by: Jim Bell, December 11, 2008 5:12:02 pm
The artifact is a stone tablet with writing that depicts the angel Gabriel speaking to a messiah who will suffer, die, and rise from the dead after three days. The tablet has been dated to the first century BCE, nearly a century before the time of Christ, whose suffering, death and resurrection are the foundations of Christian belief. Known to scholars as Gabriel's Revelation, the text appears to show that the idea of a suffering Messiah who would rise from the grave did not begin with Jesus, as many Christians believe. Rice University Religious Studies Professor Matthias Henze says puts the origins of Christianity under a new light.
"Here we have a Jewish inscription which talks about Messianic concepts, which are very very similar to what we find later on in Christianity, and it is a stone that predates Christianity, so for the first time really, we have a Jewish text talking about a Messiah who dies and is resurrected on the third day, at a time when Christianity had not yet come around."
The three foot long tablet is called the Jeselsohn Stone, after its owner David Jeselsohn, a Swiss antiquities collector. This controversial translation of the writing comes from a well known scholar of Biblical languages at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Henze says if you accept this translation, it proves Christianity and its foundation beliefs were not new. They were part of the Judaic tradition.
"That the idea of a Messiah predates Christianity no one will dispute. That Jesus was a born Jew and therefore followed Jewish customs, rites, prayers and so on and so forth, no one will dispute. When it comes to the Jeselsohn Stone, the question here is how specific is it in its predictions of Christianity."
Henze says Jewish scholars and Rabbis he's talked with have no problem with these prophetic writings because they're clearly part of the Messianic tradition that goes far back into Jewish antiquity. He says for Christians, Gabriel's Revelation is a reminder that Jesus and his disciples were devout Jews, who only wanted their fellow Jews to be true to their beliefs and teachings. It took decades for their small "Jesus movement" to grow and evolve into a new religion outside Judaism.
Henze says the biggest problem with the Jeselsohn Stone is that no one knows anything about its origins.
"He acquired the stone a few years ago from an antiquities dealer in Jordan. Where the antiquities dealer got the stone from we do not know. So that's all we know."
In the world of artifacts, provenance is everything for scholars. Because of the huge multimillion dollar trade in fake Middle Eastern artifacts, many scholars won't go anywhere near an unprovenanced artifact like this one. Even so, the Jeselsohn Stone has been chemically dated to the first century before Christ, and scholars who've studied it say they're satisfied that it is authentic.
The Jeselsohn Stone is the centerpiece of an exhibit called "The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story". It will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through April.
Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.