Saturday, September 23, 2006

"THE EVOLUTION OF MONOTHEISM" is examined from a liberal Muslim perspective by Zeeshan Hasan on alt.muslim. Nitpicks aside, it's a fair summary of the current scholarly understanding of the origins of monotheism in ancient Israel in its ancient Near Eastern context. He concludes with the following reflections on the implications for Muslims:
So we are left with a very interesting view of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition; one which may greatly change its interactions with other religious traditions in the current day. If monotheist worship of Yahweh in Israel started after Moses, it would seem that previous Biblical and Qur'anic figures such as Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were all polytheist. Since these figures are all revered as primordial Muslims in the Qur'an, the surprising conclusion is that the definition of "Muslim" has changed over the millennia, along with the definition of God itself. In spite of apparently believing in a polytheist religion that Muslims today would not even recognize, the Qur'an has no reservations of the high status of Abraham.
Say: No, but follow the religion of Abraham, the upright (Qur'an 2:135)
The unwavering Qur'anic support of Abraham is very significant for modern day Muslims. If we accept the historical evidence that Abraham was polytheist, then we have found grounds for a more pluralistic view of Islam in the many verses praising him. This is very relevant in the context of South Asia, for example, where fundamentalist Muslim leaders routinely criticize Hinduism for being polytheist.

More generally, given the historical evidence that even Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism has evolved from very different religious ideas, it becomes harder to criticize any other religion for not being monotheist. This enables us to develop a Qur'anic theology based on genuine respect and appreciation for other religions as divinely-inspired, regardless of how different they may seem. The following verses are relevant:
>And for every nation there is a messenger (Qur'an 10:47)

To every nation We appointed sacred rites which they are to perform. (Qur'an 22:67)

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it... For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Qur'an 5:48)
The above seems to imply that the variety of religious faiths that we see in the world may all be part of a larger divine scheme of things. How do we know that all of these are not simply the "sacred rites" appointed to different nations, each corresponding to various divinely-approved "traced-out ways" (shir'at in Arabic, with a similar etymology as shari'ah)? They may seem different and strange to us, but so would Abraham's Canaanite polytheism. And the Qur'an is very positive about Abraham; so it becomes impossible for us to criticize any religion based on doctrine. As the above makes clear, the only way left to criticize any religion is based on the "good works" of its followers. From this viewpoint, Islam does not become merely tolerant of other religions, but actually appreciative of them.

An interesting consequence of this discussion is that over their disparate histories, the Judeo-Christian Muslim tradition winds up looking a lot like Hinduism. Both started out thousands of years ago with polytheism and moved towards monotheism. In Israel that happened millennia ago, with the absorption of El and Baal into the figure of Yahweh. In India it happened about a century ago with the Brahmo Samaj (as a result of which, the poems and songs of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore are sufficiently monotheist to be used as hymns in Christian churches in Bangladesh).
Very interesting. I wonder what kind of reaction he'll get. It sounds like the opening of what could be a very constructive discussion.

Zeeshan Hasan is also one of the bloggers at ProgressiveIslam.Org. And he has more essays (which I have not read) posted at

UPDATE (24 September): So far the comments to the article are unsympathetic.
RECENT DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITIONS IN THE USA are covered in this A.P. article, whose starting point is the current Seattle exhibit:
Museums use science to explore history, geography, religion


SEATTLE -- Not since King Tut set attendance records in the 1970s, has an exhibit from the Middle East been such a guaranteed success for America museums.

About a decade ago, museum directors began to dream of desert oases and ancient history again when the Israel Antiquities Authority decided it was time to share the Dead Sea Scrolls with the rest of the world.

A dozen exhibits in the United States have focused on the historical and religious aspects of this 1947 archaeological discovery in the Judean desert, but now Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits are moving into new territories: the realm of science.

A new exhibit co-designed by hands-on science museums in Seattle and Charlotte, N.C., opens this weekend at the Pacific Science Center. It is unique in several ways including its efforts to capture the imagination of children as well as their parents.

Plus, The Olympian has an intro piece on the Scrolls that looks pretty good.

