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.