Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Maaloula retaken

LEBANON DAILY STAR: Syrian regime troops sweep through Maaloula.
MAALOULA, Syria: Syrian troops triumphantly swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds north of Damascus, including the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills amid an ever-tightening noose.

The near total collapse of rebels along a key supply route that has long funneled weapons to opposition-held districts around Damascus helps strengthen President Bashar Assad’s hand in and around the capital.

The dramatic capture of Maaloula, Sarkha and Jibbeh was the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun region since the government launched an offensive in November in the strategic area, a wedge of mountainous territory between the capital and the Lebanese border.

This is certainly news, but it remains to see whether it is good news or bad news for Maaloula (Ma'aloula, Malula). Background here with many links. Cross file under "Aramaic Watch."

GJW and online discussion

LIV INGEBORG LIED: GJW and the status of online academic discussion: will you cite this?
This post will neither discuss aspects of the textual contents of GJW nor the possible status of the fragment or its text as a forgery - I am not a Coptologist. Rather, this post concerns the function, use and status of online academic discussions: the discussions that take place in blogs, in their commentary fields, and sometimes even on Facebook, and which sometimes may turn out to make a difference to wider academic debates.
Background on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is here and links.

Noah and white people

EXPLANATION: "Noah" Screenwriter Ari Handel Addresses the Reason For An All White Cast: To Represent "Stand-ins for All People" (Diane Cho, Complex).

I raised this issue in passing in my review of the movie, but I didn't really think through the implications until later. The problem, of course, is that by making everyone white before the Flood, the film opens the door to the old racist meme that dark skin color is the curse of Ham. Now to be absolutely clear, the movie does not include the curse of Ham (although Ham does go into self-imposed exile) and I am not for a moment suggesting that the writers intended any such implication. Still, I do not find their explanation satisfactory. Myths do matter, and the problem could easily have been solved with a little diversification of the cast.

Much more on Noah here and links.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Blood moon tetrad, the Talmud, Passover, and Thallus

COSMIC SYNCHRONICITY WATCH: Watch the lunar eclipse ‘blood moon’ tonight, and witness the beginning of the end of the world (maybe) (Sebastian Anthony, Extreme Tech).
If you’re into skygazing, you really should stay up late tonight (April 14, April 15) and watch the first of a series of four “blood” moons — a sequence of lunar eclipses called a tetrad that will occur over the next two years, and which some religious types believe signifies the beginning of the apocalypse. Mars is also incredibly close to Earth at the moment, making it one of the brightest objects in the sky. This alignment between the Sun, Earth, Mars, and the Moon has only occurred a handful of times in the last two thousand years, each time coinciding with a “hugely significant” religious event. For non-religious types, though, it’s just a great opportunity to see an amazing astronomical event that probably won’t happen again in your lifetime.

And don't forget that Jupiter is very visible up there too, whatever that means. Besides this lunar and planetary alignment, a number of cosmic synchronicities suggest themselves. Various people (notably here) are pointing out that the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) says that a lunar eclipse is a bad omen for Israel and a blood moon is a sign of war. The relevant passage reads:
Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel,23 since Israel reckons by the moon25 and idolaters by the sun.26 If it27 is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if in the midst of heaven it is bad omen for the whole world. If its face is red as blood, [it is a sign that] the sword is coming to the world; (Soncino Talmud)
Let's hope those omens don't work out this time.

Another synchronicity is the eclipse of the moon during Passover. Granted, the synchronicity is mostly in my own head, in that the connection made me think of the famous citation of an ancient historian called Thallus by the fourth-century writer Sextus Julius Africanus as quoted by the ninth-century chronographer George Syncellus. Syncellus quotes Africanus, with reference to the darkness over the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus as reported in the Gospels, as follows: "Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the Sun in the third book of his Histories." Africanus adds that he thinks this is wrong and explains that a solar eclipse is impossible during Passover because the moon is full and on the opposite side of the earth from the sun.

But, of course, eclipses of the moon are okay, and here we just had one last night to remind us of that!

Quite a bit has been made of this reference to Thallus as potentially being the earliest external reference to the crucifixion of Jesus and the attendant darkness, but the relevant work of Africanus is lost apart from quotations and the work of Thallus is also lost, again apart from quotations, so whatever Thallus said (which is not quoted verbatim) is nested in two levels of missing context. It is quite unclear whether he said anything about Jesus or the crucifixion in his comment about an eclipse. In addition, we don't even know exactly when he lived, and the argument that he is a Samaritan Thallus who lived a generation after Jesus and was mentioned by Josephus is dodgy. First, Thallus was not an uncommon name and, second, Josephus doesn't actually mention a Samaritan Thallus. This is a debatable modern emendation of Josephus' text. So, alas, the notion of Thallus as a non-Jewish historian writing in the 50s C.E. who mentions Jesus and his crucifixion pretty much evaporates when one looks closely at the evidence.