Friday, September 22, 2006

MORE MEDIA ATTENTION to the Seattle Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit can be found here and here. From the first:
[Professor Martin] Abegg smiled when he described two people who were excited about the exhibit: the 6-year-old who wanted to see the Dead Sea Squirrels, and the adult looking forward to the Grateful Dead Scrolls.
Israel opens ancient site near Jerusalem shrine
Thu Sep 21, 2006 7:41am ET171

By Jonathan Saul

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has opened to the public an underground archaeological exhibit near Jerusalem's most sensitive shrine, drawing fire from Palestinians who say the project endangers the foundations of the holy site.

Israel's opening of an archaeological tunnel near al-Haram al-Sharif, the site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque where the biblical Jewish Temples once stood, sparked Palestinian anger in 1996. Sixty-one Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes.

The "Chain of Generations Center" took over 10 years to construct and recently opened its doors to visitors for the first time. Among the attractions is a Jewish ritual bath dating to the 1st century which was discovered during building work.

ROSH HASHANAH (the Jewish New Year, 5767) begins tonight at sundown. In the Bible this is known as the holy convocation of trumpets:
23: And the LORD said to Moses,
24: "Say to the people of Israel, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation.
25: You shall do no laborious work; and you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD."
(Leviticus 23:23-25)
Rosh HaShanah marks the beginning of the Days of Awe.

Happy New Year to all those celebrating.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

THE IRAQ WAR AND ARCHAEOLOGY BLOG is now up and running, produced by Francis Deblauwe and replacing the corresponding e-mail list. Be sure and bookmark it.
The Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 6 (2006) just appeared, containing the following articles:

-Adil al-Jadir, "Numbers and Dating Formulae in the Old Syriac Inscriptions"
-Muriel Debié, "L’héritage de la chronique d’Eusèbe dans l’historiographie syriaque"
-Richard Burgess, "A Chronological Prolegomenon to Reconstructing Eusebius’ Chronici canones: The Evidence of Ps-Dionysius (the Zuqnin Chronicle)"
-Geoffrey Greatrex, "Pseudo-Zachariah of Mytilene: the context and nature of his work"
-Jan van Ginkel, "Michael the Syrian and his Sources: Reflections on the Methodology of Michael the Great as a Historiographer and its Implications for Modern Historians"
-Witold Witakowski, "The Ecclesiastical Chronicle of Gregory Bar‘Ebroyo"

* * * * *
Members of the CSSS: Your copy will be mailed to you in October.
Join the CSSS and you will receive a free copy of its Journal: US$50.00 per year.
Cost per copy (including mailing):
Individuals: US$35.00
Institutions: US$50.00

To order the Journal of the CSSS, write to:
Canadian Society for Syriac Studies Inc.
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto
4 Bancroft Avenue
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M5S 1C1


(From the Hugoye list.)

Also, a call for papers:
Call for Papers

Syriac Studies Symposium V

Syriac as a Bridge Culture
Toronto, Ontario Canada June 25-27, 2007

The (North American) Syriac Studies Symposium gathers scholars, researchers, graduate students, and interested public from all over the world for a three day conference on Syriac studies. Symposium V will take place in Canada for the first time, following four successive symposia in the United States: Providence RI (1991), Washington DC (1995), Notre Dame IN (1999), and Princeton NJ (2003).
Preference will be given to papers or sessions that directly deal with the main theme: The role of Syriac in bridging antiquity with the medieval Near East, ancient Greece with the Islamic civilizations, Christianity with the Far East, etc., in literature, translations, art, architecture and any other relevant field. Other proposals in the areas of Syriac literature, Biblical versions, history, art, archaeology, and theology are also welcome.
As in the past conferences, the Syriac Studies Symposium will jointly convene with the International Forum on Syriac Computing. This forum aims to give those working on computational projects in Syriac the opportunity to share information. Papers on all aspects of Syriac computing are welcomed, including: databases (lexical, bibliographical, catalogues), word processing, fonts, desktop publishing, critical editions, computer aided learning/teaching, software and systems.
Please submit a title and a 250 word abstract if you wish to present a (20 minute) paper. If you wish to propose a session, indicate its theme and participants, and enclose copies of abstracts for the papers. Send your abstract or proposal electronically at the following e-mail, The registration form will be mailed to you in the fall.

