Jesus’s People

Jul 19, 2008 Published under Religion

James Carroll wrote an interesting column on archeological clues to the Jewish origins of Christianity and Messianic prophecy.

International Herald Tribune

Carroll: Gabriel’s revelation

By James Carroll

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A staple of pulp fiction is the archeological discovery that blows traditional Christian faith out of the water. The mummified corpse of Jesus will do, as will, say, some of kind DNA proof that he had children. It is as if the war between science and religion can be resolved (against religion, natch) by scientific breakthrough.

This conceit trivializes both belief and rationality, but it is based on one of the astounding developments of the modern era: the way in which age-old notions of religious faith have indeed been transformed by inventions of the mind – not only archeology, but also scientific historical criticism.

Today’s believers, especially Christians, know more about the authentic origins of their faith than people who lived close to the time of those origins. The latest example of such challenging discovery hit The New York Times front page last week, under the headline "Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate On Messiah and Resurrection."

A table-size stone on which numerous Hebrew lines are written, and which is reliably dated to a few years before the birth of Jesus, seems to anticipate a suffering Jewish Messiah who will be raised from the dead. The tablet is referred to as "Gabriel’s Revelation" because the text renders a vision of the angel. It includes the line, "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel command you."

But what of the common Christian assumption that New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus "on the third day" represent a break with anything humans could have imagined – God’s unanticipated intervention to reverse the defeat of Jesus by raising him from the dead? If mere humans could imagine no such thing, in the Gospels the super-human Jesus is shown doing just that.

Indeed, his own predictions of his resurrection (For example, in Mark 9:31: "The Son of Man … three days after he has been put to death he will rise again.") are portrayed as affronts to his Jewish listeners, emphasizing that resurrection on the third day was unthinkable. But what if, on the contrary, such resurrection-expectation was part and parcel of Jewish assumptions about the coming Messiah? Where is Christian "uniqueness" then?

The question matters because Jesus has so long been understood in mortal conflict with Jewishness. ("His own people," the Gospel of John says, "did not accept him." As if those who did accept him were not "his own.") In the Christian memory, as for most Jews, nothing defines the rupture between Christianity and Judaism more than the idea of the resurrection, the history-shattering drama of Easter. Running from the empty tomb, the rejoicing disciples of Jesus declared the break from the Old Covenant, the beginning of the New. Could the Church maintain its sense of itself as rupturing all that had gone before – as the absolute innovation in salvation history – if its "third day" proclamation could be shown to have been a form of Jewish messianic expectation before the coming of Jesus?

The "Gabriel Revelation" may be hard evidence of such expectation, but it builds on even older strands of Jewish faith. "In two days He will make us whole again," the prophet Hosea had declared. "On the third day He will raise us up." (Hosea 6:2) Resurrection defined a Jewish hope. Without reference to the controversial Gabriel tablet, the Jewish and Christian scholars Jon D. Levenson and Kevin J. Madigan, in their recent book "Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews," write, "In fact, not only the notion of the resurrection of the dead, but the expression of God’s vindication of Jesus in the language of resurrection, owes its origin to its parent religion, Judaism."

That Christianity defined itself as the polar opposite of Judaism was an accident of history, with lethal consequences. The two religions are and will remain distinct, but it is urgently important that Christians, especially, correct the mistake that saw Jesus in radical opposition to his own people. He remained a devoted Jew to the end, and his first followers understood him, after his death, in fully Jewish terms. If Christians had continued to do so, the tradition of anti-Judaism, which spawned anti-Semitism, would not have developed.

"The Gabriel Revelation," with its "third day" announcement, does not undercut Christian faith, but helps it recover from history’s worst disease.

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