Resurrection B.C.

July 5, 2008 | 19 comments
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According to an article in the New York Times today, evidence of Jewish belief in a resurrected Messiah decades before Christ’s birth may have been discovered.

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days. If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” [Israel Knohl, professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem] 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.”

This is genuinely exciting stuff. But I’m having a bit of trouble working up the appropriate level of angst about the origins of Christianity. I mean, Jews before Christ expecting a messiah who would suffer, die, and rise again in three days? Whodathunkit? In this case, the changes required in my overall belief system appear to be very small.

This seems like something where I should have a more thoughtful response. I know we have some competent OT scholars as readers. Someone help me out here.

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19 Responses to Resurrection B.C.

  1. Chris on July 5, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Perhaps the question you should be asking yourself is, why do we only have evidence of this belief near the time of Jesus’ birth? Why not much, much earlier?

  2. Julie M. Smith on July 5, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Let me preface by saying that all I know of this is what is in the NYT article.

    Knohl seems to want to use this to debunk the historicity of the resurrection story. A pre-existing idea of “messiah resurrected in three days” makes it look like the gospel writers and/or early Christians cribbed the idea in order to tap into messianic expectations (“See! This is the one you were expecting! Now give us money!”)

    A larger issue is that the concept of prophecy (that is predictive) is completely foreign to many streams of biblical studies, so many wouldn’t even consider the possibility that this tablet was prophetic in that sense. I can see why “it was prophetic” isn’t going to get anyone tenure, but it is also a sad commentary on modern biblical studies that we first try to read things backwards because we can’t admit the possibility that anything could be read forwards.

    Nonetheless, caution is warranted. Recent “discoveries” including the Secret Gospel of Mark and the James’ Ossuary and the Judas Gospel were initially the subject of fawning, dramatic articles (just like the NYT one you linked to) and only years later did a much calmer, measured scholarly opinion emerge, including substantive doubts about authenticity for the first two. Based on what the article says, the “money quote” from the stone is ““In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” (and similar lines later on, with disputed text that may not even include the word ‘live’) which doesn’t quite guarantee that the author was thinking of a resurrected Messiah–it may be nothing more than a poetic allusion drawing on the Jonah story or Joseph’s dream interpretation in Genesis 40 or the darkness in Egypt for three days, etc., suggesting ultimate vindication in spite of death.

  3. DavidH on July 5, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    I wonder if the new discovery (if the reading is correct and it is authentic) could also be viewed as part of, or related to, the dying and rising god motiff then current in Greco-Roman religions, which some argue affected Judaism and Christianity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-death-rebirth_deity ; http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1816 http://firstnewtestament.netfirms.com/earliest_christains_who_were_they_3.htm

  4. Kevin Barney on July 5, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Here’s the technical article making this case if anyone has access to it:

    http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/525562

    This is very similar to reactions to the DSS generally. Many Christians found them threatening as a challenge to the uniqueness of Christianity, but Mormons don’t hold to the uniqueness of Christianity, so for them this sort of thing wasn’t a problem.

  5. Sarah on July 5, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    CS Lewis went on and on about how all the earlier appearances of gods who die and are reborn (and other “Christian themes”) enhanced his faith — usually, IIRC, in the same books where he talked at length about what crummy epic literature the Bible would be if it weren’t about real stuff. I imagine there’s a few paragraphs on this subject in the essays where he talks about Jesus drawing in the dirt.

    But I mostly have a “no big deal” reaction to this sort of stuff, myself. I have a vague sense (bolstered by my undergraduate degree in a field where nearly everything I studied happened after the invention of television) that all the best and most useful information about this stuff has turned to dust and we’ll never get the complete picture in our lifetimes, and thus there’s no reason to get freaked out by what tidbits we happen to find in the meanwhile.

  6. Seth R. on July 6, 2008 at 12:30 am

    Won’t change the battle lines between Christians and Jews much. The Jews will claim this is evidence that Christ’s followers fabricated the resurrection based on a popular folk legend floating around at the time. Christians will simply claim it fits the assertion of Messianic prophesy existing in Israel prior to Jesus.

    The places this has the biggest impact are in the details and how arguments are framed.

    One thing I’ve heard Evangelicals claim about the evidences of the resurrection is “how improbable it would have been” for Christ’s followers to “make up a whopper like that.” They like to point to how there was no precedent for claiming such a miracle. Completely ludicrous!

    And that, of course, makes it all the more probable that they were telling the truth, right?

    I usually get this from Evangelicals when they are trying to claim how their religion, “unlike some religions they could name,” is based on history and not mere “warm fuzzies.”

    Seems like they’ll have to adjust their arguments a bit after this.

    Secondly, this discovery actually helps a small bit in Mormon apologetics. One of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon is that you’ve got people hundreds of years before Christ talking like full-fledged Christians. These are supposed to be Old Testament-style Jewish transplants. So why are they talking about Atonement, grace, baptism, and all that stuff?

