The Dead Sea Tablet is just a placebo

By Calev Ben-David, July 11, 2008

True believers tend to read more into archaeological discoveries than is rational

A dramatic archaeological discovery that calls into question the integrity of the New Testament, and threatens to shake the very foundations of Christianity?

It sounds like something out of The Da Vinci Code. Except that, in this case, it’s authentic — at least, according to the sensationalist headlines this week about an ancient inscription that may cast new light, and possibly some doubt, on the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

Or maybe not. Since this is the kind of claim that sells books, magazines and newspapers, one must first separate the hype from the substance in order to determine whether the so-called “Dead Sea Tablet” is as important and contentious a find as some media reports have made it out to be.

The man who sparked this controversy is Hebrew University professor Israel Knohl, who this week at a Jerusalem academic conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls presented a paper analysing a Hebrew inscription on a tablet that surfaced a decade ago in the private collection of Swiss antiquities dealer David Jesselson. The tablet was reportedly first discovered on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, across from the site of the ancient Israelite settlement of Qumran, where a breakaway Jewish sect called the Essenes wrote the Scrolls. It is said to date roughly to the same period of the first century BCE.

The tablet’s inscription for the most part describes the apocalyptic visions of the angel Gabriel, in language that recalls that found in the biblical Book of Daniel. Knohl has concluded, though, that one section refers specifically to the slaying by Herod of a historical messianic figure of the time known as Simon, who is also mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius.  

The new revelation is Knohl’s translation of a subsequent line that reads: “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you” — and his interpretation that this represents a virtual literary blueprint which the early Christians later lifted and put into the New Testament in an altered form.

“Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship,” Knohl told the New York Times, adding portentously: “This should shake our basic view of Christianity.”

That’s a weighty claim —  and hardly the first time it has been made regarding an archaeological find from that period. Just last year, a similar media storm erupted when an amateur archaeologist working together with Hollywood director James Cameron announced to the world he had discovered in Jerusalem the “family tomb” of Jesus, complete with the burial ossuaries (boxes) of Jesus himself, his parents and his “wife” Mary Magdalene.

In 2002, a different ossuary was unveiled to the public with similar fanfare as belonging to James, brother of Jesus and founder of the Church of Jerusalem.

That latter artifact has since been denounced as a forgery, and the former claim has been dismissed by serious scholars. In contrast, the Dead Sea Tablet’s authenticity has been confirmed by experts, and Knohl is a respected if iconoclastic academic deemed sincere in his work.

But that doesn’t mean all his colleagues buy into his interpretation of the inscription, or agree with him on his meaning. Other scholars at the conference took issue with what they view as a highly speculative translation, and point out that it has long been accepted that various elements of the New Testament story clearly pre-date it in the Jewish literature of the era, both from biblical and Gnostic (religious works not accepted into the biblical canon) sources.

What’s more, contrary to Knohl’s assertion, this doesn’t necessarily pose a problem to believing Christians.

“If the inscription and his translation is authentic, it is an interesting find, because it combines some of the beliefs among Jews of that era that a messiah would rise who would suffer, be put death, and then later raise from the dead after a few days,” says David Parsons, communications director of the International Christian Embassy, an organisation which represents in Israel the interests of evangelical Christian movements.

“But that these beliefs were already out there before the arrival of Jesus doesn’t pose a theological problem for us,” he says. “After all, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and accept his divinity not because of the particulars of his resurrection story, but the fact that the New Testament cites eyewitness testimony from his apostles and followers that he did return on the third day.”

As for the kind of publicity this kind of “discovery” often gets in the media, Parsons says a flock such as his “approach[es] it skeptically, because we view it as an attempt to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith by casting doubt on the New Testament narrative — just like The Da Vinci Code”.

None of which is to dispute that the Dead Sea Tablet inscription isn’t a potentially fascinating and worthwhile contribution to biblical scholarship, that helps put the New Testament story in proper historical perspective — such as the continuing analysis being done of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which also add immeasurably to our knowledge of the religious and political ferment of ancient Judea in which early Christianity arose.

But when it comes to shaking the basic views of that faith, such claims are best left to the likes of Dan Brown and other potboiler authors, and not genuine scholars.

Last updated: 10:20am, July 10 2008