Time and language work differently in the realm of faith. An excellent example of this truth landed on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday in a story by Ethan Bronner, headlined: “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate On Messiah and Resurrection.”
How do time and language work differently here?
Well, consider …
The Times story appears to be fast-breaking news about a biblical discovery — although it turns out that news of this 2,000-year-old stone tablet actually broke among scholars more than a year ago. (Of course, a year can be fast among biblical scholars.)
The story also breathlessly reports that key messiah-like phrases are revealed in the stone’s inscription that will be “shocking” to Christians. These little slogans include phrases like “prince of princes” and a reference to resurrection “in three days” — although the truth is that sacred inscriptions from 2,000 years ago are now a rich stream in biblical scholarship. (For the most part, explorations of these ancient inscriptions are fascinating to Christian Bible-study groups and there are so many inscriptions emerging that any single “discovery” is unlikely to become a golden key into the past.)
The story also claims that the inscription on this stone already is igniting a debate over messianic claims about Jesus — although the truth is that we’re talking here about a fairly polite discussion. (At this point, even evangelicals aren’t rattled by such “discoveries” — especially since so many supposedly “shocking” discoveries have been unearthed in recent years and so far no one’s church has imploded.)
It isn’t until the second page of the long Times story that Mr. Bronner even admits that the stone hasn’t really been “found.” It wasn’t missing. For the past decade, it has been sitting around a Swiss family’s home as a sort of expensive souvenir of the Holy Land. It has surfaced in the literature of biblical scholars mainly because a couple of experts in ancient Hebrew finally heard about the stone and published a translation of the inscription more than a year ago. (Despite the Times’ suggestive headline, Christianity seems to have weathered the storm quite nicely.)
So, should this story have been so prominently displayed on the front page of the U.S.’s most important newspaper?
Yes, I think so.
Here’s what’s at issue as scholars continue to study the stone and its text: The inscription may turn out to date from the year 4 BCE (or, BC, Before the Common Era). It may have been written after the death of a Jewish rebel leader named Simon, who was regarded as a messianic figure by his followers — but was killed by Roman soldiers. In interpreting his death, Simon’s followers may have written this text to keep his messianic story alive — predicting that he would return to life.
In other words, this inscription may be further evidence of the eruption of messianic and apocalyptic hopes in that corner of the Roman-dominated world 2,000 years ago. As Jesus’ followers came along, some decades later, this story of Simon was one more model of the kind of faith that people placed in Jesus.
That alone makes this an interesting chapter in the swelling volumes of biblical literature. Whether you’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim — all of us share an interest in the figure of Jesus (whether he was rabbi, savior or prophet) — and I think you’ll probably agree that this is an intriguing story.
Of course, this recently translated inscription isn’t exactly like accounts of Jesus’ life and death. Among other things, Simon was a warrior who took up arms against Rome and the inscription says his resurrection will be like that of Elijah — riding triumphantly into the heavens in a chariot.
And, while “Chariots of Fire” is a movie that’s quite popular with evangelicals, most Christians don’t envision Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior streaking across the sky like a flaming version of Charleton Heston.
HOWEVER — if you start rolling this news story around in your mind — I think most of us wind up thinking about the kinds of sacred slogans we all use in our religious lives these days. And I hope it prompts us to ask: So, what slogans will define us, our faith and our era in the future?
I’m talking about centuries from now, when a lovable little robot like “Wall.E” is cleaning up the artifacts of our civilization — and reads the inscriptions on our Starbucks cups, or picks up a sabbath bulletin from one of our congregations, or plays recordings of some of our inspirational songs or our preaching these days?
HERE’S ONE SUGGESTION: Check out Dr. Wayne Baker’s challenge to readers today over on the OurValues landing page. He’s asking about symbols and slogans on our license plates — the same kind of question we’re raising here. What symbols should define us? And which symbols are dangerous — or can be misunderstood? (REMEMBER: Wayne’s provocative questions are great for use in small groups. So, check out his five pieces Monday-through-Friday this week at OurValues — and you may find yourself with the discussion-starter you need for next weekend’s small group!)
CARE TO READ MORE? We’ve gathered the major resources you need to explore this ancient-inscription story further:
THE TIMES STORY: Here’s a link to the Times story about the stone inscription, although you may have to complete a free Web-site-registration to view the article, if you haven’t visited the Times’ site in the past.
BACKGROUND FROM A SCHOLAR: In April 2007, the online edition of Haaretz (a well-known newspaper in Israel) published an early “take” on the newly translated inscription by Dr. Israel Knohl, a professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Shalom Hartman Institute. This detailed article from 2007, which is still online, and a few more comments Knohl made in an interview with the Times reporter appear to be the main evidence that this inscription holds the power to “ignite debate.”
THE LATEST SCHOLARLY WORD: You can visit the Journal of Religion to get your own copy of Knohl’s latest article on the inscription, published in April 2008. If you’re not a subscriber, a download of the article in PDF format costs $10. I’ve read the journal article and can tell you this: It will be helpful to pastors, teachers and students who want to see a little more of the Hebrew at issue and read Knohl’s in-depth analysis. But, frankly, for most readers this April 2008 article is essentially a journal-style version of what Knohl already said online for Haaretz in the 2007 piece — which is free.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE: Concerning “Chariots of Fire” and Elijah’s ascent into Heaven, which Dr. Knohl talks about in relation to the new inscription, check out 2 Kings 2:11 — or, by sheer coincidence, we just mentioned the popular movie of the same title in our Friday story about “Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World.“
GREAT BOOKS FOR SMALL GROUPS: Two very popular Bible scholars who talk a lot about the importance of ancient inscriptions are John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. We’ve got links to some of their best books like Crossan’s “God & Empire.” (and, if you care to purchase copies of their books through our Amazon store, you’re also helping to support ReadTheSpirit).
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, PLEASE. Click on the “Comment” link below. Jump over to the new OurValues landing page and join in that vigorous discussion. Or you can always Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly. (We’re planning a reader-feedback day, later this week, so it’s a good time to send us that idea, reflection or comment you’ve been meaning to finish.)
COME BACK TOMORROW and Wednesday for timely news on a network-TV special report involving modern slavery — and an in-depth interview with David Batstone, one of the world’s leading anti-slavery activists. Dr. Batstone formerly ran Sojourners Magazine and his Not-for-Sale educational materials already have been used in countless congregations nationwide.