Saturday, December 11, 2004

THE CODING HUMANIST (Eric Sowell) has some reader feedback regarding Jewish texts as NT background from Ken Penner and Arne Halbakken. And keep an eye on Eric's blog, since more may well be coming. (One of the disadvantages to separate-page blog entries is that you can no longer say "and just keep scrolling up." That's one of the reasons I went back to weekly page entries. The other was that single-post pages gobbled up my allotment of free search engine pages, with lots left over unindexed.)

Eric also calls for more Bible bloggers.

By the way, I'm inclined to stop using the term "biblioblogger." I don't remember where it came from, but it's confusing: it looks like it could mean "bibliography blogger" or "book blogger" or "Bible blogger" or maybe even something else. "Bible blogger" ("academic Bible blogger," if you want to be precise) is much more straightforward and I think that's what I'm going to say from now on. It doesn't cover all of what I or some others do, but it's close enough. Go thou and do likewise, if you feel so inclined. Or feel free to drop me a note to tell me why I'm wrong, if you disagree.

UPDATE (12 December): For some responses go here.
THE ABSENTEE VOTE could make a big difference for Aramaic-speaking Christians in Iraq in the upcoming elections.
MEL GIBSON'S The Passion of the Christ is one of the contenders for best foreign-language film in the Golden Globe awards. Nominees are to be announced on Monday, with a winner picked in January. The film has already been ruled ineligible for the best drama award. It's also not allowed to compete for the best foreign-language film award at the Academy Awards.
PRESIDENT Bush sent a special message to Jews this week to mark Chanukkah, the festival of lights. The President drew a parallel between the Maccabees, an ancient tribe of Jewish warriors, and American troops currently fighting in the Middle East. �The bravery of the Maccabees has provided inspiration through the ages,� he said. �We must remain steadfast and courageous as we seek to spread peace and freedom throughout the world.�

Friday, December 10, 2004

ARAMAIC WATCH: The Maronite Archbishop in Jerusalem is featured in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:
Maronites, one of the principal religious groups in Lebanon, are members of one of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. The Maronite Church is the only eastern church which never separated from Rome. While it elects its own bishops, its ultimate authority is the pope. Instead of Latin, the language of the liturgy is Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic.

Paul Sayah's formal title is Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Exarch (Patriarchal Vicar) in Jerusalem, Jordan and the Palestinian Territory. While there are an estimated seven million Maronites worldwide, and some 800,000 remaining in Lebanon, Sayah's "flock" is relatively small, though geographically widespread. There are approximately 12,000 Maronite Christians throughout the entire area, of whom 9,000 are in Galilee and 1,000 in Jerusalem. There are Parish priests in each location, as well as nuns who have a key role in running the church's institutions.
A BETH SHEAN VENUS is to go on display in Israel (NYT):
A Venus Rescued From Ruins

Beth Shean has been one of Israel's richest archaeological sites since the 1920's. There, in the Jordan valley, near the river and the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have unearthed objects spanning 4,000 years. One of the latest discoveries, a second-century Roman sculpture of Venus, goes on view March 29 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

"While demarking the boundaries of the Dar Castle in Naein just a few weeks ago, archeologists stumbled upon an Achaemenid settlement," said Mohsen Javery, an archeologist in Isfahan.

Covering an area of 2.5 to 3 sq hectares, the dwelling is littered with Achaemenid potteries, making experts hopeful they would discover new points about the lifestyle of people living in that era.

The Achaemenid Dynasty was a dynasty in the ancient Persian Empire, including Cyrus II the Great, Darius I and Xerxes I.
JUDITH MIDRASH SOURCES: Dan Rabinowitz e-mails:
Here are the midrash sources for the Judith story that connect it to the story of Chanukah. Yellnick, Betei Midrashim, Vienna, 1877 Heder Beit page 12; Heder Vav page 2 and Heder Aleph, p. 132. There are also a couple of books that were printed in the 16th and 17th centuries that also have the Judith story connected to Chanukah, they are, Ma'ashe Yehudit, Constantinople, 1552; Ma'aseh Yehudit, Venice, 1650 also in the Hemdat Yamim, attributed to Nathan of Gaza this story is connected to Chanukah, see Hemdat Yamim, Venice, 1757 volume 2 pp. 56a-58b. See also , Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim, New York 1928, vol. 1 203-209 who has a couple of the narratives. All of these are fairly late.

