Saturday, August 02, 2003

"ANCIENT ART AT MET RAISES OLD ETHICAL QUESTIONS" (New York Times). Should scholars use and publish or ignore and boycott unprovenanced ancient artifacts obtained from antiquities dealers and collectors? A very controversial topic among specialists. Via David Nishimura at Cronaca, who also cites my earlier post on problems with unprovenanced inscriptions (but note my comments to his post).
THE TOP TEN BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERIES, as ranked by New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan and archaeologist Jonathan Reed, are given in this Washington Post article (requires free registration). It has a heavy bias toward discoveries that illuminate the New Testament: Qumran, with Madasa, only comes in at number 8 and there is no mention at all of the Ugaritic texts or the Iron Age epigraphic finds. I wonder if the book this comes from didn't make clear that this was about New Testament-related finds and this article missed that point. The "James Ossuary" comes in at number one, which, despite the rationale given, seems to me to be overdoing it. Even if it turned out to be genuine it wouldn't tell us much new. The Dead Sea Scrolls (which I would rank as number one) and the Ugaritic texts (which I would rank as second) both give us vastly more new information. And the major excavations, such as Caesarea and Jerusalem (number 6) and Sepphoris and Tiberias (number 7) add much more cumulative data too.

Friday, August 01, 2003

ANOTHER ACCOUNT OF THE PREMIER OF THE "JAMES, BROTHER OF JESUS" DOCUMENTARY appears in the Jerusalem Post (requires free registration; via Bible and Interpretation News). There was a panel of experts, Oded Golan was present, and questions were taken from the audience. I always try to be wary of press reports, but if this version is accurate, the authenticity of the "James Ossuary" is still up in the air. Ultimately, this is going to be decided, if at all, in the realm of scholarly journals and monographs, and it's likely to take time.

My favorite quotation:

However, as one audience member was overheard commenting regretfully to his companion, "Too bad it was a fake. Just think how many millions of Christian tourists would start visiting the Israel Museum were it real."

Yes, quite.
THE TEMPLE MOUNT has again been closed to non-Muslim visitors.
THE JEWISH MUSEUM IN NEW YORK HAS REDESIGNED ITS WEBSITE. Note in particular its antiquities collection and its numismatics collection, both of which have items of paleojudaic interest. (If when you click on the individual items you get a larger photograph but black background with no text, try selecting the black area to the right; that made the text visible for me.) There is also a profile of their children's exhibition "Camels and Caravans: Daily Life in Ancient Israel" (Grades K - 3) which tells about life in first-century C.E. Jerusalem and which includes lesson plans with more photos of ancient artifacts.

The new website is profiled in detail by the Art Museum Network News.

Thursday, July 31, 2003


Robert J. Miller, THE JESUS SEMINAR AND THE PUBLIC (Bible and Interpretation News)

Miller describes the Seminar's methods and replies to its critics. Some excerpts:

There seems to be a widespread assumption that academics who speak publicly about religion should keep their views to themselves if they might be unsettling to the beliefs of mainstream Christians. For whatever reason, as a guild we biblical scholars have shirked our responsibility to participate in our culture as public intellectuals. That is why most Americans seem to regard the likes of Jerry Falwell as spokesmen for �the biblical perspective� on issues of public interest. As individuals, most scholars may well be content with being irrelevant to the larger culture, but the resulting impoverishment of public discourse on religion has real consequences. One example is that it is now a viable possibility that the teaching of evolution will disappear or be trivialized as �just a theory� in the public school curricula in certain places. Why have biblical scholars stayed out of this fight and left it up to scientists alone to battle creationism in the public forum? Shame on us.


What the Seminar has done (and what every scholar who communicates with the public has the responsibility to do) is to inform its audience that certain of its positions are shared by most biblical scholars. While the Seminar does not claim that most scholars agree with its specific presuppositions or conclusions, not even members of the Seminar agree on those, its fundamental understanding that some of the words attributed to Jesus were not actually spoken by him and that the gospels are a complex blend of fact and fiction does represent the consensus of critical scholarship.

