Saturday, January 14, 2006

TECHNOLOGY WATCH - News from the DNA front:
3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews 'traced to four female ancestors'
By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem (The Independent
Published: 14 January 2006

A total of 3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four "founding mothers" who lived in Europe at least 1,000 years ago, according to a study by Israeli geneticists.

The four women were part of a small group which founded the Ashkenazi community, established in Europe after migration from the Middle East, and was ultimately descended from Jews who migrated to Italy in the first and second centuries AD.

The discovery that the women are the ancestors of some 40 per cent of all eight million Ashkenazi, or European Jews, has been made possible by analysing the michrondrial DNA [mtDNA] component of the human genome. MtDNA is only transmitted through the female line.

Train to antiquity

An archaeological dig, about five kilometers north of the Old City, has uncovered a complete community that existed during the two generations between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Bar-Kochba Rebellion in 132 CE.

The dig is proceeding along a 360-meter stretch smack in the center island of Shu'afat Road, the main traffic artery from Jerusalem to Ramallah and farther north to Nablus (Schechem). Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more controversially, the artery is also the route of the future line No.1 of the Jerusalem Light Rail system.

This may cause some complications in the construction:
Caught between the significance of the find and the necessity of the Light Rail, the Israel Antiquities Authority will hold internal discussions to determine its stand regarding the findings, [Jon] Seligman[, archaeologist in charge of the Authority's Jerusalem Region,] said.

Spokespersons for the Light Rail enterprise do not seem concerned that the headline-generating archaeological find will affect their plans. Itsho Gur, speaking for both Moriah and CityPass, the concessionaire who won the government contract to operate the Light Rail, does not expect a delay in development works.

Here's some more information on what was found:
The abundance of lathe-turned stone vessels, which according to Halacha (Jewish religious law) do not take on impurity, is a sure sign of Jewish settlement and was often found in Jerusalem of the Second Temple era, she added.

Here, however, there is more, according to Sklar-Parnes, because this is a post-Destruction site. Eighteen ancient coins were found and sent for scientific examination. Almost all were from the period 70 to 132 CE. A few were from a slightly earlier period; none are later. A test of other objects pointed to similar dating, and ceramic finds showed stylistic features as yet unseen.

Senior archaeologist Avni backs Sklar-Parnes' position. "We know about the War of Destruction and the exile of Jews from inside the city, but what about neighboring areas? So far, there have been no finds. Now we have a defined period and specific Jewish elements."

It is not easy to determine the nature of this settlement, said Avni. Two Roman bathhouses were found during the dig, possibly serving soldiers of the Tenth Legion stationed not far away - so perhaps, for example, the settlement had a working relationship with the Romans.

No ritual baths, though.

And this is especially interesting:
Five ink-wells were found at the site, more than unearthed in Qumran, which is believed to have been home of the Dead Sea Sect, scribes of the famous scrolls.

Friday, January 13, 2006

THE COPTIC GOSPEL OF JUDAS is the subject of a somewhat muddled article in the Telegraph. The headline does not inspire confidence:
Forbidden gospel 'will show Judas was acting for God'

"Forbidden?" Well, maybe it was at some point. Certainly there would have been people in antiquity who wanted it to be. Indeed it was lost for a long time, presumably because its content doesn't square well with mainstream Christianity, but "forbidden" is a little melodramatic. But of greater concern, the rest of the headline in quotes implies misleadingly that the Gospel of Judas tells us something about the historical Judas and that theologians are taking it as an authority. To be fair, this is not just a sensational headline: the author, "Hilary Clarke, in Rome," actually does seem to think that this new gospel is being understood in this way:
Although the full details have not yet been made public, snippets discussed in academic circles say it will prove Judas was acting at the behest of God when he sold Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver.

No one in academic circles says any such thing. At most, that may be what the Gospel of Judas says, which tells us something interesting about nontraditional Christianity in the second to fourth centuries, but nothing about the historical Judas. And I've certainly not heard anyone who worries about such things suggest that the Gospel of Judas should be added to the New Testament canon or should have theological authority.
Its publication will raise fears among traditionalists that efforts may be made to rehabilitate a man whose name is synonymous with betrayal.

