Saturday, September 20, 2003

THE PHILADELPHIA SEMINAR ON CHRISTIAN ORIGINS (PSCO) has an ambitious and exciting agenda for this academic year. I take the liberty of reproducing the whole agenda from Bob Kraft's e-mail to the PSCO list:

To PSCO email list
With apologies for not communicating earlier

The pieces are now in hand to move forward with scheduling for the 41st year of the PSCO. We have received a small grant from the UPenn Humanities Forum to enable us to bring in some outside speakers, and we have secured a room at the conference hotel in Atlanta for a session on Friday evening, before the SBL/AAR conference proper. The following paragraphs briefly describe the topic for 2003-2004, with a very tentative list of possible times and topics/speakers. Except for the UPenn people, none of the proposed speakers has yet been contacted. The schedule is thus open for further suggestions and volunteers!

For the 2003-2004 Year, the 41st of the PSCO, the topic will continue from where the past year ended, and will focus on specific "biblical" personages with whom "parabiblical" materials have been associated, following up on the sort of biographical organization used by Montague Rhodes James in his 1920 publication of "Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: their Titles and Fragments Collected, Translated and Discussed" (now availabe online at )

The work by James is understandably badly in need of updating, and the internet provides an amenable format for such a task. And in addition, we propose to create an electronic "sister volume" that focuses on early Christian names and materials, along the lines explored in .

The program for PSCO 41 will approach the subject from the perspective of selected specific names that served as magnets for associating literature and traditions -- and with a view to creating appropriately updated electronic tools for such study.

As guidelines for presenters, the following suggestions may be useful:

1. The focus is on named "persons" (or groups such as "Watchers," "the 70") who play a significant role in the attributed authorship and/or main interest of "parabiblical literature" in Judaism and/or Christianity -- thus "prosopography" or "onomastics" as a general subtitle.

2. A primary criterion for selection is the connections of the "person" to (especially "parabiblical") literature and associated traditions -- what is the subject supposed to have written or to have been the primary interest for (e.g. Noah as author or as main focus).

3. Also of interest are the stories, traditions, legends, even art, that circulated around/about the "person," especially prior to the "fixing" of written materials with the success of the printing press in or about the 16th century (i.e. in the pre-print world).

Here is a very tentative schedule and list of possibilities:

Sept/Oct (probably Thursday, 9 October at UPenn):

"Overview of the Project with selected examples (OG & Watchers, DANIEL, GOSPEL OF MARY, BARNABAS)" (see the online materials noted above)
Robert Kraft, University of Pennsylvania (PSCO coordinator)

"Armenian Developments of Biblical Traditions: Transmission and Creativity" (with focus on Adam and Eve, Ezra, and a few others)
Michael E. Stone, Hebrew University

21 November 2003, 7-8:30 pm, Atlanta Mariott Marquis Hotel, Amsterdam Room (Convention Level): Panel of experts attending the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion in Atlanta GA, on the subject "Parabiblical Prosopography":

Focus question -- to what extent do popular narratives/reports about parabiblical identities (supposed authors and focal figures) assist us in understanding how the "parabiblical" literature was read/understood and transmitted/preserved?

some possible participants as resource people in discussion context (see, e.g., Stone & Bergren, Biblical Figures outside the Bible)--people likely to be in Atlanta but otherwise expensive as guests for Philadelphia/Princeton sessions --

NOTE: none of them have been contacted yet (although some are on the PSCO email list and will see this in planning)

John D. Turner (Univ Nebrasks at Lincoln), Seth and the Sethians
Philip Alexander (Manchester ENG), Enoch
Birger Pearson (Santa Barbara, Emeritus), Melchizedek, Norea, etc
J. Edward Wright (Univ Arizona), Baruch
James VanderKam (Notre Dame), Enoch, Noah
George Nickelsburg (Univ Iowa, Emeritus), Enoch and general
James Davila (St. Andrews SCOT), Rechabites
John Painter (Charles Sturt Univ), James the Just
Richard Bauckham (St. Andrews SCOT), James the Just
Burton Mack (Claremont), Mark
Scott Johnson (Oxford ENG), Thecla (S23-51)
Holly Hearon (Christian Theol Sem), Mary(s) (S23-125, S23-103)
Jane Schaberg (Univ Detroit), Jesus' women (S24-13)
Michael Kaler (Laval Univ), Paul (S24-15)
Christine Thomas (Santa Barbara), Peter (S24-101)
F.Stanley Jones (Cal State), Clement
Kirsti Copeland (Univ Redlands), John Baptist / Apoc. of James

