Monday, July 7, 2008

Shaking Up The Faith

A fascinating story was just forwarded to me from a friend that I think deserves some comment and consideration. Today's NY Times published this article about a tablet, first discovered about 10 years ago, which suggests that the idea of a Messiah resurrecting after three days in the tomb was around at the time of Christ!

"So what?" you might ask.

[Before I attempt an answer, please note that in today's world it is probably a good practice, when you hear the term "Biblical Scholar," to assume, until they prove otherwise, that the person proclaiming that title has it as their mission to undermine everything you were ever taught to believe about Christianity. Several Biblical Scholars are actually atheists who take great pleasure in engaging in that practice.]

The significance of this story is that many Biblical scholars have tried to debunk the Messianic story of Jesus by claiming that the notion of a dying and rising Messiah is actually just a story borrowed and then employed by Jesus' followers to perpetuate the myth that Jesus was the Messiah.
"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," [a Biblical Scholar] said.
"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," [a Biblical Scholar] said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
So let's take a look at the evidence. The authenticity of this stone tablet has not been verified. While it seems to be authentic, these things have a way of later being found fraudulent or mistranslated. Also, it may be important that portions of the stone are missing. Obviously this could make a huge impact on how it should be interpreted. In fact, one of the most crucial passages on the stone is partially missing or unreadable. Concerning that, blogger Ben Witherington points out:
the unreadable section contains an irregularly spelled form of the Hebrew term which means “live again.” I don’t think I have to say anything more. The one individual who wants textual evidence for his already stipulated beliefs, is reading an “unreadable” part of the tablet as stating something that is consistent with his view. No surprise here.
That said, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the stone tablet is authentic and that it accurately reveals the fact that there was a notion of a dying and rising Messiah that could have been known in the time just prior to Christ's arrival on the scene. What does that prove and why would it matter?

With regard to the concept of resurrection, the Jewish mindset into which Jesus was born is generally understood to be one that understood resurrection to be a one-time event for all God's people at the end of time. In that light, the bodily resurrection of a single person just a few days after their death was a concept that no one would have considered possible. On top of that, the Jewish vision of Messiah was that of conquering king -- a military-type leader who would lead the nation of Israel to its final and rightful place of honor over all the nations.

Enter Jesus.

He claimed to be Messiah yet came from Nazareth ("Can anything good could come out of Nazareth?"), was born in a stable, worked as a carpenter, rode into town on a donkey, was crucified as a criminal ("... cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree"), and died on a Roman cross.

Some Messiah?! ... At least that would have been the reaction in the Jewish mind until, as he himself predicted, he resurrected himself from the dead three days later.

A common argument used to support the historicity of the resurrection -- most notably put forth by N. T. Wright in his massive study of the subject, The Resurrection of the Son of God, -- is that the event must have actually occurred because those who claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ would never have imagined such a thing on their own. They would only have claimed it happened because they had actually seen it with their own eyes. It is not something that would have occurred to them otherwise.

And that is the point of the stone referenced above. If the idea of a dying and rising Messiah was already in the realm of possibility, those first century Jews could have transferred that prior held belief onto Jesus in the deluded hope that he was the Messiah they had been waiting for. But why does one think that this idea of a dying/rising Messiah would be so foreign to the first century Jew? As a Messianic Jewish friend (Rachel from Cincinnati) says:
Much 2nd Temple Jewish literature ("intertestamental" is an anachronistic term that I believe distorts the concept of these texts) speaks of a Messiah son of Joseph, in addition to the Messiah son of David. The son of Joseph was seen as the suffereing messiah while the son of David was understood as the king messiah. The rabbis clearly saw the two elements of the Anointed One's purpose but did not know how to put them together.
Combine this with the Scriptural references which all Jews had at the time in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Psalm 53 speaks directly of a "suffering servant" and foreshadows the Messiah who was to come. Jesus, under the duress of crucifixion, made this clear when he forced out the beginning of Psalm 22 from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me ..." Many take those words as "proof" that Jesus was no Messiah, but simply a man in agony crying out to an absent God. To that I say, "Read the whole Psalm."

Yes, it begins with a cry, but it ends in a triumphant claim to victory.Though I would agree that Jesus spoke these words from his humanity, knowing the whole Psalm in context paints a different picture altogether.

You see, the idea of a suffering Messiah was indeed known to the first century Jews -- in their own Scripture! This newly discovered stone does nothing to shake up the historicity of Christianity. Even if this Messianic notion was in some way alive in the culture, no one recognized it in the way it was soon revealed. The historical impact of the resurrection lies in the shocking fact that it actually occurred; that hundreds of witnesses could attest to it; and that the lives of even Jesus' most harsh critics (Paul and James) were forever changed by what they saw.

If these first century Jews saw anything in the motif of a dying and rising Messiah, they did so looking backward with an awestruck appreciation that they had witnesses to the most incredibly, cosmically important event in human history.

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