Sympathisers with Judas contend that had Jesus not been crucified, he would not have been subsequently resurrected to save humanity.

The first sentence seems to allude to recent efforts within the Catholic Church to rehabilitate Judas. I doubt very much that the Gospel of Judas will have much importance in this discussion (see below). Of course, it doesn't help when articles like this leave nonspecialists with the impression that scholars think that the Gospel of Judas is an eyewitness account by Judas:
Controversy also surrounds the origins of the text, which dates from the fourth century, with some scholars arguing that it was not written by Judas, but by a group of his supporters.

Again, no scholars are arguing that it was written by Judas. Some think that it may have been composed in Greek as early as the second century. I have my doubts even about that.

This sort of thing is irritating and one wonders how it happens. No one is actually quoted and the article speaks in generalities about "academics," "traditionalists," "sympathizers," and "scholars." Did the writer talk to anyone involved with the project or any expert on the apocryphal gospels? It doesn't sound like it. Is the piece based on a badly misread press release? I don't know.

But it is disappointing.

Another story about Judas is making the rounds and it seems to have influenced the Telegraph article. Here is the coverage in the Times of London:
Judas the Misunderstood

From Richard Owen, in Rome

Vatican moves to clear reviled disciple’s name

JUDAS ISCARIOT, the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, is to be given a makeover by Vatican scholars.


Now, a campaign led by Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, is aimed at persuading believers to look kindly at a man reviled for 2,000 years.

Mgr Brandmuller told fellow scholars it was time for a “re-reading” of the Judas story. He is supported by Vittorio Messori, a prominent Catholic writer close to both Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II.


Some Bible experts say Judas was “a victim of a theological libel which helped to create anti Semitism” by forming an image of him as a “sinister villain” prepared to betray for money.


This move is based on historical, theological, and political considerations that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Judas and only weak potential links with it.
The move to clear Judas’s name coincides with plans to publish the alleged Gospel of Judas for the first time in English, German and French. Though not written by Judas, it is said to reflect the belief among early Christians — now gaining ground in the Vatican — that in betraying Christ Judas was fulfilling a divine mission, which led to the arrest and Crucifixion of Jesus and hence to man’s salvation.

Mgr Brandmuller said that he expected “no new historical evidence” from the supposed gospel, which had been excluded from the canon of accepted Scripture.

But it could “serve to reconstruct the events and context of Christ’s teachings as they were seen by the early Christians”. This included that Jesus had always preached “forgiveness for one’s enemies”.

On the one hand, the Gospel of Judas can be used to show that there is some ancient precedent for rehabilitating Judas. But on the other hand, invoking it could backfire:
Some Vatican scholars have expressed concern over the reconsideration of Judas. Monsignor Giovanni D’Ercole, a Vatican theologian, said it was “dangerous to re-evaulate Judas and muddy the Gospel accounts by reference to apocryphal writings. This can only create confusion in believers.”

I'm happy to sit this one out and watch. Should be an interesting discussion.

UPDATE: Times columnist Ben Macintyre argues the case for rehabilitating Judas. One small substantive point. Macintyre writes:
The chronological progression of the allegations is crucial. St Paul, the earliest Christian writer, never mentions Judas.

True, but incomplete and a little misleading. Here's what Paul says about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (RSV):
23: For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (παρεδίδετο) took bread,
24: and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
25: In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
26: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Now Macintyre is quite right that the word translated "betrayed" in v. 23 can also just mean to be "handed over" (although his suggestion that Judas "may simply have been acting as a go-between" is not well founded and indeed flies in the face of everything in the tradition). But here we have to ask "handed over" to whom -- presumably the authorities who condemned him -- and, more critically, by whom? The implication of Paul's statement is that someone did the handing over. In other words, it not unreasonable to read Paul to be alluding to the tradition about Judas, although it's impossible to be sure.

