Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

A pre-Jewish prediction of a Saviour who will die and be raised again on the third day

Posted by NT Wrong on May 16, 2008

Israel Knohl has recently claimed a pre-Christian prophecy of the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead after three days, based on his interpretation of a recently discovered text (Hazon Gabriel – The Vision of Gabriel). The interpretation rests on a significantly reconstructed text, so is still somewhat speculative. But if Knohl is correct, and his reconstruction is certainly at least worth suggesting, then the text would be important evidence of one of the trajectories of development in messianic thought in early Judaism.

However, the idea that it takes the messiah three days to come back to the world of the living employs a very familiar mytheme. The idea that the dead take three days to return to the world of the living is a familiar one. The time period of three days is often given as the distance between the netherworld and earth.

A very relevant example is in the Ugaritic Rephaim Texts (KTU 1.20-22) from ca. 1200 BC. It is very relevant, because the Ugaritian and biblical traditions share a broadly common geographical locale, many common beliefs and traditions, and a broadly similar language (although are separated by some 500+ years). The traditions about the Rephaim (Saviours) are included in the biblical books with very similar accompanying mythological themes (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah).

KTU 1.20 ii 5-7a says:

… which in English is (as Wyatt translates):

“They journeyed a day and a second. After su[nrise on the third] the Saviours arrived at the threshing-floors, the di[vinities at] the plantations.”

The picture here, although from another fragmentary and uncertain text, is of the 3-day journey from the netherworld to Ugarit by the long-deceased heroes (-kings) who were the deified heroic ancestors of Ugarit. In some sense, they appear to have blessed Ugarit at the the cultic feast here on earth by their presence.

Note that the dead return after sunrise on the third day. Now read Mark 16.2.

Given the Messiah’s/Michael’s function as defeater of death, it is unsurprising that this mytheme should recur in respect of a Messianic resurrection account from the first century BC. Note the mythic concatenation of themes of sea-monster–heart of the earth–three nights—Son of Man in Matthew 12.40. Sounds to me like it was based on an apocalyptic-mythic prophecy which employed these mythic themes.

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