January 2004:

"Parabiblical Traditions with Connections to Magic -- SOLOMON and PHILIP"
Sarah Schwarz, University of Pennsylvania
Debra Bucher, University of Pennsylvania

March 2004 (at Princeton) [some unconfirmed possibilities]

"The WATCHERS and GIANTS in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Traditions"
Annette Reed, McMaster University (Canada)
"JOSEPH AND ASENETH among the Ascetics"
Ross Kraemer, Brown University

April/May 2004: [unconfirmed suggestions -- others are most welcome as well]
"ADAM AND EVE in various Settings"
Gary Anderson, Notre Dame University
"MARY as the new Eve"
Ann Matter, University of Pennsylvania

Robert A. Kraft, Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
227 Logan Hall (Philadelphia PA 19104-6304); tel. 215 898-5827
MORE ON THE DALLAS EXHIBIT "From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Forbidden Book," with some Protestant-Catholic politics thrown in. The exhibit moves to Alabama in January.

"Bible history exhibit drawing thousands in Dallas" (Fort Worth Star Telegram)

The web page for the exhibit is at
THE "JAMES OSSUARY," Middle Eastern politics, the minimalist-maximalist debate, "Biblical" vs. "Syro-Palestinian" Archaeology, and much more:

"Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret" (Christianity Today, via the NT Gateway Blog)

I won't even try to excerpt it. Just go and read it all.

Mark Goodacre links to a reply to Akenson by Professor Bruce Waltke, a member of the advisory board for the Gospel of John:

"The Gospel of John: Let he who is without sin . . ." (again, in the Globe and Mail)

I don't want to get drawn much further into this one, but I think one thing needs to be pointed out. I don't blame Professor Waltke for being annoyed with Akenson's essay, which seemed to be written with the aim of irritating people, but I do think that if he's going to reply � especially with the same tone Akenson uses - he needs to keep his facts straight. Waltke writes:

In sum, Prof. Akenson's scholarship is poor, his tone is grating and his arguments bogus. Ironically, he piously asks us to redeem the text "by informed, discriminating and gentle scholarship," when his own diatribe amounts to hate literature against Mr. Drabinsky and Christians. I say "hate literature," because among many other charges, he maligns true believers as "lunatics" for believing "that Jesus's blood be shed to complete God's plan for the[ir] salvation."

No he doesn't. This is a serious misrepresentation of what Akenson says, and it amounts to a "dowdificiation." What he actually says is:

Historically, this [John's placing "almost all the blame" for the death of Jesus on the Jews] led to the lunatic charge of deicide (god-killing) against the Jews and their descendants: lunatic because the Christian scheme of things requires that Jesus's blood be shed to complete God's plan for the salvation of true believers, and slagging a rival religious group for its implementation of God's will is simply schizophrenic discourse.

In other words, the charge of deicide against the Jews is "lunatic" (which it is, and horrific besides) because, he says, it is internally inconsistent to say the death of Jesus was central to the plan of God and then turn around and charge the people who are accused of implementing the plan with a grievous sin for doing so. Nowhere does Akenson say that the Christian doctrine of atonement by the shed blood of Jesus is lunacy.

By the way, nearly six months of blogging has taught me that whatever newspaper editors are being paid, it's too much. The Globe and Mail has published a serious error in each of these essays (Akenson's misrepresentation of the Eighteen Benedictions and Waltke's misrepresentation of what Akenson said). Didn't major newspapers used to have fact-checkers? And when they publish a rebuttal to a piece in their own paper, doesn't anyone read both pieces to make sure the rebuttal responds to what the original piece actually said? (I know that I myself didn't catch the error in the first piece but, hey, nobody is paying me to do this, and I published a correction as soon as it was pointed out to me.)

