New Testament scholar Ben Witherington appeared on CNN to talk about an ancient pre-Christian tablet that has recently caused some controversy among biblical scholars. Witherington’s brief remarks are good, and to them I would add a few of my own.
Among other things, the writing on the stone may suggest that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition in the late first century B.C. (read more here). For some critics, it somehow undermines Christianity that there might have been in Judaism precursors to the idea of a dying and rising Messiah. I couldn’t disagree more.
The contents of this ancient tablet should not be very controversial to biblically oriented Christians. All throughout the New Testament, the apostles interpret the Old Testament messianically. In more than one place, they argue that the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament had to suffer, die, and be resurrected. The apostolic preaching in the book of Acts is filled with this kind of thing. By the time of the New Testament, Isaiah 53 was already being interpreted as a reference to a suffering Messiah (e.g., Acts 8:32-33; cf. Isaiah 53:7-8), and various Psalms were interpreted as references to Messianic resurrection (e.g., Acts 2:31; cf. Psalm 16:10).
That some other pre-Christian Jewish source might reference a dying and rising Messiah doesn’t upset Christianity’s claims at all. If anything, it confirms what the apostles teach to be the proper reading of the Old Testament. The apostles didn’t think their ideas were unique. They thought they were firmly rooted in sacred and ancient texts of Judaism.
I’m not saying that this tablet has no historical significance. I’m simply saying that, unless you’re an incurable cynic, there is no reason to interpret the writing as a challenge to Christianity.
I agree. William Lane Craig has recently discussed this as well:
The first few minutes he discusses the Louisiana Science education act but after that he raises some interesting points about this tablet.
Craig Hazen has also commented here:
As well as Gary Habermas:
I was curious about some of the things I’d heard on the Gabriel Stone. Your post really cleared it up. I had asked someone before, but I’ll ask you (since they didn’t respond):
Why Christianity is seen as a mutation arising from the Hebrew culture and scriptures, on the point of a suffering Messiah, when so many OT scriptures delineate this idea? Would it not be more fair to declare that the mutation is in fact the failed recognition of the Hebrews to perceive Jesus as the Messiah, who suffered according to God’s written and wise plan â€” instead of declaring the mainstream understanding of the culture which runs cross to the Word as the proper and the un-mutated stance? I hope this does not sound anti-Semitic.
I have (skim) read a couple of the news reports on the Gabriel Stone which declare that most scholars agree that a suffering Messiah runs cross with Jewish expectations and is unique to Christianity but this doesn’t seem to be a fair statement since the evidence for the suffering Messiah was rooted in the very story, God’s Word, that has so richly permeated Jewish culture.
When did he appear on CNN? This looks like a clip from 1980 based upon his suit.
EDIT: “Why is Christianity seen…”
Is it because the predominant Jewish position was a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, so any other view was seen as a mutation?
If you read the Jewish writings about what they thought at the time of Jesus, you can see that they were not sure if there were 1 or 2 Messiahs, the suffering servant Messiah ben Joseph and the conquering king Messiah ben David is what they named them. Christianity was well within the different Judaisms plural of the day and was considered a sect of Judaism like the Pharisees were.