Sunday, July 06, 2008

Keep taking the tablets ...

The International Herald Tribune reports about the discovery of a 1st Century BC tablet which throws interesting light on the religious and political background to the rise of Christianity. The 87 lines of text, seem to indicate Jewish belief in a suffering messiah who would rise from the dead after three days. This flies in the face of almost all established scholarly opinion, that the idea of a messiah who would suffer, die and rise from the dead, was very much a Christian innovation, and not found in Jewish ideas of the time.

The tablet is fascinating, especially to Biblical scholars, archaeologists and students of the period, but quite not the earth shattering discovery some might claim.

Firstly, much of this current understanding comes from Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University of Jersualem, who is known as something of a maverick. He published a book in 2000 which puts forward the ideas he now finds represented in the tablet. However, the tablet is not complete, and some of the key passages in what is being referred to as 'Gabriel's revelation' have many missing words. Indeed it is not even newly discovered, but has been around for at least a decade, and only recently has it attracted scholarly attention.

Secondly, while the tablet may bring into question a scholarly consensus, it is not so likely to shake the foundations of the faith. One reading of the claims being made for the tablet is that perhaps, after all, Christianity firmly emerges from the Judaism of its time - the ideas found in the New Testament were already commonly held. And so, it might be argued, Christianity is not so unique after all - just another Jewish sect. Similar points were made half a century ago after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this is a difficult argument. While the present agreement of scholars that Christian ideas were far from mainstream may appeal to many Christians, it is nonetheless true that for the first Christians, their reading of Old Testament prophecies was much the plainest one. In the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke's Gospel, Jesus makes clear 'the full message of the prophets' (Luke 24:25-27). Subsequent commentators too understood Jesus to be clearly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures - without the need for any more recent 'revelations' or prophecies.

You can argue from the tablet whatever you want to argue. You could claim that Christianity is little more than another Jewish sect, entirely dependent on the ideas of its day, not at all new or distinctive; or you could claim that it emerges solidly from its Hebrew heritage and so is deeply rooted the emerging Revelation of God.

Or you could wait for the next theory or interpretation. In the meantime, keep taking the tablets ...

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