UPDATE (20 January): The Vatican has denied the claims in the Times article.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Numerology is the belief in the significance of numbers in non-mathematical contexts. (If I say two times 12 adds up to 24, that's arithmetic; but if I say that the 12 tribes and the 12 signs of the Zodiac add up to the cosmic mission of Israel, that's numerology.) The Hebrew word for numerology is gematria, an ancient rabbinic term that comes from Greek geometria (the measuring of the earth), from which also derives our English "geometry." Although it may seem odd to think of geometry as having to do with numbers, since it is the one part of most people's mathematical education that has nothing to do with them, this was not true of the ancient Greeks; having no knowledge of algebra, they used geometry to solve algebraic problems, thus introducing numbers into it.

The column gives lots of interesting examples.
THE PROPOSED HOLY LAND THEME PARK in Israel may be canceled due to Pat Robertson's comments about Ariel Sharon's stroke:
Israel May Scuttle Evangelical Complex
January 13, 2006

The Israeli Tourism Ministry is threatening to block the Rev. Pat Robertson's plan for an evangelical center alongside the Sea of Galilee, after the televangelist suggested last week that Prime Minister Sharon's stroke was a punishment from God.

"We cannot do business with him after these words," ministry spokesman Ido Hartuv told the Forward. "We have to rethink the agreement with him."

The Tourism Ministry reportedly has been working with a group of investors, led by Robertson, who want to open a center on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in the vicinity of a number of Christian holy sites. According to Hartuv, the Israeli government was prepared to offer the land for the center free of charge — until Robertson spoke out last week on his television program, "The 700 Club."


Can't say I blame them.

UPDATE (13 January): Robertson has apologized, but that's not getting him his place back on the theme park project. (Via

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

MORE ON THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBIT coming to the Pacific Science Center in Washington.
Pacific Science Center to exhibit Dead Sea Scrolls
By Cathy Herholdt (Lynnwood Journal Newspapers, WA)

Pacific Science Center representatives in December announced to an anticipative audience of media representatives, students and community leaders that it will host the West Coast premiere of Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, a new exhibition that will open on Sept. 23, 2006. The exhibit will feature four scrolls never before seen by the public and another making its first appearance outside Israel.


Transcripts of Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel, and the War Rule, all found in Qumran Cave 4 off the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea between Jerusalem and Jericho in the 1950's, will make their public debut in the exhibition. Pacific Science Center is sponsoring the conservation of these manuscripts for their world premiere public viewing.

The exhibit will cost $1.8 million before the doors even open.

Preservation of the four scrolls by archivists from Jerusalem involves placing the documents between two layers of nearly invisible archival mesh, then inside glass cases that will never tip. The glass is then placed in padded cases for transportation. Humidity and temperature are controlled, and the scrolls must be kept out of the light for a certain number of hours each day. Visitors will enter darkened rooms to view the scrolls.


I'm not sure what "transcripts" means here. Evidently part of the exhibit consists of facsimiles of scrolls, but I'm pretty sure these four are the originals. Maybe the author of the article just meant to say "displays."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

MY DANGEROUS IDEA: Inspired by a cool beginning-of-the-year collection of essays in The Edge, Loren Rosson has called for bibliobloggers to post "their one 'dangerous idea' for biblical studies." If you know me or read this blog frequently, mine won't be a great surprise. But here it is:
Many of the ancient texts used by New Testament scholars as sources for first-century Judaism as background material for the New Testament are actually either Christian compositions or were written long after the first century, or both, and insofar as reconstructions of early Judaism are based on them, those reconstructions are of dubious value.

In my new book The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other?, and elsewhere, I have argued that this should be our understanding of many Old Testament pseudepigrapha and perhaps even one or two Old Testament Apocrypha. I do not believe that a convincing case has been made for any book of Sibylline Oracles as Jewish, although there probably is Jewish material somewhere in them. Nor has a Jewish origin or early date been persuasively argued for the Testament of Job, Joseph and Aseneth, the Lives of the Prophets, the Testament of Abraham, the Story of Zosimus, Pseudo-Phocylides, the Life of Adam and Eve, or the Prayer of Manasseh. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs draws on Jewish sources but is itself a Christian composition from well after the New Testament period. There are even some reasons to think that the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha could be a Christian composition.