While this is not news to scholars, it is news to the American public. A huge number of Americans believe that inerrancy is the only legitimate approach to the Bible and that to take the Bible seriously is to take it literally. Critics are right to protest that many scholars disagree with the Seminar's results, but they do a disservice if they perpetuate the impression that doubts about the historical accuracy of significant portions of the gospels are confined to some radical �faction� with �idiosyncratic opinions.� To help us think concretely about this problem, let�s move beyond general views about the gospels and consider some specific conclusions about their historicity. A survey of the Seminar�s results comes up with the following partial list of negative findings:

� Jesus did not claim to be the messiah or to be divine.
� Jesus did not demand that people �believe in� him or worship him.
� Jesus did not intend to establish a church or found a new religion.
� Jesus did not believe that his death would be a sacrifice for sins.
� There is no historical evidence that Jesus had no human father.
� There is no historical evidence that Jesus� corpse came back to life.

Those findings would surprise, even shock, most churchgoers, would they not? Yet how many critical scholars, indeed how many critical scholars who are Christians, would argue the opposite position on any of those assertions? Most of the Seminar�s positions that are perceived by the public as controversial or objectionable are actually well within the broad consensus of mainstream critical scholarship.

An interesting supplement to my comments below on historical Jesus scholarship. (Sorry, it's interesting in itself too. I just happened to be thinking about my last post when I read it.)

I think a fair number of scholars would have reservations about the first item in the bulleted list. There were other guys running around at the time who were regarded to be the messiah and such, so I would not rule out Jesus making such a claim. And Enoch and Melchizedek were human beings regarded to be gods or divine, so the concept of apotheosis was there in the first century. Whether Jesus made those claims (as he is represented to have in the Gospels) would have to be established on the basis of arguments from the surviving evidence, but the Jesus Seminar has never persuaded me to rule out the possibility.

Read it all.
THERE IS AN ESSAY ON MEL GIBSON'S THE PASSION by Professor Paula Fredriksen in New Republic Online. Unfortunately, it requires paid registration. But members of the ad-hoc committee called together by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League have posted some information on the Boston College website, based on the draft of the script they saw.

Me, I haven't seen the script or the movie and, although I'm not encouraged by the trailer, I'm going to wait to form an opinion until the movie is out and I've seen it. The problems in principle with this sort of project are, first, that the four Gospels are themselves internally inconsistent and, second, they were written long after the events they describe. There is much debate on how historical their accounts of the Passion are, and serious views range from taking them to be fairly accurate to taking them to be almost entirely made up. Doing any kind of artistic account of the Passion will involve a good deal of picking and choosing, not only among the Gospels but also among the available historical-critical reconstructions.

Also, if you mix in bits of things like the Emmerich visions (and I reserve judgment on whether Gibson has or not), then any claim to be trying to present a historically plausible account goes out the window.

You can find discussion of Fredriksen's piece in Andrew Sullivan's blog here (with the full text of the letter here - and keep scrolling up for more), in David Nishimura's blog Cronaca, in Pro Deo et Patria, in a press release by William Donohue on the Catholic League website, and in Rebecca Lesses's blog Mystical Politics. Some of these commentators obviously have very strong views on the matter! I'm sure there's more, but this is all I've been able to find (and I do have other things to do).

As for my humble opinion, all I have to say is that this is a movie, everybody. It's entertainment, and there's a long tradition of movies playing fast and loose with history, science, and pretty much anything else important. Movies aren't important: they're fun, but they rot your brain. They are usually not harmless but they are trivial. If you're working on this movie (or if you think you will like it when it comes out), don't be pretentious and take it personally when people point all this out. If you're not working on this movie but you don't like what you've seen of it, don't get upset. It's not worth it. It won't bring down civilization and it probably won't cause riots. At worst it may confirm a few idiots in idiotic opinions they already hold. At best it may give a lot of people a few hours of good gross entertainment. It doesn't matter. If you want something that matters, read a good book.

UPDATE: David Klinghoffer comments on Fredriksen's essay in the August issue of Forward Magazine.

UPDATE: Upon reflection, "usually not harmless" is an exaggeration. Many movies are harmless, I suppose. What I meant is that if they deal with anything important, where facts matter, they tend to be careless and to get a lot of things wrong. But they are trivial, so let's not take them too seriously.

UPDATE (1 August): Leon Zizter comments on Fredriksen's essay in his Historical Jesus blog (permalink not working at the moment, but scroll down to the 7/26 entry).

