Vision of Gabriel Update

The “Vision of Gabriel,” (aka Hazon Gabriel) a newly discovered Hebrew text written in ink on stone out of the antiquities market, made a big splash in the media over the last few weeks, and received some amount of coverage in the bloggernacle as well. Paleojudaica has been keeping track of all the coverage. First discussed in 2007 among a small group of scholars, the text has recently hit the media in a big way. The announcement of this text seems to have caught many off-guard, so I have been waiting to see what kind of analysis could be given after the initial dust had cleared. The first translation was published in Cathedra in Hebrew, and created some small buzz among people who really care. An English translation has been posted by Israel Knohl.

The increased attention this text received began with a full-length article in the May Journal of Religion by Israel Knohl, whose scholarly work has aimed to show from the DSS and Talmud that a view of a suffering Messiah pre-existed Christianity. In his article, he deploys the text as further evidence of his larger argument. While I know of no one who would be opposed to Knohl’s thesis, I also know no one that is convinced by the evidence he has offered (but then again, I don’t know that many people). Knohl’s work is going to be received skeptically, as it should be. In his treatment of the work, he basically just does free association with the names he reads and asserts all kinds of bizzare claims like that Joseph in the ancient romance novel Joseph and Aseneth is a Messiah-figure. (Is it too obvious that I am not a fan?)

So what does this text say? The text is certainly apocalyptic in tone, predicting God’s intervention on earth in “three days” (ln. 19), in
which he will shake heavens and earth (ln. 25). (There is good reason to believe that this is working out of an interpretive tradition of Hosea 6:1-3, and perhaps 1st c. Christians thought of Jesus in these terms as well.) Otherwise, it is relatively incoherent due to severe lacunae. The money line was first suggested by Knohl in his JOR article, in his reconstruction of line 80-81 in the text to read “By three days, live, I Gabriel, command you, Prince of the princes.” The hype around this suggests that this proves that the notion of a suffering messiah who would die and rise in three days was not unique to Christianity, but was a common notion in ancient Judaism.

Knohl’s translation of this passage differs from the original scholarly translation and reconstruction into Hebrew. There are, however, several problems with it. First, the key word “live,” is reconstructed from only a single letter, which is “doubtful” even according to Knohl. Second, he assumes that this refers to a resurrection experience. Third, he assumes that “Prince of Princes” refers to a mortal Messiah, rather that one of the many angels in the text, such as Michael. In numerous eschatological texts, Michael or an angel are the agents for God’s eschatological intervention.

There have been some reasons to be skeptical about the authenticity of this find. First, it is unprovenanced, meaning that it comes from the antquities market, meaning it was stolen from a cite somplace or faked. Second, the “ink-on-stone” is previously unheard of and is impossible to date scientifically. Many have warned readers to approach a new text type with extreme skepticism. The dating of the text to the first century BCE appears to be on the basis of paleography, including the similarity of the writing to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Despite these limitations, there are some serious scholars backing it up. As the text receives more professional scrutiny, we will surely get more opinions on this.

The current status of the relevance of this text is that 1) if the text is authentic and accurately dated to the 1st c. BCE and 2) if Knohl’s reconstruction of the text is correct and 3) if Knohl’s interpretation of the text is correct, then we have some interesting data, but not a whole lot. Does it, as some articles have suggested, “cast doubt on the death and resurrectino of Jesus”? Uh, no. Does it cause us to reimagine the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? Perhaps, but I would say only at a lay level. The defense of the uniqueness of Christianity has been seriously questioned since the turn of the 19th century by the Myth and Ritual school, and has continued up to the present day. It is pretty much taken for granted that the earliest strands of “Christianity” were essentially indistinguishable from “common Judaism”, and the blurred relationship between them continues for many centuries. My initial take is that there is nothing to see here folks; move along.

14 Replies to “Vision of Gabriel Update”

  1. If the text is authentic then I think it does have something to offer besides the common resurrecting messiah debate. I posited a couple days ago that the text may reveal several interesting temple motifs from which we might learn something. See my blog.

  2. Hm. Very interesting. Put me down for “very probably fake.”

    Anyway. Do you work with this stuff enough that if I were to ask what other text(s) this is most like you could identity one or more?

  3. On the b-hebrew list someone was making comparisons with the Isaiah scroll, but then someone else came along and said a better source of comparison would be the copper scroll, which makes some sense given the medium. So Mogget I think I would start with that.