UPDATE: I note that the definition of "dowdification" I linked to above is "deliberately omitting words or phrases to change the meaning of a quote." I would not include "deliberately" in the definition, since it involves trying to read the mind and motivations of the writer. To be perfectly clear, I'm not saying that Professor Waltke deliberately distorted Dr. Akenson's meaning. I don't think that: I assume the mistake was careless, not malicious.

Friday, September 19, 2003


Steve Fuller, Kuhn vs Popper: The struggle for the soul of science (via SciTech Daily Review)
Reviewed by Ray Percival, who runs the Karl Popper Forums.


Simply put, Kuhn championed what he called "normal science", which consists of scientists busily engaged in working out the puzzles presented within a set of assumptions - the "paradigm" - which remains unquestioned. Until, that is, the puzzles become overwhelming and the notorious paradigm shift occurs.

On the other hand, Popper championed the heroic conception of science. He associated this with deliberately revolutionary thinkers such as Newton and Einstein, and admonished scientists everywhere continually to question. His famous criterion that a theory is scientific if it can be falsified implies a continuous effort to overthrow theories - including accepted ones.


For Popper, the ideal of science allowed you to say that the whole of science may be wrong; Kuhn cannot allow this, because he made no distinction between history and normative standards. Yet Kuhn is classed as a radical, and Popper as a grumpy autocrat. Fuller sets out to explain and correct these misleading images.

Sounds about right to me, and it applies (or should apply) to the humanities as well. Kuhn's sociological theory is easy to use to blugeon the consensus without doing much constructive to advance it. (The graybearded conservatives stick to their tired old "paradigm" and refuse to look at the revolutionary new theory that that will "shift" it.) Popper's epistemology provides a much more constructive system for generating new theories and testing them to see if they actually improve on the state of the question. IMHO.

I have some brief comments about Popper and the humanities in my essay "The Perils of Parallels" (criteria 7-8). This is an early draft from some time ago. I have a much longer draft that has been circulated a fair bit in Scotland, but it still needs work. Maybe I'll get around to publishing it someday.

For a good treatment of Popper (and critique of Kuhn), see David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (Pelican, 1997). (His web page appears to be down at present.)
ANCIENT JEWISH JOKES were the subject of a lecture last night by Professor Erich Gruen (UC Berkeley) at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Excerpt from the Daily Pennsylvanian article:

But according to Gruen, it was not a case of simple anti-Semitism.

Rather, these jokes represent "Greco-Roman cultural snobbery" more than a widespread anti-Semitic ideology.

He explained that ancient societies simply branded all other different cultures as inferior.

Tacitus has often been called "the arch anti-Semite." But as Gruen argued, the Roman historian didn't reserve his hatred specifically for Jews --he despised Christians, Egyptians and many others as well.

In fact, explained Gruen, throughout the pagan world, many were complacently ignorant about Jewish practices and customs.

"They didn't care enough to get the facts straight," Gruen said.

He went on to note that just because ancient Greeks and Romans may not have been anti-Semites, the Jews still suffered under their rule.
SORRY, I'M OKAY NOW, apart from a case of acute Mel Gibson fatigue. (No offense, Mel.) But fortunately Mark Goodacre is all over the current stories on Jesus in the entertainment media (just keep reading and scrolling down) and I am happy to leave them to him unless something especially strikes my eye. I do have a few more thoughts on the whole Gibson thing, but I don't know when - or if - I'll get around to putting them in bloggably coherent form.

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! (Courtesy of - of course - Dave Barry.) This website has a history of the origins of the day, advice on talking like a pirate, and even an English to Pirate Translator. Out of curiosity I ran a paragraph from my "About page through it and got the following:

The pirate speaks,"This blog - - be an experiment that aimst'chronicle and comment on current developments (mainly as recorded in Internet sources) in t'academic fieldo'ancient Judaism and its historical and literary context. When I'm in town, I tryt'postt'it at least once a day, and often I do so more frequently, so please visit itt'see what it be about and then continuet'visit it often. "

What, you ask, could this possibly have to do with ancient Judaism? Well, I ran the search terms ancient jewish pirates through Google and the first result was this article on first-century "Jewish Pirates" from the Livius website.

