Saturday, December 31, 2005

RALPHIES: Okay, I don't promise to do this every year, but this year I'll take Ed Cook up on his invitation to post some best-of-the-year opinions. These are all things that I have read or seen in 2005 and I make no pretense of being comprehensive or particularly objective.

We're heading to Edinburgh to spend New Year's Eve with friends, so this is likely to be my last post today.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a renowned inventor and AI specialist who has a good track record for predicting developments in the computer revolution over the last couple of decades. In this, his latest book, he extrapolates current technological trends, arguing that our knowledge is increasing doubly exponentially (i.e., it doubles in regular periods, with the periods themselves rapidly decreasing). He predicts miracles of genetic engineering in the next decade or two; nanotechnology, reversal of aging, and human-level computer intelligence (reverse-engineered from the human brain) by the late 2020s; cheap human-level computer intelligence -- costing about as much as a present-day PC -- in the 2030s, with "uploading" of wetware human minds not long after; and the "Singularity" in the mid-2040s. The term "Singularity" in this context was, I believe, coined by the science fiction writer and computer-science professor Vernor Vinge about 20 years ago. The Singularity is the point at which we present-day human beings can no longer understand the coming technological changes and therefore can no longer make useful extrapolations, but according to Kurzweil it will involve computation so powerful that producing trillions of interconnected human-level intelligences that operate millions of times faster than the human brain will be a trivially cheap matter.

Whether or not Kurzweil's whole scenario is right, it's hard to dispute that some of it is on the right track. Keep taking those vitamins. And get ready to grab the scruff of the tiger's neck and hold on tight, because we are going for a ride!

BEST FICTION BOOK: If you allow a book that I read in 2005 but which was actually published in 2004, then I choose Stephen R. Donaldson, The Runes of the Earth (Putnam). If Donaldson is not the best-ever writer of epic fantasy, he comes in only behind Tolkien and then only just. And he is more prolific and wider-ranging than Tolkien (also writing space opera and detective fiction). This is the seventh book of a projected ten in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it appeared more than twenty years after the immediately preceding volume in the series. It seems that after Donaldson published the first trilogy, his publisher kept badgering him to write a sequel. The plan Donaldson finally came up with was so audacious that it has taken him until now to tackle the third and last part of the series. Ten years have passed in our world and thousands in the Land, when Linden Avery is returned to it. This is quite similar to the scenario in books four through six, but it is an entirely new situation, and the book, which unfolds at a relentless pace, is very hard to put down. And, yes, Covenant figures in it, in more ways than one. This volume sets a very promising stage for the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

If you insist on a book actually published in 2005, then it would have to be Richard "make it personal" Morgan, Woken Furies (Orion). This is the third book about his anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs. In his future world human minds are contained in durable (but not indestructible) computerized "stacks" that fit into the spinal columns of interchangeable human bodies ("sleeves"). If your sleeve is killed, your stack can be retrieved and reloaded into another sleeve, but "real death" ("RD") is an ever-present danger, especially if you're not careful about your backup files. Kovacs is a former "Envoy," a kind of mental martial artist who can be beamed from world to world by a loose interstellar government to be loaded into military-grade sleeves to put down revolutions and the like. Altered Carbon was Morgan's first novel, also about Kovacs. Not only could I not put it down; when I finished it I prompted started it again from the beginning and read it through a second time. Woken Furies is of comparable quality. Morgan has a gift for creating a realistic future with believable slang. He also gets points in my book for something he did in real life. You may recall the story of blogger Joe Gordon, who was fired from the Waterstone's book chain about a year ago. Morgan wrote a public letter to the company to protest Gordon's firing. He didn't have to do that and he took a risk to criticize in public a major distributor of his own work. Thanks in part to him and other SF writers, plus about a million bloggers, the industrial tribunal went well and Gordon was offered his old job back, but he had found a better one and so accepted a settlement from Waterstone's instead.

BEST SCHOLARLY BOOK: Frank Moore Cross et al., Qumran Cave 4 XII: 1-2 Samuel (Discoveries in the Judean Desert 17; Oxford: Clarendon, 2005). I'm reviewing this for The JSNT Booklist, so I won't say too much here. This is the official edition of some of the text-critically most interesting biblical manuscripts from Qumran. It won the award for best work on biblical textual criticism of 2005 at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. Of course I think it was the only nomination, and I nominated it, but it still deserves it. (Full disclosure: Cross was my doctoral supervisor.) It surely also deserves the award for the longest-awaited text-critical work; more than half a century. I won't claim that I've read it all, but I've skimmed and spot-checked it pretty thoroughly and it upholds the high standards of the DJD series and it will be required reading for anyone working on the books of 1-2 Samuel for the foreseeable future.