Address questions concerning papers or sessions:
For Syriac Symposium V to the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies at
For the International Forum on Syriac Computing to Dr. George Kiraz:
(Again, posted on the Hugoye list.)
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION IN SEATTLE gets a thoughtful but positive review by Janet I. Tu in the Seattle Times:
Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit tells stories from then and now

By Janet I. Tu

Seattle Times staff reporter

To best appreciate the Pacific Science Center's Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, it helps to know or read about their background and religious significance beforehand.

The exhibit, which opened for a media preview Wednesday morning, is not a display of visual grandeur on the King Tut scale. Instead, the 10 scrolls on display are small and in dimly lit cases — the limited lighting necessary to preserve these ancient manuscripts.

It's the stories behind the scrolls — and the stories they tell — that are the most interesting.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

SATAN has been getting a lot of attention lately. The latest contribution is "Angel FAQs: The Fall of Satan" by William D. Webber on Beliefnet.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS are also the subject of a long article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. I've read it over quickly and it looks good. Here's the conclusion:
The legacy of the scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls caused re-examination of ancient texts, leading to about 100 minor revisions, such as a word substitution, and margin notes in English translations. As research continues, that total will likely triple or quadruple, Abegg said.

"Despite the fact that there are some variations in the texts from the Qumran, the content of the Bible and its wordings are virtually the same," Schiffman said. "Its eternal message remains the same throughout the ages."

The Dead Sea Scrolls also illuminate the centuries between the Old Testament and New Testament.

Before the scrolls were discovered, Nickelsburg said, Jews largely derived their history from the fourth century B.C. to the first century A.D. from the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Jewish philosopher and exegete, Philo of Alexandria.

"The Qumran writings are contemporary witnesses to that history, composed by the people who were living it. In them modern Jews may find aspects of their heritage to embrace and eschew," he said.

The scrolls' many parallels with the New Testament show today's Christians that "the earliest Christianity was, in fact, a Jewish messianic movement, and a better appreciation of the specific ways in which the early church both incorporated and distanced itself from aspects of its Jewish heritage," Nickelsburg said

Put another way, Abegg said, "the scrolls allow us to see that Christianity is much more Jewish than we had allowed, and they show us a Judaism that was much more varied than we had previously known. As you can imagine, there has been a major rewriting of books to account for this perspective."

That's plenty to ponder for scholars and believers and even skeptics, anyone curious about the cache of writings hidden in pottery jars in caves for two millennia.

Viewers of the scrolls may gain "a sense that something is special here -- some treasure, some ancient wisdom," Abegg said. "It may change their lives. Who knows?"
UPDATE: The same source also has an article on the exhibition that has generated all this interest:
Once restricted to scholars, scrolls on view for anyone


Shrouded in mystery, the Dead Sea Scrolls remained hidden from the world; only a select few had seen them until 1991, when the first photos of them were published.

Now, 2,000 years after their creation, the scrolls are getting a breath of fresh air. An exhibit titled Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls will make its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Pacific Science Center. The exhibit will feature 10 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with four scrolls never before seen by the public.


A self-guided audio tour will transport visitors back in time; the exhibit, which begins with contemporary Israel, works it way back to the 1947 discovery, with a replica of the cave in which they were found, and eventually leads to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In addition, the show will include pottery, coins and leather sandals discovered near the archaeological site. These artifacts shed a light on the lives of the people living there then.

The Gallery of the Scrolls will feature 10 original scrolls with the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible -- the books of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Psalms -- on display. A handful of facsimiles on various subjects, including the book of Deuteronomy, also will be shown.

The Pacific Science Center wanted visitors to get a sense of the intricate and difficult task of trying to reconstruct the 50,000 pieces of scrolls, so they dumped 50 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles into a tank. Some of the pieces are damaged and contain debris.

"Try to imagine piecing the puzzle of the scrolls, with no puzzle top as a guide," Johns said.

I've been using this same puzzle analogy for many years. I hope I can find a photo of this tank.