However, there have been questions to the connection between Yehudit to Chanukah from the at least the 16th century, see Azariah de Rossi, Me'or Enayim, chapter 51 recently translated by J. Weinberg, Yale University Press, 2001 pp. 637-639.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

UPDATE on my "Philo or the Pseudepigrapha?" post: Thanks to Eric Sowell (also here), Torrey Seland, Stephen Carlson, Mark Goodacre, Justin Dombrowski, and Ed Cook for their comments on (and praise of) the post. I'm glad it was useful.

I should also have thought to mention my Old Testament Pseudepigrapha website, which has material from a course I have taught a number of times at the University of St. Andrews.

As for Eric's and Ed's question, yes, the Mishnah and the other Tannaitic rabbinic texts are relevant too, but I'm not an expert on them and am hesitant to comment about how to use them for NT background. Ed has some observations. I suppose also that NT scholars could get away with judicious use of rabbinic passages that Neusner has isolated on stratigraphic grounds to be from the first century. I have a bunch of notes on how NT scholars should (and shouldn't) use Jewish sources, from a postgraduate seminar I gave a few years ago. Maybe one of these days I'll pull them together into an article.
"AUDACIOUS JUDITH": Dave Kopel, guest-blogging at, has a Hanukkah essay on Judith. It includes related material from the rabbinic literature and links to lots of Renaissance paintings of Judith and Holofernes like this one. (I like the hat.)

I don't know the rabbinic stuff well, but two thoughts occur to me. When Kopel writes
According to ancient Jewish sources, during the period of Syrian rule, Syrian officers in Israel had the authority to rape all Jewish brides. The bride would be allowed to marry her husband only after submitting to the Syrian officer.

he should make clear that this is not historical. I certainly know of no contemporary evidence that any such policy existed. It's a typical folkloric theme designed to make baddies look badder.

And his comment
Scholars may never be able to determine with certainty if there was a Jewish woman who beheaded an enemy officer. But the persistence of the story in Judith, the Midrash, and the Talmud, suggests that the story may well be true, in some form.

even as hedged, is far fetched. The book of Judith is replete with gross historical errors and the other versions of the story are much later and, if anything, less plausible. The Judith story is just a story. Its persistence and popularity are explained by the fact that it's such a good story, not because of some elusive historical core. That said, its moral is just as Kopel indicates. He recognizes that the book of Judith isn't historical and I don't think he gains anything by trying to find historicity somewhere in the story.

Note also the link to his article "The Torah and Self-Defense" (PDF file) in the Penn State Law Review, which is full of interesting material from Jewish and early Christian exegesis of Pentateuchal passages pertaining to self-defense. One point: of the verb frequently translated ("thou shalt not") "kill" in the sixth commandment he says
The Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus explains that the Hebrew verb stem �applies only to illegal killing and, unlike other verbs for the taking of life, is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war.�

Nahum Sarna, the author of the quoted commentary, is not quite correct here. The verb is used of execution by the avenger of blood, which was a valid form of the administration of justice in ancient Israel. I have discussed the whole issue here. But, even though Kopel goes on rather too much about killing lice and bacteria, his point is valid that the sixth commandment doesn't ban all killing, even of human beings.

Another interesting tidbit: he points out a saying of Jesus which advocates the death penalty.

UPDATE: Reader Dan Rabinowitz e-mails:
The article from Dave Kopel, contains many inaccuracies, perhaps the most glaring is this quote from the Talmud

"Likewise, the Talmud (a collection of the oral Jewish law, along with commentary) includes this story:

Jewish women were uniquely affected by the oppression, since the Greeks [the Syrians, who were hellenizing successors of part of Alexander the Great's empire] decreed that every virgin bride must first submit to the local Greek commander. Hence, they too were saved by the Chanukah miracle. Further, a woman actually served as an instrument of the miraculous deliverance, for Yehudis the daughter of Yochanon, the Kohen Gadol [the Jewish high priest], fed the Greek general cheese to increase his thirst, and then gave him wine to drink until he became inebriated. She then cut off his head, and this sight caused the enemy soldiers to flee.

There is no such piece in the Talmud. The Talmud does record that there was such a decree, however, this story of the abolition does not appear there. The ONLY place that it appears in later Midrashim (very late) and in some medieval commentaries. Now to be fair some of the commentaries are on the Talmud, however that does not mean that the Talmud actually says that.

Does anyone have specific references in the rabbinic literature to the story of the beheading woman?

UPDATE (10 December): More here.

