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Original Essays

Gabriel’s Revelation Tablet

by Nina Burleigh (2008)
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Recently, word of a 2000-plus year-old stone, with ancient Hebrew writing in ink, splashed across the world’s newspapers, beginning with the New York Times itself. The story is vaguely familiar — in recent years we have been bombarded with similar new-old discoveries from the Holy Land — yet also shockingly relevant to millions of faithful today. Writing on the mysterious tablet supposedly reveals a new facet of religious history, one that roots Christianity even more firmly and deeply into Judaism, the religion from whence it sprung.

There is a subtext to the story of this inscribed tablet: what it reveals about the vicissitudes of the trade in unprovenanced antiquities emanating from Israel and the occupied territories.

There are 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel. Each one of them almost certainly holds clues about human life in the region during the Biblical and pre-Biblical past. Some of them, also, could hold proof of Biblical personages, places, and stories, proof strong enough perhaps to make religious believers sigh, weep, or sing with joy. However, such clues are painstakingly got and carefully analyzed — inscribed Biblical proof is even rarer and often monetarily valuable.

During my travels around Israel and the occupied territories during the last two years researching a book about the alleged forgery of dozens of Biblical antiquities, I learned a great deal about the fantastically murky underworld that is the antiquities trade in Israel. A collaboration of Palestinians and Israelis, scholars, illegal diggers, licensed dealers, tourists, and millionaire artifact collectors keeps the trade alive and well in the only country in the Middle East where such commerce is allowed.

Whether genuine or not, the 87-line Gabriel’s Revelation tablet is a product of this murky underworld. Its owner, Zurich-based collector David Jeselsohn, says he bought it from "a Jordanian dealer." It was a found "about a decade ago" and the collector only learned of its significance when a scholar examined it after some years.

This blurry chain of events is typical in the unprovenanced antiquities trade, despite Sisyphean efforts by the Israeli government to assert some order and control.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, a small, underfunded state agency, is tasked with both safeguarding the 30,000 archaeological sites in the country and policing the trade in artifacts. On any given night, members of the 12-man staff of the robbery unit can be found creeping up rocky hillsides in the dark, eying ancient sites with night vision goggles in hopes of caching a tomb looter. With just 12 men and 30,000 sites, the looters have a field day, cracking open tombs holding ancient corpses buried with between 10 and 3,000 personal objects each. With each object valued at between $100 and $1,000, it’s easy to see why an out-of-work Palestinian from Hebron or Gaza might choose amateur archaeology as an avocation.

The anonymous Arab who signs his name with an X under the all-purpose name Abu Mohammed forms the human base of the pyramid of the Biblical archaeology trade, at the top of which reside both great collectors like Jeselsohn and scholarly analysts like Hebrew University epigrapher Israel Knohl, who ultimately conceived an analysis of the stone’s writing that warranted international coverage.

In between them, the 75 licensed Israeli and Palestinian dealers ply their trade, mostly selling their wares to religious tourists with Euro or Yankee cash burning holes in their pockets. But the dealers and amateur diggers have really hit the jackpot when they can bring their finds before the wealthy Biblical archaeology collector who needs the seal of the sixth king of Judea to complete his collection, and who will pay almost any price to beat the other collectors to it.

Once these objects find their way into the great collections, it is only a matter of time before scholars are invited in to "publish" them — in the parlance of the industry, to write analyses of the artifacts and publish them either in books or, more usually, in one of the myriad scholarly journals covering near eastern archaeology, biblical history, and ancient writing systems.

One reason the Jeselsohn stone wasn’t touted as a "new" discovery is that many reputable scholars won’t go near an unprovenanced inscription for love or money. Within the scholarly community, there is a small war being waged between scholars who want unprovenanced but inscribed bits of biblical archaeology to be studied (the Dead Sea Scrolls, bits of which were sold, not found in situ, are held up as the poster objects here) and those who don’t.

Within those ranks, there are further divisions between scholars with a theological bent who want the ancient inscriptions to be real, and so-called "minimalists" who believe the entire Bible is a work of fiction and therefore never to be proven true by any object, no matter how solidly verifiable as to source of excavation.

In the middle are the so-called dirt archaeologists, who simply want objects to be left alone and found in situ so they can be added to the ever-accreting historical record of ancient times.

We may live in an era of renewed hype in Biblical archaeology, but the P. T. Barnums of this world have always been around. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is supposed to have been the first relic hunter. Besides identifying what she believed was the site of Christ’s crucifixion, she returned to Europe with the first bits of the true cross, opening the way for an avalanche of enough heads of John the Baptist and apostolic bones in European Churches to make a nice party at a Parisian bistro. That was all before the Shroud of Turin.

The modern history of archaeology in Israel starts with the work of Victorian pastors, combing through the Negev desert and hills of Galilee with spade in one hand and Bible in the other, mapping their version of the ancient Christian world. Even today, secular archaeologists in Israel joke about how their funding will dry up if they don’t shovel up some proof of an ancient mikvah (ritual Jewish purification bath) or, if their financing comes from the other side of the religious fence, some sign of an ancient church.

Modern science allows us to examine these bits of history with, one would think, more accuracy and more understanding, and reach a closer approximation to truth. In fact, however, the opposite is true. The level of technology available to archaeologists and geologists who examine ancient artifacts is more powerful than ever, but the degree of sheer minutiae now available to be analyzed has opened the way for yet more subjective discussion and disagreement. That, coupled with the fact that modern day forgers also use more and more sophisticated technology themselves, has left archaeology in a terrible quandary.

Thus, the trial of the man accused of forging the so-called James Ossuary, another headline-making, religion-shaking artifact turned up in recent years — also from an anonymous Arab dealer, also long forgotten in a rich man’s cupboard — turned into a trial of modern biblical archaeology itself; expert after expert ascended the witness stand in a small Jerusalem courtroom over the past three years, only to have his or her expertise shredded by sharp-eyed defense attorneys who had a field day with the ambiguities inherent in the science.

Meanwhile, biblical-era epigraphers continue to look at bits of ancient writing on unprovenanced objects and make analyses that shake up believers one way or the other. In his original paper, published in The Journal of Religion, scholar Knohl concludes that Jeselsohn’s tablet indicates a pre-Christian Judaic precedent for the idea of slain messiah redeeming man. The stone, as Knohl translates it, says the blood of the slain will be transformed into a chariot that ascends to heaven. Knohl writes, "It is possible that Matt. 24:29-301 is based on the tradition that is attested in" the Gabriel’s Revelation tablet.

In response, affronted Christian Web loggers are popping with rage and division today. The scholar at the heart of the story headlines Jerusalem conferences. Archaeologists are left sheepishly scratching their heads, unable to opine with any confidence as new interpretations of religious history are written on the flimsiest of evidence.

Because, truth be told, that’s all the evidence we have.

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1. "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn and beat their breasts and lament in anguish, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." back

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Nina Burleigh is a staff writer at People magazine in New York covering human interest stories, and the author of three nonfiction books. Her latest book, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land, is about Bible relic forgery and the intriguing world of biblical archaeology and collectors. spacer

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