Saturday, June 24, 2006

THE OLDEST STUDENT AT OXFORD is studying an interesting subject:
In a class of her own

Gertrud Seidmann finished her first degree in 1943. Today she is working towards another - at the age of 86. Laura Barton asks her about alcohol, archaeology and the appeal of academia

Friday June 23, 2006
The Guardian

Age has always been something of a matter of pride for Oxford University - it is, after all, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. But a tussle for the title of "Oxford's oldest student" began recently, when an article in the Daily Telegraph declared 78-year-old former High Court judge Sir Oliver Popplewell, currently an undergraduate at Harris Manchester College studying politics, philosophy and economics, to be the wearer of the crown. Erroneously, according to Professor Michael Vickers, of Jesus College. "I am the supervisor of Miss Gertrud Seidmann of Wolfson College," he wrote to correct the newspaper, "who is studying for a [higher degree] at the age of 86."

Indeed, since October 2004, Seidmann has been at Wolfson College pursuing an M Litt on the life and achievements of Greville Chester, a 19th-century clergyman "who became an assiduous traveller to Egypt and the near east, and an expert on archaeological artefacts which he collected for museums". ...
Among many other things, Rev. Chester acquired both Cairo Geniza fragments and Aramaic Elephantine papyri during his career. I hope I get the chance to read Miss Seidmann's M.Litt. dissertation.

Friday, June 23, 2006

EGYPTIAN BLOGGER ALAA is finally free. However, the administrative process of being released from police custody seems to have involved him getting beaten up a good bit. The Sandmonkey reported his release yesterday (scroll down to bottom of post and read the first part only if you want to feel sick), but I thought I would sit on it until I was sure it was true.

Many thanks to all those readers who wrote to the Egyptian Embassy or signed the petition.
THE JOURNAL FOR THE STUDY OF THE PSEUDEPIGRAPHA has a new issue out (15.3, May 2006). Here's the table of contents:
Siam Bhayro
Noah’s Library: Sources for 1 Enoch 6-11
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 163-177.

Wayne Baxter
Noachic Traditions and the Book of Noah
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 179-194.

Kristine J. Ruffatto
Polemics with Enochic Traditions in the Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 195-210.

David C. Mitchell
Firstborn Shor and Rem: A Sacrificial Josephite Messiah in 1 Enoch 90.37-38 and Deuteronomy 33.17
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 211-228.

Basil Lourié
Book Review: Retroverting Slavonic Pseudepigrapha: Toward the Original of the Apocalypse of Abraham
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 229-233.

James C. VanderKam
Book Review: On Earth as in Heaven: The Restoration of Sacred Time and Sacred Space in the Book of Jubilees
Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2006 15: 233-237.
(Via Café Apocalypsis.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

THE COPTIC PAPYRI found recently at Al-Gurna near Luxor have been identified:
The Book of Isaiah under the sands of Egypt

(Science and Scholarship in Poland)

The archaeological mystery has been solved! The latest research shows that the manuscript found by Polish archaeologists in the village of Gourna (Sheikh abd el-Gourna) near Luxor in Upper Egypt contains the entire biblical book of Isaiah in the Coptic translation. “This is the first complete translation of this book in Coptic” – says Prof. Ewa Wipszycka-Bravo of the Institute of Archaeology at Warsaw University.

In February last year, Tomasz Górecki heading the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the Warsaw University mission in Gourna, made a unique find in the rubbish heap of a monastery. It consisted of two papyrus books in leather covers and a collection of parchment sheets bound by two bits of wood. This was the first discovery of Coptic manuscripts in Egypt since 1952, which are well preserved and supported by a well-researched archaeological context.

One of the books is the “Code of Pseudo-Basili” – the only preserved full text in Coptic, which is a collection of rules regulating Church life. The other contains the life of St. Pistentios, one of the Coptic bishops. Both texts date back to the 7th/8th centuries.

The Isaiah manuscript is dated to the ninth or tenth century and its binding includes fragments of a text called “The suffering of St. Peter.” This is reported to be the first complete Coptic manuscript of Isaiah to be recovered, although I wonder if that is correct. Maybe the first to be excavated? There is a complete Coptic Old Testament, isn't there?