Arr, arr. Thought you caught me out, dintcha, ye scurvy sea-dogs?

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me . . .

Thursday, September 18, 2003

MORE ON JESUS MOVIES: [Please read update at bottom of post]

Donald Harman Akenson writes an interesting, frank, and provocative essay for the Globe and Mail on Mel Gibson's The Passion and Garth Drabinsky's The Gospel of John. Excerpts:

Christianity and Judaism have managed their uneasy mutual survival because the pastoral leaders of these religions have mostly been realistic. In day-to-day teaching, they have quietly rewritten each of their sets of sacred texts to highlight the generous and to downplay the more vicious aspects of their exclusivisms.

Thus, for example, Christian pastors spend a lot of time on the noble and generous Beatitudes and rarely mention that Jesus of Nazareth not only never intentionally preached to Gentiles (non-Jews), but actually compared them to dogs (see Mark 7:24-28.) And in study groups, modern rabbis spend their time on the benign teachings of Hillel and Akiba, but rarely parse the Eighteen Benedictions (the 18 curses against heretics, especially Christians) that originated in the late first century and continued to be said in some Sephardic rites well into the 20th century.

Of course, in none of these cases do the religious leaders admit what they are actually doing: gentling the sacred texts by being unfaithful to them. In seminars, sermons, homilies, they buff the hard and hateful parts off their sacred writings under the guise of reinterpreting them. We all tolerate each other a bit more as a result.

Of the Four Gospels, the Gospel of John is the closest to being hate literature. Granted, it contains some lovely writing, but its basic narrative -- and a very strong narrative it is -- shows the mainline Pharisees and "the Jews" (or, as Mr. Drabinsky often has it, the "Jewish authorities") as being responsible for the death of Jesus. The Romans get off lightly and the Jews take almost all the blame.


Why would anyone want to be faithful to such a text? It can be redeemed by informed, discriminating and gentle scholarship. But, to film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Garth, Mel, you're missing the point. To claim faithfulness to the text of the fourth Gospel is not a defence of your films.

Ouch! The comparison is over the top, although he has a legitimate point to make about the ideology and reception history of the Gospel of John. Read it all.

Mark Goodacre comments on the essay here and makes some good points.

UPDATE: Rebecca Lesses points out to me in an e-mail that Akenson grossly misstates the nature of the Eighteen Benedictions or Amida, which are not curses but prayers to God and the heart of the Jewish prayer service. One additional one, the Birkat Haminim, does mention (and curse) the heretics and that must be what he was thinking of. Sorry, I read the essay in a rush, saw some interesting ideas in it, and slapped down a quote without parsing everything in it. It had been tugging at my mind that there was something wrong with the essay which I'd missed, but I hadn't had time to come back to it yet.

I see now (and believe it or not, I hadn't noticed this) that one of his books was reviewed by RBL a few days ago and that he said the same thing in almost the same words in a book published by the University of Chicago Press, for which the reviewer rightly takes him to task. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that the U of C editors also let the comment slip by, but I still shouldn't have.

Akenson has some interesting ideas and points in this article (and overall the review of his book is quite positive) but it's a pity he weakens them with this sort of error and hyperbole.
ARAMAIC-SPEAKING CHALDEAN CATHOLICS are asking for representation in the new government of Iraq.
THE JEWISH STUDIES QUARTERLY has the following article in its current issue (10.2 [2003]):

M. R. Niehoff, "Circumcision as a Marker of Identity: Philo, Origen and the Rabbis on Gen 17:1-14," pp. 89-123.

Not available online, unfortunately.
PHILOLOGOS explains the origins of the various words for "Rabbi" (the Forward). But in places he seems a bit confused on whether the words have one or two Bs. The Hebrew root is a geminate (root consonant II=III): RBB, so forms that he gives with a single B should actually have two Bs when the final root consonant(s) are followed by a vowel: "rabbi," "rabban," "rabbani." Forms like "rav"/"rab" which don't have a vowel following the final root consonant(s) just have one B/V.