BEST MOVIE: I'm with Ed on this one. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the best film I saw in 2005, which is not to say that I saw many. But it was very good, far ahead of what was done to LOTR, and it left Star Wars III behind coughing in the dust. That the special effects were fantastic goes without saying (and Hollywood produces endless crap movies with great special effects). But the settings were right, the children looked and acted like the Pevensies, and the film condensed the story while consistently staying true to it. Georgie Henley (Lucy) was the best actor and did a terrific job for her age. Aslan comes in second, and he really did look just like a lion who could talk. And Tilda Swinton comes third, as a suitably evil White Witch. My only criticism was that the battle scene got a little cheesy.

BEST MUSIC: I'm sorry to say that I didn't listen to any new music in 2005.

In lieu of that, I give you the BEST TELEVISION MOMENT of 2005, at the end of "Bad Wolf," the penultimate episode of the 2005 season of Doctor Who:
DALEK: We have your associate! You will obey or she will be exterminated!
DALEK: Explain yourself!
THE DOCTOR: I said no.
DALEK: What is the meaning of this negative?
THE DOCTOR: It means no.
DALEK: But she will be destroyed!
THE DOCTOR: No! 'Cause this is what I'm going to do: I'm going to rescue her! I'm going to save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet, and then I'm going to save the Earth, and then, just to finish off, I'm going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!
DALEK: But you have no weapons! No defenses! No plan!
THE DOCTOR: Yeah! And doesn't that scare you to death?
ROSE TYLER: Yes, Doctor?
THE DOCTOR: I'm coming to get you.

The Doctor switches off the communication link.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

ARAMAIC WATCH: Zinda Magazine is an English "Periodical for the Assyrian & Syriac Speaking Communities." The current issue (24 December 2005) has information on Aramaic television stations in Iraq, Europe, and Australia. Excerpts:
(ZNDA: Arbil) After months of broadcasting test videos and images of a serene and quiet life in north Iraq, Ishtar TV will begin broadcasting its satellite television programs on Thursday, 22 December at 6 pm, Iraq time.

Equipped with the latest tools in audio-visual technology and digital programming, Ishtar TV is expected to technically produce the highest quality programs with a focus on the Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean audiences around the world. The programs will be produced in Syriac (Assyrian), Arabic, and Kurdish.


(ZNDA: Stockholm) A new satellite TV channel is planning to broadcast test images as early as March 2006. “Bahro Suryoyo TV” will be financially supported by various Syriac organizations in Europe. These include the Syriac federations in represented by the Syriac Universal Alliance. The Syrian Orthodox Church will also be producing programs and support the programming of the Bahro Suryoyo TV.


(ZNDA: Sydney) The first Assyrian worldwide television channel will be bringing its 24/7 programming to Australia's through PanGlobal TV.

PanAmSat on 19 December announced that AssyriaSat has signed a multi-year agreement with GlobeCast Australia to deliver its programming through PanGlobal TV, a joint marketing alliance between PanAmSat and GlobeCast Australia, to viewers throughout Australia. AssyriaSat will be carried on the Australia Beam of PanAmSat's PAS-8 Pacific Ocean Region satellite located at 166 degrees East Longitude. As a result of this transaction, PanGlobal TV will now offer 27 channels of multi-ethnic programming to the Australian subscribers of this Direct-to-Home platform (DTH).


I've already noted the last here.

(Via Robert Griffin on the Aramaic list.)
THE YEAR IN REVIEW: Here's some international news from 2005 relating to ancient Judaism, Judaism in academics, and one or two other matters. Most of the stories were noted in PaleoJudaica. A lot more happened, of course, some of it more interesting than the stories here, but they are taken from an article in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

JERUSALEM -- A group of Jewish scholars attempts to recreate the ancient Sanhedrin tribunal in Jerusalem. According to the Jerusalem Post, the 71 Orthodox scholars who convened believe they can reconstitute the Second Temple-era Sanhedrin and that one of their members, Rabbi Yosef Dayan, could qualify as a Jewish monarch because he can trace his lineage to King David.


NEW YORK -- The Artscroll publishing house completes its 73-volume translation of the Talmud, a $23 million project that took more than 15 years.

MARCH 2005

NEW YORK -- Tens of thousands of Jews gather in Madison Square Garden and other locations throughout the world to mark the end of the Daf Yomi, a seven-year cycle of Talmud study.

