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The Man Who Bought a Resurrection

4 minute read
Tim McGirk / Jerusalem and David Van Biema / New York

David Jeselsohn has been an avid collector of Mediterranean antiquities all his life. But 10 years ago, his curiosity was aroused by a mysterious stone tablet with ancient Hebrew writing that appeared in London, offered by a reputable Jordanian dealer. Jeselson bought it and then, distracted by more collecting, forgot it. Today, however, some scholars say that the fractured, three-foot-long sandstone tablet challenges the uniqueness of the idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The controversial tablet, dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation,” dates back to several decades before Jesus’s birth and announces the raising of the Messiah after three days in the grave. If correct, this places the concept of a Messiah’s resurrection firmly within Jewish traditions of the day. These controversial speculations could have come out years earlier, but as the Swiss-Israeli collector sheepishly told TIME in Jerusalem, “”It’s my fault that it took so long to be examined.”

After the purchase, Jeselsohn stashed the tablet in his Zurich home and moved on to other collectibles. Then, three years ago, he invited an Israeli scholar, Ada Yardeni, to Zurich to examine writings on ancient pottery shells. The expert’s eye, however, was drawn instead to the tablet with its 87 lines of Hebrew script. “She was fascinated” says Jeselsohn. “Yardeni said the writing was just like on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

The original dealer was vague about the tablet’s origin. But Jeselsohn, who is also an expert on East Mediterranean antiquities, says that the ink writing could only have survived for 2,000 years if it were kept in an extremely dry climate, possibly along the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. Most likely, says Jeselsohn, the tablet was considered sacred and displayed upright in a public area such as a synagogue.

The controversy arose after Prof. Israel Knohl, a Hebrew University scholar of Talmudic and Biblical languages, translated the tablet, which is written in the form of an end-of-the-world prediction by the angel Gabriel. What may make the tablet unique is its 80th line, which begins with the words “In three days,” and includes some form of the verb “to live.” Knohl, who was not involved in the first research on the artifact, claims that it refers to a historic first-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 the three-day resurrection before Jesus was born. As Knohl told a conference of Biblical experts on Tuesday in Jerusalem, “Earlier scholars say Judaism was unfamiliar with the concept of a Messiah who suffered, died and rose, but this inscription changes that.” He adds: “Gabriel is speaking to someone and says: ‘By three days, you’ll come back to life.'” Still, some scholars at the conference privately said that Knohl, in his zeal to make a biblical breakthrough, was reading too much into the vague and practically illegible lines of the tablet.

Knohl’s reading of the tablet undermines one of the strongest literary arguments employed by Christians over centuries to support the historicity of the Resurrection: the specificity and novelty of the idea that the Messiah would die on a Friday and rise on a Sunday. How does Jeselsohn feel about being the owner of a priceless object that could lead to the reinterpretation of early Christian beliefs? “I’m proud,” he replies. “Knohl’s idea of a rising Messiah in Judaism, one who predates Christianity, may be correct. All the elements are there [in the tablet]. But I’m perhaps more cautious than he is.” Jeselsohn says that while the discovery may question “the uniqueness” of Jesus’ Resurrection, “Nonetheless, it gives credibility to the belief that [Jews at that time] were expecting a Messiah” — one who would rise from the grave.

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