Sorry you asked?
ANDRE LEMAIRE will be lecturing in New Orleans next week on Northwest Semitic inscriptions and the Bible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

RAMBI RULES! I've spent much of the last few days in the library photocopying more than forty articles that pertain mostly to the first two chapters of my book. I found almost all of these via RAMBI, the online index of articles on Jewish studies. I've mentioned RAMBI before here, but this is first time I've used it extensively for a major research project and its payoff was extraordinary. Besides the articles I found in our library, I found a few things I didn't know about in books I own, I ordered a few collections of essays via interlibrary loan, one of which just arrived, and I have a list of close to as many articles again which I can try to locate in local research libraries during our holiday in San Diego next month, with the residue hopefully to be picked up on a day trip to the Edinburgh University library and via Interlibrary loan. I also have a list a dozen or more articles that I may track down later if it looks like I need them. In the pre-Internet days it would have taken me weeks or months to find all this, and chances are that I would have missed many of the items RAMBI led me to. So be sure to include a visit to RAMBI early on in your research on ancient Judaism.

The downside, of course, is that now I have to read them all.
I CERTAINLY HOPE you are all keeping an eye on the IraqCrisis list archive and Francis Deblauwe's Iraq website. There's been a lot of good news about Iraqi antiquities in the last week or so: thousands of artifacts looted from the Baghdad Museum have been recovered, including (and this just in) the Lady of Warka sculpture. But there's still a long way to go.
"ENGAGING BIBLICAL WOMEN": a new essay by Lillian Klein in Bible and Interpretation News. It summarizes her new book, From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). Excerpt:

���� As a girl, I sought to identify with the female characters of the Bible. It was difficult; they were confusing: subordinated and yet as independent as Sarah, misunderstood and mistreated as Dinah, heroic and unjustly punished as Miriam. As a woman, I became more interested in how those women were shown to cope with the constraints of their varied social situations: from ancestresses living in tents to Sheba and Esther, for instance, who dwelled in palaces; from the tensions of sibling rivalry as between Jacob�s wives to the tensions within ruling families, like those of Athaliah, mother of the king of Judah; from the many nameless women whose deeds are lost to them and to us�to those women who command our attention. As a student of literature, I have been fascinated with the allusiveness of biblical prose, always luring and never allowing the reader to reach an exclusive �truth.� Most recently, as a biblical scholar, I have sought to explore the possibilities of these various facets of interest through careful literary readings of several narratives. The result is From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible.

NEW BOOK REVIEW in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review

M. Finkelberg, G.G. Stroumsa, Homer, the Bible, and Beyond. Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World. Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture, 2. � Leiden: �Brill, 2003. �Pp. 284. �ISBN 90-04-12665-1. �EUR 76.00/$91.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University.

(Hat tip, Charles Miller in Ioudaios-L.)

AN HISTORIC TOURIST ROUTE along the "Via Maris" is being planned by Israeli, Palestinian, and EU authorities, according to Ha'aretz. They met yesterday in Florence to approve plans for the project.
PALEOJUDAICA'S GOOGLE-NEWS PSEUDEPIGRAPHA AWARD (which I just made up), for mention of the Pseudepigrapha in a Google News item, goes to Professor Bert Randall and the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, for an article that covers his lecture series on the origins and development of the Bible. Since PaleoJudaica began, I have regularly searched Google News with the term "pseudepigrapha" and, until today, the result was always null. But the article on Professor Randall includes the following crucial paragraphs (my emphasis):

The second session will look at the significance and influence on Christianity of the Tanakh, Septuagint, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"For example, take the Pseudepigrapha, it is a collection of around 100 scriptures written largely between the time periods of the two testaments," Randall said.

Congratulations, Professor Randall and the Leaf Chronicle, first winners of this award! Keep up the good work!