APRIL 2005

ROME -- Pope John Paul II, who made positive Jewish-Catholic relations a pillar of his papacy, dies at age 84. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany is selected to succeed him.

LONDON -- Britain’s Association of University Teachers votes to boycott two Israeli universities over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The boycott, which sparks outrage in the Jewish world, is overturned in May.

JUNE 2005

NEW YORK -- Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the longtime chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, announces his retirement.

JULY 2005

MOSCOW -- The Reform movement announces a plan to translate the Plaut Modern Torah Commentary into Russian, which would be the first modern translation of the Torah into Russian.

JERUSALEM -- The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the Jerusalem affiliate of the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, receives official recognition as an Israeli academic institution.


ROME -- Jewish catacombs under the ancient city of Rome thought to be copies of Christian sites are found to predate them by at least a century, suggesting that Christian burial practices may have been modeled on Jewish ones.


JERUSALEM -- Hebrew University Prof. Robert Aumann was named co-winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics.
SO YOU DISCOVER that the World-Wide Web is the Antichrist (WWW = vav vav vav = 666). How do you get the word out? Set up a website!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

YOU'LL NOT SEE NOTHING LIKE THE MIGHTY OG: You may recall that early in December I posted on the biblical giant Og, who may appear also as an avenging spirit called "the mighty Og" in a Phoenician inscription from Byblos. Well, there's more. I had forgotten at the time that the Gelasian Decree mentions the lost Book concerning the giant named Ogias who is stated by the heretics to have fought with a dragon after the Flood, which I noted in my first lost books post. It may be that this story conflated the biblical Og with the story of the primordial giant and dragon-slayer Ohyah in the Book of Giants. This is the conclusion of W. B. Henning in an important, but now dated, article on "The Book of the Giants." M. R. James has also discussed the lost Book of Og(ias). Og is a legendary figure in the rabbinic literature too, in which we hear that he survived the Flood and was enslaved by Noah. See the online Jewish Encylopedia article on "Og" for details.

Joe Cathey is considering writing a short story about Og, and I hope he does, but he should be forewarned that it's already has been done. "Aunt Naomi" (Gertrude Landa) published a retelling of Og's story in 1919 as "The Giant of the Flood" in her Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends. It would make a good children's bedtime story. Of course all she had were the biblical and rabbinic legends, so there's ample scope for Joe to give us something that factors in the Book of Ogias and the Phoenician inscription.

As for me, I will be including some of this stuff in the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volume, in the listing of Lost Books and probably in the general introduction to the Book of Giants. And aside from MOTP, maybe there's scope for an article on Og too. We'll see.

Meanwhile, here's an illustration from Aunt Naomi's book which shows Og riding a unicorn during the Flood:

UPDATE (31 December): Joe Cathey reports that he is working on his Og story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE has a new issue out (January/February 2006). There's not much of relevance to ancient Judaism, but do note the review by Paul B. Harvey, Jr., of HBO's Rome. It concludes:
On balance, then, as a visualization of ancient Rome, "Rome" is certainly better than most of its genre, but lacks the dramatic tension of that classic series, "I, Claudius". We do not see here the political implausibilities of "Gladiator", but neither do we see a strictly accurate (or, in many instances, even convincing) portrayal of historical personalities. And as a dramatic series, "Rome" does not leave the viewer at the end of an episode eager to see what happens next. We already know.

Rome is showing in Britain right now and I've seen perhaps half of the episodes. The casting of the main characters is pretty good but, as usual with such things, the series makes a lot of stuff up.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

TWO ANCIENT HISTORIANS have been elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities:
The new members are: Prof. Margalit Finkelberg, head of classical studies at Tel Aviv University. Born in Minsk in 1947, she came on aliya in 1975 and received her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University. She has an international reputation in the fields of literature and religion in ancient Greece.

Prof. Ya'acov Klein of the Hebrew language and Bible departments at Bar-Ilan University was born in Hungary in 1934. He came to Israel and developed into one of the world's leading experts in ancient Sumerian culture and Mesopotamian literature.

Congratulations to them both, and also to the two scientists elected at the same time.
SOME REFLECTIONS ON HANUKKA and the Hasmonean dynasty by Eli Kavon in the Jerusalem Post:
Did the Maccabees betray the Hanukka revolution?

The events that comprise the story of Hanukka are among the most dramatic and stirring in human history. The uprising of a small band of Jewish guerrillas against a Hellenistic empire many centuries ago has inspired poets and politicians, Jews and Christians alike. The Hanukka story is certainly one of mankind's greatest, the tale of a downtrodden and persecuted people who fought against overwhelming odds and emerged victorious.

