Saturday, August 30, 2003

GEORGE NICKELSBURG has a new book out:

Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation


In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, Christian scholars portrayed Judaism as the dark religious backdrop to the liberating events of Jesus� life and the rise of the early church. Since the 1950s, however, a dramatic shift has occurred in the study of Judaism, driven by new manuscript and archaeological discoveries and new methods and tools for analyzing sources. George Nickelsburg here provides a broad and synthesizing picture of the results of the past fifty years of scholarship on early Judaism and Christianity. He organizes his discussion around a number of traditional topics: scripture and tradition, Torah and the righteous life, God�s activity on humanity�s behalf, agents of God�s activity, eschatology, historical circumstances, and social settings. Each of the chapters discusses the findings of contemporary research on early Judaism, and then sketches the implications of this research for a possible reinterpretation of Christianity. Still, in the author�s view, there remains a major Jewish�Christian agenda yet to be developed and implemented.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST got it right too. Last week I watched the video: there are two crucifixion close-ups and both clearly show the nails going through the wrists, not the palms. I won't carp about the movie's historical inaccuracies and weirdnesses, since both the book and the movie make clear that the story is just the fantasy of Nikos Kazantzakis. But it's worth noting that, nevertheless, Martin Scorsese did bother to get that crucifixion detail right. I have some other comments that include spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie and intend to, don't read the next paragraph.

I'm struck by the "Gnostic" themes taken up in the story, things found particularly in the Nag Hammadi library. The docetic myth, which inverts the traditional meaning of the crucifixion story, is itself inverted to a procosmic stance. And then there's laughing savior on the cross. For both, read The Apocalypse of Peter. Some of the Nag Hammadi texts also make Mary Magdalene a close confidante of Jesus, although not, um, that close (e.g., the Dialogue of the Savior and � the non-Nag Hammadi text in the Berlin Museum � the Gospel of Mary). The theme of the "holy whore" also appears: see for example The Thunder: Perfect Mind. I don't think Kazantzakis could have read all these in 1955 when the book was published, but perhaps he picked up on descriptions of similar heretical ideas criticized at length in the Church Fathers. Or maybe he just had Gnostic revelatory fantasies. If you're interested in this stuff, you should invest in James Robinson's (ed.) The Nag Hammadi Library, which translates the texts, and John Dart's The Jesus of Heresy and History (earlier title, The Laughing Savior) which gives a basic, nontechnical and user-friendly introduction to them and their context and implications. Unfortunately the latter is out of print, but you can pick up a used copy from Amazon at the link above. You can read selections from the Nag Hammadi texts, along with lots of other interesting information, at the Gnostic Society Library website.

Friday, August 29, 2003

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS disses the Ten Commandments. A bit shrill, especially toward the end, but he makes some good points. Strangely, he seems to think it's debatable whether Moses was "pre-Christian."


The Order: Directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Mark Addy.

Ledger plays a New York priest investigating the death of the head of his order, whose body was covered in religious symbols and Aramaic writing. He heads off to Rome and discovers the murder may have been committed by a sect known as the Sin Eaters. Sossamon plays an artist whom he once helped by performing an exorcism on her, and Addy plays another priest who helps him out. Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay for L.A. Confidential, also directed A Knight's Tale.

I thought the Sin Eaters were British (scroll down for entry). What's with the Aramaic? Weird.

UPDATE: Anders at Phluzein comments.

James A. Sanders, "Avenues of Access to Scripture in Early Jewish Literature," a review of David L. Washburn, A Catalog of Biblical Passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Abstract: David Washburn's A Catalog of Biblical Passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the latest example of an index or catalog of biblical passages found in early Jewish literature. It is compared with the earlier efforts by Scanlin, VanderKam/Flint, Abegg, and others. Despite its shortcomings, Washburn provides a useful tool for scholars, but future publications of a similar nature could be improved by considering the publications mentioned in the present article and by being more comprehensive in scope.

OUR SCHOOL LIBRARIAN just casually mentioned to me that for space reasons they have to get rid of Lane's multi-volume Arabic-English Lexicon and would I like it. Hyperventilating around the fangs I'd just grown, I told him yes please. Plus they're giving me the Lewis and Short Dictionary of Latin.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

The Zayed Centre has officially been shut down for "engaging in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance."
I BLOGGED ON THE "REVADIM" ("Layers" in English) approach to Talmud some time ago. Here's the website of the Revadim program (via Protocols).

