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.