Yet, there is a history rarely explored concerning the events both before and after the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the evil Seleucid king Antiochus IV.

DAVID PATTERSON, founder of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, died on 10 December. The Jerusalem Post has an obituary.
To paraphrase the ancient Roman, David Patterson found Hebrew and Jewish studies in Europe after World War II largely scorched earth and burned brick, yet he imparted a marble quality to their heartening revival at the Oxford Centre.

There's also a brief obituary from the NYT published in the Indiana Star and the Independent has one too, but it's behind a subscription wall.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Monday, December 26, 2005

MORE ON MODI'IN: An article in Haaretz discusses candidates for the ancient city:
The Hasmoneans were here - maybe
By Ran Shapira

In late 1995, not far from the city of Modi'in, whose construction had begun a short time earlier, several excavated burial caves were found. The find aroused tremendous excitement initially, mainly because on one of the ossuaries an engraved inscription was interpreted to read "Hasmonean." Had they found a burial plot belonging to the family of the Hasmoneans?

When the discovery was announced, the archaeologist digging there, Shimon Riklin, explained that this was not the grave built by Simon the son of Mattathias the Priest for his father and his brothers, which is described in the Book of Maccabees I. The use of ossuraies - stone containers for secondary burial, in which the bones of the dead who had been removed from their original burial place were placed - began in the second half of the first century BCE, more than a century after the beginning of the Hasmonean Revolt. However, the discovery reinforced the theory that the town of Modi'in, where the revolt broke out in 167 BCE, lay not far from the burial caves, in the area of the present-day Arab village of Midya.

A short time later, the excitement died down. A thorough examination made it clear that the word "Hasmonean" was not engraved on the ossuary. ...

In the decade that has passed, two prominent candidates have joined the steadily lengthening list of locations that have been proposed as the site of ancient Modi'in. The most recent is Khirbet Umm al-Umdan, a site revealed in salvage digs conducted in 2001 by Alexander Onn and Shlomit Wexler-Bdolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in the area of the city of Modi'in, on a hill north of the road that connects it with Latrun.


Dr. Shimon Gibson, who conducted the excavations on behalf of the IAA in the area of modern Modi'in in the mid-1990s, when the momentum of construction and development in the area began, actually believes that he has a more worthy candidate. That would be Titura Hill, an archaeological site in the heart of modern Modi'in. In his opinion, one day we will discover that Titura Hill is a site of national importance. At the second Modi'in Conference - a one-day seminar scheduled to take place in the city tomorrow - Wexler-Bdolah and Gibson will present their reasons for identifying each of the sites with the ancient settlement.


(Via Joseph I. Lauer on the ANE list.)
ZOHAR TRANSLATION WATCH: Reader Carl Kinbar e-mails:
Just in case you hadn't checked out the website for the Pritzker Zohar in some time (at ), there have been some additions. Beyond posting (1) the Aramaic text in PDF for each volume they are now also making available (2) a PDF indicating emendations by underlining, and (3) a "user friendly" version, also with emendations underlined, indicating the corresponding page numbers in the translation, and Biblical verse citations. Very useful.

So it is. For more on Daniel Matt's ongoing translation of the Zohar, see here.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Maaloulians begin festivities to commemorate the birth of Jesus at dusk on Dec. 9 with special chants. This marks the beginning of a 15-day fast during which no meat and no dairy products are consumed. On Christmas Eve, which is usually bitterly cold, there is a complete fast to represent Christ's sacrifice, followed by an evening feast at which presents are given to all the village children, followed by a night of praying and dancing.
Christmas is one of the most treasured times for Rana Wehbe, who greets visitors to Ma'aloula's Byzantine Convent of St. Serge and St. Bacchus.

And this is interesting:
Locals such as Wehbe and the village's mayor, Azar Sikris Barkil, are convinced that they could have spoken with the Al Masih as the Messiah is known in Aramaic. The convent's superior, Father Toufik Eid, who is from Lebanon, is not so sure.
"The difficulty with saying that Jesus would understand this is that every language evolves and this one has had 2,000 years to evolve," said Father Eid. "We believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but he also spoke Hebrew, and possibly Greek and Latin."
The Aramaic spoken by Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of the Christ, was written by a Catholic priest and academic from California.
Nobody in Ma'aloula has apparently seen the film. However, those who had seen brief clips from it said that they could not understand any of what was said to be Aramaic.

Actually, Al Masih is Arabic for "the Messiah." For more on Ma'aloula, go here.

(Cross file under "Cosmic Synchronicities," of which 2005 has had more than its share.)