Put a cork in it

ChampagnePOPThere is nothing the media like more than to sensationalize undeserving stories. Usually this involves either the disappearance of young, attractive white women or alleged revelations about Jesus. in the latter category, we’ve read that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph, and that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

Usually these stories “break” around major Christian holidays. Remember Easter 2006? When National Geographic argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians? The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. Two years later, the news that National Geographic rushed the story and engaged in shoddy scholastic work (daemon translated as “spirit,” etc.) was not covered in any way approaching the same degree.

The latest example shows the difficulty journalists have in resisting the shock angle on stories. A completely legitimate and interesting story gets turned into yet another thing that is supposed to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Come on! Enough already! Or can the media at least come up with a better spin, hoax or overblown discovery?

The bulk of the story by Ethan Bronner of the New York Times isn’t terrible. Some of it is fascinating. But the spin put on it is regrettable. Here’s how it begins:

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Um, newsflash to the New York Times. Christians pretty much think the entire story of Jesus life, death and resurrection is part of a “recognized Jewish tradition” at the time. In other words, Christians read much of the Old Testament as prophesying about Jesus. They see Jesus as the fulfillment of those prophecies.

After leading with the spin that this table might threaten Christianity, the article has some very interesting information about the tablet. The reporter cautions that it could take decades to clarify whether the tablet is forged, much less what the actual text says. The stone was bought a decade ago by an Israeli-Swiss collector. An Israeli scholar wrote a paper on it last year and a spate of articles will be coming out in the coming year. It turns out that much of the text is unreadable and many of the translations make quite a few assumptions. Results of a chemical examination of the document are pending.

Bronner says the text is a vision of the apocalypse by the angel Gabriel and draws on Old Testament prophets. One of the oddest things about the story, given the angle of “shaking the world of Christology” is that many of the sources for the article are people who want to shake up Christianity. There are no Christian apologists quoted to explain whether or not this discovery bears at all on the Christian faith.

The article explains that the “Gabriel Revelation” describes a suffering messiah. There might be a reference to the “prince of princes” rising from the dead after three days. It mentions that justice defeats evil and that blood and slaughter are pathways to justice. The idea that blood atonement is foreign to traditional Jewish teaching will certainly come as news to readers of the Old Testament. Anyway, here’s a portion of the article dealing with analysis of the tablet:

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” [Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem] contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University.

Okay, I get that much of this is just quoting the scholar in question. But I really wonder whether the reporter chose precisely the wrong angle. I mean, among other reasons why some Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah is because they were expecting a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David. And while you have many prophecies from Isaiah and the Psalmist that speak of a suffering messiah, many folks were expecting an earthly ruler more than a “My kingdom is not of this world” leader.

So if you have some ancient evidence of Jews hearkening back to the prophets to speak of a suffering messiah, why would the angle for the story be that Christianity is threatened? Anyway, check out the way the article ended:

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.

No rebuttal. No response. Again, a scholar of Christianity was desperately needed. Actually, I’m confident that even the children at my church could have told the reporter that Christians believe those ideas go together. (Hint: Jesus was Jewish.)

Anyway, it’s too late for this story to be handled well. Atheist Richard Dawkins and his commenters are rejoicing. Or take this blog post from Hollywood Elsewhere:

As Religulous producer-star Bill Maher or “God Is Not Great” author Chris Hitchens will tell you, anything that undermines any religious myth is cause for popping open the champagne. So Ethan Bronner’s 7.6 N.Y. Times story that calls into question the legend of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection after three days in the tomb is a big whoopee in this regard. Cue the heartland Christian preacher types who will try to deny and spin this thing for all they’re worth.

Yeah. There’s no question how this story — which at it’s heart is quite interesting and compelling — will be taken. I just wish the reporter would have thought a bit about the spin he put on it. Or, as commenter Chris Willman wrote in response to the above:

Before all the Chris Hitchens worshippers pop too many corks, let’s point out that the idea that this discovery somehow undermines Christianity is goofy on the face of it, however much sober glee the NYT writer seems to take in inferring as much. The New Testament writers didn’t take pride in their “originality”–far from it, they went out of their way to connect the story of Christ’s death and resurrection to dozens or hundreds of pieces of prophecy. So, if you think the whole thing was made up, here’s one more piece of plagiarism. If you think it’s true, here is just one more prophecy fulfilled, albeit one that’s a lot closer to 33-ish AD than the ones in the Book of Daniel. Either way, it changes nothing. But don’t let this stop the bubbly from flowing…

Perhaps follow-up stories can keep this in mind.

