A 3-ft.-high tablet romantically dubbed "Gabriel's Revelation" could challenge the uniqueness of the idea of the Christian Resurrection. The tablet appears to date authentically to the years just before the birth of Jesus and yet — at least according to one Israeli scholar — it announces the raising of a messiah after three days in the grave. If true, this could mean that Jesus' followers had access to a well-established paradigm when they decreed that Christ himself rose on the third day — and it might even hint that they they could have applied it in their grief after their master was crucified. However, such a contentious reading of the 87-line tablet depends on creative interpretation of a smudged passage, making it the latest entry in the woulda/coulda/shoulda category of possible New Testament artifacts; they are useful to prove less-spectacular points and to stir discussion on the big ones, but probably not to settle them nor shake anyone's faith.
The ink-on-stone document, which is owned by a Swiss-Israeli antiques collector and reportedly came to light about a decade ago, has been dated by manuscript and chemical experts to a period just before Jesus' birth. Some scholars think it may originally have been part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a trove of religious texts found in caves on the West Bank that were possibly associated with John the Baptist. The tablet is written in the form of an end-of-the-world prediction in the voice of the angel Gabriel; one line, for instance, predicts that "in three days you will know evil will be defeated by justice."
Such "apocalypses," often featuring a triumphant military figure called a messiah (literally, anointed one), were not uncommon in the religious and politically tumultuous Jewish world of 1st century B.C. Palestine. But what may make the Gabriel tablet unique is its 80th line, which begins with the words "In three days" and includes some form of the verb "to live." Israel Knohl, an expert in Talmudic and biblical language at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who was not involved in the first research on the artifact, claims that it refers to a historic 1st-century Jewish rebel named Simon who was killed by the Romans in 4 B.C., and should read "In three days, you shall live. I Gabriel command you." If so, Jesus-era Judaism had begun to explore the idea of a three-day resurrection before Jesus was born.
This, in turn, 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. Who could make such stuff up? But, as Knohl told TIME, maybe the Christians had a model to work from. The idea of a "dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism," he says. "But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus." If so, he goes on, "this should shake our basic view of Christianity. ... What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
Not so fast, say some Christian academics. "It is certainly not perfectly clear that the tablet is talking about a crucified and risen savior figure called Simon," says Ben Witherington, an early-Christianity expert at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. The verb that Knohl translates as "rise!," Witherington says, could also mean "there arose," and so one can ask "does it mean 'he comes to life,' i.e., a resurrection, or that he just 'shows up?' " Witherington also points out that gospel texts are far less reliant on the observed fact of the Resurrection (there is no angelic command in them like the line in the Gabriel stone) than on the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus' post-Resurrection self. Finally, Witherington notes that if he is wrong and Knohl's reading is right, it at least sets to rest the notion that the various gospel quotes attributed to Christ foreshadowing his death and Resurrection were textual retrojections put in his mouth by later believers — Jesus the Messianic Jew, as Knohl sees him, would have been familiar with the vocabulary for his own fate.
Knohl stands by his reading. "The spelling and the phrasing is unique," he told TIME, "but it is similar to to other texts found around the Dead Sea." Yet for now, at least, Gabriel's Revelation must take its place among a slew of recently discovered or rediscovered objects from around the time of Jesus that are claimed to either support or undermine Scripture but are themselves sufficiently, logically or archaeologically compromised to prevent their being definitive. In 2002, a bone-storage box with the legend "James Son of Joseph Brother of Jesus" bobbed up that seemed to buttress Jesus' historicity while at the same time suggest that the Catholic teaching that he had no true brothers was false — but the Israeli Antiquities Authority declared the inscription as a forgery (although various experts continue to disagree). In 2007 the Discovery Channel aired a documentary (funded by Titanic director James Cameron) that purported to have located the "Jesus Family Tomb" in the Israeli suburb of Talpiot, with bone boxes with the names "Jesus Son of Joseph," "Mary" and one of the names of Mary Magdalene. If the ossuaries were for the gospel Jesus, his mother and Mary Magdalene, then the implications for Christianity would be dire; but despite considerable initial hoopla, the idea is regarded by many as speculation.
It remains to be seen whether Gabriel's Revelation, and especially Knohl's interpretation, will weather the hot lights of fame. Even the authors of its initial research seem a little dubious about his claims that it is a dry run for the Easter story. But, as often happens in such cases, they seem better disposed to a slightly toned-down assertion: in this case, that the Gabriel tablet does indicate a very rare instance of the idea that a messiah might suffer — a notion introduced in Judaic thought centuries before by the prophet Isaiah but which supposedly went out of style by Jesus' time. If that more modest theory gains traction, it will forge a link between a trend in first-century Judaism and one of Christianity's galvanizing thoughts — that God might throw in his lot with a suffering or even murdered man — that could contribute to a growing mutual understanding.