Jewish Messiahs Pre-Jesus?

Fascinating article this morning in the NyTimes (h/t Andrew Sullivan) describing a new archaeological find that has the scholarly world abuzz.

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.

So far no one has argued against its authenticity/dating:  somewhere within the 1st century BCE it would appear.  There are however some debates over the meaning of the text.

The text is a visionary/apocalyptic text dictated by the Angel Gabriel similar in style to writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls and intertestamental period more generally (e.g. The Book of Enoch).

The rest of the article details the work of Israel Knohl whose earlier book The Messiah Before Jesus posited that the later themes of Christian messianism–suffering messiah, death and resurrection–were actually prefigured in the writings of the Dead Sea Scroll.  Knohl believes this finding further proves his thesis.

If true, this would argue against a long-held tradition (within both some Christian and Jewish exegesis) that the notions of a resurrection and dying messiah were Christian inventions.  It could interestingly I think be linked up with another scholar I’ve often recommended, Margaret Barker.  She has argued that the tradition of the Incarnation and the notion of the Trinity (or at least Binity of Father and Son of God) was actually an older strain of Judaism that Christianity revived rather than a move away from traditional monotheistic Judaism.

In other words, if the thesis of Knohl’s is even mostly correct, it returns to the notion (one I strongly support) that Christianity is really a variant form of Judaism.  The so-called New Testament was written by Jews and it makes no sense–and never has to me–how these Jews would see Jesus as anything other than Jewish and there movement as anything other than Jesus.  But it is a form of Judaism that is not primarily Rabbinic Reformed Judaism (the tree root of all three modern branches of Judaism).

This idea has much stronger textual weight than pathetic “Gnostic Jesus” mumbo jumbo (although it sells well)–i.e. that Jesus is just a cipher for Greek pagan myths.  This theory similarly assumes the non-Jewish roots of Christianity.

To return to Barker for a second, it is very intriguing that the figure in the newly discovered stone text is none other than Gabriel.   Gabriel recall is the angel who announces the pregnancy of Mary and is the transmitter to Muhammad of the Quran.  Barker repeatedly emphasizes that Enoch (sometimes equatable with Gabriel) could also be seen as God not simply as the Angel of God.  [Her book argues that the Angel of God is synonymous with the Son of God, what she calls The Second God].

In these visionary apocalyptic texts the Angelic figure can merge with human figures (and vice versa), the messiah, the receiver of the text.  They can all bleed into each other.

So I haven’t seen this text, but as a way out there speculative guess, it would be very interesting if the Angel Gabriel in a sense could interchange with the predicted messianic figure creating a parallel symmetry between the Angelic figure coming down and the Messianic Figure Rising Up (after himself going down into death).

Knohl then unfortunately heads into the vaporware of arguing for the Historical Jesus–that is for Knohl Jesus really did believe that he was the Messiah and was going to die and rise.  Long time readers of this blog will know my agnosticism and general lack of appreciation of the entire Historical Jesus Quest (see here) but even more so the dreaded debate on what Jesus Really Thought.

In legal hermeneutics, this is difference between original intent (i.e. what the Framers really were thinking) and original intended public meaning (what is originally meant as best as we can reconstruct in the public sphere).  In this case, it’s even worse as it is not just the original intent of the authors (of the Gospels) but the original consciousness of the person whom the Gospels portray.

It goes back to Frederick Schleiermacher and the 19th c. Romantic Germanic tradition (including Dilthey) who argued that understanding a text was about getting in a sympathetic/in touch mood with the individual personal consciousness of the author.  [Again in the case of Jesus even one more step removed as he wasn’t the author].

In other words, even if Knohl’s thesis is correct, it still doesn’t get us to what Jesus himself did or didn’t think.   It gets us to the original tradition from which the texts were written and Jesus was not an author.  If Knohl is right, all this tell us is that the followers of Jesus saw him in this tradition–it could be that that is because that is how Jesus really taught/was or it could just be that was their tradition.  There is just no way to know in either direction.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Living Jesus Apropos of the previous post, I’m reading Luke Timothy Johnson’s Living […]

  2. It is highly probable this stone tablet text is yet another sensationalist scam, as is clearly indicated by the facts

    (1) that no specific information is available on its provenance and

    (2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink.

    As such, this “news” falls right in line with the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus “documentary” designed to make a profit off of people’s fascination with the “real” Jesus, and with the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world. For the latest on that see, e.g.,


  3. Museum Ethics,

    Thanks for the comment. No doubt there should be some wait and see on all this.

    But the people involved and interviewed (e.g. Moshe Idel) are serious scholars. Not that fool/scam artist with the Jesus Tomb. Now smart well-meaning people could be wrong. But we’ll see. I wouldn’t prejudge off the bat that it’s a forgery.

    peace. cj

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