UPDATE (16 December): More here. (Dave Kopel replies.)
DR. LOUIS H. FELDMAN will be giving a public lecture at Yeshiva University this morning. Menachem Butler e-mails:
The following will be taking place tomorrow afternoon [Thursday] at the Yeshiva University campus in Washington Heights, NY. For more information, please email

thank you,





Dr. Louis H. Feldman

(Abraham Wouk Family Professor of Classics and Literature, Yeshiva University)

This Thursday, December 9, 2004 Rubin Shul, 2:45-3:45 (club hour)

For more information, please contact: Menachem Butler -


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

UNICODE UPDATE: Danny Zacharias and Eric Sowell, bless their hearts, are promising to produce Unicode tutorials, respectively, for the Mac and PC platforms. Danny writes, "We will inform everyone when the tutorials are online and available." Watch this space.
LYCHNOLOGY IN THE NEWS: that is, the study of ancient lighting. Here's a timely article in the Lebanon Daily Star on lamps and lighting in antiquity.
Clay lamps shed new light on daily life in antiquity
Information-rich lighting devices reveal trade, religion, art and technology.

By Eric C. Lapp
Special to The Daily Star
Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Archaeologists are not able to excavate ancient light. However, they do recover the objects that housed, controlled, and sustained it. In antiquity, the chief instruments used for everyday lighting purposes were oil lamps, lanterns, torches, lamp-stands, candles, and hanging lamps. Among these devices, clay oil lamps would ultimately emerge as the most popular for satisfying the lighting needs of ancient peoples. They were comparatively easy to manufacture, inexpensive, and highly mobile.

Syria-Palestine and Arabia experienced a vibrant "lamp culture" in antiquity. This is evidenced by the significant quantities and diverse types of locally manufactured lamps found at archaeological sites throughout the region. Lamp images portrayed on mosaics and on small objects (i.e. coins, seals, lamps, and glass vessels), and literary mention of lamp use in religious texts, represent further examples of this dynamic lamp culture. Given the importance of light in the religious customs of the lands from where the three Abrahamic faiths originate, it is no wonder, then, that lamps figure prominently there in word, image, and form.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

HAPPY HANUKKAH to my Jewish readers. This seven-day holiday begins this evening at sundown.
THE JOURNAL HENOCH, published by the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Turin, now has a web page. It includes an index of all 25 volumes published so far.
Launched in 1979, Henoch contains studies on Old Testament, intertestamental literature, rabbinical and Post-biblical literature, mediaeval and modern Judaism. In addition a number of review articles are currently published, on Hebrew epigraphy, biblical archaeology, history and textual criticism of the Old Testament text, mediaeval Jewish literature. Henoch also publishes the Series Quaderni di Henoch.

Monday, December 06, 2004

HERE'S SOME COPTIC GOSPEL OF JUDAS NEWS, or at least gossip. Michael van Rijn, who has been mentioned before in this connection, has a long report on the alleged inside history of the Gospel of Judas since its discovery in the 1970s. (I can't find a permalink, but the report is labeled "Update: 3-12-2004".) It includes a photo of one leaf of the manuscript with a translation of it into English, which he says was given to him by Charles Hedrick. As before, I can't vouch for any of it: I blog, you decide. If anyone is in touch with Professor Hedrick, or if he happens to see this post, I would interested in anything he has to say about the story.

UPDATE (7 December): Sorry, the link was accidentally left out. It's there now. Also, Wieland Willker has more on the Textual Criticism list. Apparently he's been in touch with Charles Hedrick, who confirms that the photo is of the Gospel of Judas and that the translation is his.
PHILO OR THE PSEUDEPIGRAPHA? Eric Sowell, the Coding Humanist writes:
I was thinking the other day that the OT Pseudepigrapha would be more significant to study as a backdrop to the NT times. I asked Hall Harris about it and he said Philo would be. Anybody else have an opinion on this?

Like Torrey Seland (second commenter), I don't see why it has to be an either-or choice. There are good reasons to study both. (Incidentally, I am not the Jim who posted the first comment.) I have a good bit to say about this in The Book, especially with regard to the Old Testament pseudepigrapha. But while you wait for that, here are some thoughts.

First, another critically important Jewish corpus for the New Testament background is, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls. I would say that they are more important for that purpose than either Philo or the pseudepigrapha. We have them in their original Hebrew and Aramaic in a physical context datable to the first century C.E. and located in Palestine, and they cover a huge range of Jewish themes and ideas. They are a treasure-trove of cultural, historical, and linguistic information. If you have to limit your study to one corpus (but don't!), pick them.