Vidas, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud

Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud
Moulie Vidas

Hardcover | May 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691154862
256 pp. | 6 x 9 | 5 tables. |

eBook | ISBN: 9781400850471 |

Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud offers a new perspective on perhaps the most important religious text of the Jewish tradition. It is widely recognized that the creators of the Talmud innovatively interpreted and changed the older traditions on which they drew. Nevertheless, it has been assumed that the ancient rabbis were committed to maintaining continuity with the past. Moulie Vidas argues on the contrary that structural features of the Talmud were designed to produce a discontinuity with tradition, and that this discontinuity was part and parcel of the rabbis' self-conception. Both this self-conception and these structural features were part of a debate within and beyond the Jewish community about the transmission of tradition.

Focusing on the Babylonian Talmud, produced in the rabbinic academies of late ancient Mesopotamia, Vidas analyzes key passages to show how the Talmud's creators contrasted their own voice with that of their predecessors. He also examines Zoroastrian, Christian, and mystical Jewish sources to reconstruct the debates and wide-ranging conversations that shaped the Talmud's literary and intellectual character.

Moulie Vidas is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University.
Follow the link for TOC, excerpt, ordering info, and endorsements.

Monday, April 14, 2014

St. Catherine's Monastery threatened?

BARBARIC: Retired army general wants Egypt's St. Catherine's Monastery demolished. Ahmed Ragai Attiya says that the historic UNESCO site in South Sinai poses a threat to Egypt's national security, after the monks turned it into 'a place for foreigners' (Sherry El-Gergawi, ahramonline).

It is one thing for a crank columnist to call for a lawsuit over the legend of the ten plagues. It is quite another for an (up to now) respected member of the military actually to bring a lawsuit to try to destroy some of Egypt's history. If the story is true (and one hopes it is inaccurate or exaggerated), it is dismaying that the suit is being taken as seriously as it is. It should be laughed out of court.

More problems for St. Catherine's Monastery, as well as much background on it, noted here and links.

Moss on the GJW

CANDIDA MOSS: The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ is Still as Big as Mystery as Ever. Scholars had concluded that a papyrus referring to Jesus’s wife was a clever forgery—until new evidence re-opened the case. Is there any way to figure out the truth? (The Daily Beast). Professor Moss sums up the issues well. Excerpts:
The biggest problems were the grammatical errors in the text and the similarities between GJW and another early Christian Coptic text, the Gospel of Thomas. Francis Watson argued that all of the fragmentary sentences preserved on the papyrus are also found in the Gospel of Thomas. He tentatively suggested that the text is a pastiche compiled by a modern forger with an elementary grasp of Coptic.

Even more damning was the argument that one of the typographical errors in the fragment appears to have been copied from an erroneous online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The sixth line of the GJW nonsensically seems to read, “Evil man habitually does not he does habitually bring [sic].” Interestingly, precisely the same error appears in a 2002 online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The chances of two independent texts making the same grammatical error are remarkably small. (You just can’t trust the internet for anything these days.)


In the absence of clear evidence, the debate is still where it was over a year ago. On the one hand, tests designed to prove that the text is a forgery failed to establish its inauthenticity. On the other hand, the grammatical errors and similarities to the Gospel of Thomas are still a problem. A modern forger with the right materials could still have made this text.
And let none of this be forgotten in the excitement over the test results. It really comes down to two possibilities. The first is that we happened to find a very old unprovenanced text that says exactly what the Zeitgeist of the second decade of the twenty-first century would like to hear about Jesus. This text happened to be written in what looks like a fourth century Coptic script, even though the papyrus it is written on tests (at least on the second try*) some centuries younger than that. Moreover, the text is more or less based on the Gospel of Thomas, which luckily we already had, and the ancient scribe even made the same copying error as an entirely independent modern editor of an internet edition of the Gospel of Thomas. So it's possible that the fragment is a genuine ancient(-ish) artifact, but we sure won the big-time lottery on this one!

The second possibility is that a forger did a good job of obtaining ancient blank papyrus and obtaining (or mixing up a reasonable facsimile of) ancient ink and used them to create the artifact. Unfortunately for the forger and fortunately for us, the Coptic script used by the forger was some centuries too early for the papyrus, the forged text is rather too close to its Gospel of Thomas template, and there was a pesky typo in the Gospel of Thomas edition which the hapless forger copied.

Those seem to be the options. I blog, you decide.

Background here and links.

*The first try at a C-14 test gave a date range that was even earlier — before the birth of Jesus.

UPDATE: Christian Askeland at ETC highlights an attempt in 1990 to forge a Gospel of Thomas manuscript. Leo Depuydt also debunked it on grounds very similar to the objections to the authenticity of the GJW: Demotic Gospel of Thomas.

