A stone tablet written in Hebrew is getting a great deal of media attention. The tablet is unique because the inscription is written in ink rather than carved into the stone. It’s been dated to the first-century B.C. While broken, it’s about three-feet tall and contains 87 lines in two columns. As usual, there is debate on what it says and its meaning. Of course, this has not stopped the reports I’ve read from putting a negative spin on the discovery as it pertains to Christianity. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley told The International Herald Tribune, “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.”
The tablet is being called “Gabriel’s Revelation” because it’s said to be a description of revelatory words from the angel Gabriel. The debate surrounds these words: “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.” The inscription is being used to make the case that Jesus may have borrowed the ideas of suffering, death, and a resurrection after three days from beliefs that were part of a pre-Christian community, possibly the same people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Israel Kohl, author of The Messiah before Jesus, states, “This should shake our basic view of Christianity. 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.” I’m not sure what “scholarship” he is referring to. Like so many non-Christian writers, Kohl seems oblivious to Christian doctrine, especially as it relates to messianic studies.
What passes for “scholarship” today can only be done by people who are not Christians. A Christian cannot be a scholar in the same the way a creationist cannot be a scientist. If someone from a Christian institution makes an interpretive archeological or historical point about the Bible, it is immediately dismissed because the person is a Christian or teaches at a Christian institution. Here’s one example. R. D. Gold, author of Bondage of the Mind (2008), writes the following about James K. Hoffmeier who was professor of Biblical Studies and Archeology at Wheaton College and is the author of Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (1996). “With all due respect,” Gold writes, “one might question whether a Midwestern Christian college whose web site features its ‘Billy Graham Center’ is an intellectual environment conducive to open-minded intellectual inquiry about the Bible” (40).
And I suppose someone critical of the Bible is open-minded, say, like R. D. Gold who describes himself as a “liberal Jew.” The sites I checked make no mention of Gold’s academic credentials. They may be extensive, but we should not suffer under the illusion that he does not carry his own list of interpretive presuppositions. Credentials aside, it doesn’t matter. Because Gold takes a position against the authority of the Bible, by definition his assessments are scholarly, valid, and objective.
Considering Gold’s characterization of Hoffmeier and Wheaton College, one might suspect that Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt was run off an old mimeograph machine, bound with staples, and advertised on the back of a Left Behind graphic novel. Actually, Hoffmeier’s book was published by Oxford University Press—hardly a bastion of fundamentalism—and carries endorsements from Frank Yurco, Egyptologist and Research Associate Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, and Gary Rendsburg who taught 18 years at Cornell and is presently at Rutgers University.
Gold’s goal is to prejudice the reader against Hoffmeier’s comments by poisoning the well, an amateurish tactic that unfortunately works when the general populace is ignorant of so much. Here’s what Gold doesn’t tell his readers. Hoffmeier has appeared in and consulted for TV programs for Discovery, History, Learning Channels, and National Geographic. He has published in the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, and in standard reference works such as Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. In addition to Israel in Egypt, he has written Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (2005) which is also published by Oxford.
When some ancient artifact is found, we shouldn’t be surprised that the interpretive spin is made to throw suspicion on the biblical record. Micheel S. Heiser’s comments about the Jesus ossuary apply to this most recent discovery: “It’s unfortunate . . . that scholars are either uninformed of this object or do not bother to critically demonstrate the lack of reliable ancient documentary material to a Jesus survival or bloodline. Where are the Jesus Seminar critics when you need them?” The designation “uninformed scholars” should be an oxymoron, but it’s an unfortunate but accurate description of what passes for critical analysis by people who ought to know better and have no excuse.
It’s a wonder to me how any biblical scholars could not be familiar with the concept of a “suffering messiah” in Christian theology. Are they not aware of Isaiah 53? If not, then they shouldn’t be in this field of study, and they certainly shouldn’t be writing on the subject. A critic can disagree with how Isaiah 53 should be interpreted, but it can’t claim that the suffering Messiah motif was not part of the Hebrew Scriptures and was only formulated late in the first century.
Jesus points to the Old Testament and not some unnamed sect to make the case for a resurrection after three days. First, He identifies Himself with the temple as its fulfillment: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up” (John 2:19). Second, He makes reference to Jonah’s death and resurrection after three days: “But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matt. 12:40). Third, Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Fourth, Jesus’ redemptive work was a package deal that was written all over what we call the “Old Testament”:
“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45–49).
It seems that these “scholars” need their minds opened.