Second, Josephus is perhaps more important than Philo (I'm not as sure about some of the pseudepigrapha) for NT background. Again, he's a first-century, Greek-speaking Jew (but he also knew Aramaic and, presumably, Hebrew) and he comes from Palestine and knew of John the Baptist and the Jesus movement and probably Jesus himself. He gives us an enormous amount of information about the people, the place, and the period, but always from his perspective as a survivor of the Great Revolt who owed his position to the Roman conquerers of Judea and who wanted to make the Jews (and himself) look as good as possible to the Romans. See Steve Mason's Josephus web page for lots of goodies on Josephus.

Third, most (perhaps not all) of the Old Testament Apocrypha (Deuterocanonical books) are relevant as NT background material too.

As for Philo, he is useful for NT background because his works are certainly Jewish, they appear to have been transmitted with reasonable accuracy, and they are almost exactly contemporary with Jesus. Philo's disadvantages are that he is a Greek-speaking, Diaspora Jew who writes with a Hellenized philosophical agenda in Alexadria, a big city. Presumably he had relatively little in common with an Aramaic-speaking, uneducated Galilean carpenter and his followers, although perhaps more with Paul and the writer of Hebrews.

The OT pseudepigrapha are a messier problem, mainly because nearly all of them were copied and transmitted by Christians, often in a translation with the original being lost. (For the issue of translation, see here). The big questions are which texts were composed by Christians but sound Jewish because they are on Old Testament subjects, which are genuinely Jewish compositions, and of the latter, which have been transmitted without substantial Christian alteration?

The most common approach among NT scholars - I dare say even today - has been to assume that any work that doesn't have obvious Christian bits, or that doesn't have obvious Christian bits that can be argued to be secondary additions, is a Jewish composition. But this doesn't work for two reasons. First, as Robert Kraft has pointed out (see especially here and here), the most reasonable approach is not to assume that a work is Jewish until proven otherwise, but to reverse the burden of proof. We should start with the earliest manuscripts of the work and their social context and then work backwards from there as the evidence requires. Sometimes this lead us to argue for a Jewish origin, and if so, well and good, but often there isn't persuasive evidence and in those cases the default working hypothesis is that the document is a (sometimes late antique) Christian composition, since our manuscripts were produced and transmitted by Christians. The point is that we know that these documents had a Christian context and that Christians liked them and must have made some sort of sense of them. Earlier contexts are by no means excluded, they just have to be argued for with positive evidence, not assumed.

For arguments that Christians may well have written OT pseudepigrapha without any Christian references see here. For an evaluation of how some of the Dead Sea Scrolls would have been received by scholars if they had been passed down to us the same way the OT pseudepigrapha were, see here and here.

The second reason is that there is rather a wide range of possible authors of Old Testament pseudepigrapha. Many people in antiquity had the means, motive, and opportunity to compose such texts (as Ross Kraemer said to me in San Antonio). They could be Jews or Christians (of varying levels of commitment to what I call "boundary maintenance" - distingishing themselves from other groups), but there were also "God-fearers" (i.e. gentiles who had a strong interest in Judaism and some commitment to Jewish praxis, but didn't convert), "sympathizers" (gentiles who were interested in Judaism but who may not have been involved at all with a Jewish community), Jewish-Christians of various flavors, Samaritans, and quite likely other groups we know nothing about. Often it is reasonable to keep some or all of these possible authorships in mind for a text without preferring any one of them, and sometimes there are hints within a text that point to one or another of these - hints that have been ignored because scholars have been so keen to claim pseudepigrapha as first-century Jewish texts in order to use them as NT background. More on all this here.

In my own research I have concluded that the following pseudepigrapha are Jewish beyond reasonable doubt and were written either within a century of the crucifixion of Jesus or earlier and may be reasonably used for background to the New Testament writings. Texts shown to be Jewish on external grounds (mostly fragmentary preservation among the Dead Sea Scrolls): the Book of the Watchers, the Astronomical Book, the Book of Dreams, the Epistle of Enoch (all in 1 Enoch), and the book of Jubilees. Texts shown to be Jewish on internal grounds: Aristeas to Philocrates, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Assumption or Testament of Moses, Psalms of Solomon, and Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities. These are certainly very important for understanding both first-century Judaism and earliest Christianity.

Texts that are Jewish beyond resonable doubt and that were composed in the early centuries C.E., but not necessarily within a century of the crucifixion, include: the Similitudes of Enoch and 3-4 Maccabees. It is dicier to use these for New Testament background, since they may be considerably later than the New Testament writings.