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  • Brian Walden

    Reading that article was like I was in some strange world where every conclusion drawn is the opposite of what I’d expect. Is that really the understanding that your average person has of Christianity?

    I suppose the reporter can be forgiven if he hasn’t been exposed to Christianity, but why in the world would a professor of biblical studies say something like this:

    Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship.

    Which bibles is he studying? Off the top of my head I can think of Jonah as a motif for resurrection after three days. I’m sure there are others.

  • gfe

    Mollie — I’m glad you wrote about this. When I read the article, my first reaction was: “Wow. If this document is what some say it is, it’s a Christian apologist’s dream come true.” It was a little bit strange to see it portrayed as quite the opposite.

    I thought the article did a good job, however, with indicating how tentative the translation of the article is. Too often, stories like this sensationalize hypotheses by portraying them as facts, but I thought this article pretty much avoided that and gave some interesting information about the problems in dealing with ancient writings. But the lack of reference to Christian scholars’ opinion was a gross oversight at best.

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  • Stephen A.

    Is it Christmas ALREADY? That’s when we get the flood of “new evidence” stories, right?

    Seriously, we’ve known about pre-Christian instances of messianic prophesy for decades – longer even, if you consider that the entire OT is filled with them.

    Specifically, the Dead Sea Scrolls’ and Book of Proverbs’ reference to the Son/Teacher of Righteousness. This seems yet another reference to the tradition.

    Also, back in 1979, John Allegro made the same “expose” with his book “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth.” Others have done the same.

    So this is not new, or news, except for those who WANT to pop corks and celebrate the “exposure” of a religion as false.

  • Julia

    I first read about this in a Telegraph article linked at Drudge. It now seems that it was lifted word for word from the NYT. But there was no credit given; not even a news service.

    Is this standard practice among legitimate newspapers?

    - – - – - – - -

    He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

    Wouldn’t this stone be seen as contradicting these “New Testament scholars”? I’m guessing this describes the Jesus Seminar folks who are deciding which parts of the New Testament are authentic and which were “written in by later followers”. It would be even more interesting to see what they have to say about this stone than the standard conservative scholars.

    I’ve read a few of their books claiming that Jesus was just a political hero – they almost all imply that the resurrection thing was a later invention.

  • Maureen

    I don’t recall that the article referenced all the apocalyptic literature circulating before and after Jesus’ time. This Gabriel thing would presumably be very much in that mold.

    One also wonders how these folks would report the Second Coming. Probably something along the lines of “Vatican and other church hierarchies were taken over by a rogue Jewish leader earlier today, sources say. Christians everywhere was shaken by the event, as they had been promised that the 2000 year old faith would last until the end of time.”

  • Jerry

    The latest example shows the difficulty journalists have in resisting the shock angle on stories.

    I’m sorry to say that I think most consider emphasizing the shock angle part of their job descriptions. Sadly “yellow journalism” is an old tradition.

  • danr

    Culminating with the recent “Jesus Tomb” charade, I’d pretty much resigned myself to much of the media hyping up any subsequent controversial find as “The Latest Nail in the Coffin of Christianity! (film at 11)”. Yet even there, they’d at least given some room for critical voices (rightly so, as it turned out). No longer, it seems. Why let criticism and counterpoint get in the way of a sensational scoop?

  • Kevin Park

    It’s sad how difficult it was for me to find an article which stated the obvious. I mean I was ready to hit my head against a wall. I couldn’t believe the spin they put on that… I love how they do things like goto a professor at Cal Berkley for quotes on this tablet.

    YEAH THAT’S A “NEUTRAL” source, lets get an institution best known for being the “Harvard of relativism” for theological understanding.

    If this “document” is valid, it could be quite an exciting and incredible find for the Christian community… How the article’s COMPLETELY missed this fact is beyond me. That being said, I always view antiquities with an eye of doubt, and it doesn’t change “The Cross” either way.

    also I’m surprised you didn’t include our buddy and film director of Titanic, Cameron and him “finding the remains of Jesus”. The media loved that one. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff I read from “Christians” and “Unbiased Media” on that one.

  • Stoo

    So the gist of this is… there was some other messiah story going round before Jesus? How big a deal is this? It’s hard to get a balanced look at such things i guess.

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  • Martha

    So… several lines of the text on this stone are hard to read (to be charitable) and this particular guy puts his own interpretation of what it’s saying.

    Gospel of Judas part deux, anyone?

    And the Dawkins commentator who are rolling around in ecstasy about this – oh, boy. Same old ignorance. “Christianity is plagiarized. There were hundreds of dying and resurrecting gods beforehand. This is proof it’s all made up.”

    If their knowledge of science is on a par with their knowledge of comparative religion, I hope someone takes the time to tell them the theory of phlogiston has been exploded.

