave it into their own accounts and arguments.  They are part of a JEWISH tradition. This is nothing new.

Knohl also notes:

Mr. Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus.

no kidding — and so what?  Why MUST it be unique (especially when it wasn’t)?

Knohl adds:

His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come, Mr. Knohl said. This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. 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.

This is the worst part of the article. Uh . . . if we have a suffering messiah who needs to bring redemption to Israel, isn’t Israel composed of people?  Wasn’t the nation sent into exile because of the sins / idolatry of its PEOPLE?  Isn’t the servant of Isaiah both corporate and individual? Are redemption and forgiveness of sins incompatible concepts in the Old Testament (and other Jewish writings outside the OT)? The answers here would be (very obviously): Yes, Yes, Yes, and No.  For the record: Aaarrrggghhhhh!

Okay, I’m going to take a chill pill now.