Put a cork in it

ChampagnePOPThere is nothing the media like more than to sensationalize undeserving stories. Usually this involves either the disappearance of young, attractive white women or alleged revelations about Jesus. in the latter category, we've read that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn't crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus' father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph, and that Jesus didn't die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up. Usually these stories "break" around major Christian holidays. Remember Easter 2006? When National Geographic argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians? The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. Two years later, the news that National Geographic rushed the story and engaged in shoddy scholastic work (daemon translated as "spirit," etc.) was not covered in any way approaching the same degree.

The latest example shows the difficulty journalists have in resisting the shock angle on stories. A completely legitimate and interesting story gets turned into yet another thing that is supposed to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Come on! Enough already! Or can the media at least come up with a better spin, hoax or overblown discovery?

The bulk of the story by Ethan Bronner of the New York Times isn't terrible. Some of it is fascinating. But the spin put on it is regrettable. Here's how it begins:

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Um, newsflash to the New York Times. Christians pretty much think the entire story of Jesus life, death and resurrection is part of a "recognized Jewish tradition" at the time. In other words, Christians read much of the Old Testament as prophesying about Jesus. They see Jesus as the fulfillment of those prophecies.

After leading with the spin that this table might threaten Christianity, the article has some very interesting information about the tablet. The reporter cautions that it could take decades to clarify whether the tablet is forged, much less what the actual text says. The stone was bought a decade ago by an Israeli-Swiss collector. An Israeli scholar wrote a paper on it last year and a spate of articles will be coming out in the coming year. It turns out that much of the text is unreadable and many of the translations make quite a few assumptions. Results of a chemical examination of the document are pending.

Bronner says the text is a vision of the apocalypse by the angel Gabriel and draws on Old Testament prophets. One of the oddest things about the story, given the angle of "shaking the world of Christology" is that many of the sources for the article are people who want to shake up Christianity. There are no Christian apologists quoted to explain whether or not this discovery bears at all on the Christian faith.

The article explains that the "Gabriel Revelation" describes a suffering messiah. There might be a reference to the "prince of princes" rising from the dead after three days. It mentions that justice defeats evil and that blood and slaughter are pathways to justice. The idea that blood atonement is foreign to traditional Jewish teaching will certainly come as news to readers of the Old Testament. Anyway, here's a portion of the article dealing with analysis of the tablet:

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says "Sar hasarin," or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of "a prince of princes," [Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem] contends that the stone's writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University.

Okay, I get that much of this is just quoting the scholar in question. But I really wonder whether the reporter chose precisely the wrong angle. I mean, among other reasons why some Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah is because they were expecting a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David. And while you have many prophecies from Isaiah and the Psalmist that speak of a suffering messiah, many folks were expecting an earthly ruler more than a "My kingdom is not of this world" leader.

So if you have some ancient evidence of Jews hearkening back to the prophets to speak of a suffering messiah, why would the angle for the story be that Christianity is threatened? Anyway, check out the way the article ended:

"His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come," Mr. Knohl said. "This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.

No rebuttal. No response. Again, a scholar of Christianity was desperately needed. Actually, I'm confident that even the children at my church could have told the reporter that Christians believe those ideas go together. (Hint: Jesus was Jewish.)

Anyway, it's too late for this story to be handled well. Atheist Richard Dawkins and his commenters are rejoicing. Or take this blog post from Hollywood Elsewhere: champagne400

As Religulous producer-star Bill Maher or "God Is Not Great" author Chris Hitchens will tell you, anything that undermines any religious myth is cause for popping open the champagne. So Ethan Bronner's 7.6 N.Y. Times story that calls into question the legend of Jesus of Nazareth's resurrection after three days in the tomb is a big whoopee in this regard. Cue the heartland Christian preacher types who will try to deny and spin this thing for all they're worth.

Yeah. There's no question how this story -- which at it's heart is quite interesting and compelling -- will be taken. I just wish the reporter would have thought a bit about the spin he put on it. Or, as commenter Chris Willman wrote in response to the above:

Before all the Chris Hitchens worshippers pop too many corks, let's point out that the idea that this discovery somehow undermines Christianity is goofy on the face of it, however much sober glee the NYT writer seems to take in inferring as much. The New Testament writers didn't take pride in their "originality"--far from it, they went out of their way to connect the story of Christ's death and resurrection to dozens or hundreds of pieces of prophecy. So, if you think the whole thing was made up, here's one more piece of plagiarism. If you think it's true, here is just one more prophecy fulfilled, albeit one that's a lot closer to 33-ish AD than the ones in the Book of Daniel. Either way, it changes nothing. But don't let this stop the bubbly from flowing...

Perhaps follow-up stories can keep this in mind.

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