An ancient stone tablet discussed at a conference in Jerusalem last week may shed light on the links between Judaism and Christianity, experts say.
Israeli historian Israel Knohl said a message written on the tablet, which dates from the first century BC, showed the idea of a messiah being resurrected three days after his death was rooted in Jewish writings from before the time of Jesus' birth.
Knohl's analysis of the tablet, discovered more than a decade ago, is seen as supporting a theory believed by many religious scholars, that the idea of resurrection predated Christianity and can be found in Jewish writings.
"This sheds new light on the messianic activity of Jesus," Knohl, a professor of biblical studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said of the ancient Hebrew text, much of which is missing or indecipherable.
"It proves that the concept of the messiah was already there before Jesus," added Knohl, who published his theory in the Chicago-based Journal of Religion in April.
The tablet, about one meter long with 87 lines of writing in ink, is known as the "Gabriel Revelation" because of the passages that convey a message from the Angel Gabriel.
Knohl told Reuters a key piece in his theory was based on a word in line 80 that, before he read it last August, was believed to be unintelligible.
"It was written awkwardly with two letters unclear," Knohl said. Using other examples from that period, he deciphered the word "haye", which meant "you will live". The complete sentence read: "In three days you will live, I, Gabriel, command you."
L. Michael White, a professor of classics and Christian origins at the University of Texas in Austin, said religious scholars had long known that the idea of resurrection existed in Judaism before the Gabriel Revelation.
"But what was interesting was the notion of three days," White said.
He added that the three-day time period may have been rooted in the view held in ancient medicine that the body did not begin to decompose until the end of three days.
Knohl said that, together with other references in the script to a "suffering messiah", this was a clear reference to the return to life after three days, later depicted in the New Testament with Jesus' resurrection.
"This is evidence that the idea of a suffering messiah, put to death and coming back to life after three days was known to at least a group of Jews," Knohl told the gathering of scholars at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Other researchers insisted the exact meaning of the text remained open to interpretation.
Devorah Diamant, a professor at Haifa University, said the script was not sufficient proof of Knohl's theory because some passages he referred to could be connected to other figures from the Bible and not necessarily the messiah.
"What he suggested is fanciful," Diamant said.
The conference marked 60 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the world's oldest texts which were found on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.
The Swiss owner of the tablet, David Jeselsohn, said it was believed to have been discovered about 15 years ago near the eastern shore of the sea.
Knohl said the tablet was not linked to the Dead Sea Scrolls because it was found in a different place and had unique word usage.