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COMMENTARY/NEWS ANALYSIS: Of fakes and faith

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Biblical archaeology can produce more sequels than Indiana Jones, and recent news of a pre-Jesus stone tablet with apparent references to a Jewish messiah who would die and return after three days now joins the “lost tomb of Jesus” (c. 2007) and the “lost Gospel of Judas” (c. 2006) […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Biblical archaeology can produce more sequels than Indiana Jones, and recent news of a pre-Jesus stone tablet with apparent references to a Jewish messiah who would die and return after three days now joins the “lost tomb of Jesus” (c. 2007) and the “lost Gospel of Judas” (c. 2006) as the faith-shaking discovery du jour.

The 3-foot tablet has 87 lines of Hebrew in ink (which is unusual) and some scholars believe it dates to the decades just before Jesus. That wold apparently show that the belief in a savior who would be killed and resurrected was current in the Judaism of the time, and would thus alter not only the uniqueness of the Christian story but its very meaning.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” Israel Knohl, a professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The New York Times. “Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

Or not.

The field of biblical archaeology may be the rare growth industry in a sluggish economy, as a fascination with the facts behind the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament flourishes. But that appetite has led to some questionable scholarship, and even charges of fraud.

Remember the James ossuary? The first-century stone bone-box was “discovered” in 2002 grabbed headlines with an inscription reading, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It was billed as the only archaeological evidence to date of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Turns out the writing may not be authentic, and in any case, the names Joseph and James and Jesus were so common back then that the odds of it being that Jesus were long.

Same problem with the so-called “Jesus family tomb.” And the Gospel of Judas? It supposedly showed a Judas who was the hero of the Gospel story, not the goat. On further review, however, the translation was found so problematic that the tattered text may actually say the opposite of what was originally claimed.

Which is not to say that the recent stone tablet, dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation” by scholars, is a fake. Tests seem to show it does date from the decades before Jesus. The real problem is that no one can say for sure what the text actually says, much less what it means. Many lines and key words are missing or indecipherable, and Knohl’s interpretation is a huge leap of faith, to put it charitably.

Moreover, Knohl published a book a few years ago positing the existence of a “messiah before Jesus,” but his lack of documentary evidence led scholars to dismiss his conclusions. If Knohl’s reading of the new tablet is correct, it would be a resurrection of sorts for Knohl himself.

Yet if it is necessary to subject science to the same criticism that science brings to faith, believers also shouldn’t pin their hope on undermining every new relic or theory, nor should they react by embracing far-fetched “archaeological” claims of their own to prove the Bible literally true.

At bottom, many seem to fear that placing Christianity in the stream of history robs the faith of its divine particularity, or that each excavation puts us a swing of the pick-ax away from the bones of Jesus.

But according to Christian belief, the whole point of the Bible is to show God working through history, in a definite time and place, conditioned by that era but transcending the mundane. From that perspective, the idea that Jonah’s three days in the big fish foreshadowed Jesus’ three days in the tomb is not a troubling coincidence _ or a reason to search for a man-swallowing grouper. Rather, it’s a spur to deeper contemplation on the relationship between story and truth.

Similarly, the fact that there were other candidates for a messiah in the Holy Land before and after Jesus _ from Judas of Galilee to Simon bar Kokhba _ is neither a secret, nor a scandal. It is what one would expect.

What is important is “what Jesus meant,” as the title of a recent book by Garry Wills has it, not what everyone else wanted him to mean _ either then or now. To Christians, he was not a messiah who would come back from the dead to rule Israel, as some hoped, but to redeem humanity; the Jesus story was to be a fulfillment of prophecy, though understood in retrospect.

To believers of another era, the parallels between sacred writ and current events were poetical clues to an unfolding revelation whose significance they themselves did not always apprehend.

And so it remains. “We see through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians. That’s a fact. You can look it up.

(David Gibson is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World” and a frequent religious affairs commentator. He wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

KRE/JM END GIBSON