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The Messiah Tablet: Is It A Big Deal?

As you may have heard by now, researchers and scholars have been discussing an ancient tablet dating to about the 1st century BC, written with Hebrew markings, that refers to a dying and rising Messiah figure. Ben Witherington, one of my former professors has given his two-cents and other notables like Ada Yardeni and Daniel Boyarin have also weighed in on it. The advertisement on Yahoo’s front-page (now moved to the "Buzz" section), in my opinion, is quite misleading: “Tablet Raises Debate On Christianity’s Origins”. Really, this debate is not about the origins of Christianity. A better and more accurate title might be: “Tablet Raises Debate On Christianity’s Originality”.

This is not a debate about origins as much as it is originality. The fact of the matter is, the “dying and rising Messiah-type” figure, even if it did exist in Hebrew thought prior to Jesus, means quite little. In all reality and in my estimation, it has no significant bearing on Christianity. I know when I say this that I am at odds with some prominent scholars but seriously, I think many—including the non-scholarly “Yahoo”—are off-base.

There are a number of reasons as to why I’m saying this. Firstly, let's just assume the claim that Jesus took this idea from Judaism or somewhere else. Just because he adopted the idea or notion of a dying and rising messiah / savior figure from somewhre else, means next to nothing. Jesus borrowed parables, theological principles, scripture, analogies, etc. from the people and culture He lived in. If He “borrowed” or “adapted” the idea, oh well.

Secondly, the “dying and rising” theme was present in ancient Mediterranean astrology and agricultural stories/myths. Some of these are found in Hebrew thought long before Jesus. It has long been known that Jesus did not come up with this idea. This is nothing novel (thus, to make the assumption of the previous claim, is to assume something erroneous). What was novel about Christianity, however, was that where the other stories were mythic narratives or pagan beliefs, the first Christians claimed that Jesus, as a human, was literally killed and raised as “The” Messiah.

Thirdly, and I shall not belabor this point, but some will have a problem with the tablets because they may call their “predicting” Jesus into question. I have written a number of posts concerning this aspect of Jesus and have repeatedly shown that the things Jesus said would happen, before they happened, were not so much predictions (as in telling the future) as the logical consequences and outworkings of what He heard that the religious and political leaders of His day were planning to do to Him. Check those posts out HERE and HERE.

In the end, the tablet does little for Jesus, modern or ancient Christianity and certainly, it does nothing to discredit any of them. Other than affirming what scholarship has already known about “dying and rising” savior figures, this tablet is probably most valuable for recognizing the fact that ancient Hebrews had strong views on this matter—which, again, we’ve known for quite a while. So, while this has really, nothing to do with the origins of Christianity, it does have a few things to say about the originality of Christianity—namely, that some aspects of it weren’t all that original. In the end, though, originality isn’t what made Christianity catch on. What made Christianity spread like wildfire is that Jesus wasn’t simply a mythic figure but rather, an actual human who was killed and raised. He was the “dying and rising” Savior / Messiah, par excellence.