Thursday, November 12, 2009

National Geographic and the Apocalypse of Gabriel

Is National Geographic at it again? This time with the Gabriel Stone instead of the Gospel of Judas? It appears that they are going to be airing next week another sensationalistic "documentary" about how the Gabriel Stone may destroy Christianity's "unique" claim for a resurrected Messiah. When I watched one of their previews, I could not believe the nonsense that the narrator was stating. The narration suggests (dubbed on top of some Israeli folk music) that Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief.

Professor Knohl's reading of the stone is severely challenged (in fact there is a brief article in the recent Cathedra, pp. 133-144 [in modern Hebrew] where Elisha Qimron and Alexey Yuditsky challenge some of the previous readings). The area of the tablet where Knohl reads "In three days live" is eroded. I have seen this line because the stone was here in Houston and we held a conference on it last semester. The tablet does not say, "In three days live." The tablet probably says, "In three days raise us up" and the reference is biblical to Hosea 6:1-3, which I have commented on in previous posts about this stone.

Come, let us return to Yahweh,
for he has torn, and he will heal us;
he has stricken, and he will bind us up,
will preserve our life.
After two days, on the third day
he will raise us up, that we may
live in his presence.
Let us know, yes, let us strive,
to know Yahweh.
As the dawn (breaks, so) certain is
his going forth.
He comes to us as surely as the rain,
as the spring rain that waters the land.

Almost every line of the stone is an allusion to other scriptures. The author is compiling and rereading them in such a way that they map out anew what will happen in the last days. This Hosea passage was being interpreted by the author of this apocalypse to refer to the liberation of the remnant of Israel that had been in exile and was now camping around Jerusalem and engaged in the last battle. God would raise up the exiled remnant and give them victory within three days was the promise being made.

I continue to be concerned with how the media is using academic discussions, especially over newly found objects that have yet not been vetted by the academic community, to threaten Christianity. The media will cry "wolf" enough times that pretty soon Christians won't listen to any academic argument, because they will not be able to distinguish the exploited and sensationalized from the rest.

So be careful consumers. Know that the goal of these so-called "documentaries" is entertainment. They pretend to be "balanced" but they are not. They take minority positions, and positions that cannot be maintained in light of the evidence or have not been vetted by the academic community at large, and make them sound reasonable and authoritative. It is all smoke and mirrors. So beware.

ADDENDUM: Michael in the comments mentions that this type of post will be used to characterize me as a "conservative scholar" who is trying to conserve the faith. Let it be known that this is not the case. Whether Christianity survives or not is not my concern. But good rigorous scholarship is. The Gabriel Stone is not going to make any difference to Christianity or its central tenet the resurrection because the Gabriel Stone does not even refer to the resurrection of a messiah, suffering or otherwise. What I worry about is the media's continual cry about how this new discovery or that new discovery is going to change Christianity and it is going to destroy the faith. This sort of media sensation does nothing more than dull the ears, so when we as academics have something that is actually important to say that may indeed impact Christianity, no one is going to listen.


Pastor Bob said...

Thanks for this, Dr. DeConick. If I have the time to watch such programs I keep a notepad near at hand and amuse myself by writing down the errors or plain misinformation in the programs. While watching the program on the Talipot tomb I came up with a page and a half.

This is not to say that it isn't important to stay informed about real scholarly research. I appreciate your series of articles on the stone in question. But I don't expect the TV to provide me with scholarly research.

Daniel Graves said...


As one in parish ministry, I am always appreciative of these sorts of little summaries. It is nice to have a place to direct people who see these sensational programs. Thanks for the good work.

Fr. Dan Graves

Scott F said...

And I am supposed to get cable because ...?

Matthew Alexander White said...

Well, As much I as I appreciate the frankness of this last post.... This is one of those posts that will be very much appreciated by confessional-apologetic scholars with a vested interest in maintaining Christianity’s "uniqueness. Moreover, since National Geographic is finally selling out and cashing in on its reputation to add an aura of legitimacy to this naked milking of a cash-cow, I think the powers that be with a vested financial interest in this will be unleashing the spin doctors again to characterize you as a “conservative” scholar.

April DeConick said...


I appreciate your sentiment. But the truth is that a conservative or liberal agenda does not drive my scholarship. I am a scholar who works from a historical-critical and literary-critical perspective, and the outcome of my investigations do not matter to me except that they are built from the evidence with critical integrity. I analyze the material and what it tells me it tells me. If the Gabriel Stone told us that the Jews anticipated a messiah who would be resurrected in three days, I would tell you that. But it doesn't. It isn't even a close call. In fact, the Christian tradition had a real problem on its hand with the crucifixion and resurrection of the messiah. The Jews that the first Christians (who were Jews) were trying to convert were unconvinced by their arguments. This is why Paul says that the cross was a stumbling block to Jewish conversion.

Pastor Bob said...

Curiously I, as an Evangelical pastor would have no problem if the stone said something about a messiah who died and rose in three days. There were all kinds of voices among what we might call Judaism in the 1st centuries BC and AD. Since as Dr. Deconick points out that the early Jewish Christians argued with other Jews about a dying and rising messiah those who might have (but didn't) talk about a dying and rising messiah weren't the people the early Jewish Christians argued against.

But if the writing on the stone doesn't say that, then it doesn't. And saying on TV that this is the primary scholarly reading of what the stone says is simply false.

What will interest me will be which scholars will the NG channel use to promote their viewpoint.

tman302 said...

