The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, July 11, 2008

Gabriel's Vision and it's Implications

Hey, hey, I’m actually writing about archaeology. Mind you, it’s not the Californian archaeology that I’m actually, you know, qualified to talk about, but it’s archaeology nonetheless.

You may have heard about the “Vision of Gabriel” stone tablet that has been causing a bit of a stir in Bible scholar circles for a few months now. If not, here’s the skinny: A stone tablet covered in ink writing, oddly like a scroll other than the being-written-on-stone-and-not-leather-or-papyrus thing, contains Jewish writings dating to around the 1st century BC. Portions of the text are missing, and it is not clear what, exactly, the tablet says. However, there is some evidence that it may be a description of a messiah who suffers, dies, and is ressurected after three days – written before Jesus, indicating that the stories that are told about Jesus may simply be a continuation of an already existing Jewish mythic tradition. If, in fact, this is even what the tablet is talking about, and if, in fact, the tablet is genuine, and if, in fact, the tablet dates to the 1st century BC – all matters are open to debate.

A more thorough description can be found here,here, and here.

And you can read a translation of the tablet here.

Based on what I have read – and I should stress that because Middle Eastern historic archaeology is outside of my purview (and, honestly, usually puts me to sleep), most of my information so far has come from the popular media and not from the professional journals (a fact that I could change, but I have only recently heard of this particular issue) – it sounds as if the tablet is likely from the alleged date and not a forgery, but this is based on preliminary study, and while the bets can be placed, the verdict is still out.

So, what about the messianic resurrection described on the tablet? Well, as you can see from reading the translation, it’s not really clear that that is what is being described. It could be, the parts are certainly there, but so much information is missing that it might be descriptive of another type of event as well.

But what if this tablet does prove that there was a Jewish tradition of a suffering messiah that is resurrected after three days? Will it have earth-shaking consequences for Christianity? Will it change the way that people view the church, and shake their beliefs?

Probably not.

There’s nothing really new about this. It has long been known that the elements of the story of Jesus had all been floating around the Middle East and Roman Empire for quite a while before Christianity appeared. The best known are probably Mithras and Apollonius, both of whom have arcs very similar to that of Jesus, but there were many, many others. The fact that this particular stone, if it says what some scholars are claiming, ties these ideas in to an established Jewish tradition is interesting, but represents nothing more remarkable than cultural diffusion.

As for how Christians will react if this does end up proving that the story of Jesus was simply a continuation of an ongoing Jewish mythic tradition, well, they’ll probably react the same ways that they have reacted to all of the other revelations of mythic belief in the ancient world – some will see it as evidence that Jesus had been prophesized to come just as he did; some will see it as a sign that Satan is trying to destroy Christianity; some will see it as an interesting glimpse into religious life at the time of Jesus, yet insist that this has nothing to do with Jesus; some will insist that it was a hoax by “secular liberal academics out to destroy God’s work”; and some will see this as relevant to the formation of the story of Jesus, but, in that curious way that humans have of bifurcating our minds to both accept and ignore information that is incongruent with our beliefs, will continue to believe as if they didn’t possess this information. Hell, some will probably even accept that this does have bearing on the origins of Christianity, but remain vague as to how, exactly, so as not to have to integrate the information.

In other words, this is likely to be treated just as the reality of evolution is treated – except fewer people are likely to know about this because it lacks the emotional baggage and accompanying explosiveness that a century and a half has given evolution. Sure, there will be some people who leave Christianity if this particular interpretation ends up being legit, but they are likely to be few in number.

In other words, the notion that some particular discovery or piece of information will “shake the faith” of the masses and lead to cracks in the foundation of one of the world’s major religions is completely at odds with historical reality. Anyone who wants to can easily trace the formation of the messianic story of Jesus from earlier sources, it’s neither a mystery nor a secret. Whether there was a historical Jesus or not, the mythic elements of the story (messiah, rise from the dead, miraculous healings, loaves and fishes, etc. etc.) had long been part of the mythology of the Middle East and Roman Empire, and these facts are fairly widely known – we’re just beginning to get a clearer picture of how, exactly, the influenced pre-mellenial Judaism.

So, for those who believe or fear that this particular discovery is the death knell of Christianity, all I can say is get a grip. For good or for ill, this is likely to have little appreciable effect on contemporary or future Christianity.

For the rest of us, this research provides some fascinating insights into how religions evolve both through re-telling of myth and through the social, political, and environmental forces that surround it. It’s well worth checking this story out for that reason alone.

No comments: