Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ancient, pre-Christian tablet a prophecy of Christ?

Assume for a moment that the tablet is real (see last post), what would this mean for the faith? Can the faith handle such a discovery? Can the faith accommodate the facts?

At First Things, Mary Rose Rybak writes, "Wow! Could this be prophesy of Christ’s resurrection? Could this be monumental, reinforcing evidence of Christian theology?" She then cites Knohl's interpretation of the tablet: "This should shake our basic view of Christianity. . . . Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

"That’s certainly an interesting interpretation," Rybak remarks. "But I’m not as convinced as Knohl that these findings rule out the possibility that the New Testament was not adopted but rather fulfilled by Jesus and his followers."

Knohl's interpretation may not rule out the prophesy possibility, but does such a possibility really need to be ruled out? I for one have been giving some serious thought as to how one might incorporate this finding (if it proves genuine) into their faith; I am mildly concerned about this finding. But claiming that this tablet was an anonymous prophesy that Christ happened to fulfill seems to me to be a perfect example of grasping at miraculous straws.

Have I succumbed to methodological naturalism? Perhaps. I have to be honest and say, though, that if I have to choose between Knohl's interpretation and Rybak's, Knohl's wins hands down. I'm very reluctant to begin claiming that there is some extra-biblical prophesy contained on an anonymous tablet that Jesus' death and resurrection happened to fulfill. This seems to me a case where a believer is all too ready to invoke a miracle to help save the faith: it sounds very much like special pleading to me. I know I would certainly raise my eyebrows if persons from other faiths (or denominations) resorted to this kind of strategy.

I much rather prefer an interpretation that says something like: "There is evidence for a specific interpretive tradition that was current during 1st cent BCE Judaism that Jesus and his followers may have received and then in turn promulgated." Does such an interpretation have negative implications for the faith, in terms of destroying the credibility of Christ's resurrection? Possibly, but I don't see why it necessarily would.

I think that Christians could always say something like: "The interpretive tradition that got it right--with regard to interpreting extant OT (and perhaps other extra-biblical) passages in terms of trying to discern the fate of the Messiah--is the one represented here on this tablet." This makes Christianity a very historical religion indeed, almost more historical than I'm comfortable dealing with. It's not a road so easily travelled. I can well understand why so many prefer to stay with their pie-in-the-sky theologies. The historical-critical alternative is so unsafe, so precarious, and ultimately out of one's hands.

I myself am hoping that Ridderbos (and others) is right (see two posts below) when he counsels, "[W]e can overcome the fear that we may be on a dangerous pathway if we view the ways of the Spirit in recording the word of God more historically, more critically, as more shaded, than along the way of an exclusively dogmatic reasoning.” I will confess: Christianity is not what I thought it was when I first believed, but like it or not, this seems to me the faith that God has decided to give. Thanks be to God.