Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Vision of Gabriel and early Christianity

August 22, 2008

April DeConick is skeptical of Israel Knohl’s new article in the Biblical Archaeology Review:

I am a bit disturbed about Knohl’s argument in the BAR piece, since the second temple passages that he quotes as evidence for a Jewish suffering messiah are from texts that have clearly been revised by later Christians.

Professor Knohl doesn’t think so, but in the article he acknowledges that others do. Indeed, his point (or one of his points) in the article seems to be that the Vision of Gabriel (in his interpretation) supports his thesis that those second temple passages are not so influenced by Christianity:

Several scholars have argued that these late passages should be traced to Christian circles.5 A leading rabbinic scholar, Saul Lieberman, has argued otherwise.6 I have agreed with Lieberman.7 I believe “Gabriel’s Revelation,” now published in BAR, supports the view that the tradition of the Messiah son of Joseph who is killed goes back to the late first century B.C.E. or the early first century C.E. Although much of the text of “Gabriel’s Revelation” has not been preserved or is difficult to read, enough is there to make these points.

So there seem to be two takes on this:

  • [Knohl] The idea of the “Suffering Servant” Messiah already existed in Judaism, or at least in some strains of Judaism, by Jesus’s time. The Vision of Gabriel is evidence for this.
  • [DeConick] The Messiah as Suffering Servant Messiah was either new with Christianity, or at best an obscure and unpopular idea that the early Christians, desperate to explain their leader’s shameful death, latched on to.

Not that these are necessarily all that incompatible: I don’t see Knohl claiming that the Suffering Messiah was a particularly popular idea.

I have nothing intelligent to say about the cited second-temple-era sources, and I have no idea what the arguments Professors DeConick and Knohl cite are (heck, even if I had easy access to the article Knohl cites, I couldn’t read them, because they seem to be in Hebrew). I will say something (not necessarily intelligent) about something else he says, though (please forgive the extended quote):

This may shed new light on what has been a puzzling Gospel tradition. In parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospelsb (Mark 12:35–37; Matthew 22:41–46; Luke 20:41–44), Jesus is teaching on the Temple Mount. Surprisingly, he rejects the idea that the Messiah is the son of David: “How can the scribes say,” Jesus asks, “that Christ is the son of David?” (Mark 12:35).

To demonstrate that the Messiah is not the son of David, Jesus quotes Psalm 110, attributed in the Hebrew Bible to David himself. As the text of Mark (12:36) recites, David speaks in the psalm: “David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared …” Jesus then recites a passage from the psalm:

“The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.”

Jesus then uses this passage to prove his point: “David himself calls him [the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ so how is he his son?” That is, David speaks of the Messiah as “my Lord,” rather than as “my son.” The Messiah therefore cannot be a son of David. Using Psalm 110 as his proof text, Jesus here refutes the scribes’ view that Christ, the Messiah, should be a son or descendant of David.

This seems strange in light of the fact that, as I noted earlier, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ lineage is specifically traced to David. I am inclined to regard the passage in which Jesus quotes Psalm 110 as a historically reliable passage in which Jesus rejects the view that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. Not only do versions of this incident appear in all three Synoptic Gospels, but the very fact that it runs counter to the genealogies of Jesus suggests that this contradictory version must be authentic. Otherwise, the authors of the Gospels would not have included something that so blatantly clashes with their frequent reference to Jesus as the Son of David.8

The inconsistency there does seem real, but, well, the Gospels (like the rest of the Bible) are not noteworthy for their consistency. And in fact in the Gospel of Mark, presumably the original source of the passage, it’s not terribly inconsistent—only once in Mark is Jesus called the son of David, and then it’s neither Mark nor Jesus who uses the term (it’s blind Bartimaeus, if you’re curious). The (inconsistent!) Davidic genealogies are only in Matthew and Luke. And really I think much of the point of the passage, especially in the Matthean version, is to emphasize Jesus’s is confounding the scribes and Pharisees (“scribes” in Mark and Luke, “Pharisees” in Matthew).

More to the point, I think it’s a bit useless to speculate about the historicity of the passage—we really are pretty much completely clueless about The Historical Jesus. Those second-temple documents may or may not have been influenced by early Christians trying to explain Jesus’s death, but the Gospels certainly were (um, that’s an understatement, isn’t it?).


The Vision/Revelation/Apocalypse of Gabriel

July 9, 2008

dss-in-stone The “Vision of Gabriel”1 apparently surfaced a while ago, but has just made a splash this last week; I only heard of it here (where April DeConick wisely counsels caution). PaleoJudaica has lots of links. Here‘s the scholarly article that seems to have caused the stir.

Brief and probably inaccurate recap: the VoG is a piece of stone with 87 lines of difficult-to-decipher Hebrew written on it in ink (not engraved). The text, when creatively interpreted, seems to speak of a Messiah who is to die and be resurrected “on the third day.” As the text seems to date from the first century BCE—I see conflicting reports about whether the evidence is physical or purely linguistic—there is some implication that Jesus (or the early Christians, or the evangelists) were following an established paradigm in the Resurrection story, that the Christian Resurrection story was not novel, and the foundations of Christianity will be shaken to their very core. Or something. Israel Knohl, author of the afore-cited paper, in Time:

The idea of a “dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism,” he says. “But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus.” If so, he goes on, “this should shake our basic view of Christianity. … What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

My own thoughts, which will certainly change once I do more than skim some of what I cited above:

  • The foundations of Christianity will not be shaken to their very core. The vast majority of Christians’ faith isn’t based on anything that can be affected by evidence of any sort (I mean that in both a good way and a bad way).
  • And in fact if the VoG is real and this interpretation is correct—big ifs—it seems to me to confirm the “standard view” of Jesus as “fulfilling the Scriptures.” It’s in the Nicene Creed, for goodness’ sake. See this for more along these lines.
  • If it’s legit it is of course very interesting, possibly as a direct or indirect precursor of the Gospels, certainly as a evidence of what sort of milieu Jesus and the early Christians lived in.
  • It could of course be a fraud. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to suspect this artifact in particular, but there’s lots of reason to suspect anything that allegedly pertains to early Christianity. Making convincing frauds is (relatively) easy and the stakes are high. I don’t know whether the unusual (unique?) ink-on-stone form ought to make us more or less suspicious.
  • The text is full of holes, and as with lots of these things would very likely be obscure even if it were complete. (See a transcription here, from the Biblical Archeology Review). Professor Knohl’s reconstruction and interpretation are of necessity awfully speculative.

1. I think I’d use the word “apocalypse” rather than “vision” or “revelation,” entirely for coolness value—I know no Hebrew, so that’s the only reason I could have—except that “apocalypse” has too much cultural baggage.