UPDATE (2 August): David Nishimura at Cronaca (same link as above but updated), disagrees with me about the importance of movies and offers the 1915 Klan revival hit "Birth of a Nation" as evidence. Point taken. Let's hope that The Passion does not turn out to be as destructively idiotic or have such a large concentration of idiots receptive to it if it is. I think both are unlikely, myself. And I still think the best response here is to say, "It's a Hollywood movie; of course it's going to be silly." Not that I wouldn't be pleased if Mel Gibson proves me wrong.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

TC HAS AN OBITUARY OF THEODORE CRESSY SKEAT (15 February 1907 - 23 June 2003), Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum until 1972. He was involved in the conservation of the Codex Sinaiticus when it was acquired and he was an authority on ancient Greek paleography, manuscripts, and codices. Requiescat in pace.

Okay, so it's a slow news day.

(What does this have to do with matters paleojudaic? Well, Lara has explored the Tomb of Ezekiel, you know. If you insist on something more serious, check out this article on "Petra's Great Temple" from a few years ago. Be sure to follow the link at the bottom of the page to the Brown University site on the excavation of the temple. As far as I know, Lara hasn't been to Petra, although Indiana Jones has.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A BYZANTINE-ERA SYNAGOGUE IN THE GOLAN HEIGHTS has some surprises for excavators:

Archaeology / When Golan worshipers faced south (Ha'aretz via Archaeologica News

By Ran Shapira

Zvi Maoz says that every day excavations at a synagogue among the ruins of the village of Dir Aziz force him to rip another page from his doctoral thesis on synagogues in the Golan Heights. Dir Aziz synagogue, next to Moshav Kanaf, has been excavated over the last five seasons and differs in many respects from other synagogues in the area.

Until excavations began here, archaeologists had speculated that in Golan Heights synagogues the Ark was adjacent to the western wall, one of the two shorter sides of the rectangular-shaped structure. This would allow believers to face the general direction of Jerusalem while praying.

In Dir Aziz, however, the worshipers faced south toward the long wall of the structure, not the one along the width. This is indicated by a space that juts out from the southern lengthwise wall of the synagogue, where the Ark apparently was located.

In this respect, the structure of the Dir Aziz synagogue resembles that of synagogues in the southern Hebron hills. The special niche for the Ark found in the Golan Heights' synagogue is also typical of synagogues in the southern Hebron hills, and especially those found in Susiya and Eshtamoa. Another unique feature of the Dir Aziz synagogue is the bas-reliefs of animals in the stone and wreath designs drawn on the whitewash.



Fisk, Bruce Norman
Do You Not Remember?: Scripture, Story and Exegesis in the Rewritten Bible of Pseudo-Philo

Azevedo, Joaquim
A Simplified Coptic Dictionary (Sahidic Dialect)

Sandberg, Ruth N.
Development and Discontinuity in Jewish Law

S. W. Crawford,
"The Dead Sea Scrolls: Retrospective and Prospective"

Most of this issue is dedicated to the legacy of W. F. Albright. Unfortunately, the link to the current issue is dead.
I AM URGED TO BE CAUTIOUS about unprovenanced inscriptions such as those found in the Moussaieff collection. Cynthia Edenburg sends the following:

From p. 214 of the review by N. Na'aman of N.S. Fox, In the Service of the King. Officialdom in Ancient Israel and Judah, Cincinnati 2000, in Zion 67 (2002), pp. 213-218 [Hebrew]. The following section was translated by C. Edenburg, who apologizes if any misrepresentation has resulted.

