When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.
The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.
As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.
“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.
On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.
However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)
And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.
Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?
You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!