(Via the Agade list.)
NEIL ALTMAN'S FELLOW "RESEARCHER" Peter W. Pick is profiled in the Petaluma Argus-Courier and comes up with predictable misinformation and conspiracy theorizing. Excerpt, with my comments interspersed:
Your research is leading you to believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls, or at least some of them, did not all come from the time originally proposed, which was 300 B.C., before the birth of Jesus. This is revolutionary?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are generally dated between the third-century BCE (not 300 BCE) and the first century CE on paleographical and radiocarbon-dating grounds
"Journals will not accept articles written about an alternative date for the scrolls. There's a conspiracy. Not only was the material kept away from the public for a long time, there is not an open and free discussion [now].
When crank research is rejected by peer-review journals, the crank response is to cry "conspiracy!" The simple fact of the matter is that the ideas Altman and co. are peddling are so poorly supported that they are not even in the ballpark of what is publishable in a serious journal. Hence their appearance in gullible newspapers instead.
What has your research shown? "The dating of all of the manuscripts is not pre-Christian, but has medieval, Middle Age indications or signs, everything from numbers to Masoretic vowels [in Hebrew] which only came in the fifth and sixth century, A.D. We're finding a lot of medieval material, whether it's numbers, foreign languages, or Masoretic vowels. That is the most important discovery we've made.

What we're pointing out is that these scrolls traveled, because they had foreign languages on them, and they traveled as far as central Asia, if not China, and had Chinese words on them.
For responses to these claims, go here and follow the many links in that post and the links in the linked-to posts. Briefly, no one who specializes in these areas accepts these claims and Altman is in the habit of publishing seriously distorted accounts of interviews with specialists to give the misleading impression that they do accept them.
The 800 or so manuscripts, all in relatively fragmentary condition, weren't just written in Hebrew, as Jewish scribes would write them. They had Aramaic in them, and also Greek and Arabic, and a number of other languages. And they were not all sacred texts, but had astrological information and so forth.
This is very misleading. Jewish scribes regularly wrote in Greek and Aramaic as well as Hebrew, in this period and long afterwards. They also wrote other things besides sacred texts (as one would expect) and some of them had some interest in astrology. Comments like these from the Altman circle are one of the best indicators that they don't know what they are talking about.

As for the Arabic, I believe that one or two much-later Arabic texts were found in the Judean Desert caves, but these are separate finds from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This may be what Pick is thinking of. Or it may just be made up. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek.
And the caves, everyone thinks were just across from [the Qumran settlement, upon which the pre-Christianity dating is based]. But there were also caves four miles away that were put under that same rubric, and people still insisted that this was all a homogeneous collection.
I don't know what he is talking about here. According to this map of the Scroll-bearing cave sites, Cave 3 is the farthest away from the Qumran site, perhaps a mile and 1/8 north of it.
Now ideas have come up that this collection was put there to shelter it from the Roman attack of 70 A.D., and the destruction of the Second Temple, a repository, a safe place for texts, supposedly. That's not the accepted theory, that's the new one that finally braved its way, after 40 or 50 years, into the thinking of scholars."
This is not very clearly expressed, and is what most scholars actually think; that the people who lived at the site, perhaps with co-sectarians from elsewhere in Judea, hid the Scrolls in these caves in advance of the Roman invasion. But perhaps Pick is alluding in a very unclear way to Norman Golb's theory that the Scrolls come from literary archives in Jerusalem rather than from the inhabitants of the site of Qumran. Golb has been publishing this theory for many years, so it is hardly new. In any case, neither theory has anything to do with Altman and Pick's preposterous ideas about the medieval origin of the Scrolls. Their idea was in fact suggested in the early years after the Scrolls were discovered and it was properly discredited many decades ago.

Altman and his friends are making fools of a good many journalists and newspaper editors, who don't have sense enough to vet their claims independently with real specialists.
LEONARD GREENSPOON ponders different English translations of Numbers 13-14 in The Forward.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

HAPPY SUMMER SOLSTICE! I've been celebrating, as is my wont, by reading by sunlight in our living room until just a few minutes ago. I have a cold and am not in top form, so I think I'll turn in soon.
PALESTINIAN DENIAL of Jewish historical connections with Jerusalem is discussed in the Jerusalem Post (appeared first in the New York Sun?) by Daniel Pipes ("What Jewish ties to Jerusalem?"). Excerpt:
Palestinians now claim that Canaanites built Solomon's Temple, that the ancient Hebrews were Bedouin tribesmen, the Bible came from Arabia, the Jewish Temple "was in Nablus or perhaps Bethlehem," the Jewish presence in Palestine ended in C.E. 70, and today's Jews are descendants from the Khazar Turks.

Yasser Arafat himself created a non-existent Canaanite king, Salem, out of thin air, speaking movingly about this fantasy Palestinian "forefather."

