Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Gabriel Text

Craig A. Evans (BAR, Jan-Feb. 2009 Issue)

Scholars and the general public alike have grown accustomed, perhaps even hardened, to sensational announcements every year that have something to do with the Bible, Jesus or Christian origins. From The Da Vinci Code to the supposed tomb of Jesus and his family, and the seemingly annual reports about finding Noah’s ark or the Ark of the Covenant, much of the news in our field is incredible—literally. And, of course, several artifacts (such as the Jehoash inscription and the James Ossuary inscription) were widely publicized before being declared forgeries—although the evidence in support of forgery is far from conclusive (see Strata, pp. 12 and 14 of this issue-->).

In light of all of this noise, I would not be surprised in the least if the public interest in Biblical scholarship and archaeology begins to wane. Future discoveries, even important ones, may well be met with cynical responses such as “We have heard this before.” How is the average person supposed to know when a truly remarkable discovery has been made?
This brings me to the stone inscribed with “Gabriel’s Revelation,” recently published in BAR.a This remarkable find required no hype. Yet the impulse to sensationalize the find, complete with extravagant claims, is already well underway. This is unfortunate.

Ada Yardeni, a respected epigrapher, dates the stone and its two columns of inked Hebrew script to the late first century B.C. or early first century A.D. In her BAR article she stated that if this text “were written on leather (and smaller) I would say it was another Dead Sea Scroll fragment.”1 Her initial transcription and translation make it very clear that this text is important and deserves careful study.

Yardeni’s interpretation is cautious. She describes the text as a vision, a string of prophecies, evidently by someone named Gabriel, addressed to someone in the second person. Several passages of Scripture are alluded to or quoted in part. The focus of the vision seems to be Davidic and may be messianic.

Contrasting Yardeni’s cautious interpretation is Israel Knohl’s daring thesis that the Gabriel vision foretells the appearance of a suffering Messiah son of Joseph, a concept that served as a sort of template for Jesus. After all, Jesus was a “son of Joseph” (Luke 4:22; John 6:42), so surely he understood himself in this light. According to Knohl, this explains why Jesus saw himself as a messiah who would suffer and not as a conquering Messiah son of David.2 This seems to me a rather shaky line of reasoning.

Knohl has certainly done a great deal of research into the tradition of the suffering Messiah son of Joseph, but is this messiah even present in the Gabriel text? That is far from certain. Neither “Joseph” nor “son of Joseph” appears in the surviving text, and it makes no mention of a suffering figure.

Even if we agree with Knohl’s interpretation of line 80 (“In three days, live, I, Gabriel, command you”)b as referring to resurrection, who is being resurrected? The text says it is the “prince of princes”; there is nothing here about a Messiah son of Joseph. One should bear in mind that Knohl’s reconstructions and interpretation lend significant support to the thesis of his book The Messiah before Jesus,3 a thesis that has not escaped serious criticism.

Read it all here.

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