As for rabbinic sources, even the earliest rabbinic collection, the Mishnah, was based on oral traditions and was only written down after 200 CE. The attribution of sayings to named (and therefore datable) sages is not reliable and cannot be used on its own to date a given saying. It is possible to show that some sayings are probably earlier than others on stratigraphic grounds and this in tandem with name attributions can allow us to isolate some early material. (In other words, if a group of sayings attributed to specific first-century sages can consistently be shown to be the basis of discussion for a group of sayings attributed to second century sages and not the other way around, there is a case for dating the first set of sayings in the first century.) In other cases, Mishnaic and Tannaitic ideas can be shown to be early because there are early parallels to them (but then the parallel already shows that the idea is early). But all this involves a lot of difficult spadework that isn't necessarily always done by people looking for New Testament background.

Related reflections here.
Workshop: October-December, 2005
• Colloquium: January 22-24, 2006
Princeton University


For the fourth time in six years, the Department of Religion of Princeton University will host a workshop and colloquium on a special topic concerning religions and societies of late antiquity. This year’s project, entitled Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, will explore the themes of tradition construction and collective memory from the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. The workshop, which will be held during the second half of the fall 2005-6 semester, will feature presentations by doctoral students before a joint faculty-graduate student forum. The colloquium (January 22-24, 2006, at Princeton University) will feature papers by top faculty from both Princeton and other leading universities, representing the fields of religion, classics, history and archaeology. A small number of graduate students selected from our workshop will also be invited to present their papers at the colloquium.

Wish I could go.

(Via Gregg Gardner on Ioudaios-L.)

Monday, January 09, 2006

EDINBURGH SBL & FEMINIST CRITICISM: Professor Heather McKay, Membership Secretary of the Society for Old Testament Study, has sent out this message to SOTS members, which I reproduce here with her permission:

Session on Feminist Criticism's input to Biblical Studies at Edinburgh SBL

Dear colleague

I wonder if you can think of anyone (or yourself) to whom the following Call for Papers for the Edinburgh SBL would be interesting, and if you then would forward it to them urgently. I have just realised (with alarm!) that the deadline for proposals is this Saturday (14/1/06)! The conference dates are Sun 2/7 - Thu 6/7/06; I am the Program Unit Chair and would welcome some strong proposals and some publicity for the session as well.

Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession
Call For Papers: (Sur)Passing Biblical Scholars, Building on Feminist Criticism: Feminist biblical criticism has produced several waves of challenging criticism of biblical texts, with each producing its own eddies and ripples where it combines and recombines with other forms of critical activity. Papers that identify feminist sources and/or the enriching use of feminist approaches to create powerful new readings of biblical texts will be welcomed. This call is open to both male and female scholars alike.

Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession
IN THE MAIL: My review copy of Ra'anan S. Boustan, From Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (TSAJ 112; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005).
ARIEL SHARON'S CURRENT COMA may highlight debates on how to reconcile ancient Jewish halakhah with modern medical technology. This A.P. article has some reflections:
In Israel, physicians typically defer to families or patients about whether the treatment should follow secular or religious codes.

Many rabbis follow a 1986 decision by Israel's chief rabbinate - the government's highest religious authority - that defines death as irreversible inactivity of major parts of the brain stem, which controls breathing, swallowing and other basic bodily functions.

The opinion is based on various Jewish texts including the Mishnah, an early source of rabbinical tradition, which establishes decapitation as an irrefutable sign of death. In the modern sense, the rabbis interpret a nonfunctioning brain stem as the same thing.

But others see the core of life in the heartbeat, which can occur even with a severely damaged brain stem and can continue with artificial respiration. Some rabbis cite ancient texts that say death occurs only when there is both no respiration and no "movement" in the body. They consider a heartbeat a life-signifying movement even if maintained through life-support and may counsel followers not to remove life support.