What would Jesus Speak? (Forward Magazine)

Probably no film in history has been written about as much before its public debut as Mel Gibson's new movie about the last days of Jesus. Many of the critics and scholars who have seen it screened in advance have accused it of both antisemitism and historical ignorance � an ignorance all the more appalling in light of its pretensions to be cinema verit�.

One commonly cited illustration of this is the movie's choice of Aramaic and Latin as the two languages spoken by its characters � the former by Jesus, his disciples and other Jews, and the latter by non-Jews. In fact, as has been pointed out, the language of most non-Jews in the Palestine of Jesus' time was Greek and not Latin, which would have been spoken only by Roman officials and soldiers conversing among themselves. And to Jews like Jesus, such men, too, would have spoken in Greek, since this was the lingua franca of the country.

In the early centuries C.E., Greek and Aramaic were indeed the two languages most widely spoken throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean world; Latin, though the official language of the Roman Empire, was rarely used east of Italy. It was a newcomer to the Levant, having arrived only with the Roman military occupation of the region in the first century B.C.E. Greek, on the other hand, had been around since the fourth century, when it was spread as far east as Persia and Afghanistan by Alexander the Great's conquering army, which left behind ruling elites that Hellenized vast stretches of territory � especially along the Mediterranean littoral from Syria to Egypt, where it was, by the time of Jesus, the language of the educated and urbanized classes. Aramaic � a more ancient Middle-Eastern lingua franca originally disseminated by the expansion of the Assyrian Empire hundreds of years before Alexander � remained the tongue of the uneducated, the peasantry and minority groups like the Jews that refused to be Hellenized. (Apart, that is, from the large Jewish community of Egypt, which went over to Greek entirely, perhaps because the language of the Egyptian countryside was not Aramaic but Coptic.)


Read on for a story about a rabbi, an expensive courtesan, and Greek.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR IS UPON US and other people (heh heh) need to be thinking about class preparations. As a public service, I refer you to the following article (via Arts & Letters Daily):

PowerPoint is Evil
HERE'S A PETRA TRAVELOGUE from the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:

How did it all begin? Archeological findings prove that the Nabateans were not the first inhabitants of this region; they were preceded by groups of hunters and food gatherers who came in about 9,000 BCE. Then came the Orites, who were chased away by the Edomites, a people of Semitic origin.

But the creation of the magnificent Petra is attributed to the ancient Nabateans, one of the nomadic Arab tribes that migrated north from present-day Yemen as part of Babylonian expansionism. The year was around 600 BCE, and the Nabateans, who wandered the region's mountains, are known to have begun as highway robbers when the spice trade became the prominent activity of the day.

By the mid-fourth century BCE, the Nabateans had already settled Petra and taken control of the trade routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean, Egypt and Mesopotamia. With Petra located at the crossroads of these routes, prosperity came quickly. The Nabateans supplied the caravans with food and water, imposed a levy, and themselves traded spices, silk, silver, and frankincense.

In the first century BCE, the Nabatean capital was already an affluent city, and the nomadic mindset came to be replaced by refined tastes for lavish dwellings and public buildings, a great many of which still exist, and are the main draw of today's Petra.


The end of the kingdom's 700 years of existence came suddenly, and without much resistance. In 106 CE, when the city was home to 30,000 residents, it was conquered by Roman troops and annexed to the empire. And then the Romans rerouted trade through Arabia, thus throwing the city into a long decline.

Ultimately, Petra would capitulate, not to conquerors but to the forces of nature. In 551 CE, a series of powerful earthquakes convinced the last inhabitants that it was time to leave. The grand homes crumbled, and Beduin nomads used the tombs and temples carved in the rock as shelter.

With lots of descriptions of specific monuments as well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003


Just which commandments are the 10 Commandments? (San Francisco Chronicle)

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

Let's say the Supreme Court of the United States allows the chief justice of the great state of Alabama to keep his 2-ton monument to the Ten Commandments in his office building in Montgomery.

Next question:

Which Ten Commandments?