    Critics claim this is just one more evidence that Joseph was making this stuff up, since there was no precedent for Christ’s resurrection among Jews before the meridian of time. Perhaps this needs to be revisited as well.

  7. Chris on July 6, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I was glad to see someone finally point this out:

    \”Secondly, this discovery actually helps a small bit in Mormon apologetics. One of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon is that you’ve got people hundreds of years before Christ talking like full-fledged Christians. These are supposed to be Old Testament-style Jewish transplants. So why are they talking about Atonement, grace, baptism, and all that stuff?

    Critics claim this is just one more evidence that Joseph was making this stuff up, since there was no precedent for Christ’s resurrection among Jews before the meridian of time. Perhaps this needs to be revisited as well.\”

    I don\’t read this blog often, but after reading the article came here specifically to see what kind of reaction the commentators here would have about this re. the theme above. To be honest, I\’m kind of disappointed that more hasn\’t been said along these lines; I would have expected it. So here\’s my question/challenge/whatever for those who want to take it: what kind of an impact will this have on Mormon apologetics? Obviously it won\’t be nearly as significant as other discoveries, but will it have a lasting impact on the discourse of Mormon apologetics?

  8. Bryce Haymond on July 6, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    The dying and resurrecting god motif goes all the way back to the Egyptians and their Christ-figure Osiris. It is one of those recurring myths that shows up in all times and places. In fact, it was taught to our first parents Adam and Eve (Moses 5:6-9). So it should not be surprising to find these Christian themes in the teachings and beliefs of civilizations dating back to the beginning.

  9. Joe Geisner on July 6, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for posting this Jonathan. I read this in the NYT yesterday and thought it would make interesting discussion for a Mormon blog. I completely agree with Julie on this. Caution is the key. As a skeptic I think we have to be wary of these finds. As Julie points out, too many times people accept these finds and then discover they are misunderstood, misrepresented or worse a hoax. I will wait till scholars like Bart Ehrman tackle this. One of my problems is that Paul and Matthew seem to have been completely unaware of this idea.

  10. Kevin Barney on July 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Someone at Church showed me a copy he had printed out of the NYT article and asked me whether I knew anything about it. I would not have but for this post, so I’m grateful to Jonathan for having posted it so that I could be prepared to discuss it with this person (who assumed it would be a positive thing vis-a-vis the Church).

  11. Jonathan Green on July 6, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    With a little more though, I still don’t think the discovery will do much to change popular understanding of Christian history (I’m in no position to comment on professional historians’ understanding). Assuming that the stronger reading of the text is correct–because if it’s not, then I’m not seeing much popular significance at all–I only see it as tending to support the traditional Christian reading of the Hebrew scriptures as anticipating Christ. That the Prophets and the heathen Sibyls were pre-Christian foretellers of Christ to come was part and parcel of Christian understanding for over a thousand years, and it wouldn’t be hard to fit the new text into the old tradition.

    As far as questions of dating go, it’s quite unlikely that the newly discovered text is the origin of expectations of a resurrected messiah. Just like most hominid finds are not direct human ancestors but rather cousins, the most likely interpretation is that both Christian teaching and the new text are both descendants of an earlier tradition.

    So I’m not seeing a whole lot of popular impact in the discovery, except perhaps as a slight reinforcement to a traditional or even retro Christian belief. As far as Mormon apologetics goes, it serves as a reminder that justifying Christian ideas in pre-exilic Jewish writers is not the actual problem in need of solving. Rather, the question is: Could pre-Christian writers write things that later Christian readers could interpret as Christian writings? Clearly they could. So the problem to be resolved is less where Nephi gets his Christian ideas from in pre-exilic Jerusalem, but where Mormon gets his Christian ideas from, and Mormon apologetics can answer that question with fewer appeals to prophetic intervention.

  12. quandmeme on July 6, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    I was kinda surprised by this whole thing actually. But it is making me think that, yeah Isaiah’s prophecies of atonement aren’t specifically about a resurrection. Or that Jonah or the serpent raised up to heal the bitten is messianic, yes, but maybe there isn’t a whole lot about resurrection. I have to confess that I didn’t know how much my assumption was base on BoM prophecy. I thought it was throughout the OT too. I’m gonna have to go back and read more carefully and that’s a good thing.

  13. Coffinberry on July 7, 2008 at 10:03 am

    If evidences of the prophecies of Zenos or Zenock were found today, what would they look like? What words would they use, and would we recognize them?

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 7, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    As N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, notes in his book Surprised by Hope, the standard Jewish rabbinical teaching is that there will be a universal resurrection of mankind. Clearly this was not an idea that arose out of Christianity. Remember that when Paul is taken into custody by the Romans during the riot at the Temple, he gets permission to speak to the crowd, and appeals to the Pharisees that the reason he is being persecuted is because he, like them, believes in the Resurrection of the dead! What was distinctive about Christ was that he was resurrected well before any “end times” and the general resurrection that many Jews already believed in.