The issues are so delicate that it took six years for Israel's top rabbinical scholars, physicians and other experts to hammer out legislation to allow the terminally ill to refuse life support. It passed last month with one unique provision: the equipment could only be turned off by an automatic timer to avoid having a health care worker do it.
J. T. MILIK, 1922-2006. I regret to inform you that J. T. Milik, one of the original members of the Dead Sea Scrolls editorial team, passed away in Paris yesterday. Eileen Schuller and Eibert Tigchelaar have e-mailed with the information and to say that the funeral is on Wednesday.

Milik published a great deal, including some of the Bar Kokhba era material in DJD 2, the Copper Scroll in DJD 3, and the Qumran fragments of 1 Enoch and some of the Book of the Giants material in The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4.

Another giant in the field has passed on. Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

MORE ON THE PARIS EXHIBITION: Reader Tommy Wasserman points me to the website for the Books of Words: Torah, Bible, Koran (Torah, Bible, Coran: Livres de parole) exhibition at There's lots of interesting stuff. The only Dead Sea Scroll I can find is a fragment of Leviticus written in the paleo-Hebrew script. There is mention of a Samuel manuscript as well, but it doesn't seem to be pictured. Here is a polyglot Bible. Here are images of a couple of Jewish amulets. Here is an illustration of a Josephus manuscript depicting the construction of the Jerusalem Temple. Here are pages from a Coptic Gospel of John. Here are images of New Testament manuscripts in Syriac and Ethiopic. And here is a very early (7th century) manuscript of the Qur'an. (Click on the smaller photos to enlarge them and get more explanatory text.) And there's much more. If all this is in the exhibit, it's quite an impressive one.

UPDATE (9 January): There are several Qumran fragments here. Three of them look like they belong to the Leviticus scroll, but the one on the upper left is in the square script and must be from a different manuscript.

UPDATE: Speaking of Quranic manuscripts, here's a BBC article on what it says is the oldest surviving copy of the Qur'an, dating to 651 CE, only 19 years after the death of Muhammad. It is housed in a library in Uzbekistan.

(Via Archaeologica News.)

UPDATE (11 January): David Nishimura has more on that early Qur'an and related matters over at Cronaca.
THE COPTIC GOSPEL OF JUDAS is getting some more attention, thanks to John Dart's recent article. In yesterday's Time Herald, Jim Ketchum comments in an article entitled "New text may deepen Judas debate." He concludes:
Apparently, National Geographic plans to take the wraps off all this by Easter. Hopefully they have done enough homework to authenticate what they have.

If not, this could turn into another case similar to the purported Hitler diaries, the contents of which were judged to be bogus only after a German publication had invested great amounts of time, money and prestige into publishing them.

If this second-century text in fact is real, it will provide grist for theologians to debate for decades to come.

For the rest of us, this new 2,000-year-old story will be an interesting footnote that probably won't do much to change basic Christian beliefs.

Or do much to make over Judas' reputation.

It's always worthwhile to be skeptical of unprovenanced manuscripts, but a fake of this length and complexity would be awfully hard to pull off. But I am skeptical about the second century date. I'm not a Coptologist, but I'm suspicious about the way that texts in fourth and fifth-century Coptic manuscripts are often assumed to be translations of second-century Greek originals. We know that's the case with the Gospel of Thomas, because we have second-century Greek fragments of it. But we also know that Coptic borrowed a lot of Greek words as a matter of course. And I think a lot more homework needs to be done before we can be very confident of distinguishing Greek-translation Coptic from Coptic composed in a biblical style. Anyhow, we'll see.

I doubt that theologians will be very interested. The real importance of the Coptic Gospel of Judas is for the understanding of Jesus and his disciples in Coptic-speaking (and perhaps Greek-speaking) Christianity of roughly the second through fourth centuries CE. For specialists in Christianity of late antiquity, it is of great interest indeed. Plus, a popular audience will think it's cool because it's so countercultural.

UPDATE (17 January): More
A NUMEROLOGICAL NITPICK: This otherwise good Wichita Eagle article by Tom Schaefer on creation, evolution, and the Bible opens:
Raising cautions about science vs. religion

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Ten English words. Six in Hebrew. The basics of creation.

No, it's seven words in Hebrew:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ׃

Like God would neglect to put seven words in the first verse of the Bible!