"Fox discusses the epigraphic sources, and rightly emphasizes the grave dangers involved in depending upon materials found in the antiquities market. It should be stressed that a large part of the epigraphic findings surfaced first on the market, and it is extremely difficult to validate the authenticity of such articles. Anyone who has participated in excavations and knows how few epigraphic finds are uncovered during them, cannot help but being amazed at the endless number of findings which derive from unknown sources, and wonder what at the magic touch of antiquities robbers and dealers, into whose hands epigraphic finds fall repeatedly. It seems to me that only in a few cases, when the forgers were not adequately adept, have scholars succeeded in uncovering the forgery, but it is doubtful whether this is always possible. The antiquities market is very profitable, therefore skilled people have learned the 'secrets of the trade', and they can churn out articles whose recent provenance cannot be proven. I shall point to one example to illustrate how implausible is the picture arising from the findings amassed by now, but one could add many more cases. According to N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West-Semitic Stamp Seals published recently (1997), the number of seals and sealings identified as Hebrew is drastically greater (711) than the number of items identified as Aramaic (107), Ammonite (149), Moabite (59) or Phoenician (38). Even if we add to this number a few dozen Aramaic cylinder seals, the ratio of Hebrew items to all the others still remains unfathomable. However, we may find a self-evident solution to this puzzle, if we consider that the origin of most of the seals and sealings is on the antiquities market. "Due to these doubts, Fox decided to refrain from discussion of unprovenanced epigraphic sources. She mentions them in footnotes, but refrains from using them as a basis for any of her conclusions. In this, her approach differs from that of Y. Avishur and M. Helzer (Issues in Royal Administration in Israel according to Pre-exilic Epigraphic Sources, Jerusalem 1996 [Hebrew]), who relied heavily on materials originating on the antiquities market. Fox's cautious approach on this sensitive issue is commendable, and it supplies a stronger documentary foundation for her study than that employed by the other studies published so far."

Interesting. I recall that Robert Deutsch took us in detail through his authentication procedure for the bullae he was discussing, so the people working with this material are not unaware of the problem. This issue is, of course, quite relevant for the "James Ossuary" at the moment and it even arises for the Dead Sea Scrolls (which, of course, were mostly recovered by the Bedouin, not archaeologists). There is, for example, some doubt of the provenance of 4QGenesisb, which I published in DJD 12. It is supposed to come from Cave 4, but we weren't able to locate any fragments of it among the bits excavated from the cave, and its script and text leaves open the possibility that it actually came from one of the finds of texts from the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Likewise, some documentary texts originally assigned to Cave 4 now seem actually to have come from Bar-Kokhba-era finds. But in these cases the issue is provenance and date, not authenticity.

Monday, July 28, 2003


DNA could help date ancient manuscripts (Cambridge News via Archaeologica News)

By Rose Taylor

A TECHNIQUE being developed in Cambridge could help identify the date and place of origin of ancient manuscripts.

Biochemist Christopher Howe and colleagues are working on a method that will reveal which species of animal a particular parchment comes from.

By extracting the DNA of a parchment, using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, amplifying it and studying the sequence, the scientists hope to find the skin used to produce it.

Dr Howe, who works at Cambridge University's Department of Biochemistry, said: "Once you know which species of animal the parchment comes from, you might be able to see if other sheets of parchment came from the same animal using genetic finger-printing.

"Then, if you had a book whose origins you are not sure about, you could show it had similar DNA as the other parchment and you could say it came from a similar flock.


The potential applications to the Dead Sea Scrolls and related manuscripts are obvious.

Experts, dealer clash over James Ossuary's authenticity (The Globe and Mail, Canada)

Associated Press and Canadian Press

Jerusalem � Is an inscription linked to James, the brother of Jesus, authentic or fake? Tempers flared over the question at the showing of a documentary about the case and a new interview dismissing an Israeli finding that led to the arrest of an antiquities dealer on suspicion of forging sacred artifacts.

Dealer Oded Golan, out on bail, was at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Sunday night, defending his relics and his honour. Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici was there to back him up.

But Israeli experts dismissed the show with a wave of the hand, pointing to their own findings that indicated that someone forged the James inscription for profit.

The ill will between the two sides overflowed several times, as each blamed the other of conspiracy, misdeed and bad faith.

The Jerusalem screening of the Discovery Channel documentary James, Brother of Jesus and the heated panel discussion that followed provided plenty of fireworks but no clear answers.

Mr. Golan was arrested last week. Police showed items they said they found at his house, including stencils, stones and utensils.

Mr. Golan said the items weren't his. He also said that the burial box, or ossuary, that carried the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," had been in his house since the 70s, when he acquired it, and claimed he didn't know how important it was.

In June, a 14-member panel from the Israeli Antiquities Authority declared the inscription on the ossuary a clever modern day forgery. The body also labelled as fake a tablet purporting to contain instructions for maintaining the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and police suspect Golan crafted both artifacts. No charges have been filed.


This doesn't add up. How could he be required to post bail if no charges were filed?
THE FRENCH CITY OF TROYES is gearing up to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the death of Rashi in 2005.

