Monday, July 07, 2008

The Vision of Gabriel

The so-called "Vision of Gabriel" (background from Paleojudaica here) has begun to attract the attention of the mainstream press. Instead of repeating the usual complaints about how the mainstream press doesn't do their homework and tends to exaggerate or misconstrue the true significance of an ancient text, let us take them as read and move on.

The excitement of the press apparently has to do with the supposed relevance of the text as background to early Christian doctrine about the death of Christ and his resurrection on the third day. This is from the wire service story:

Israel Knohl, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says one line of the text tells the 'prince of princes' slain by the evil government, 'in three days you shall live'.

He suggests the story refers to the death of a Jewish prince called Simon who led a revolt against King Herod.

Daniel Boyarin, of the University of California at Berkeley, said that there was growing evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

'Some Christians will find it shocking - a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology, while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,' he said.

Now I haven't read anything scholars have written about this text other than the article in Cathedra by Yardeni & Elitzur, which also contains a photo and a transcription. However, just based on reading the transcription of the text itself, I confess I can't see much of anything that might give rise to the remarks quoted in the press.

The text is very lacunose and very obscure, and there are only a few groups of lines together that allow a connected translation. Although the phrase "after three days" occurs more than once, only one of them occurs in a chunk of connected text (lines 15-26; the x's represent illegible text):

... one, two, three, forty prophets and sages and pious men. My servant David sought from Ephraim [xx] The sign I am seeking from you. For YHWH Sabaoth, God of Israel [xxx xxx] holiness for Israel. After three days you shall know that YHWH God Sabaoth, God of Israel has said it. Evil is broken from before righteousness. Ask me and I will tell you what this evil(?) Branch [unclear] you are standing. The angel is as your support for Torah. Blessed be the glory of YHWH God from his dwelling place. It is yet only a very little while and I shall shake the heavens and the earth. Behold, the glory of YHWH God Sabaoth, God of Israel — these are the seven chariots by the gate of Jerusalem and the gates of Judah ...

(The expression "three days" also occurs in line 54 and line 80 in fragmentary contexts.) Clearly the text will require a good bit more of collaborative analysis before its purpose and nature are clarified. But in this chunk at least, nothing is stated about resurrection or the Messiah. The mention of "the Branch" (tzemach, lines 21-22) could easily have a messianic connotation, but the fact that it is evil (if the reading is correct) argues that "this evil plant" is a more apt translation.

The lines that Israel Knohl refers to are apparently lines 80-81, which I would translate as follows:

... within three days [...] I am Gabriel [...] prince of princes [...] windows(?) of enemies [...]

The "prince of princes," if not Gabriel himself, may be a reference to the archangel Michael or to God, as in Dan 8:25. Obviously Knohl's reading or restoration of the text is extremely hypothetical.

There are throughout the text some clear references to post-exilic prophetic literature, such as the allusion to Haggai 2:6 in the paragraph quoted above. In line 75, there is a mention of "three shepherds [who] went forth for Israel," probably an allusion to Zechariah 11:8. My guess is that the text has something to do with an interpretation or re-contextualization of these prophetic scriptures. I certainly do not see anything directly relevant to early Christian beliefs about the death and resurrection of Jesus.


Anebo said...

In the large chunck you quote the text seems like it might be related to oracualr texts: "I am seeking to divine as a biblical authority divined, and I will know the true answer within 3 days." The phrase "The angel is as your support for Torah," suggests the visionary practice of the merkabah mystics meant to strengthen their memorization of Torah with angelic help. Perhaps my interpretation is shaped by my own research interests. As you say, a lot more research needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn.

Douglas Mangum said...

Ed, I share your skepticism about the readings of lines 80-81. It seems like Knohl is being pretty creative with his interpretation. I just tracked down his Journal of Religion article yesterday to take a closer look at his reasoning. I'm wondering, however, why the media is presenting this as such a threatening idea to Christianity. Even if he's right, I'll just add it to my list of the numerous motifs from the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism that are reworked in the New Testament. I posted similar thoughts on my blog amid the rising media hoopla over the tablet. Thanks for your thoughts.

eklektekuria said...

There are quite a few things in the text I find intriguing that I've seen no one mention yet.

Could the reference to the chsydyn in line 16 be a rare reference to the social group known as Hasidim/Asidaeans? This follows references in line 15 to prophets and "returners" (?). Or is just the pious in a non-technical sense? The term itself links the Hazon Gabriel to the so-called Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521), which refers to the exaltation of the chsydym to the throne of the messiah's eternal kingdom and the subsequent raising of the dead.

Knohl rejects in his article the view that the text has an inner-Judean social polemic as found in Qumran texts, but I am struck by the similarity between lines 16-26 and 4QpNahum, particularly the short passage in 3-4 Col. 3:3-5, which concerns the "last time". Both describe (1) the kbwd of YHWH as manifest in Jerusalem (cf. line 12, cf. Hosea 2:6-7) or Judah in general, (2) a seemingly apostate group that is criticized in negative terms that has lost its power (i.e. the Flattery-Seekers in 4QpNahum whose "evil deeds" are "exposed to all Israel" and who are rejected by the "simple people of Ephraim", and the "evil plant" of the Hazon Gabriel who are judged before the glory of YHWH), and they both (3) cryptically refer to "Ephraim" as a people or personage, and (4) appear to presume a situation of the Gentiles launching war against Jerusalem (cf. lines 13-14, 53, 57 ???). Could just be coincidental though.

This might be going out on a limb, but if we grant Knohl the interpretation that someone is slain in Jerusalem during eschatological warfare and revived to life after three days, there may be parallels in the Jewish-Christian traditions of the "two witnesses", Tabitha (in the Apocalypse of Elijah), and especially the text cited in Lactantius that is sometimes thought to be a Jewish Oracles of Hystaspes, which refers to an eschatological prophet active when the king of Syria attacks, who is then slain in Jerusalem, where he lies unburied until he is raised from the dead three days later.

The obscure references to the "three holy ones of eternity" and the "three shepherds" (angelic shepherds along the lines of the Animal Apocalypse?) are also intriguing. Might this be a reference to a core triad of archangels (Michael, Gabriel, ???) rather than the usual four or seven, or does it refer to YHWH and his two named angels, or ??? what the heck does it mean??

Anonymous said...

In Knohl's Journal of Religion article, he states that line 80 'clearly' reads hy)x "live!" after "By the third day". He doesn't seem to feel that this particular word is a reconstruction but that it is evident. The Angel Gabriel is commanding someone (whom he speculates is a particular Simon mentioned in Josephus)to "live!" or be resurrected. I don't, personally, see that the text "clearly" reads "live!" and it seems like a somewhat awkard reconstruction anyway.

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