Superhuman angelic priests

DANIEL R. STREET: Priests and Israel as Superhuman (καὶ τὰ λοιπά).


HAPPY PASSOVER to all those celebrating! The holiday begins this evening at sundown.

Biblical passages that describe the precepts for Passover include Exodus 12 and Exodus 23:15 and Leviticus 23:5-8 and Numbers 9:1-14 and Deuteronomy 16:1-8 and Ezekiel 45:21-25.

Another recent post on Passover is here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

GJW latest

THE NEWS ON THE GOSPEL OF JESUS' WIFE is predictably making a splash in the media and the blogosphere. The media coverage is for the most part repeating the line of the Harvard press releases and getting that pretty accurately. I see no need to link to any of the many news articles beyond what I covered yesterday. As for the blogosphere, much the same applies, but I do want to note blog posts by Mark Goodacre here and especially here. The latter publishes a new essay by Professor Watson of Durham University: Jesus’ Wife Attempts a Comeback: Initial Response (pdf file) which gives a preliminary evaluation of the new evidence. Excerpt:
A press release that accurately represented the analyses published in the
Harvard Theological Review might have been entitled: “Testing of Jesus’ Wife Fragment Yields Inconclusive Results”. That would not have attracted much attention, but it would at least be truthful.
I am very busy with my own work in the coming weeks and it will be some time before I can get around to reading the HTR articles, but meanwhile I'll try to keep track of any interesting developments.

Background here and links.

UPDATE: I've been meaning to link to this post by Larry Hurtado, which came out before the GJW test results but is nonetheless relevant: Carbon-14 and Palaeographical Dating of Papyri. Note this in particular:
To summarize results of the tests [on Green Collection manuscripts] reported on in [the conference in] Oklahoma City, the results from the three labs were basically/broadly in agreement, which gives some assurance about the reliability of the process. But also, these results were broadly in agreement with the prior/independent palaeographical dating of these items. And this (as I see it) is the really larger import. It means (contrary to the reported comment by a distinguished papyrologist, who is not himself a palaeographer, that palaeographical dating is “bullshit”), that palaeographical dating (using today’s standards and practices) by competent palaeographers can be treated as broadly reliable.
Contrast this with the test results on the GJW: the two C-14 tests came up with results that differed by many centuries, not overlapping at all, and both results were incompatible with the dating that had already been proposed by paleographers. When lined up against the Green Collection tests, this sounds inconclusive indeed.

UPDATE: New blog posts: Christian Askeland (ETC): Jesus's Wife Resurrected from Dead; Larry Hurtado: “Jesus’ Wife Fragment”: Further Observations.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

GJW test results finally in

HARVARD MAGAZINE: The Jesus's Wife Fragment: The Scientific Evidence. Bottom line: the papyrus and "ink" test as ancient and the results are being published in HTR:
Now the scientific dating of the papyrus and the ink (which is not ink at all, but rather lampblack, a pigment often used in ancient Egypt for writing on papyrus) indicate that both are consistent with an ancient origin.

Because the fragment is so small, carbon-dating it proved troublesome. Researchers at the University of Arizona called into question their own results—which dated the papyrus to several hundred years before the birth of Christ—because they were unable to complete the cleaning process on the small sample of papyrus with which they were working, and felt that might have led to spurious results. A second carbon-dating analysis undertaken by Clay professor of scientific archaeology Noreen Tuross at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dated the papyrus, and a separate one (also believed to be of ancient origin) with text from the Gospel of John to approximately A.D. 700 to 800.
The article then mentions the literary context:
Because the text concerning Jesus’s wife is written in Sahidic, a language of ancient Egypt, it may be a transcription of an earlier Coptic text that was based on a Greek copy, as many early Christian gospels are. Given similarities in wording and subject to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip, the text of the GJW may originate in a time as early as the second half of the second century C.E.
This may be, at least in part, an allusion to the literary-critical arguments by that the text is a forgery based on ancient material published in modern times or even on an online edition of one of the texts. There were also objections to authenticity on paleographic and papyrological grounds.

The article goes on to indicate that the HTR issue contains some dissent, formulated before the test results came in, but not irrelevant to them:
The April 2014 issue of the Harvard Theological Review (HTR) includes King’s article (originally slated to be published in January 2013) discussing the fragment and its importance to understanding early Christian debates about whether wives and mothers could be disciples of Jesus. The issue also contains a counterpoint by professor 
of Egyptology and ancient Western Asian studies Leo Depuydt of Brown University, who writes that he is certain that the text is a modern forgery. Depuydt’s analysis, which predates the scientific findings, points out that a forger could have written with lampblack on ancient papyrus. Infrared microspectroscopic analysis of the ink and papyrus, however, found nothing to suggest that they had been “fabricated or modified at different times.” In a rebuttal, King finds Depuydt’s textual analysis unpersuasive.
One point that does not come up in the Harvard Magazine article is that the date originally proposed for the fragment on paleographic grounds was the fourth century, yet the C14 date for the papyrus is 700-800, some centuries later. Even granting that both kinds of dating are approximate, this is a very large discrepancy. And it took two tries to get a result that was anywhere near the paleographic date or indeed any possible date that involves the text being genuinely ancient. If the C14 dating is correct, either Coptic paleography is a very inexact science (which may well be) or it is not unthinkable that a forger wrote in a fourth-century script on a blank piece of papyrus that was very old, but not quite old enough.