Palestinian Media Watch sums up this process: By turning Canaanites and Israelites into Arabs and the Judaism of ancient Israel into Islam, the Palestinian Authority "takes authentic Jewish history, documented by thousands of years of continuous literature, and crosses out the word 'Jewish' and replaces it with the word 'Arab.'"

The political implication is clear: Jews lack any rights to Jerusalem. As a street banner puts it: "Jerusalem is Arab." Jews are unwelcome.
He traces the phenomenon back to the early 1990s. I've been watching it closely here for the last few years. It is held more widely in the Muslim Arab world than just among the Palestinians. See, for example, my posts on the same propaganda coming from the UAE and the Egyptian Government. But it does seem now to be the official line of the Palestinian Authority, which does not provide a very constructive starting point for serious negotiations with the Israelis.

I have discussed the historical evidence for the Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount here and here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

EGYPTIAN BLOGGER ALAA is reportedly about to be released from prison. I was just thinking it was about time to e-mail the Egyptian Embassy again, but now, with luck, it won't be necessary. I'll celebrate when he's actually free, but this sounds like very good news. Apparently all those who were arrested with him have already been freed.
AN OWNERSHIP DISPUTE has arisen over the Tomb of the Kings in East Jerusalem:
Doubt cast on French ownership of J'lem's Tomb of the Kings
By MICHAEL FREUND (Jerusalem Post

An essay appearing in the latest issue of a prominent Israeli journal raises new questions about the ownership of the Tomb of the Kings, an ancient Jewish holy site in east Jerusalem which has been under French control for 120 years.

The paper, which appears in Et-mol, a bimonthly periodical of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, was authored by Eyal Ben-Eliyahu of Hebrew University's Department of the History of the Jewish People. It cites an array of new evidence indicating that France's acquisition of the site in 1886 may not have been fully legal.


Located on Salah a-Din Street, the Tomb of the Kings dates back to the Second Temple period. It is considered the largest burial ground in Jerusalem, and includes a huge courtyard adjoining an entrance to several underground chambers.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was built by Queen Helen of Adiabene in Kurdistan, who converted to Judaism along with her family and then moved to the Land of Israel.

Historians believe that it later served as a burial site for the queen and her offspring. Jewish tradition, however, identifies it as the grave of either Nakdimon ben-Gurion, a prominent Jerusalemite, or Kalba Savua, the father-in-law of Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, both of whom lived at the time of the Roman occupation over nineteen centuries ago.

Read it all for the details of the dispute.

Monday, June 19, 2006

UPDATES: I have updated posts from Saturday and Thursday. The latter includes a correction. Please have a look.
JUDAISM OR JUDAISMS? Mark Goodacre writes, in part:
Is it just me or is there something rather annoying about the trend over the last twenty years or so to talk about early Christianity as "Christianities" and early Judaism as "Judaisms"? I must admit that I am hoping that this is going to prove to be just a fad and something that we will look back on in twenty years time as an odd terminological aberration that characterized a particular kind of scholarship at the turn of the millennium.

I understand, of course, the anxiety people feel about attempting to convey just how varied Judaism and Christianity were in this period, and it is natural to want to stretch language norms when one is examining emerging Judaism and Christian origins. But I can't help feeling that there is nothing helpful, interesting or insightful about this particular terminological oddity. If the variety of Christianity is not properly understood as "Christianity", then I don't see how calling it "a" Christianity in any way advances the discussion. It is either a variety of Christianity that might legitimately be described as a variety of Christianity, or it is not. Calling it "a" Christianity simply doesn't change anything. Likewise Judaism.
These are all good points. I think Neusner, who seems to have originated this usage, was trying to come to terms with a legitimate difficulty: the varieties of Judaism are so varied that sometimes it seems that some seem to have scarcely anything in common with some others, leading one to wonder what it is that makes them all Judaism. Nevertheless, I think he overcompensates. The fact that he uses the plural implies that there is some connection between the forms of Judaism, no matter how varied, and this requires explanation and description.

