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Hazon Gabriel: A Social Historian’s Point of View

By Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
University of Toronto
IUEJ Elie Wiesel, Paris
September 2012

Could the “Hazon Gabriel,” be the first a posteriori tangible evidence of the Ten Commandments? There is a consensus among scholars that the “Hazon Gabriel” is early tangible evidence of the concepts of messianism, eschatology, and even resurrection widely attested to in many other sources of Second Temple Judaism. The “Hazon Gabriel” is a stele discovered in the late 1990’s and first published in 2007 in an article by Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur”1 This artifact has been associated with the Qumran community among who, according to some scholars, were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this case, though, the “Hazon Gabriel” is very rare because it was written with ink on stone.

That being said, since many questions remain unanswered concerning the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their authors,2 the question of the relationship of the “Hazon Gabriel” document to the Dead Sea Scrolls remains open.

Therefore various explanations concerning the provenance of the text are still possible. The artifact under discussion is today in the possession of the private collector David Jeselsohn, who bought the stele from a Jordanian antiquity dealer. The inscription is unusually long: 87 lines, even though often fragmentary. Scholars have questioned the authenticity of the document because of its unknown provenance. The stele was not discovered in a scientific archeological excavation. Nevertheless, the Jordanian antiquity dealer claimed that it came from the area of the Dead Sea. Moreover, the unusual length of the text has only increased suspicion about the artifact’s authenticity among a number of scholars.

Nonetheless, in their article in Cathedra (2007), Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur declared the artifact authentic on the basis of paleography. Some epigraphists, though, argued that this document was fraudulent because of its unique genre. Yet, one can clearly distinguish incised lines, below where the text is written in ink, similar to the leather scrolls discovered at Qumran. This is called the “suspended” script of square Hebrew, well attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The artifact is a monolithic stele, 90cm high and 30cm wide, of whitewashed limestone. The surface is smooth. Therefore, it appears, the stone had been prepared to receive the text. On the back of the stele, one can distinguish a reddish color. The provenance of this type of stone has been thoroughly investigated. Nevertheless, wherever the stone originated, the inscription was done elsewhere.

Tel Aviv University archeologist Yuval Goren completed a petrographic analysis of the artifact and concluded that the stone was whitewashed limestone, typical of the Dead Sea area. This analysis corroborates the antiquity dealer’s statement regarding the provenance of the artifact. Moreover, Yuval Goren described the irregularity of the patina on the stone. The patina is easily seen within all the letters of the inscription.

The text is divided into two columns, exactly like many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One column has 43 lines, the other has 44. It looks like a document written on leather even though it is written on stone. Moreover, this document is not an autograph since there is a repetition in the text on lines 37 to 39. This seems further proof that it is the work of a scribe copying from another document. This implies that there were other copies of this particular document.

Clearly, we are in possession of a document bearing a text copied from another document. It is almost as if we had uncovered one of the many models on stone from which the Dead Sea Scrolls would have initially been copied. Indeed Ada Yardeni had called the “Hazon Gabriel” “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone.”3

If it is indeed possible that the scribes who composed the Dead Sea Scrolls had all copied their texts from tablets, then there may be other stone tablets to discover. In addition, ink inscriptions are well attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls and numerous ostraca from the beginning of the 8th century BCE in the Mediterranean area, especially in Egypt. André Lemaire has extensively published on ostraca of this region. Therefore, the existence of script onother than papyri is well attested to in ancient Palestine.4

As a matter of fact, André Lemaire, while studying the Palestinian ostraca from the First Temple period was the first to notice that the text was set in columns as in manuscripts. Moreover, in the Zoar cemetery south of the Dead Sea, ink inscriptions on stone dating from the first four centuries of the Christian era were uncovered. Once again, we see here that the practice of writing in ink is well attested.

David Hamidovic first published an article on the “Hazon Gabriel” in the Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie des religions,5 and more recently in Semitica.6 By comparing the script of the “Hazon Gabriel” with the one of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the one of the Murabba`at Papyri (the latter dating from the Bar Kokhba revolt), Hamidovic concluded that the “Hazon Gabriel” should be dated from the first half of the first century of the Christian era.

Let us now consider the type of artifact the “Hazon Gabriel” document is and the “purpose behind it”. As for the type of artifact -Deuteronomy 27, 2-3 says: “That thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this Law....” Joshua 8, 32 says: “And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the Law of Moses....”

