Thursday, April 09, 2009

Romancing The Stone

On Wednesday Mrs. Pleonic and I went on a date to see the "Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story" exhibit currently in its last days at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. (Yes, she does find such a date romantic and interesting. That's why I married her.) Walking through the objects on display we journeyed from Alexander the Great to the time following the destruction of the Zealots at Masada.

All around were the accouterments of royal splendor mingled with the ordinary articles of everyday life. In one case was a collection of first century glassware, some of which looked identical with the water glasses we had at home. Mrs. Pleonic was particularly interested in the implements used for applying eye shadow back then. I thought it was fascinating that the design of the comb hasn't changed since Roman times.

There were two objects in particular that really drew my attention. One of them I'll do a separate post for tomorrow. The other one was a complete surprise to me though. I really didn't expect what is probably the hottest and most controversial discovery made in recent times to be at our local museum. But there it was, just before the final section of the exhibit: The Revelation of Gabriel, sometimes called the Apocalypse of Gabriel or The Gabriel Stone.

In case you haven't heard of it, the Revelation of Gabriel is a large stone slab found recently in the same general vicinity where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It is unique in having its inscription written in ink rather than carved into the stone. Experts have shown that the inscription dates to the time of the Scrolls, and the story it tells is similar to the apocalyptic screeds the Scroll writers excelled in. This has led some people to call the Revelation of Gabriel a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

That in itself is enough to make it a hot archaeological commodity. But what really caused Time and Biblical Archaeology Review to go all a-twitter about it last summer is one Israeli scholar's suggestion that the Revelation mentions a Messiah who dies and comes back to life after three days. The idea (at least in sensationalistic stories like Time's) seems to be that this undermines Christianity because Jesus wouldn't be the first person to come up with that idea. "This," says the Time article, "undermines one of the strongest literary arguments employed by Christians over centuries to support the historicity of the Resurrection (in which they believe on faith): the specificity and novelty of the idea that the Messiah would die on a Friday and rise on a Sunday."

There are two things to note here: First, it has long been known that a few ancient Jewish writings, like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, mention a "suffering Messiah" who dies after a certain period of time. And of course the biblical prophet Isaiah mentions a "suffering servant" rather explicitly (without calling him a "Messiah"). This is not the great shock Time makes it out to be (except maybe to them).

Which brings up the other point one should notice: Jesus himself, Prince of Peace and exemplar of love that he was, still pretty much thought you were a dunderhead if you couldn't see that the Messiah was supposed to suffer. "Oh, how foolish you are," he told a couple of disillusioned travelers he found walking down the road on Easter Sunday. "How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 25 - 26)."

At the present time most scholars don't think the Gabriel Revelation is really even talking about a Messiah, let alone a dying and rising one. Given Jesus' attitude though, even if that is what is written on the stone slab, it's probably not going to have the earth-shattering effect Time seems to think it will.

But it certainly is cool to see it in person.

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