A decade or so ago David Jeselsohn, an Israeli-Swiss antiquities collector, bought a three-foot tall stone tablet inscribed with 87 lines of Hebrew text. Mr. Jesesohn didn’t know exactly what he had, but when he invited an Israeli archeologist to examine it interest in the tablet grew.
It took 10 years of study, but Sunday the tablet had its global debut as the New York Times featured the stone tablet in an article by Ethan Bronner entitled “Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.”
The gist of the matter is this: Most scholars up to today believe that the ancient Jews awaited a military messiah who would be a defeat the enemies of Israel in battle and liberate the Jewish people from bondage. Before and after Jesus there have been a number of such figures, all of whom failed.
Jesus, the most successful Jewish messiah of all time, was something radically new and different. Jesus did not see himself as a military figure, nor did he expect the Jews to defeat Rome on the battlefield. Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant of the Lord mentioned in Isaiah 53. He expected to die at the hands of Rome and to be resurrected after three days, and in this way to defeat the kingdom of Caesar and usher in the Kingdom of God.
Because this notion of a dying and resurrected messiah seemed to be a new idea in Judaism, Christians have held that Jesus was unique, and therefore the true anointed of God (messiah means “anointed”). Jews, on the other hand, explained the people’s ultimate rejection of Jesus as messiah by pointing to his failure to lead a rebellion against Rome and thus live up to the Jewish notion of what a messiah is supposed to be.
Jeselsohn’s tablet turns both arguments on their heads. If the tablet is proven to be authentic, and every indication thus far is that is it is authentic and predates Jesus by decades, then the notion that Jews restricted their messianic hopes to a military leader is false. In fact, the tablet seems to show, Jesus’ suffering messiah idea was a long established Jewish option.
This tablet records the words of the Angel Gabriel to a Suffering Messiah called Prince of Princes who, the text is unclear here, may be a Jew named Simon. Gabriel tells the messiah that he will die and be resurrected after three days, and in so doing redeem the Jewish people from oppression. What was hitherto thought to be a unique element of the Jesus narrative speaking powerfully to the authenticity of Jesus as messiah, now proves to be an established Jewish position with which Jesus identified.
This is incredibly important. Not only was the idea of a messiah who would be killed by Israel’s enemies part of Jewish thinking, the detail that he would be resurrected after three days was also well known. Further, the messianic idea associated with the death and resurrection of the messiah had nothing to do with “dying for the sins of humanity,” and everything to do with redeeming the Jewish people.
Will this shake Christianity to its foundation? Not at all. Religions are rooted in their own narratives rather than history. Christians will go on believing as they choose. What this tablet does, however, is offer Jews a way to reclaim a favorite son long ignored.
If Jesus saw himself as one of a line of messianic figures awaiting the right time for God to fulfill His promises to the Jewish people; if he provoked the powers that be to bring about his death; if he believed he would be resurrected after three days; and if he believed that resurrection would announce the redemption of Israel, then he was a Jew through and through, and needs to be honored as a great teacher and martyr not unlike Rabbi Akiba whom the Romans tortured to death some six decades later for his involvement in the messianic rebellion of Bar Kochbah.
I have long been a student of Jesus, seeing him as a God-intoxicated Jewish mystic. I am currently co-writing a book about the Sermon on the Mount with Dr. Mike Smith, a Baptist minister (www.mountandmountain.blogspot.com), and I believe strongly that Jews, especially liberal Jews, would benefit greatly by reclaiming Jesus as a great rabbi sage and prophet. I am excited by this archeological find, and hope you will be as well.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared originally on his blog.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro appears in a new Baptist Center for Ethics DVD “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews.”