In those texts we have documented in the Old Testament the practice of preparing the surface of a text by plastering it, and then the injunction to write the sacred text, or rather copy it, on the stone. One can extend all of these practices to the practice of teaching because it was clear that the Mosaic Law had to be taught to the entire people of Israel.

Flavius Josephus writes in Ant I, 70-71: “...they erected two pillars, one of brick and the other of stone, and inscribed these discoveries on both; so that if the pillar of brick disappeared, that of stone would remain to teach men what was graven thereupon....” Here we have the use of stone with a didactic purpose being attested to by the first century Jewish historian.

Therefore, in the Old Testament and in the writings of Flavius Josephus the use of stone to inscribe teaching material is well attested. Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 4, 1 in the context of the Ten Commandments, Moses says to the people: “And now , O Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them....” Again, Deuteronomy 4, 5: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances...” and in Deuteronomy 4, 9: “...but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children...” as well as in Deuteronomy 4, 13: “...and He wrote them upon two tables of stone....”

The profession of scribe is well attested to in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and in ancient Palestine.7 Teaching by memorization is evident in Deuteronomy 5, 1: “Hear O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and observe to do them.” Deuteronomy 5, 6-21 and Exodus 20, 2-17 stress the importance of the Ten Commandments as a pedagogical tool with rewards for the pious and punishments for the wicked.

The Book of Exodus emphasizes the importance of the written word: “And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words” (Exodus 34, 28). In Exodus 32, Moses broke the tables, so in Exodus 34, 1: “Hew these two tables of stone like unto the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables....” In Exodus 35, Moses assembles the whole community and begins his teaching.

It seems that the “Hazon Gabriel” constitutes documentary evidence of the practice of teaching from a text copied on a plastered stone following a tradition found in the Old Testament.

As for the text of the “Hazon Gabriel” itself, we will not, in this essay, enter into the controversy surrounding its translation and interpretation.

We will note, though, that on the basis of the new deciphering of the inscription by Qimron and Yuditsky,8 Torleif Elgvin proposes several new readings.9 In opposition to Knohl, Elgvin says it would be improper to consider it a dialogue between the Davidic and the Josephic, messiahs.

Israel Knohl is presently the only scholar to have proposed a historical context for the eschatological drama described in the “Hazon Gabriel.”

In his book,10 Knohl attempts to prove that the story of the slain messiah is based on historical facts. He connects the “Hazon Gabriel” text with the Jewish revolt in Palestine that followed Herod The Great’s death in 4BCE. Knohl then uses the “Hazon Gabriel” as an a posteriori base for his argument.

When it comes, though, to tablets bearing Hebrew/Aramaic texts for didactic purposes, we have yet to find other examples.

Many questions remain unanswered. One, which interests the present author, is - Could the “Hazon Gabriel” be the first tangible evidence of the mystical practice of the Maase Merkabah?

Indeed, much more research needs to be done in connection with this text, its translation, its interpretation and its sociological context.


1 Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur, “Document: A First-Century BCE Prophetic Text Written on a Stone: First Publication,” Cathedra 123, (2007), 155-166, in Hebrew.

2 Among others see N. Golb, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The search for the Secret of Qumran, New York, 1996. See A. Paul, La Bible avant la Bible, Paris, 2005. See also D. Stoekl rouleaux de Qumrân. Perspectives historiques et archéologiques" Cahiers du Judaïsme 29, (2010): Ben Ezra, "Le mystère des 104-119."

3 A. Yardeni, “A New Dead Sea Scroll In Stone,” BAR July 8, 2008.

4 See A. Lemaire, Inscriptions Hebraïques, I. Les Ostraca, Paris, 1977; S, Ahituv, Echoes from the Past, Jerusalem , 2008 and I. Beit- Arieh, Horvat Uza and Horvat Radum, Monograph Series, 25, Tel Aviv, 2007.

5 See D. Hamidovic, “La vision de Gabriel,” RHPR 89, 2, (2009): 147-168.

6 See D. Hamidovic, "An Eschatological Drama in Hazon Gabriel: Fantasy or Historical Background?" Semitica 54, (2012): 233-250.

7 See for instance D. Mc Lain Carr, Writing on the Tablets of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature, Oxford University Press, 2005.

8 E. Qimron and A. Yuditsky, "Notes on the So-Called Gabriel Vision Inscription," in H. Matthias (ed.), Hazon Gabriel. New Readings of the Gabriel Revelation, Atlanta: SBL, 2001.

9 T. Elgvin, "Notes on the Gabriel Inscription," Semitica 54, (2012): 221-232.

10 I. Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus, University of California Press, 2000.