Sunday, July 06, 2008

Tabletgate: a crisis for Christian faith?

The New York Times has reported the controversy surrounding a three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew, which is being described as a Dead Sea Scroll on stone. The tablet contains an apocalyptic Jewish text which is called “Gabriel’s Revelation,” or “Hazon Gabriel.” Scholars believe that it dates from the decades prior to the birth of Jesus. What makes the text controversial is that it seems to speak of a messianic figure who is killed and then resurrected “in three days” (L’shloshet yamin). The text is rooted in the political context of Jewish apocalypticism, having the Book of Daniel as a clear source.

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.

7 comments:

Evan said...

Matthew 12:38-40: "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." 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. 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."

Seems straightforward enough to me- why stop where Knohl does to point out precursors to the death, three days, resurrection motif? The way was prepared for the Messiah long before Roman occupation. What of it? Great comments, and thanks for alerting me to this article!

D.W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Evan! Great comment. I thought about mentioning the ancient myths about gods who died and rose again. C.S. Lewis talks about how the Jesus story is, in this sense, a myth -- but it's the myth that is also true. In the Christ event, the hopes and myths of all cultures are realized.

Museum Ethics Controversy said...

It is highly probable this "ancient tablet" 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, with an antisemitic expression appearing on a government-run North Carolina museum's website. 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.

Natanael Disla said...

Good article, D. W.. This only reaffirms Christianity, because in the Judean asian context that the life of Jesus took place, the oral tradition had prominence.

Anonymous said...

And in Norse mythology, Odin was hung on a tree for nine days to obtain the wisdom that would save mankind, after which point he was raised back to life. His side was pierced with a spear while he was hung on the tree.

I don't think the right question to ask is "did Christ's crucifixion follow a premodern motif of death and ressurection" - the question to ask is "if Christ's crucifixion is based on a premodern motif [and that is a big and open if], what kind of salvific power can we really attribute to it? Are we misattributing doctrine to widespread premodern mythologies?" That may sound heretical to modern ears, but its not nearly as heretical as modern Christianity if the whole plan of salvation is based on a widely circulated premodern myth.

Karla said...

If a new archaeological discovery is going to shake a person's faith in Christ, I would have to question whether their faith was cerebral or actual relationship with the living God. When you have a tangible relationship with Jesus, nothing should be able to shake that.

Anonymous said...

Gah! No Karla - you don't understand. You're assuming your own conclusions. You response is conditional on the existence of "the living God" as you understand him.

The point is, archaeological evidence may provide additional insights suggesting that what you mistook to be an actual relationship was in fact a cerebral relationship. Now, one tablet alone probably won't do that. But our mind and our hearts are not divorced from each other. Our relationship with "the living God" is grounded in "truths" about that God that are 100% cerebral - passed down from one cerebrum to the next throughout history. And if new facts challenge old facts, of course relationships will be reevaluated! You can't separate the mind from the heart or the soul!

Lets say one day you found out your parents weren't really your parents - but that they had kidnapped you when you were a baby and murdered your real parents. If some random person on the street told you this it probably wouldn't change your relationship right away... but if evidence built up supporting that interpretation of the facts, it absolutely would change your relationship! This is the same sort of thing. If you think archaeological evidence can't change our spirituality, you're just being silly. Our whole faith is based on what people wrote down thousands of years ago - its certainly plausible that what someone else wrote down thousands of years ago could change that faith.