Some other pseudepigrapha are likely to be Jewish but cannot be shown to be so beyond reasonable doubt, such as various bits of the Sibylline Oracles. Other texts may be Jewish but then again may not be, such as the Testament of Job and Joseph and Aseneth. Still others are often used as Jewish texts but in my opinion are probably Christian compositions; for example, the Testament of Abraham.

For all of these works, apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the texts are reasonably well established, but they have been passed in down long and sometimes pretty dodgy manuscript traditions, in some cases including multiple layers of translation with only the most recent translation-layer surviving. It would be prudent to concentrate on general themes and repeated ideas in them rather than on individual proof-texts.

Incidentally, the reason I'm making so much of this methodology for isolating genuine Jewish documents is that I think it serves our understanding of ancient Judaism far better if we limit our reconstruction to works that can be shown beyond reasonable doubt to be Jewish. In other words, granting that in many cased we just can't tell if a pseudepigraphon is of Jewish origin, it is better to exclude doubtful cases and base our reconstruction on what we know that we know. A false positive does more harm than a false negative: if we think we are studying ancient Judaism (or NT background) with a first-century-C.E. Jewish text and in reality it's a third-century-C.E. Christian composition, we pollute our corpus with erroneous information that distorts our understanding. Better to leave it out until such a time as we can be sure what its origin actually is, even if the price is potentially leaving out genuine Jewish works if we can't be sure beyond reasonable doubt that that's what they are.

For my detailed evaluations of each of the OT pseudepigrapha listed above - as well as of Philo, Josephus, and the Old Testament Apocrypha, you will have to wait for The Book (provisional title: Christian Transmission of Jewish Pseudepigrapha: What Can We Know and How Do We Know It?). The five papers of mine that I linked to in this post are conference papers that give summaries of early drafts of some of the chapters.

Speaking of The Book, I'd better get back to it.

UPDATE (9 December): More here.
THE SAN ANTONIO VOCAL ARTS ENSEMBLE (SAVAE), known in PaleoJudaica for its ancient Aramaic music, is playing in Eugene and Portland Oregon.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH is out in a new translation by Stephen Mitchell.
PROFESSOR JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN of the University of Iowa has passed away at age 75. He is well known for his publications on ancient Judaism, including his Anchor Bible commentaries on 1 and 2 Maccabees. May his memory be for a blessing.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A BIBLE TRAVELOGUE: read the children's book, see the PBS miniseries.
A JESUS COMMEMORATION COIN to celebrate the end of the first Christian millennium has been found by the Tiberias excavation, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism:
The Ministry of Tourism in Israel also announced that a rare coin has just been discovered at the archaeological excavation of ancient Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (the "Kinneret") in Israel. On the front of the coin, a somewhat blurred image of Jesus can be seen, while on the back, the words in Greek "Jesus the Messiah King of Kings" are engraved very clearly.

This coin is one of a series of coins that were issued in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in celebration of the First Millennium of Jesus' birth. It is not uncommon to find this coin in one of Israel's neighboring countries, such as Turkey, but this is the first time that it has ever been discovered at an Israeli archaeological site. Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld, Director of this excavation, explains that this coin was brought to Tiberias by Christian pilgrims. Tiberias and the other sites around Israel's Sea of Galilee were the desired destination of Christian pilgrims during the time of Muslim rule in Israel from the 7th to 11th centuries CE.
Grinnell professor studies ancient Chinese texts

By CHUCK SCHOFFNER, Associated Press Writer

GRINNELL, ---- Working among scholars from the likes of Harvard, UCLA and Yale, Grinnell College professor Scott Cook helps to interpret the earliest known versions of some of China's most important philosophical texts.

Cook is one of only a handful of Western scholars to be given access to the fragile strips of bamboo, unearthed in 1993 from a tomb that dates back to 300 B.C.

"We've seen a number of tombs that had texts buried within them, but this is the first time we've had philosophical texts," Cook said.

The mostly Confucian texts have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls in their historical and philosophical significance, and their discovery has brought together scholars from both mainland China and Taiwan, as well as Ivy League schools in the United States and even Grinnell, a small school of 1,500 students about 60 miles from Des Moines.


As Danny Zacharias has observed over at Deinde, the Dead Sea Scrolls have become a cultural icon. Calling other manuscript discoveries "the Dead Sea Scrolls of" is one of the more serious applications one finds in the media.