The April 2014 issue of HTR is not yet available online, but I look forward to reading the articles when they come out (and when I have time). But my opinion on this is not particularly important. It will be the evaluations of the Coptologists, paleographers, specialists in radiocarbon dating, and historians of late antique Christianity which matter. I will be looking for clear information on who did the tests (which seems to be given) and replies to the literary, paleographic, and papyrological objections. I would also like to know more about the dating of the lamp black, which is reportedly "ancient" also, but what does that mean? What is the range of possible dates and how does the range compare to the dating of the papyrus?

This round goes to those who think that the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment is a genuinely ancient literary artifact. I'm still skeptical, but maybe we did win the lottery on this one. But the really good and important news is that the material is being published in a peer-review journal. Now the discussion can start in earnest.

Background here with many links.

Also, it really doesn't need to be repeated, but I'll repeat it anyway, that if this fragment is genuine, it still tells us nothing about whether Jesus was married or not. At best it preserves speculation from a century or more (perhaps much more) after Jesus' time. That, of course, would be of considerable interest to historians of early Christianity, but not for the study of the Historical Jesus.

UPDATE: More in the NYT: Papyrus Referring to Jesus’s Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say (LAURIE GOODSTEIN). Regarding the ink:
The “Jesus’s Wife” papyrus was analyzed at Columbia University using micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of the ink. James T. Yardley, a professor of electrical engineering, said in an interview that the carbon black ink on this fragment was “perfectly consistent with another 35 or 40 manuscripts that we’ve looked at,” that date from 400 B.C. to A.D. 700 or 800.

At M.I.T.’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, Timothy M. Swager, a chemistry professor, and two students used infrared spectroscopy to determine whether the ink showed any variations or inconsistencies.

“The main thing was to see, did somebody doctor this up?” Dr. Swager said in an interview. “And there is absolutely no evidence for that. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.”


A forger could easily create carbon black ink by mixing candle soot and oil, he [Dr. Depuydt] said: “An undergraduate student with one semester of Coptic can make a reed pen and start drawing lines.

But the scientists say that modern carbon black ink looks very different under their instruments. ...”
How about ancient ink recovered from an ancient inkwell and rehydrated with distilled water? One can find inkwells dating to somewhere in the vicinity of the relevant period on eBay, although I don't know if such are ever found with desiccated ink inside.

CORRECTION: The April 2014 issue of HTR is available online here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jodi Magness reports that one of the inkwells discovered at Qumran still "contained the remains of dried ink" (The Archaeology of Qumran and The Dead Sea Scrolls [Eerdmans, 2002], p. 60). So it does happen. (HT private communication from Dan McClellan.)

STILL ANOTHER UPDATE: See the blog posts by Christopher Rollston, Larry Hurtado, and Robert Cargill. And further, James McGrath has much linkage.

Volokh on the Golb case

EUGENE VOLOKH: Crime to e-mail your roommate’s girlfriend saying ‘he really is a useless person’? Volokh, who is a Constitutional lawyer Law Professor, seems to think it not unlikely that some or all of the charges in the Raphael Golb identity-theft-case appeal will be upheld, but he also thinks that the prosecutor is reading the criminal harassment statute dangerously broadly.

Background on the Golb case is here and links.

Frogs or crocodiles?

HAARETZ: Word of the Day / Tzefarde'a: A weird word for an unimpressive plague. Could it be that the rabbis have had it wrong all these centuries, and the plague was actually of crocodiles? Short answer: probably not. As the article notes, the evidence for the meaning "frog" goes back to the Septuagint, whereas the suggestion of the meaning "crocodile" is medieval.
The [five-letter-root] Hebraic word is also pretty unique among the Semitic languages, whose words for "frog" are similar – but only slightly so. Arabic has ḍifda, Aramaic has orda’a, Ge'ez has karn’na’at, while old Egyptians called the pop-eyed amphibian the krar.

As this is the case, how can we be sure that the plague of frogs was really a plague of frogs, especially since the word only appears in the Bible in relation to the same plague and in no other context?

The answer is that we can’t be entirely sure. In fact, in the 12th century Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra suggested tzefarde'a actually means "crocodile." That would surely have been much worse than a plague of frogs.