Evidence that Jesus did, or did not, exist, is hot news and much debated. (See a summary of the views of scholars at are the stories about jesus true?.) Now a new discovery, or at least recognition of the possible importance of an old discovery, has opened up debate again.
A metre high stone tablet with ink writing (not engraving) was found near the Dead Sea a decade ago, but was only examined by scholars a few years ago. It has been dated to the century before Jesus. Critical portions of the text are now indecipherable, or at least problematic, but scholars and others are beginning to draw conclusions anyway.
The section that is exciting some sceptical scholars has been interpreted to say: "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.", with a reference in the next line to a "a prince of princes". The argument is that this is a reference to a Messiah who rises from the dead, with the follow-up claim that the early Christians stole their central story.
The response from other scholars has been to be more cautious (for example). The text isn't as clear as has been claimed (you can see a translation of the text at reply #3 here), and the tablet can be used to support the truth of the Jesus story as well as to dispute it. Here are three ways of looking at it:
- As noted above, the sceptics argue that the stories of Jesus rising from the dead are myths, taken from a similar source as the story of the tablet.
- Alternatively, scholars have long argued that much of Jesus' teachings and actions, which may seem original to us, were actually based on current Jewish culture and understanding, but modified or presented in new ways. This find would then simply confirm that the resurrection of a murdered Messiah was not foreign to Jewish thought.
- One could perhaps argue that this was a genuine prophecy, though I doubt any scholar would support that idea!
The slightly disturbing thing is that in the end, everyone will pretty much feel confirmed in their previously held views. There is such an enormous gap between those who believe Jesus never existed and those who believe in him that evidence cannot close the gap. In the middle, as I mentioned in my previous post the more sober scholars believe Jesus existed, but cannot demonstrate that all the stories are true. That remains a matter of faith - or of disbelief.