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Ancient tablet incites debate

A 3-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a 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 popular and scholarly views of Jesus, because it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era. It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to grow.

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

“Some Christians will find it shocking – a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology – while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” he said.

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding all Jesus-era artifacts and writings – both in the general public and in the fractured and fiercely competitive scholarly community, as well as the concern over forgery and charlatanism – it will probably be some time before the tablet's contribution is fully assessed. It has been around 60 years since the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, and they continue to generate enormous controversy regarding their authors and meaning.

The scrolls contain some of the only known surviving copies of biblical writings from before the first century A.D.

A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah, also will be discussed.

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