I’m not a scholar or a minister or a missionary so help me please understand, how would this destroy the heart of Christianity?

tman302 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Alexander White said...

this is Matthew (AKA Michael in the addendum ;) )

To answer your question, First a short answer and then a long one, read either or both. The short answer is that it really couldn’t destroy the heart of Christianity at all… its just being hyped that way so that it you will watch the documentary.

However, even IF (and it is a BIG IF) the gabriel stone is showing evidence for a Pre-Christian Jewish belief in a dead & three days resurrected messiah, that idea is ultimately neutral to the central tenet of Christianity (the resurrection of the Son of God).It won't destroy the heart of christianity. If anything, most conservative confessional scholars would welcome it and then be even more incredulous that "the Jews" did not recognize Jesus as the messiah in the first place. (I've heard these sermons my whole life. If I had no soul, I'd call zondervan with a sample chapter and cash in now).
What’s important is that…
1. The “evidence” for this reading is interpolated i.e. very dubious and the postion is a minority opinion of a scholar who is known for coming to identical conclusions in other texts and for basing his scholarly life's work on this theory. This means that he may have a vested interest in his theory's proliferation and this may have influenced him to subconsciously read ito the text here.
2. the new interpolation is very new, less than 3 year old, so its novelety is part of the reason its getting some attention. However, that also means that the jury is still out as far as peer-reviwed scholarly consensus goes.

3. This dubious reading/-interpolation is being interpreted in a way seems to show that a uniquely Christian claim is no longer Christian (but really Jewish instead). There’s nothing wrong if this is/was/were the reality and had evidence. However, this is one of those areas where its very easy to transgress the laws of historical -critical scholarship unknowingly do to personal beliefs. Some people could, if it suited their agenda, interpret this minority scholarly position to be a “Win” for Judaism and a “loss” for Christianity in that it takes one of Christianity’s “unique distinctive” and turns it into a Jewish one.
4. The commercial hyenas have a vested economic agenda that involves doing exactly that and hyping it to no end for and then legitimizing it with National geographic's academically irresponsible backing of the “documentary” aimed at the masses which pushes the minority of scholarship and then interprets it to attack one of Christianity’s “distinctive” (the resurrected messiah). They are doing this, dishonestly, purely to make a buck, with reckless disregard for how this will only further strengthen your average Christian’s mistrust/disregard for religious scholarship.

zOrv said...

I would like to echo Fr. Graves that is extremely useful to have someplace to point people to get a more intelligent set of observations on these sorts of subjects than is provided by the sensationalized TV edu-tainment that fills things like NatGeo TV. I remember studying under Dr. DeConick at U-M before she was Dr. DeConick and one thing I never sensed was that she had a "conservative" or "liberal" agenda. She presented facts and well-reasoned arguments. What so many want it seems (both in academia and on TV) though are not facts but to drive an agenda or make a dollar. Thus people in my church become so skeptical of both academia and things they see on TV that they no longer want to even grapple with many issues of history and such. And when they do engage they are not sure who to believe. When the whole Gospel of Judas thing came out that was how I ended up finding Dr. DeConick's research and blog and was able to give some folks in my church intelligent answers to their questions. So my appreciation as a former and current student :)

Orville Erickson

Ed Jones said...

Dr. DeConick ,,,
What I worry about is not some impact the Gabriel Stone may have on Christianity, but rather the impact which the complete lack of response to what three of our top longest standing NT scholars have said - indisputably, "something that is actually important to say that may indeed impact Christianity - (even) its central tenet the resurrection", may have.

Again I make reference to a reconstruction of the Jesus tradition contained in the Comments dated April12,2009 and April 13, 2009, to your blog: My Decision About the Jesus Project, Feb. 5, 2009. Plus a relevant Comment dated April 17, 2009.

April DeConick said...

Orville, is that you? My gosh it has been a long time. What are you up to?

Daniel Graves said...

I appreciate Orville's clarfication. I certainly did not mean to imply that being in parish ministry meant that I was looking to direct parishioners to a scholar that would support my own confessional view. I appreciate the bibliobloggers who provide informed historical-critical reflection on the source data. In addition to my seminary training, my own academic training is in secular religious studies departments and in historiography. I know that all historical research is inevitably mediated through the interpretive lens of the scholar, but I certainly did not mean to suggest that Dr. deConick was offering an interpretation that would be used to buttress narrow-minded confessional views (conservative or liberal).
Fr. Dan

Matthew Alexander White said...

Fr Graves,
aww, I feel bad.
I too share your confessional views and I certainly also share your feelings on this matter. My initial comment did not have you in mind (but I see how it looked just like that). I live in Tulsa, Ok. The buckle of the bible belt and went to a very confessional conservative seminary here. I was commenting with them in mind, but I totally see how it looked like I was commenting about you too and lumping you in, thanks for the clarification.

Daniel Graves said...

No worries. I appreciate your thoughtfulness (and your comments).
Fr. Dan

zOrv said...

Dr. DeConick,

I emailed you at your Rice email address so as not to detract from the discussion here on the blog.


MSH said...

April - I posted my little defense of your suggestion over my own blog, PaleoBabble. Knohl is too hasty in his dismissal of it.

Daniel James said...

Dr. Deconick, I'm new to your blog. Would you say this does anything to undermine N.T. Wright's argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God?
Thanks and blessings,

Luther Seminary Student: Old Testament Studies said...


I am editing the interview you did with us at SBL this year. It sounds great, and we are excited to make your comments accessible to our larger SBL audience. When it is finished, we will let you know so that you can let your audience know. - Michael Chan (SBL Student Intern)

squeehunter said...

Where does Gabriel's command and the prince of princes fit into all of this then?