  4. On my blog, I have posted what I think are the most important caveats:

    1) The essential aspects of the provenance of the stone are unknown. However, Knohl states, “The authenticity of the inscription was recently checked and confirmed by Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University.” The Goren report, however, has yet to be published. 2) The stone is in bad condition, and the ink on the stone is highly faded and indecipherable in places. The Knohl translation involves some educated conjecture. 3) Knohl is known for his book, The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (translated in English, 2000, University of California Press), which describes the early historical context of the Jewish concept of a slain Messiah. His natural biases to the “pre-Jesus Messiah” thesis possibly could have predisposed his interpretations of the Hazon Gabriel text. 4) Knohl makes it clear that the “prince of princes” in the text is NOT identified as Jesus. However, portions of the text do appear to have a prophetic tone. 5) Scholarly analysis of the stone and its text is at the beginning stages, and there will be much debate over the Knohl translation.

  5. Thanks everyone.
    Bryce, I put my reply to your post on your cite.

    Mogget, as for what other text’s it resembles, I think your probably a better judge than I am on that topic since it is closer to your specialty. You can read the English translation above. That said, one of the comments mentioned that the text lacks clear parallels. The fact that (it seems that) the angel Gabriel speaks in the first person suggests a very particular kind of genre. I also think that the two [different, according to Knoll] “three days” references are problematic because 3 days later it would have been clear that the prophesy didn’t occur. If you are going to take the time to write on a stone, the text likely refers to something that has already happened and known to the community where it would have been displayed.

    I think that those are interesting suggestions, but I am not convinced yet. This text is nothing like the Isaiah scroll because it is not a biblical manuscript, but a unique prophesy. Nor is it like the Copper Scroll in terms of similar media. Not only is the medium vastly different, but the manner of writing is completely unique as far as we have previously known. I think it is closest to regular stone epigraphy, but instead of being inscribed it was written with ink (to save money perhaps?)

    I think that your comments closely align with my own.

  6. I want to be clear that I was simply reporting comments made on the b-hebrew list; I have no personal opinion on the subject.

  7. Kevin, of course, I think that was clear from your comment that these weren’t your own theories. I wasn’t intending my criticism’s as a personal attack, but was hoping you could shed some more light on these theories by having read their proponents first-hand, since they didn’t seem to make any sense to me.

  8. Thanks for this, TT. I’ve been interested in this story, and it’s good to have a very level-headed discussion here.

    It seems that, if the stone were to turn out to be authentic and if Knoll’s ideas about the text were at all on track, this would tell us something about a few arguments regarding historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection. For example, N. T. Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, puts a lot of effort into arguing that nobody pre-Easter expected a Messiah to die and be resurrected — an idea that becomes, for him, some kind of evidence that the resurrection actually happened. Knoll’s interpretation of this stone would hurt Wright’s argument substantially, wouldn’t it? Although for all I know, there is already other evidence that undermines the argument.

  9. JNS,
    You’re absolutely right. I think that I often project the circles that I run in as the norm and ignore the fact that there are many popular, conservativeish people out there like NT Wright for whom the uniqueness of Christianity is an important matter of faith. (I completely agree with you on your criticism of Wright, btw!).
    That said, the belief in pre-Christian Judaism that martyrs would be resurrected is a point conceded even by Wright. (He argues that the “Messiah” feature is what makes it unique). Inasmuch as some Jews might have believed that someone had been resurrected already shouldn’t really surprise us. In fact, even the NT has stories of people being raised from the dead for even longer periods than Jesus’ death (e.g., Lazarus). Again, I don’t think that the belief that someone would rise from the dead is unique to Christianity. What does seem to be the interesting parallel for Knoll is the “three days” aspect of this resurrection, which connects the two most important features of Jesus to this figure: that he was resurrected and that he was resurrected after three days.
    If this reconstruction and interpretation are accurate (I am still very doubtful on nearly every interpretive point Knoll makes), I don’t think that we should be all that surprised. While I am not convinced by any of the evidence so far presented that there were Jews who expected a suffering Messiah, I am also not a believer that ideas appear out of no where. There have to be some cultural resources that make such an interpretation possible.

  10. Kevin,
    That clarifies things immensely. It looks like people were making orthographic comparisons between these texts, which is totally different from the kinds of comparisons we were looking into. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *