The Newest "Threat to Christianity!"
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the secular media report a recent archeological discovery that is supposed to shake Christianity's most sacred doctrines down to their foundation. Except, when one examines the fine print, the facts don't quite add up. It's happened again. (The media earns points for originality by releasing it sometime other than Lent, unlike the last few stories.)
I'd meant to write something about the newest chapter in this saga, but put it off until I heard Dr. Clark Carlton's newest podcast on the subject. Although I frequently find myself differing with him, Carlton hit the nail on the head about this one.
The newest drive-by assault on our religion has to do with the proper interpretation of the Suffering Servant written of in Isaiah 53. (The passage actually begins in the last few verses of chapter 52.)
The London Times headline blares, "Dead Sea tablet 'casts doubt on death and resurrection of Jesus.' " That sounds like they found the Body, doesn't it? So, what's so all-fired important? A recently discovered stone, which is written on and not engraved, contains an apocalyptic text known as "Gabriel's Vision of Revelation." The New York Times says this stone dates from the first century B.C. The media report this text, if correctly interpreted, discusses a Messiah named Simon who suffers and dies for Israel's redemption, then rises after three days.
For one thing, it's not at all clear that the text is correct. You see, "A previous paper published by the scholars Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur concluded that the most controversial lines were indecipherable." The New York Times adds, "the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate."
But the (London) Times goes forward, "Israel Knohl, a biblical studies professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued Monday that line 80 of the text revealed Gabriel telling an historic Jewish rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans four years before the birth of Christ: 'In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.'" (He also says the tablet calls this leader the "Prince of Princes." This is rather like the Apocalypse's "King of Kings," don't you think?)
The New York Times spins, "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." Moreover, this was Knohl's desire. "Mr. Knohl posited in a book published in 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalyptic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus." (Emphasis added.)
The story continues:
I see. So, an artifact that "is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah" and presents a fundamental contradiction to anti-Messianic polemics voiced in the pitched battles against Christians "should shake our basic view of Christianity"? Gotcha....
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.
Unfortunately for the secular media, Christians have always taught that the Hebrew Scriptures foretold a Suffering Servant, and that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy in His life. This tablet, if true, would be the smoking gun to prove Christians were right. If Knohl were correct, this discovery would not shake up Christology but destroy one steadfast argument against a Christological interpretation of the Old Testament.
In fact, it has been an underpinning of certain individuals who oppose Christianity that Judaism had no "suffering servant" view of the Messiah. They insist that Christianity invented this doctrine after the Crucifixion. Take, for instance, Jews for Judaism. Answering the question of whether the prophecy in Isaiah 53 of the Suffering Servant referred to Jesus, the group writes emphatically:
It is apparent from the Gospels that before and for sometime after the crucifixion Jesus' own disciples didn't view Isaiah 53 as referring to a suffering messiah who would die for the sins of the people and then be resurrected. It was only in the post-crucifixion period that these notions developed among the followers of Jesus. There is simply no evidence that this was a Jewish interpretation of the passage. The Question remains as to who are the Jews contemporary with Jesus that supposedly held to what has become the present Christian understanding of the meaning of Isaiah 53? They simply cannot be identified because they never existed.Thanks be to God the Ethiopian eunuch did not go to them!
But this revisionist viewpoint did not begin with this 21st century group. Origen, later condemned as an heretic, discussed how Jews in his day held "that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations."
However, a different interpretation of Isaiah 53 has continued to this day. In fact, Rabbi Alan J. Iser referred to this on one episode of "The Illumined Heart" on Ancient Faith Radio.
On the other hand, Christians have been teaching a Messianic interpretation since the very beginning, both in the New Testament and in the earliest patristic writings.
Some Christian apologists have taught there were two traditions of a Messiah at the time of Christ, but only the second was preached. That was Messiah Ben David, the conquering king. But he was preceded, in Jewish tradition, by Messiah Ben Joseph, who was to be a Suffering Servant, and if this Messiah had been taught, it would have been more obvious that Jesus had come in this role.
What is clear is that this stone casts no doubts on Christianity but affirms one of its central tenets. It undermines arguments against Christianity. And the anti-Christian media spun the story exactly backwords, because that fit their agenda.
(Mind you, there are some "Orthodox" who think the Crucifixion was incidental, and we in no way should value, emphasize, or meditate upon it in conjunction with our ever-present focus on the Resurrection. Maybe this will cause them to rethink their extremist position, as well.)
You can hear Dr. Clark Carlton's podcast here.