The Vision of Gabriel

Ever since the first century AD Christians have referred to Biblical prophecies to support their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Passages such as Isaiah 53, Daniel 9 or Psalms 22 are all believed to contain predictions of a "Suffering Servant" who is "led like a lamb to the slaughter", the "Messiah the Prince", who cries out "they pierce My hands and My feet". Now there may be another passage to add to the list.

A decade or so ago David Jeselsohn, a Swiss collector, purchased a stone from a Jordanian dealer, who told him that it had been found near the Dead Sea. Conscious, perhaps, that there was something dodgy about his purchase, the Swiss gentleman kept quiet about his souvenir for ten years before finally consulting Ada Yardeni, an expert in ancient Hebrew.

The so-called 'Vision of Gabriel' inscription.
The so-called 'Vision of Gabriel' inscription.

The odd thing was that the stone bore an inscription, not carved into the surface but written on it with ink - eighty-seven lines of ancient Hebrew laid out in two columns in a space 1' x 3'. Writing in ink on stone is not entirely unknown: one of the more interesting finds at Deir el-Medina, the village of the workers in the Valley of the Kings, was a large collection of limestone chips on which were sketches and plans for tombs in the Theban necropolis. In other places texts might be written with ink on plaster; the famous "Balaam Inscription" found a few years ago in Jordan is an example of this type of inscription.

Nonetheless, writing on stone in ink is sufficiently unusual to cause a few raised eyebrows among scholars. However it is contents of those 87 lines that is really raising eyebrows. According to a translation made by Yardeni, the text is a prediction made by the archangel Gabriel, foretelling a princely messiah who will be a "son of Joseph" and who will come to life after three days.

Unfortunately the text is hard to read and there are numerous blanks, suggested readings, disputed readings and even more disputed interpretations. For example, the "son of Joseph" may mean that the messiah will be the son of a man named Joseph or it may mean that he belongs to one of the tribes descended from the patriarch Joseph. The command given by Gabriel to this messiah that he should rise from the dead appears to foretell that he will have died in battle, fighting against the enemies of Israel.

There are similar uncertainties about the date of the text. Some place it at the end of the first century BC, others put it early in the first century AD. So far as I know, there has been no attempt to use carbon-14 dating on the soot in the ink - probably wisely, because any further degradation of the text would not be acceptable. On stylistic grounds the text, both the writing and what is said, is very similar to the Dead Sea scrolls. "If it were written on leather and smaller, I would say it was another Dead Sea Scroll fragment," Yardeni claims.

The most serious problems with the "Gabriel Vision" are to do with its provenance. Who found it? Where did they find it? Are there any more of these inscribed stones? Answers to these questions would, in turn, make it easier to answer the question of who wrote it? Was it written by some Qumran-like sectarians or by a modern forger?

Some have raised the question of what implications, if any, the text might have for Christian beliefs about Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. If we assume for a moment that the text is genuine and has been correctly translated, the answer would seem to be that at most there was a belief held among some Jews that a messiah was to appear who would die and then rise to life after three days. Those who wish to attack Christian doctrine will claim that this proves that the gospel writers made up their story to conform to existing Jewish beliefs; those who accept Christian doctrine will claim that this is merely proof that God had revealed details of the coming Messiah to a chosen few and will point to the stories of Simeon and Anna as evidence that such expectations existed.

In other words, even if the stone is genuine, it is unlikely to change anything in Christian doctrine, merely add a little more to our understanding of the background of Jesus' life and ministry. The crucial question of whether the stone is genuine remains to be answered and will likely take many more years and much more study before any conclusions can be reached.

© Kendall K. Down 2009