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The “Shocking” New Dead Sea Scrolls Tablet
By Lonnie C. Mings
Well, it has happened again. A new “document” has come to light that purports to cut the ground from under Christianity as we know it. How many times has this happened in recent years? We’ve been shocked, un-shocked, and re-shocked so many times nothing shocks us any more. Liberal scholars seem to have two motives: (1) to bring down traditional Christianity, and (2) to experience the thrill of watching our mouths pop open when they tell us something they think we don’t know. (Does this somehow remind you of children?)
First it was the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, which promised to change our views of early Christianity. Then it was the Gnostic Gospels, and what they promised to reveal about the “true” Gospel and the “real” Jesus. This was followed by the unique document, the Gospel of Judas, which again was supposed to astonish us, as it revealed a “completely different” Judas, with whom Jesus “connived to bring about his own death.” Then it was the Jesus Family Tomb in Talpiot that was supposed to destroy the fundamental truth of Christianity, which is the bodily resurrection of Jesus (by the way, many of the scholars who supported this documentary film have now backed away from it).
So what is it this time? Well, this time it’s a tablet—a large stone about three feet tall, and maybe half that in width—that supposedly was found somewhere near the area that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls (though some say it was found on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea). One problem is that it was not found in a proper archeological dig, but turned up in the hands of a collector of artifacts. This always causes problems for archeologists and scholars, who understandably want to know exactly where it came from, when it was discovered, and in what condition it was taken from the ground (if it was), etc.
If you haven’t yet heard about this text, I’m sure you will; hence my comments about it.
Actually this stone was discovered some 8—10 years ago and was bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector (David Jeselsohn) who kept it in his Zurich home. Not too long ago an Israeli scholar examined it and wrote a paper on it. She pronounced it a “Dead Sea scrolls document,” and after that interest began to rise, with the result that recently a number of scholarly articles have been written about it.
Sensationalist writers are saying things like this: “Ancient scripts predate—and might rewrite—the Bible” (UK Daily Mail, July 7, 2008). “Dead Sea tablet suggests Jewish resurrection imagery pre-dates Jesus” (Haaretz newspaper, July 7, 2008). “Could Christianity be a hoax?” (The Daily Bellwether, Cincinnati, OH, July 2008). “Story of Jesus’ death and resurrection not unique to Christianity” (International Herald Tribune, July 5, 2008). And there are more.
But once again, the sensationalism fails to deliver what it promises. Do you have a feeling we’ve been through this before? None of the things that were supposed to turn Christianity upside down were able to do it. Some of the earlier “sensational finds” turned out to be either hoaxes or not quite what scholars made them out to be. Take for example, the Gospel of Judas. One Coptic-language expert has found numerous “mistranslations” in the original English version, and she has re-translated it (from the Coptic). She finds that the document does not elevate Judas, but rather makes him out to be the villain he originally was! It seems some scholars may even manipulate a translation to fit their agenda.
As for this new Dead Sea “document,” it is probably not what some scholars think it is. Here are a few preliminary observations:
*First of all, there are many unanswered questions about this text. Again, a lot of the text is missing and other parts are extremely difficult to read, and thus admit of different readings.
*It is not known where this artifact really originated, and as one writer pointed out an “unprovenanced” (that is, origin unknown) document is meaningless.
*Scholars don’t have an exact date for this tablet, and, though they think it is from the first century, it could either pre-date Jesus or post-date Jesus, in which case the “borrowing” might be in the other direction (from Christianity to this text). However, so far I have seen no scholarly proof that it is even from the first century.
*Even if this stone proves that death and resurrection are a messianic category (which most Jews have traditionally denied), all it might do would be to show the link between Christianity and Judaism, which should help our cause, not damage it.
*Right now in Israel there is a lot of talk about the messiah, and especially about Jesus. Even among secular Israelis, Yeshua has to some extent become a topic of conversation (thanks partly to the suffering of Ami Ortiz). This will add fuel to this messianic fire, and it certainly will not damage our cause.
*When you read things like the following, though, you want to sigh and shake your head. A blog from Cincinnati says:
“Could Christianity be a hoax? Ancient script written on a stone tablet discovered near the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls appears to reveal that chroniclers of a Jewish messiah named Simon claimed he would rise in three days.”
Part of this is definitely not in the text. A Jewish scholar, Israel Knohl, from Hebrew University, makes this apparently unfounded statement: “The text tells the ‘prince of princes’ slain by the evil government, ‘in three days you shall (live)…’” The only part of that phrase that is in the English translation, which I have before me, is the expression “prince of princes.” “You shall live” is not necessarily there; the Hebrew word Knohl wants to translate that way is fragmented. Only the Hebrew hey and aleph, which could be the first two letters of “live,” are there; the rest of it could be something else. (The “you shall” is not there either, as it would be contained in the verb, whatever the verb is.)
The person speaking those lines (79, 80) seems to be Gabriel. But even if it could be shown that he says, “You shall live,” to whom is he speaking? This is not clear at all in the text, as no other name is mentioned there.
“Slain by the evil government” is not in the text either. Nor is there anything at all about “Simon.” This was merely a suggestion by Knohl, that the story might refer to a Jewish prince called Simon who led a revolt against King Herod. That’s it. Full stop.
*This means there is probably nothing in this text about a messiah dying and rising. Scholars often see what they want to see, which, of course is the opposite of real scholarship. If any of you want to read the English text (broken as it is), go to this site:http://bib-arch.org/news/dss-in-stone-news.asp It is translated from the Hebrew, of course, which is in equally bad condition. (You can get the Hebrew at the same site.)
*But again, even if this text speaks of a death and resurrection of the messiah, this does nothing to hurt Christianity. As far as I can see, it can only help us. Here is how a certain R. McWilson replied to the Cincinnati blog:
“I am stunned by the complete absence of real scholarship here… I am only reading bias and obvious agendas. The entire Old Testament canon is filled with messianic prophecies, even of death and resurrection, particularly in the Psalms, Isaiah, and in Daniel. To claim that this stone somehow ‘shakes up’ our understanding of Christianity is ludicrous…”
I completely agree with him.
I could possibly change my mind about some of this in the future, as more of the hard-to-decipher text comes to light, but right now I would say this stone is nothing to worry about. Still, it is good that we not ignore it. (Remember what Peter said: we must be prepared to “give a reason” for the hope that we hold.)
- Lonnie C. Mings