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Mysterious Hebrew stone depicts archangel Gabriel, called a ‘Dead sea scroll in stone’

  • April 30, 2013: A museum worker points at the ‘Gabriel Stone’, as it is shown on an exhibition in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

    (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

  • April 30, 2013: A museum worker walks next to the ‘Gabriel Stone’, as it is shown on an exhibition in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

    (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

  • April 30, 2013: A museum worker looks at the “Gabriel Stone” as it is displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

    (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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JERUSALEM – An ancient limestone tablet covered with a mysterious Hebrew text that the archangel Gabriel is located in the center of a new exhibit in Jerusalem, even as scholars continue to argue about what it means.

The so-called Gabriel Stone, a meter (three-meter)-tall tablet said to have been found 13 years ago on the shores of the Dead Sea, features 87 lines of an unknown prophetic text dated as early as the first century BC, at the time of the Second Jewish Temple.

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Scholars see it as a portal into the religious ideas circulating in the Holy Land in the time that Jesus was born. The form is also unique it is ink written on stone, not carved — and no other religious text was found in the region.

Curators at the Israel Museum, where the first exhibit dedicated to the stone is opening Wednesday, say it is one of the most important documents in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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“The Gabriel Stone is in a way a Dead sea scroll written on stone,” said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. The writing dates to the same period, and uses the same tidy calligraphic Hebrew script, as some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of documents that the earliest known surviving manuscripts of Hebrew Bible texts.

The Gabriel Stone made a splash in 2008 when Israeli bible scholar Israel Knohl offered a daring theory that the stone’s faded writing would revolutionize the understanding of early Christianity, claiming that it is a concept of messianic resurrection that predated Jesus. He based his theory on one hazy line, translating it as ‘ in three days you shall live.”

His interpretation caused a storm in the world of the Bible studies, with scholars convening of an international conference the following year to debate readings of the text, and a National Geographic documentary crew featuring his theory. An American team of experts using high resolution scanning technologies tried — but not — to detect more of the faded writing.

Knohl, a professor of Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, finally brought back from his original bombshell theory but the fierce scholarly debate he sparked continue to reverberate in the academic world, bringing international attention to the stone. In the last few years it went on display alongside other Bible-era antiquities in Rome, Houston and Dallas.

Bible experts are still debating about writing meaning, especially since much of the ink has eroded in crucial spots in the passage and the tablet has two diagonal cracks the slice the text into three pieces. Museum curators say only 40 percent of the 87 lines are legible, many of them hardly. The interpretation of the text featured in the Israel Museum’s exhibition is just one of five readings put forth by scholars.

All agree that the passage describes an apocalyptic vision of an attack on Jerusalem, where God appears with angels and chariots to save the city. The central angelic character is Gabriel, the first angel to appear in the Hebrew Bible. “I am Gabriel,” the scripture declares.

The stone inscription is one of the oldest passages featuring the archangel, and is an “explosion of angels in Second Temple Judaism,” in a time of great spiritual angst for Jews in Jerusalem looking for divine connection, said Adolfo Roitman, curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition describes the development of the archangel Gabriel in the three monotheistic religions, displaying a Dead sea scroll fragment which mentions the angel of the name; the 13th century Damascus Codex, one of the oldest illustrated manuscripts of the complete Hebrew Bible; a 10th century New Testament manuscript from Brittany, in which Gabriel predicts the birth of John the Baptist and appears to the Virgin Mary; and an Iranian Quran manuscript dated to the 15th or 16th century, in which the angel, called Jibril in Arabic, reveals the word of God to the prophet Muhammad.

“Gabriel is not archaeology. He is still relevant for millions of people on earth who believe that angels are heavenly beings on earth,” said Roitman. The Gabriel Stone, he said, is “the starting point of a continuous tradition which is still current.”

The story of how the stone was discovered is just as murky as its meaning. A Bedouin man is said to have been found in the Jordan river on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea around the year 2000, Knohl said. An Israeli university professor later examined a piece of earth stuck to the stone and found a composition of minerals only found in the region of the Dead Sea.

The stone is ultimately in the hands of Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian antiquities dealer based in Jordan and London, who in turn sold the stone to Swiss-Israeli collector David Jeselsohn in Zurich for an unspecified amount. Rihani has since died. The Bible scholar trip to Jordan multiple times to look for more potential stones, but was not able to get the stone at the original location.

Israel Museum curators said Jeselsohn lent the stone in the museum’s temporary display.

Lenny Wolfe, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, said that before the Jordanian dealer bought it, another middleman faxed him an image of the stone and is offered for sale.

“The fax is not clear. I had no idea what it was,” said Wolfe, who passed on the offer. It was “one of my biggest misses,” Wolfe said.

What is the function of the stone, where it was displayed, and why it was written are unknown, said curators of the Israel Museum exhibit.

“There is still so much that is unclear,” said Michal Dayagi-Mendels, curator of the exhibition. Scholars, she said, “will still argue about this year.”

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