My favored solution is to apply Jonathan Z. Smith's "polythetic" approach to Judaism, which I summarized in a 2002 conference paper that you can read in full here:
In short, we come to an impasse: a "monothetic" definition of common Judaism in antiquity does not seem to work. That is, no definition of Judaism based on a sine qua non or core essence can be formulated. But Jonathan Z. Smith, in his article, "Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism," has pointed to a way forward.[10] He proposes that classification of religions should follow a "polythetic" rather than a monothetic approach. Polythetic classification is an idea borrowed from biology. Rather than attempting to find an essence common to every member, it is based on a broad grouping of characteristics or properties. A member of the class being defined must have many of these characteristics, but no single characteristic is possessed by every member. Most members share characteristics with many other members, but some members have nothing in common with others. There will also be some borderline cases, which have a few of the characteristics but not enough to justify accepting these cases as members of the class. With a polythetic classification, the best we can do is to look for some general trends shared in antiquity by many or most Jews. Some important ones would include: worship of the God of Israel alone; acceptance of certain books as Jewish scriptures given as revelation by this God; the following of Jewish customs, laws, and rituals; participation in or support of the Temple cult in Jerusalem; self-identification with the Jewish nation; membership in and acceptance by a particular Jewish community; and acceptance of Palestine as the holy land. One can perhaps reasonably speak of a "common Judaism" and frequently shared elements, but there is no sine qua non. Some types of Judaism, notably the Enochic form, had very little overlap with common Judaism.
Mark continues in the same post quoted above:
And is it not the case that Christianity is far more diverse today than it was in the first two centuries? Many Christians within particular traditions do not recognise those in other competing traditions as Christians; there are Christian sects that are not called Christian by their founders; there are Christian sects that are not called Christian by their critics. We have every possible variety of belief and practice within contemporary global Christianity yet we don't feel the need to use the term Christianities. And likewise Judaism. Why, then, do we feel it necessary for the early centuries?
Again, all true. Superficially, Christianity seems to have a more obvious center than Judaism, because Jesus is centrally important to it. But on a closer look, people who consider themselves Christians often have disagreed widely (and violently) about who Jesus actually was and why he is important. A polythetic approach can be useful here as well.

In addition, as is becoming more and more widely recognized, the dividing line between Christianity and Judaism was very fuzzy to begin with and there was considerable overlap for a long time. And even after the "parting of the ways" Christians and Jews continued to talk to each other and influence each other from antiquity to the present. In all these cases there are continuums of variation rather than sharp demarcations.

For much more on all this, see the first chapter of my book The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? (link above in the right-hand sidebar).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

ELAINE PAGELS is doing a three-part lecture series on The Da Vinci Code in Portland. She is quoted with this interesting positive take on the book:
"What is compelling about Brown's work of fiction, and part of what may be worrying Catholic and evangelical leaders, is not the book's many falsehoods," Pagels told the San Jose Mercury News this spring.

"What has kept Brown on the best-seller list for years and inspired a movie is, instead, what is true -- that some views of Christian history were buried for centuries because leaders of the early Catholic Church wanted to present one view of Jesus' life: theirs."
I suspect there is a certain amount of slanting or misunderstanding of the first lecture, since Pagels is made to appear something of a Gnostic herself:
Pagels and others have come to interpret the Nag Hammadi texts as "advanced-level teaching" that Jesus communicated to a select group of disciples.

"In the Gospel of Thomas, there's a passage that says 'these are the secret words of Jesus,' things he said privately," said the scholar, who threads her speeches with examples from the gnostic gospels as well as Luke, John, Matthew and Mark.
I don't know of anyone who actually thinks that the Gospel of Thomas has secret teachings delivered to select discipes, although that's what it claims. Much of the material, after all, overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Some scholars do think that the basic work goes back to the first century, and perhaps somewhat more scholars (but still by no means all) think that, whatever its date, it contains Jesus traditions that were transmitted independently of the Synoptics.

Finally, here is her view (at least as the reporter understood it) on early orthodox Christianity:
Irenaeus and Athanasius declared all other gospels to be heresy -- a Greek word that means choice. "That is something the leaders did not think people should have," the scholar said wryly.

Irenaeus deemed the gnostic authors "evil interpreters" and ordered their works to be found and destroyed.

"It took 200 years to get rid of them," Pagels said, a campaign finally concluded when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and church leaders had "police power behind them."

But the monks of St. Pachomius escaped the religious dragnet. They gathered the forbidden, leather-bound gospels, put them in a clay vessel and buried them in the hills.

For centuries, Christians believed the sanitized versions of Jesus's teachings.

"When I went to graduate school, I had this fantasy of early Christianity, what really happened back then, as the Golden Age, unified, simple and pure," Pagels said. "A kind of play Bibleland."

The author, who speaks and writes with respect for both history and faith, said she can understand why Irenaeus and Athanasius did what they did.

"They were facing brutal persecution," she said. "I'm grateful that they preserved Christianity."