Tuesday, September 16, 2003


Chilton, Bruce and Jacob Neusner, eds.
The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission

Marshall, John W.
Parables of War: Reading John's Jewish Apocalypse

Akenson, Donald Harman
Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds
THE WEB PAGE FOR THE MORE OLD TESTAMENT PSEUDEPIGRAPHA PROJECT has just been updated and expanded with a number of new texts. My colleague Richard Bauckham and I are undertaking this project, in which we aim to edit a new volume of ancient Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. We are editing some of the texts ourselves and will coordinate a large group of other scholars who will prepare the other texts under our general editorship. I haven't yet mentioned the project in this blog, so now is a good a time. We shall continue to update the list as additional texts come to our attention, so if you know of something that fits our criteria and which isn't listed, please drop me a note.

Evidently this is timely, since Beliefnet says that publishing your own scriptures is "in." But ours is an academic project and does not involve founding any new religions. In fact, I would be grateful if people would refrain from using the texts to start any new religions: it could get embarrassing. Maybe we should issue a disclaimer in the volume:

These texts are supplied "as is," with no warranty of truth or accuracy and no endorsement of any claims to divine or other inspiration. The suppliers shall not be held liable for any damages, personal injury, or founding of new religions resulting from the use of these texts. We edit, you decide.

What do you think?
BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS, by Elaine Pagels, has been commented on by a number of bloggers in the last few days. Andrew Sullivan read it and he liked it. New Testament Scholar and blogger A. K. M. Adam (of AKMA's Random Thoughts) has published a review in The Disseminary (noted by Mark Goodacre). And Mark, who himself is writing a book on the Gospel of Thomas, has read Beyond Belief and he didn't like it. He comments: "But what there was on Thomas -- and there's not a lot -- I was already familiar with from Pagels' academic articles. How odd that the book went through with that subtitle -- doesn't make much sense to me." I'm afraid it does to me: marketing. It's a sexy subtitle: secret Gospels sell well. But then, I'm a cynic.

UPDATE: I'm not implying that Professor Pagels is to blame for the misleading subtitle. My guess is that someone in the marketing department put it in. I haven't read the book myself, so I'm relying on Mark's impression, which I trust.

UPDATE (17 September): Mark Goodacre agrees.

Monday, September 15, 2003


is a vast and unique project consisting of a die by die indexing, classification and representation of Biblical coins. . . . the end result is to establish the most important databank on Biblical coins, to classify these coins in the most rational way possible and to present them in the most detailed and agreeable fashion to allow everybody, from the amateur coin collector to the professional, historians, scholars, dealers, researchers or students to access it easily and freely. Of course, the MCP website can also be used for simple visual delight!

The author, a Canadian named Jean-Philippe Fontanille, is keen to have new photos of coins. You can find his e-mail on the website. There are already a great many photographs posted there. Sounds like an interesting project.
BEWARE OF ORACLES! Ancient Judaism was big on them: oracles from the Sibyl; from the Teacher of Righteousness; from biblical prophets like Abraham, Enoch, Moses, Ezra, and Baruch; from later prophets like Jesus, Jesus ben Ananiah, and Josephus. Philo found oracles everywhere. Early Christians liked them too. Lots of people like them today. Some still produce them.

Michael Dirda reviews THE ROAD TO DELPHI: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles by Michael Wood in the Washington Post (via Arts and Letters Daily). Excerpts:

The pythias, or priestess, at Delphi told Croesus that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a great empire. Having found the oracle accurate in the past, Croesus went to war and was defeated. The great empire he would destroy was his own.

Oracles, as Michael Wood reminds us in this surprisingly wide-ranging meditation, deal in ambiguity and equivocation, the kind of double-speech technically known as amphibology. That is, oracles tell the truth, but in such a way that we don't see it. As Wood writes, "We hear what we hope for and get what we fear."


I'm particularly fond of Wood's discussion of what he calls "slither," the way that language can squirm out of its apparent meaning, i.e., "None of woman born will harm Macbeth" seems to say one thing and in fact means quite another.

