By Gary R. Haberman

Archaeological artifacts often add relevant background information to particular topics, sometimes bear directly on certain events, and occasionally contribute some intrigue. The original “Gabriel stone” measures three feet high by one foot wide. Written on the stone in ink, rather than being engraved into the rock, are 87 lines of Hebrew text, appearing in two columns. It is presently being dated to the end of the First Century B.C. or the early First Century A.D.

The stone is of unknown origin, but it is thought to have come from the Transjordan region, to the east of the Jordan River. The inscription is an apocalyptic message that is rather typical of Jewish writings, such as those found in certain Dead Sea Scrolls. It is written in the first person and the author claims to be Gabriel (line 77). Much of the message is now missing and many parts of it are extremely difficult to decipher. Unfortunately, this is especially the case at a few key junctures of the reading.

A major translation by Jewish scholars Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elizur proposes that in line 80, Gabriel is saying something about three days, but that the remainder of the words there are too obscure to decipher. The immediate context involves bloodshed, and one called “the Prince of Princes.” The background for the discussion seems to be taken from several Old Testament books, relying chiefly on the book of Daniel.1

Another Jewish scholar, Israel Knohl, contends that the words in line 80 that Yardeni and Elizur considered to be indecipherable should be translated as Gabriel saying something like, “In three days you shall live.”2 Knohl thinks that this indicates the hope that the Prince of Princes, listed in the next line (81), would die and then be raised from the dead. Further, Knohl takes this individual to be a man named Simon, who led a Jewish revolt against Rome in the first century B.C. and was slain by Gratus, a commander in King Herod’s army, as recounted by Josephus. Thus, the last few lines of “Gabriel’s Vision” expresses the hope that Simon would be raised from the dead, perhaps by winging his way to heaven in a chariot, like Elijah (line 67), and that justice would defeat evil (as per lines 19-21).3

The Significance For Studies of Jesus’ Resurrection

The chief point being made by Knohl is that perhaps shortly before the time of Jesus there was more than one competing notion found in Judaism regarding the coming Messiah. Instead of only a Davidic Messiah who would conquer the nation’s enemies, there is also a concept of a suffering Messiah. If Knohl’s translation of line 80 of “Gabriel’s Vision” is upheld by other scholars, then it may also have been believed by some that the suffering Messiah would even rise from the dead in three days.

This interpretation would probably bother very few Christians. After all, believers have long argued that a dying and rising Messiah can be found in various Old Testament texts, so why couldn’t some pre-Christian Jews have talked like this just a few years before Jesus?

One issue is that some evangelical apologists have espoused the much more common scholarly view which emphasizes that Judaism at the time of Jesus had no concept of a rising Messiah. Rather, the New Testament notion is that Jesus was the only one to have risen from the dead in a resurrection body prior to the end of time. Thus, these apologists have asked how we would account for the early church’s belief in Jesus’ unique resurrection (which occurred out of the normal time sequence) unless he had truly been raised.”

Actually, it does not appear that much is at stake here, at least so far. If Knohl’s translation is upheld, perhaps evangelicals will have to revise or somehow add a caveat to their previous notion that Jews had no place for the resurrection of an individual before the end of time. Perhaps they could add simply that there was a minority view in ancient Judaism that disputed this.

Personally, I think that the original point sometimes made by Christian apologists here is a relatively minor argument. In my dozens of publications on the resurrection, I rarely mention it at all, and do not emphasize it as a strong argument for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. But actually, when all things are considered, something more positive may be going on here. I would argue that “Gabriel’s Vision” provides far more positive than negative features for a study of Jesus’ resurrection. I will divide my responses into three categories:

Points for Clarification:
1. Before solid conclusions can be drawn, the precise wording of the inscription must be wn, the precise wording of the inscription must be 81. Knohl is a good scholar and I want to be clear that his translation may actually turn out to be the best one. That would be absolutely fine. Nothing turns on this point. But the fact remains that the best discussion can only proceed when we know as exactly as possible the text with which we are dealing. After all, as another Jewish scholar, Moshe Bar-Asher, states, “in crucial places of the text there is a lack of text. . . .in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words.”4 And the chief issue here that must be determined is nothing less than the portion about rising from the dead. What exactly was Gabriel saying about the three days?5
2. As Knohl states, his view of “Gabriel’s Vision” confirms the thesis of his earlier book.6 Again, his opinion is that besides a concept of a Davidic Messiah, some Jews also believed in a slain Messiah, who was the son of Joseph (Ephraim). Although he may well be right, other scholars need to weigh in on the issue, in order to confirm whether or not this particular inscription supports Knohl’s thesis. After all, this is not a common view in studies of Judaism. Regardless, apart from the translation itself, the additional interpretation of Jewish thought is a separate issue to be clarified.

