John Collins and Israel Knohl are world-class scholars. Knohl is known for daring hypotheses. Collins is known for his caution and rigor.
Collins, wouldn’t you know it, has severe reservations about Knohl’s take on the Vision of Gabriel. Below the fold, I excerpt, with Collins’ permission, some key graphs from his forthcoming article for the Yale Magazine.
The controversy surrounding [the Vision of Gabriel stone] was stimulated by an article by an Israeli scholar, Israel Knohl, in the Journal of Religion, early in 2008 [go here]. He argues that the text describes a messianic figure before Jesus, who was expected to die and be raised from the dead after three days. Later Jewish tradition knows of a dying messiah (the messiah of Ephraim, son of Joseph), but these traditions are usually dated at least a century after the time of Jesus.
This is not the first time that Knohl has tried to find a “messiah before Jesus” in a Jewish text. Seven years before the Gabriel text came to light, he published a book with that title, claiming that a fragmentary text in the Dead Sea Scrolls referred to a suffering messiah, who would rise and be taken up to heaven. That book was not well received by scholars. Knohl now claims to be vindicated by the new evidence. But his reading of the Vision of Gabriel is highly conjectural and goes far beyond the evidence.
Collins cautiously concludes:
The text simply does not say what Knohl claims it says. It is too fragmentary. It is not clear that the Ephraim mentioned in the text is a messiah. Even if Knohl is correct in reading the word after “three days” as “live,” it does not follow that it means “rise from the dead.” A reference to a chariot does not necessarily mean that someone is taken up to heaven. This is not to say that Knohl’s interpretation is impossible. But there is not much reason to think that it is right.
And what if Knohl is right? Collins is undeterred:
If Knohl’s interpretation should prove to be right, it would be an interesting contribution to the history of religion, but it would not present a challenge to Christian theology. The threat to Christian theology is no more than a marketing strategy. In that respect, the Vision of Gabriel is only the latest of many discoveries that have been sensationalized to generate publicity.
The debate, to be sure, has just begun. For an interesting exchange between April DeConick and Israel Knohl, go here. For a more positive appreciation of Knohl’s suggestions, see Steve Cook’s comments here and here. For the text itself and relevant bibliography, go here.