"In that slither an open promise becomes a closed prophecy. I want to suggest that this is how prophecy typically works and also that this motion meets a very particular human need, what we might call a pathology of promising. Promises are kept, but promises are also often not kept, and we need to be prepared for this eventuality. The pathology arises when a promise is manifestly not kept but we can't bring ourselves to believe this. Our favorite strategy in this situation is to reinterpret the promise so that what looked like its breaking was a hasty illusion; on reinterpretation we see the promise has been kept after all, we have not been betrayed. Whose promises do we cling to in this way? Those of God or the gods, of our parents and loved ones; those of anyone whose reliability is more important to us than any truth contained in their apparent defection."


The consequences of such misunderstanding can be terribly unjust. Wood notes that oracles are repeatedly cruel, toying as gods will with people (and as wanton boys do with flies). But why is this? Do the deities wish to teach us self-reliance the hard way? In the last sentence of his book, Wood writes: "The gods appear whenever we think we know more than a human creature ordinarily could, and they disappear again when we turn to ask them what to do." Yet, as all of us know, in moments of crisis and indecision, we look desperately for signs. Christians open their Bibles at random ("Tolle, lege"), and the waffling set up conditions: "If he calls tonight, I'll leave my husband; if he doesn't, I'll stay in the marriage." But this clearly moves us away from "oracle theory," which is based on language and organized ritual, to the realm of what one might call omens. We can see omens anywhere, but they are univocal -- we only pay attention to those that give us the answers we secretly want. And not always to them.


Dirda's oracular conclusion: "What a book!"

In Israel, Karaites keep their faith ---
and distance from mainstream Jews
(Jewish Telegraphic Agency News)
By Ariel Finguerman and Elana Shap

ASHDOD, Israel, Sept. 14 (JTA) � They have been branded as one of the worst enemies of the Jewish people.

They have attacked the authority of the rabbis and claimed the Talmud is full of falsehoods, and were allied with some of the cruelest adversaries of the Jews, including the Russian czars and Nazi leaders.

Yet today the Karaites � members of a Jewish offshoot that denies the talmudic-rabbinic tradition � are flourishing in Israel. In fact, some members suggest that the community is experiencing a rare high point in its 1,300-year history.

Mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla, Israel�s Karaite community is about 30,000 strong. There are about 5,000 Karaites elsewhere in the world, mainly in the United States.

The Karaite sect first appeared in the eighth century, breaking with mainstream Judaism by declaring that Talmudic oral law was a rabbinic invention with no legal authority. Maintaining that the Bible was the sole source of religious law, the Karaites adopted a number of practices that kept them apart from mainstream Jews.


Over the centuries, the Karaites developed a religious tradition of their own consisting of doctrines not found in the Bible.

In Israel today, they have an imposing synagogue and cultural community center in Ashdod that adheres to their particular traditions.


In Israel, the Karaite community has been able to grow thanks to the relaxation of an ancient Karaite law that prohibited �mixed� marriages with Jews, whom they call �rabbinic Jews.�

�I myself allow marriages with rabbinical Jews, but only after checking that there are no incestuous cases in their families,� says Rabbi Haim Levi, the white-bearded man at the head of the Karaite Court of Justice.

Karaites also do not don tefillin or post mezuzahs on their doorposts. They do celebrate Chanukah because, they say, the festival was established after the biblical period.

�We say that it is not possible that the Almighty gave a written law and another oral law, which partially contradicts the former one,� Levi says.

Karaite women do not immerse themselves in mikvahs, as required by Jewish law, instead using showers as a means of spiritual purification after menstruation.

The group also has a different calendar, so the Karaite Yom Kippur does not always match the fast day observed by world Jewry.

Some Karaite interpretations of the Bible are more lax than those of rabbinic Judaism, but other interpretations lead to more strict practices than in rabbinic Judaism, such as those concerning Sabbath observance.

�On the day of rest we don�t leave home, we don�t practice sexual intercourse and, on the eve of Shabbat, we disconnect the refrigerator,� Levi says.


Read it all. In July I linked to information about some Karaites outside of Israel here.