The Messiah Son of Joseph

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In the September/October 2008 issue of BAR, noted Biblical scholar Israel Knohl’s article “The Messiah Son of Joseph” generated a great deal of interest and responses. Among them was a letter from Ronald Hendel, whose comments and Professor Knohl’s abbreviated response appear in the January/February 2009 issue of BAR. However, the interest in this piece was so great that we’d like to take the opportunity to present Professor Knohl’s response here in its entirety, as well as some other letters that were sent to us regarding his article.
Simply Sign

I’ve read with great interest Israel Knohl’s interpretation of the “Gabriel’s Revelation” inscription in the recent BAR (Israel Knohl, “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” BAR, September/October 2008). I would like to offer an alternative reading of a key word, which affects Knohl’s case for the death and resurrection of a pre-Christian messiah in this text. Knohl reads a somewhat faded word in line 80 as חאיה, “live” (an imperative verb, with the א as a rare vowel marker), so that the text reads, “in three days, live!” This is the basis for his striking thesis.

After examining the photos in BAR and on your Web site, I think that an equally plausible reading of this word is האות, “the sign,” so that the text reads, “in three days, the sign …” Several of the letters in question—ה/ח and י/ו—are barely distinguishable in the script of this inscription. The alternative reading echoes similar expressions in previous lines: “place the sign” (line 17) and, less legibly, “three signs” (line 79). Notice that the last letters in “signs” in line 79—ות—look just like the last two letters in our word in line 80. I don’t know what “the sign” is here, but this is good apocalyptic language.

In sum, “the sign” is a plausible paleographical reading of the word in question, and it perhaps better suits the context. It also suits the guideline that my teacher, Frank Moore Cross, always advocated when reading difficult inscriptions: The more banal reading is to be preferred.

In sum, “the sign” is a plausible paleographical reading of the word in question, and it perhaps better suits the context. It also suits the guideline that my teacher, Frank Moore Cross, always advocated when reading difficult inscriptions: The more banal reading is to be preferred.

Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California
Berkeley, California


Israel Knohl responds:

I have rejected the reading suggested by Prof. Hendel for the third word on line 80 for two reasons:

1) The last letter in this word cannot be tav. Nowhere in the text of the Gabriel Revelation, is the letter tav written in this form (see the table in Yardeni and Elitzur article in Cathedra 123, p. 164). However, we can point to several cases where the letter heh is written in similar form to the shape of last letter of the third word of line 80: See the shape of the letter heh in the word “elohim” in line 11 and the form of the heh in the word “haot” in line 17.

2) The syntax of the sentence suggested by Hendel “lishloshet yamin haot” is very difficult: We should expect to find a verb before the word “haot.” However, the sentence which is formed with my reading: “lishloshet yamin haye” is fluent and is very similar to the form of the sentence “lishloshet yamin teda” in line 19.

In sum, I may quote the words of Dr. Ada Yardeni, the premier expert in the script of the period, which were published on the BAR Web site: “I came to the conclusion that the reading suggested by Professor Knohl for the third word in line 80—haye, ‘live’—seems to be the only plausible reading of that word.”

Grammar Point

I gather that the crux of Israel Knohl’s philological argument is reading a certain word in line 80 as חאיה, and understanding it as the Qal imperative of the root חיי, translated “live!” But we would not normally expect aleph to serve as a mater lectionis for a reduced or zero vowel, which is what we would expect in the first syllable. It seems pretty far-fetched to me. You have one scholar arguing on the basis of a disputed reading for a philologically unlikely verb found in an inscription of questionable provenance.
I think Christianity is safe.

Ed Cook
[via weblog]

According to the Gospels

Israel Knohl rejects the standard Christian explanation of Jesus’ challenge “If David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:45; Mark 12:37; Luke 20:44)—that Jesus was not merely David’s “son,” but also God’s Son—by arguing “If this were the case, we would have expected Jesus to anchor his claim in Psalm 2:7, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you,’ rather than the first verse of Psalm 110.”

But the Gospels present Jesus as an enigmatic figure who only gradually reveals himself (see earlier in Luke 20:1– 8). In fact, God’s voice announces “You are my Son” at Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and at his Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Psalm 2:7 is further cited in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5, where we find the first instances of the argument that Knohl rejects.

Don Schenk
Allentown, Pennsylvania

A Question of Interpretation

I disagree with author Israel Knohl’s interpretation of Mark 12:35-37 as meaning that Jesus denied that the Messiah should be a descendent of David. The entire context of the passage supports the alternative view of “some scholars”; Jesus is asserting that the Messiah is even higher than the great King David.

Mark 12 begins with the parable of the vineyard tenants, obviously directed against the religious authorities of the time. The chapter continues with Jesus’ wise answer to the Pharisees’ tricky question about paying taxes to Caesar. The Sadducees are next to be refuted by Jesus concerning the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ Greatest Two Commandments wins over one skeptical scribe. After the “Son of David” passage, the section finally concludes with Jesus warning the people against the teachers of the law.

Mark 12 is not about the genealogy of Jesus; it’s about the religious authorities who don’t know what they are talking about. Mark 12:35-37 poses a simple question that the scribes cannot answer. Psalm 2:7 does not fit Jesus’ purpose in the chapter, but Psalm 110:1 does. And the answer to this simple question is printed in my Bible’s passage title: “Christ [is] not only son but also Lord of David” (The Jerusalem Bible, 1966). It’s not an unusual interpretation.

Note that Jesus answers to the term “Son of David” in Matthew 9:27, 21:9 and Mark 10:48. Jesus acknowledges the title “Messiah” in Matthew 16:18.

Carl Drews
Longmont, Colorado

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