  • Eric

    Ya, no kidding, gfe.

    This document could truly be a tremendous boon to Christianity, providing yet further proof to the Jews that Christ was the messiah they were waiting for and need wait for no longer.

  • Brian L

    Stoo – we know there were lots of messianic claims prior (and subsequent) to Jesus. The gist of this story is that there may (there are quite a few guesses and no other corroborating evidence) have been one that involved a return to life after 3 days.

    It may well be hard to get a balanced look at this, but a step in the right direction would have been to actually ask a few Christian scholars, “Does the discovery of this stone shake the foundation of the Christian faith?” I don’t think that would have been too terribly difficult.

    I count myself as one of those Christians who read the article (even before reading about it here) saying in response to its conclusions, “No, it means precisely the opposite…”

  • Brian L

    “involved a return to life” – involved a prophetic claim of a return to life, that is…

  • MJBubba


    In the article, lengthy quotes are attributed to scholar Israel Knohl, including:

    “This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said

    Who did he mean by “our”? The Christian west, as evidently assumed by the reporter? Or, the Jews? Or, the secularists?

    I think the reporter failed to ask a key follow-up question and ended up way off the tracks.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Time’s version of the story begins with the headline “Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Sequel?” which is an interesting twist: assuming that both Jesus and this other messiah-figure both actually rose from the dead. They do, however, go the extra step of talking with an academic supporter of traditional Christian beliefs:

    Not so fast, say some Christian academics. “It is certainly not perfectly clear that the tablet is talking about a crucified and risen savior figure called Simon,” says Ben Witherington, an early-Christianity expert at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. The verb that Knohl translates as “rise!,” Witherington says, could also mean “there arose,” and so one can ask “does it mean ‘he comes to life,’ i.e., a resurrection, or that he just ‘shows up?’ ” Witherington also points out that gospel texts are far less reliant on the observed fact of the Resurrection (there is no angelic command in them like the line in the Gabriel stone) than on the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ post-Resurrection self. Finally, Witherington notes that if he is wrong and Knohl’s reading is right, it at least sets to rest the notion that the various gospel quotes attributed to Christ foreshadowing his death and Resurrection were textual retrojections put in his mouth by later believers — Jesus the Messianic Jew, as Knohl sees him, would have been familiar with the vocabulary for his own fate.

  • B Taylor

    Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I think a more fundamental problem is that the reporter seems to have gotten snookered by the “let’s skip the scholarly journals and go straight to the popular press” gambit. Reading between the lines, this isn’t even based on some just-published paper; it’s not even clear that it’s entirely based in the hopefully-soon-to-be-published paper that is mentioned. The crucial phrase is missing; no journal is named. Now, that leads to the question of whether the reporter was just making a rookie’s mistake, or was cynically going along for the ride. But it wouldn’t surprise me any if the spin wasn’t spoon-fed to the reporter by his sources.

  • Peter Kaufman

    I would submit that this “ancient tablet” is probably another sensationalist scam, as is clearly suggested by the facts

    (1) that no specific information is available on its provenance (“probably found near the Dead Sea” doesn’t quite do it for me); and

    (2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink or analysis of the stone.

    As such, this “news” brings to mind the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus “documentary” designed to financially profit from people’s fascination with the “real” Jesus, as well as the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world, with an antisemitic nuance emerging on a government-run North Carolina museum’s website. See, e.g.,

    http://spinozaslens.com/libet/articles/dworkin_ethicsofexhibition.htm (article critical of exhibits)


    http://blog.news-record.com/staff/frontpew/archives/2008/06/dead_sea_scroll.shtml (discussion and further links)

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    While we’re at it, Bronner also file much the same story for the International Hearld Tribune. However, the latter version gives quite a different picture:

    Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

    I’m not at all sure what to make of this odd claim, and the reporter doesn’t seem to notice that it is odd.

  • Mark V.

    Obviously, this article demonstrates that fact-checking is dead at the major newspapers. (1) The Pharisees were fervernt supporters of the ideas of resurrection, the soul, and angels. One can read about their debates against the Sadducees in the Acts of the Apostles. Also, resurrection after martydom is a major theme in pre-first century AD books such as 2 Maccabees. (2) The concept of the royal Davidic messiah was not exclusive. The concept of a priestly messiah ran alongside or counter to the royal concept depending on the sect. (3) I almost fell off my chair laughing at the last line. A quote from Bishop N.T. Wright is needed here. He has written exclusively about the redemption of the nation being tied to the forgiveness of sins, especially to the sins of apostasy that led to the Babylonian captivity. Since Israel was redeemed, forgiveness would extend to all humanity.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    I thoughtthis would be an interesting related link. It shows the response of what many here consider (if they do at all) an “alternative” Christianity.