Potential Negative Points:
1. As we just explained above, the thesis that Jews had absolutely no place for a resurrected Messiah, especially before the final day of resurrection, might have to be amended.  2. Although barely mentioned, some popular commentators have raised the question of whether Christians may actually have copied from pre-Christian Judaism the idea of a resurrection after three days. On the more negative end of this interpretation, Christians more or less invented the notion from previous Jewish expectations. This is far from the normal scholarly opinion. Even James Tabor, a skeptic, comments that the “Suffering Messiah” ideas “were not creations of the Christian communities after Jesus’ death. . . .”7 Rather, Tabor’s comments support the concept that a popular view in early Christianity continued the tradition of some pre-Christian Jews, who did envision a suffering Messiah.8

Potential Positive Points:
1. Even if a suffering and dying Messiah is a minority view in the Jewish thought of the first century B.C., the idea that there were two kinds of messianic figures is a very nice complement to current evangelical thought. Some might postulate that even losing the absolute uniqueness of the timing aspect—that Jews never thought of anyone being raised from the dead before the end of the world—is a fair trade for restoring the concept of a double messianic hope, which plays into so much of evangelical scholarship, most notably in the two comings of Jesus.
2. The close connection between “Gabriel’s Vision” and Old Testament writings, especially the book of Daniel, further strengthens the propensity of many evangelicals for finding messianic prophecies or types in pre-Christian, Jewish thought. For if the notion of a suffering, dying, and resurrected Messiah is established from the end of Old Testament times, this will simply feed the connection between the Testaments, including pointers to Jesus as the Christ. So it must be noted carefully that “Gabriel’s Vision” presents very little disruption to current evangelical thought.
3. One of the strongest corollaries proceeding quite naturally from “Gabriel’s Vision” is that Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection (such as those found in Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; 14:27-28) would probably seem quite natural to his listeners who were familiar with this or similar Jewish traditions. Therefore, it may be no surprise to see that critical scholars such as Knohl and Tabor9 allow that Jesus and the early church favored the suffering Messiah view. If Jesus did predict and have knowledge of these events, that must be explained, as well.
4. As critical scholars also acknowledge readily, early Christians did not invent the resurrection of Jesus for any reason, but least of all because of teachings like those in “Gabriel’s Vision.” Rather, the earliest testimony is clear: the chief impetus for the Christian proclamation was the appearances of the risen Jesus after his death, as taught in a text that almost assuredly comes from the 30s A.D. (1 Cor. 15:3-7). Most scholars also think that Jesus’ tomb was empty, and this requires a physical explanation. In other words, the Christian teaching is based on what were perceived to be real events; Jewish expectations alone would not have done the job. That Jesus’ early disciples truly believed that they had seen the risen Jesus is virtually never disputed in the scholarly community.

Conclusion
In my opinion, the recent translation of “Gabriel’s Vision,” if upheld, is actually more positive than not. I think there is a very minimal amount of challenge to Christian beliefs. On the other hand, what would be given back is greater still. But our cautions actually cut both ways—any conclusions will also have to wait until the inevitable scholarly sifting occurs. We do not want to rush to conclusions, either.

Beyond the area of apologetics, the new information on the diversity within Jewish messianism is itself exciting. At any rate, there should be very little here to disturb Christians, or probably anybody else, for that matter.

Gary R. Habermas is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University. He is the author (with Michael Licona) of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004).

Notes
1 Ada Yardini, “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?,” Biblical Archaeological Review 34:01 (January/February, 2008).
2 Israel Knohl, “’By Three Days, Live’: Messiahs, Resurrection, and Ascent to Heaven in Hazon Gabriel,”
Journal of Religion 88 (April, 2008): 150-152.
3 Knohl, 155-158.
4 As quoted in Ethan Bronner, “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection,”
New York Times (July 6, 2008).
5Yardini has since stated that she thinks the first few words of line 80 should be: “In three days live, I Gabriel . . . .” (“BAR Web Extra,” found on BAR website, at https://www.bib-arch.org/bar/extra.asp?ArticleID=11&ParentArticle ID=14,” accessed on Dec. 5, 2008.)
6 Israel Kohl,
The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), chapter 2, for example.
7Tabor blog, The Jesus Dynasty, July 5, 2008 (http://www.jesusdynasty.com/blog/), accessed on July 9, 2008.
8Tabor blog, The Jesus Dynasty, July 7, 2008 (http://www.jesusdynasty.com/blog/category/tabor-blog/), accessed on July 9, 2008.
9Kohl cited in Bronner; James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 181; Tabor blogs, July 5 and 7, 2008.