Israel Knohl, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has just published an article on the “Hazon Gabriel” in the latest issue of the Journal of Religion (April 2008, 88:2, pp. 147-58). Knohl sees this text as proof that Christianity’s claims are really just taken from the contemporary Jewish culture of its time. Jesus is therefore not the unique figure that the church claims he is. He is quoted in the article as follow:
“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he [Knohl] 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.”Knohl is quite right when he says that the scholarly view that the death-and-resurrection motif was added to the NT later in light of the disciples’ faith in Jesus is bogus, and that this text proves it. The idea of a messiah’s death and eventual resurrection can be traced back to the Jewish culture. But I don’t see how this “should shake our basic view of Christianity,” other than to emphasize even more pointedly that (1) Christianity is rooted in Judasim, (2) Christianity was born within a particular cultural-historical context, and (3) Christianity confesses faith in a God who elects, annexes, assumes, sanctifies, and redeems cultural-historical realities for the sake of the gospel of God’s eschatological reign in Jesus Christ. The first point is crucial, and while I won’t get into that topic here, I consider it to be of first importance. The second and third points are what interest me at present, because it seems to me that Knohl’s comments are typical in that they assume Christianity depends upon it being a cultural novum, something entirely without precedent or context. A similar issue comes up in discussions about Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern literature.
In my opinion, the discovery of this tablet is only problematic for Christians who insist on a religion which comes down from heaven untainted by anything historical and worldly. This tablet is only scandalous for those who believe in a de-scandalized gospel. And a de-scandalized gospel is itself rooted in a de-historicized Bible, in which Scripture speaks about otherworldly and future events from an otherworldly and divine perspective. The Bible is made out to be from God’s point of view instead of from the perspective of the apostles and prophets who are the witnesses of God’s revelation. The Bible thus becomes a way to tell the future, instead of functioning as communal testimony, one which speaks to the thisworldly and present-tense realities of empire, violence, wealth, and power. At the end of the day, “tabletgate” is only an issue for those people who have a docetic Christianity—a Bible spoken directly by God which tells us about the “end times,” a Jesus whose anti-imperial Jewish identity is marginalized if not outright ignored, and an eschatological future in which this world is discarded rather than redeemed.
Against any docetic religion, Christianity confesses that Jesus was born within a particular time and place. God did not assume some abstract humanity in the incarnation. On the contrary, God assumed flesh rooted in a very specific and concrete context. God’s mission is always an inculturated mission. God elects to enter the far country—not just any “far country” in the abstract, but a concrete country, viz. oppressed Jews within the Roman empire. Within the framework of apocalyptic Second Temple Judaism under the imperial power of Rome, Jesus lives and dies, prophetically proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom and setting in motion the movement of the eccleisal community as the witnesses of God’s eschatological in-breaking of history. The historical life and context of Jesus is not secondary or marginal to the being of God; on the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth is the historical actualization of God’s being. Jesus is the eschatological being-in-act of God, and thus the cultural context within which Jesus lived is essential to this act. The social, political, and theological framework of Jewish life at that time is part of what God elects in the actualization of humanity’s reconciliation in Jesus of Nazareth.
Whatever scholars decide is written on the tablet is finally irrelevant. But insofar as the tablet reinforces the fact that Christianity is a cultural, contextual, historical, and concrete faith—that the Christian religion did not fall from heaven like Islam or Mormonism—then we should count this stone’s discovery as a boon to our faith, and not as its deconstruction.