Tablet causes stir in biblical circles

'Dead Sea Scroll on stone' has scholars re-examining Jewish, Christian traditions

July 06, 2008|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM - A 3-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars say they believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a Messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, because it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan, according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era - in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone. It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah.

But the stone is broken, and some of the text has faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to grow.

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

"Some Christians will find it shocking - a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology - while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism," Boyarin said.

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding all Jesus-era artifacts and writings, both in the general public and in the fractured and fiercely competitive scholarly community, as well as the concern over forgery and charlatanism, it will probably be some time before the tablet's contribution is fully assessed. The scrolls, documents found in the Qumran caves of the West Bank, contain some of the only known surviving copies of biblical writings from before the first century A.D.

In addition to quoting from key books of the Bible, the scrolls describe a variety of practices and beliefs of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus.

A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected Messiah, as one iconoclastic scholar says she believes, also will be discussed.

Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.

"I couldn't make much out of it when I got it," said David Jeselsohn, the owner, who is himself an expert in antiquities. "I didn't realize how significant it was until I showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing, a few years ago. She was overwhelmed. 'You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,' she told me."

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