You've got your Jewish Ten Commandments, your Catholic Ten Commandments, your Lutheran Ten Commandments, your Charlton Heston Ten Commandments, your King James Bible Ten Commandments, your New Revised Standard Version Ten Commandments, and they don't all agree as to which commandment is which -- or what they really mean.

Even the Bible contains two versions, one in Exodus 20:1-17 and a slightly different one in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

There are, of course, various English translations of those ancient Hebrew texts.

Further complicating the commandments are the fact that neither Exodus nor Deuteronomy neatly number the no-nos from one to 10. . . .

And it just gets worse from there.
HERE ARE THE LINKS to the recent articles on Mel Gibson's The Passion by Eric J. Greenberg in the Jewish Week:

"Burning �Passion�"

"Jews Horrified By Gibson�s Jesus Film"

"Gibson To Launch �Jewish Initiative�"

Kindly sent to me by Carla Sulzbach.
THE ENOCHIAN DISCUSSION LIST is not about the academic study of Enoch, it's a venue for practicing Enochic magicians to discuss their craft. (Found via someone's Google search for "enochian movie," which led them here. I hope they find their movie.) This list is run by Jerry Schueler, who also has a very full Enochian website that I haven't noted before, and the list has been going on since 2001. All the postings are archived. If you want to listen in on actual magicians talking with each other about what they do, have a look. Enoch lives!

My interest is anthropological and I have a pretty high tolerance for such things. But as in my earlier posting on Enochiana, if occult materials make you uncomfortable, best leave these sites alone.
JAMES CAVIEZEL (Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion) is here in St. Andrews right now, working on the film "Stroke of Genius," the story of golfer Bobby Jones.

Small world.
RUMOR HAS IT that distributors are lining up to take on Mel Gibson's The Passion, which, it seems, may have to change its title.

Bechtel, Carol M.

Oakman, Douglas E. and K. C. Hanson
Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts

Monday, August 25, 2003


Egyptian Plans To Sue Jews Over Exodus Gold (Forward Magazine via Jim West on Ioudaios-L)

A prominent Egyptian legal scholar is preparing a lawsuit against Jews around the world over gold allegedly stolen in biblical times during the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

Nabil Hilmy, dean of the faculty of law at Egypt's Zagazig University, announced his plan in the Egyptian government weekly, Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute � known as MEMRI � a group that specializes in translating articles in the Arab media. Hilmy reportedly told Al-Ahram that if the story of the exodus is to be believed, Jews fleeing Egypt "stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth, which today is priceless."

Calling the alleged heist the "greatest fraud history has ever known," Hilmy said that he and a number of Egyptian jurists will sue "the Jews of the world" for these lost treasures, the value of which Hilmy estimates in the trillions of dollars.

Trillions of tons of gold, actually.

Here's a link to the excerpted MEMRI translation of the Al-Ahram Al-Arabi interview. My favorite bits:

The inteviewer asks:

"It is clear why they stole the gold, but why the cooking utensils?"

Last question and response:

Question: "Is a compromise solution possible?"

Hilmi: "There may be a compromise solution. The debt can be rescheduled over 1,000 years, with the addition of the cumulative interest during that period."

Even my sarcasm fails me.

UPDATE: MEMRI is a pretty reputable source, so I don't doubt that they're translating what they found. I would really, really like to believe that Al-Ahram Al-Arabi is indulging in a "he looks!" spoof, but even if that turns out to be so, the interview is awfully anti-Semitic, as Eugene Volokh points out. And Judith Weiss at Kesher Talk collects various answers to the proposed lawsuit on the level it deserves. Lots of people in the Blogosphere and elsewhere are scratching their heads over this one.
AMAZON LISTMANIA: "Egyptian Jews & Elephantine Mystery" by "didaskalex."
JUST NOTICED some of the response to my snarky exchange with Meredith Scheck about biblical scholars and their roommates last month (see comments section to this Protocols post). I didn't intend to call Meredith "stupid" but rather to say (sarcastically) that I wouldn't want to have a roommate who held the view she expressed. I think we both intended and took our exchange as a joke, but obviously I offended some people. I let my sarcasm get the better of me on this one (not the first time in my life, I regret to say) and I should not have replied in kind to Meredith's comment - which had amused rather than offended me.