French town hopes an anniversary will spur interest in a famous son (JTA News)

By Philip Carmel

TROYES, France, July 27 (JTA) � The project is still in the initial planning stages, but the birthplace of the medieval biblical commentator Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac is determined not to miss out this time.

In 2005, Troyes, the ancient capital of the Counts of Champagne in northern France, will celebrate the 900th anniversary of the death of its most famous son, known to the Jewish world by his acronym of Rashi.

The author of the monumental commentary on the Talmud and the Torah, Rashi was born in Troyes in 1040, and although his grave has never been found, scholars believe he died there in about 1105.

For obvious reasons, the town missed out on the anniversary of Rashi�s birth in 1940. The Champagne region around Troyes had as its prefect Rene Bousquet, who later headed the Vichy police and was responsible for numerous roundups of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France.


Rashi�s family probably came to Troyes from across the Rhine in Germany, and he himself spent some 10 years studying in the Rhineland at Worms in the famous Yeshiva of Mainz, founded by Rabbeinu Gershom, the �Light of the Diaspora.�


Across the narrow street from the synagogue is the Rashi Institute, which provides courses in Jewish studies and regularly stages conferences.


By the 13th century, his commentaries on the Bible were being quoted by Christian theologians in Paris. Because Rashi wanted his work to be understandable for the Jews he knew and lived with in Troyes, the style and language of his writings earned him the sobriquet �Hatzarfati,� or �the Frenchman.�

As a result, wherever there is a need to explain a difficult word in the text of the Hebrew or Aramaic in his Torah or Talmud commentaries, Rashi does not hesitate to use his own language. There are therefore almost 3,000 words of 11th-century Champenois French inserted into Rashi�s writing, a valuable source for researchers of the development of the French language.

Despite the fact that Rashi both taught and wrote in Troyes, Samoun said he was almost certainly not the city�s rabbi.

Rather, Rashi, like other medieval scholars, was strict in upholding the talmudic injunction against earning one�s living from teaching the Torah.

In fact, he owned vineyards and was a winemaker � very much in keeping with the Champagne region in which he lived.

Sunday, July 27, 2003


This Catholic Telegraph article begins:

CATHEDRAL DEANERY � A musical project has become an avenue of expanded spirituality for the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE), which recently performed at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains. Their latest CD, "Ancient Echoes," is a collection of music from Jerusalem�s Second Temple era (after about 540 B .C.) and the time of Christ. Saying prayers in the language Jesus spoke, said artistic director Christopher Moroney, "is a way to understand Jesus in a more authentic way."

They also had to learn about the anthropology, sociology, religion and language of the time, he said. Although he and his wife, Covita, SAVAE�s general manager, had talked about the project for 20 years, they couldn�t proceed because they couldn�t find anyone to teach them Aramaic.

Twenty years? I can't imagine that they tried that hard. There are plenty of hungry Aramaists out there, I regret to say.

Anyhow, toward the end, there is this odd paragraph:

In some instances, the English translation can be almost opposite the original. The couple offered as an example the word "Abwoon," from the Lord�s Prayer, which emphasizes the relationship between the Creator and the created rather than the masculine connotations of the word "Father."

The word "Abwoon" sounds to me like some dialectal variant of Aramaic for "our father." Unless I'm missing some deep philological subtlety, the rest is New Age, P.C. claptrap.

Ah well, at least their music is kind of interesting.
THERE IS A SUMMARY OF THE IAA REPORT ON THE "JOASH INSCRIPTION" AND THE "JAMES OSSUARY on the Biblical Archaeology Society website (URL sent to me by reader Stephen Goranson). It looks to me as though the final verdict on the ossuary inscription will come down to how convincing geologists and materials scientists overall find the reports of the Materials Committee. Everyone agrees that the "Joash Inscription" is a fake.
NEW BOOK REVIEWS from the Review of Biblical Literature:

Dimant, Devorah
Qumran Cave 4, XXI: Parabiblical Texts, Part 4: Pseudo-Prophetic Texts

Roukema, Reimer, and John Bowden
Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity: An Introduction to Gnosticism

Sim, David
The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism: The History and Social
Setting of the Matthean Community

Boccaccini, Gabriele
Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel

Jaffee, Martin S.
Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200
B.C.E.-400 C.E.