  • http://siriusknotts.wordpress.com Sirius Knott

    Thank you for an excellent article.

    It certainly makes you wonder if there’s any unbiased media left out there. Not that I mind the bias. I just like the hypocrisy of bias pretending as if it is objective journalism. Be dogmatic about the thing, but don’t pretend as if you’re not editorializing these subjects.

    I agree with Julia [comment #5] in regards to these [unidentified] New Testament scholars[/critics] who’ve decried the resurrection, stating that it must have been added later because no such idea was present in Judaism. This stone would rather contradict that notion and refute their charge against the authenticity of the Gospels!

    Amazing. If there’s no evidence of the idea being present beforehand, we Christians made it up after the fact. If there is, we plagiarized but still made it up. Does no one look at the evidence anymore? For the stone sheds no light of the resurrection itself. In fact, it’s supposed to be about some fellow named Simon. Furthermore, it appears it was a false prophecy about him! Yet everyone seems tohave forgotten that sticky point.

    They see only what they wish to see. They see the stained glass window of Christendom with its light and color, but after painting their side of the window black, they claim it never held any light! They choose to see nothing but glass when confronted with the Hope Diamond! And then they act as if their denialism, their having a contrary opinion, their painting it black somehow causes the thing to be as they see it. Strong delusion!

    This is why I stick to the Opinion section of my local paper.It’s the only place where they’re honest about their bias!

    –Sirius Knott

  • Dan

    Sirius Knott put it pretty well in the preceding comment.

    The article states: “He [Israel Knohl] notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.” It is as Sirius says: “If there’s no evidence of the idea being present beforehand, we Christians made it up after the fact. If there is, we plagiarized but still made it up.”

    Neither the article nor the scholars quoted explain why the existence of a “tradition” is a prerequisite for anything in the New Testament. Is Jesus really so unoriginal that he could not possibily have done anything other than mimic what others were doing at the time?

    Conversely, the existence of a tradition could suggest the possibility of myth-making but I don’t see how that would be the case here. The claim is, according to the article, that “what happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story” and this, we are to understand, destroys the credibility of Jesus and his followers. Why, however, would Jesus and his followers adopt “an earlier messiah story” if doing so undermines their credibility? After all, in their time, any “earlier messiah story” that was floating around at the time would have been much far better known then than it is today. If the tablet “shakes our basic view” of Christianity today, it would have made Christianity infinitely more implausible back when the the information on the tablet was commonly known. The very success of early Christianity is powerful testimony against the assumption that “Jesus and his followers” merely adopted “an earlier messiah story.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    It is the same old heads-they-win-tails-we-lose we are constantly being subjected to.

    For any religious concept, there either will or will not be similar concepts elsewhere.

    If there are, that “proves” that it was “stolen” by those underhanded Christians, (The usual claim is that something called “Paganism” holds the trademark. That is, it is legitimate for everyone EXCEPT Christians), and therefore Christianity is discredited.

    If there are not, that “proves” that it was made up by those underhanded Christians, and therefore Christianity is discredited.

    As Lewis said in a slightly different connection. “the pathologist here can diagnose poison without even examining the corpse, as he has a theory of poison which he will maintain whatever the state of the organs turns out to be.”

  • Dave

    Will, traditions rifle one another’s contents all the time. The many Pagan remnants found in Christian practice do not make the case that Pagans hold the trademark (since they no doubt borrowed it from others), only that the Pagans had it earlier.

    That’s not the problem here — it is, rather, that MSM reporters don’t know enough about Christian practice to make an informed judgement on whether Christianity is undermined, bolstered or unaffected by anything unearthed from late Biblical times.

  • danr

    “MSM reporters don’t know enough about Christian practice to make an informed judgement”

    Agreed Dave, but reporters worth their salt know how to inquire with those who are better informed about the subject. It’s the glaring lack of depth and diversity of informed analysis that renders this article suspect.

  • Dave

    danr, I agree they ought to but sadly they don’t, and not just on religion. I can recall two instances in the era of space flight when astronomers announced that some observation was going to undermine General Relativity, the basic physical theory of gravitation and the architecture of the universe. The astronomers were wrong, not about their observations but about the impact on GR (the other GR), which I could tell from reading the newspaper accounts. Those reporters never checked with a physics professor specializing in GR; they just ran with what they were told.

    Ironically, there’s now a spacecraft-orbit observation that might actually call for tweaks to GR, but I’ve seen it only in Science News — AFAIK it hasn’t gotten any MSM ink.