I apologize to Meredith and readers.

Memo to future self: sarcasm on the web comes out worse than you intend. Write one hundred times on the blackboard.

"History" and "Writing" (Bible and Interpretation)

Did the authors and editors of Scripture ever intend to write what we define as "history?" If they did not, many of our arguments about the historicity of the Bible in modern terms become meaningless.

By Charles David Isbell [not "Isabell" - JRD]
Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
August 200

If one rules out the extremists in both Christianity and Judaism, fundamentalists and black-hat haredim, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who believes that there is such a thing as �objective� historical truth. All history is somebody�s opinion. Still in all, �history� is perhaps the one word most frequently misunderstood and misused by scholars and students of the Bible. Too often, the source of this misunderstanding is a presumption that the Bible should meet the standard of something called �history� in the modern sense of the word but that the authors and editors of the biblical narratives were simply not sophisticated enough to understand what is meant today by �history.� The sad fact is that this dismissal of the ancients is likely to be done by modern writers whose own grasp of �history� is itself seldom clearly enunciated.

Two of the questions posed by Professor Provan leap to the fore here. �What is the nature of our knowledge of the past? What are historical �facts�?� And Provan is correct that as a group pursuing this discussion, we have not produced answers that are plain enough to allow us to be sure that we are all talking about the same thing. The compelling �Minimalism� debate among biblical scholars unfolding on this site involves more than anything else a definition of �history� as found in biblical texts. Far too often, even this debate among scholars centers around modern theoretical models and personal ideologies. Often too, we read the conclusion that it is the lack of sophistication of the ancients that stands in the way of our ability to perceive the true meaning of their writings just because we are so modern. That is, in their simple and pre-modern state, they may have thought they were writing history, but of course we know that they were not.

But although Provan�s questions are compelling, I believe there is another question that should be answered first: Did the authors and editors of Scripture ever intend to write what we define as �history?� If they did not, many of our arguments about the historicity of the Bible in modern terms become meaningless. As we attempt to set ideology aside and as we inquire after the Bible�s own internal witness to its purposes, the evidence is surprising.

The rest of the article is very difficult to excerpt, but the concluding paragraph reads:

If the Bible is read only as a search for �facts,� then most of its message will be lost, for the authors of the Bible were not interested in �just the facts.� They looked at the ways in which �facts� which they assumed true influenced people to live. That is why the Bible is so difficult to read and understand. We want to know facts of a kind that the Bible most often does not give. But it does not follow that because their interest in �history� was different from ours we may pronounce them at fault, even less that we may accuse them of twisting the truth to create out of whole cloth a piece of writing they themselves knew to be false and did not believe. We may be so arrogant as to assume that we know better than they did what they should have put in their �Bible.� But I doubt that they were so arrogant as to presume readers would be so gullible that both their present and all later generations [including us] could be fooled by ideas they themselves knew fully well to be mere fiction.

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. Allow me to respond on a few issues. If the point is that the biblical writers thought that they were describing real historical events, of which they were giving us the true interpretation, I agree completely. However, isn't it important that from our perspective as critical historians the evidence for many of the stories they tell is so weak and problematic that we would never consider believing they really happened if they were from anywhere but the Bible? This is a point virtually universally agreed upon by specialists, the difference between minimalists and maximalists begin one of degree. The good faith of the biblical writers isn't in doubt (at least to me). Their competence as historians by our lights is another matter entirely.

If Professor Isbell is saying that the authors knew they were writing edifying literature rather than history, I agree. If he is saying they knew they were writing fiction (and I'm not sure whether he is or not), I disagree. Their moralizing was based on what they thought were the actual facts, even though they knew they were not writing history per se. At least some of the point of their moralizing would be lost if the events didn't happen. If he is saying we can't tell whether much of what they tell really happened or not, I suppose I agree, but then we have no business trying to use it as history for our own purposes (and it's perfectly reasonable for us to ask our own historical questions of the text for our own agenda).

It seems to me that a false dichotomy between moralizing and history is being set up here. The biblical writers thought they were giving true theological interpretations of events and facts that were real. Their interpretations are ultimately unfalsifiable but we can still test the veracity of the alleged events and facts they were interpreting and we may well decide they were wrong about some of those events and facts. It's important for us to understand and appreciate their agenda but it's also important for us to evaluate their work for ours. This is not grousing or declaring the biblical writers to be failures. It is not haranguing them or pronouncing them at fault.

