Culture At Large

Are the Gospels unique? Does it matter?

Andy Rau

Don't look now—it's another "controversial" Biblical archaeology discovery! This one is (fortunately) less hyped and looks more legitimate than past discoveries like the "Jesus Tomb." It's a three-foot-tall tablet dated to the decades before Jesus' birth. What makes it controversial? It describes another "messiah" (possibly a man named Simon, who is mentioned by Josephus) who was killed but prophesied to be resurrected in three days. (Presumably he didn't, or we probably would've heard about it.)

And why is that a big deal? Because it suggests that the idea of a "suffering savior" was around well before Jesus was born. That, in turn, could be taken to suggest that the story of Jesus was one of many such stories, and not unique. Here's how one scholar reads it:

[Professor Israel Knoll] 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. “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 one interpretation. But my hunch is that most Christians (including myself) are unlikely to have their faith shaken too much—I don't see how it wrecks the story of Jesus to discover that savior/resurrection myths were common in the Jewish culture of his day. After all, the "suffering savior" was first prophesied much earlier in Old Testament days; while those prophesies were generally misunderstood by Jesus' contemporaries, there's no reason that clever scholars or religious leaders of the time couldn't have grasped their correct meaning.

I'm reminded of similar controversies over accounts of the ancient Flood that bear striking similarities to the Jewish Flood account in Genesis—some of which may even predate the book of Genesis. Not the exact same issue, but they all point to the same question: Does the existence of other, similar, or earlier stories cast doubt on the stories we believe as Christians?

There's another quote in the article that sums up my reaction:

“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,” Mr. Boyarin said.

What about you? If it were true that Jesus' story was not unique, and that earlier stories had been told of other suffering would-be messiahs, does that change the way you read the Gospel stories? Does it make you question the reliability of the story of Jesus as we know it?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, History