A 3′ tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus has ramifications for Christianity–mostly positive–but with plenty of room left for debate.
It speaks of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days. Jesus’ predictions of a suffering messiah, one who would bring salvation to the people of Israel, were not new. They were circulating years before his ministry, and can be found in the Book of Isaiah.
Ada Yardeni, who analyzed the stone together with Binyamin Elitzur, is an expert on Hebrew script, especially of the era of King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. The two of them published a long analysis of the stone tablet, dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation,” more than a year ago in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language quarterly devoted to the history and the archaeology of Israel. Yardeni and Elitzur said that based on the shape of the script and the language, the text dated from the late first century B.C.
Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, posited in a book published in 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalypic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone was a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to first-century historian Josephus. The slaying of Simon, or any suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation.
Knohl focuses on line 80, which begins clearly with the words “L’shloshet yamin,” meaning “in three days.” The next word of the line was deemed illegible by Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is “hayeh,” or “live” in the imperative.
It was less important, Mr. Knohl said, whether a man named Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus.
“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of the people but to bring redemption to Israel.”