But don't accept my interpretation! Read it all yourself and see what you think.
ON BOTCHING THE BIBLE: A newspaper finally notices that it's the Book of "Revelation" not "Revelations." This article, by William Safire's language consultant Jeffrey McQuain, is nicely done and amusing, and - all too unusual for a newspaper article - I couldn't find any errors in it.

UPDATE: The link above is to the New York Times, where the article originates, and requires free registration to access. But you can also read it without registering at ABS-CBN News (Philippines).

Sunday, August 24, 2003

PHLUZEIN is a blog on archaeology by Anders Bell. (Via David Meadows's Rogue Classicism," which he warns us won't launch officially until September. He warns us in one of his seven posts for 23 August - with seven posts and counting today, so I'm looking forward to when the blog actually starts and he gets serious.)
I'M A LITTLE TIRED of Mel Gibson and The Passion, so I haven't posted much on it for a while. But I seem to be the only one who's tired, so here's an update on what's going on. Michael Novak saw the rough cut and he liked it. Professor Amy-Jill Levine saw the leaked draft of the script and she didn't like it. The Baptist Press gives its take on the movie here. Eric J. Greenberg, Interfaith Affairs correspondent for the Jewish Week, has expressed serious concerns about the movie over the last few weeks. (A reader sent me copies of his articles. If I can find a URL I'll post it.) And some specialists on Ioudaios-L are wishing scholars would engage more with the public on such things (start at the link and just keep going to the next message). Note to my colleagues there: if you're serious about this, start a blog. I've been discussing this particular issue (and many others of public interest) for months and I could use some help. I suspect more people read my individual blog-post blatherings than read many of my professional articles. (Is that good or bad? I don't know.) And a lot of my readers are nonspecialists.

Skeleton find points to huge mediaeval graveyard below St Andrews town centre (Sunday Herald)

Archaeologists expect to find remains of at least 60 under popular tourist area
By Jo Ewart

The discovery of more than 50 human skeletons in a shallow grave beneath a St Andrews public library has provided the strongest evidence yet that the town centre is built over an extensive mediaeval graveyard.

�Every building in the entire central region of St Andrews is built on top of a mediaeval cemetery,� said the senior archaeologist at Fife Council archaeology unit, Douglas Speirs. �If you were to lift the floors in any one of the buildings in this area you would find what we have found.�


Independent contractor Thomas Rees of Rathmell Archaeology Limited is in charge of the ongoing excavations at the St Andrews and Hay Fleming Library. �We�re discovering skeletons from a range of age groups including babies and children, although this isn�t surprising because infant mortality was quite high back then,� he explained. ��It�s unusual that the skeletons have survived this long, however, because they were likely to have been disturbed by later burials.�


The 19th century public library is located next to Trinity Church, which was gifted to St Andrews in 1410. At that time, it was surrounded by a graveyard where the residents of the St Andrews area were buried. Speirs explained that the increasing pressure to find land on which to build meant that over time buildings began to encroach on the Trinity Church cemetery.

�As mediaeval cemeteries only had temporary grave markers and in some cases no grave markers at all, it was an easy process for buildings to slowly invade the green space of the graveyard in the middle of the town,� said Speirs. �Through this process, the graveyard was slowly built upon and, by the 18th century, it was almost completely covered over and a new cemetery spot was found at the east end of the town.�

Speirs believes that the entire central square in the historic university town is in fact built over several layers of human remains. �When you visit the Trinity Church there is a lovely paved walkway all around it and shops and buildings surrounding this,� Speirs said. �But of course all of these pavements and shops, including the library, are built on top of a mediaeval graveyard.


As I said, my office is across the street and down a bit from all this. I think I'm outside the "dead zone" (if you will), but only just. Gross!

UPDATE: In the first century C.E. the city of Tiberias had the same problem.
THE GRAPHIC NOVEL "I WITNESS," coming out next summer, will have some paleojudaic themes, including a first-century scroll discovered in Israel. Naturally, the contents turn out to "earthshaking."