    As to Jewish teachings about an incarnate Messiah (someone who conceptually could die and be resurrected), Margaret Barker, a Methodist scholar who has spoken at BYU and at the “Worlds of Joseph Smith” symposium held at the Library of Congress in 2005, has argued that the ancient Israelite religion included belief in a Son of God as a separate being from God the Father, and that rabbinical Judaism actively tried to suppress or obscure this prior version of Israelite belief, beginning during the Babylonian Exile, and especially in reaction to the rise of Christianity, the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and the mandated dispersal of Jews from Judea by the Romans in 135 AD. Barker finds Joseph Smith’s “writings” to be prescient in their appreciation of this lost strain of Messianic Judaism.

    The Book of Mormon claims that its version of Jeremiah’s writings contains prophecies of the Messiah, which do not apear among the fragments assembled into our modern Jeremiah.

    What was different about the apostles’ testimony of Jesus’ resurrection was not simply that they asserted it happened, but that they offered explicit testimony that they had seen and felt his renewed body. The courage displayed by them and those who believed their testimony is hard to explain as a human response to a real death that lacked a victorious resurrection. Their actions and words close to the time of the events (especially the letters) are explicit, far closer and more explcit and first hand than most events recorded in ancient writings, that were often written in manuscripts 50 and 100 years after the events. If Jesus did not fulfill a prophecy of Messianic resurrection, why did his apostles affirm that he did? What motive did they have to lie, especially a lie that just got them persecuted and eventually killed? The New Testament is at pains to tell us that Christ was foreseen all through the Old Testament, an understanding that was opened to the disciples only after they witnessed the resurrection, so they could know what the poetic pictures in the Psalms and Prophets actually referred to.

    As to the argument of the Jewish expert that this find might undercut the “uniqueness” of the resurrection of Christ, exactly how many other Jewish Messiahs of that era ever were resurrected? There were many who claimed to be the political Messiah, but they usually died, and none of those were resurrected, nor did their followers assert that they had been returned to life. It appears not to have been a common enough understanding for any of the Jewish authorities of the First Century to claim that Jesus was just one among many who claimed to be resurrected. If it had been a common expectation, why was it not raised during Jesus’ life, or during the many years that the Church grew in Jerusalem? Acts and Paul’s epistles tell us that the idea of an executed person returning to physical life was attacked by the Jews of every synagogue he spoke in as preposterous. How could it have been a common Jewish expectation of the First Century? What this find pruports to tell us is only that SOME Jews of the period may have had a specific expectation of a Messiah who experienced initial defeat, but ultimate triumph. It seems likely that those in this minority may have responded to Jesus as the fulfillment of this expectation, and become Christians precisely because it confirmed their beliefs.

  15. Jettboy on July 8, 2008 at 9:04 am

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3682#comments

    Thought the above would be an interesting related link.

  16. NOYDMB on July 10, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Dear Kevin,
    Thank you very much for providing the article link in comment 4.

  17. Kevin Barney on July 11, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    The editio princeps was published in Hebrew and is not readily accessible: Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur, “Document: A First-Century BCE Prophetic Text Written on a Stone; First Publication,” Cathedra 123 (2007): 155-66 (in Hebrew). But here is an image of the inscription together with a modern Hebrew transcription:

    http://www.nfc.co.il/uploadFiles/848324000835419.pdf

    Here is the complete Israel Knohl article (the link I gave above was just the abstract) from the Journal of Religion published by the University of Chicago, “”‘By Three Days, Live': Messiahs, Resurrection, and Ascent to Heaven in Hazon Gabriel”:

    ftp://80.179.136.36/site/Israel_Knohl_on_Hazon_Gabriel.pdf

  18. Kevin Barney on July 11, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Oops, that second link doesn’t work. Instead, go here:

    http://www.hartman.org.il/SHInews_View_Eng.asp?Article_Id=124

    and then click on the word “here” in “Read full document here” at the bottom, and it will take you to a pdf copy of the complete article.

  19. Kevin Barney on July 11, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    BTW, there is an aspect of this article that may be of particular interest to Latter-day Saints. The stone text mentions two figures, David and Ephraim, whom Knohl understands as messianic figures equating to the Messiah son of David and the Messiah son of Joseph known from the Talmud. This text would then be the earliest extant allusion to the Messiah son of Joseph tradition. Mormons are among the few Christians who know about the tradition, since many LDS have suggested that Joseph Smith fills that role (e.g., Truman Madsen). See for example the discussion of the Messiah son of Joseph included in the below article:

    http://www.meridianmagazine.com/jsbicentennial/051223js.html#_ednref14