UPDATE: Tangentially related, the techniques used to restore the Archimedes palimpsest are now being applied to a fragile, 700-year-old Hindu philosophical manuscript:
The project led by P.R. Mukund and Roger Easton, professors at Rochester Institute of Technology, will digitally preserve the original Hindu writings known as the Sarvamoola granthas attributed to scholar Shri Madvacharya (1238-1317). The collection of 36 works contains commentaries written in Sanskrit on sacred Hindu scriptures and conveys the scholar's Dvaita philosophy of the meaning of life and the role of God.

The document is difficult to handle and to read, the result of centuries of inappropriate storage techniques, botched preservation efforts and degradation due to improper handling. Each leaf of the manuscript measures 26 inches long and two inches wide, and is bound together with braided cord threaded through two holes. Heavy wooden covers sandwich the 340 palm leaves, cracked and chipped at the edges. Time and a misguided application of oil have aged the palm leaves dark brown, obscuring the Sanskrit writings.

"It is literally crumbling to dust," says Mukund, the Gleason Professor of Electrical Engineering at RIT.

According to Mukund, 15 percent of the manuscript is missing.

"The book will never be opened again unless there is a compelling reason to do so," Mukund says. "Because every time they do, they lose some. After this, there won't be a need to open the book."

LECTURES ON THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS in Seattle this autumn are listed here. Looks like an excellent lineup.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

THE TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK is not happy with the way the Bible is being taught in public schools in Texas:
More and more public schools are taking on the sensitive issue of whether to offer courses about the Bible. Such courses can be an excellent way to help students understand the unique importance of the Bible in history and literature. As this new report from the TFN Education Fund shows, however, teaching the Bible in Texas public schools is currently fraught with problems. Reading, Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools reveals that, with a few notable exceptions, the Bible courses currently taught in Texas public schools often fail to meet even minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications, curriculum and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda.
The report was written by Professor Mark A. Chancey, whose important work on the ancient Galilee has been noted on PaleoJudaica here and here. His earlier thoughts on the teaching of the Bible in public schools are noted here.
THE ANCIENT SITES OF LEBANON, it now seems, did sustain some damage during the war:
Lebanon World Heritage Sites Need Repair

By AURELIE TOULEMONDE, Associated Press Writer

Monday, September 18, 2006

(09-18) 10:57 PDT PARIS, France (AP) --

Three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lebanon, including some of the Middle East's most significant ancient ruins, are in urgent need of repairs after a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.N. agency said Monday.

In one case, frescos in a Roman-era tomb in Tyre were shaken to the ground when a building 500 feet away was bombed, said U.N. experts, who visited Lebanon and reported on their findings. Some of the paintings were destroyed.

In the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos, ruins were stained by an oil spill. In Baalbek, another Phoenician city which has some of the finest examples of imperial Roman architecture temples may have suffered structural damage, the experts said.

The article also says that some of the ruins of medieval and ancient Byblos were contaminated by the oil spill and the cleanup will be a long and involved process.

More details here. And the BBC reports that UNESCO is appealing for funds for the repairs and cleanup.

Monday, September 18, 2006

FUNDS HAVE RUN OUT for the excavation of the Megiddo "church":
Money runs out for excavating oldest church
The Christian altar found at the Megiddo Prison dates to the third of fourth century
Ron Paz 17 Sep 06 12:25 (Globes)
The tourist development venture at a Christian altar found at the Megiddo Prison, considered the world’s oldest church dating to the third of fourth century CE, has been halted because of a lack of money. The Israel Antiquities Authority financed the excavations and preservation of the site for years, but says it can no longer bear the cost.

I've discussed this find earlier here, here, here here, and here.

(Via the Agade list.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

GORGIAS PRESS is profiled by Linda Carlson for the Publisher's Marketing Association:
Ancient Languages, Modern Strategies for Success: The Gorgias Growth Story
A few excerpts:
“Gorgias wasn’t born of a business plan, but out of our passion for exotic languages and the determination to disseminate them to the general public,” says Christine Altinis-Kiraz. She and husband George Kiraz took advantage of the high-tech implosion to follow a dream—building a business that publishes books on Arabic, Islamic, Jewish, and Syriac studies, archaeology, the Near East, the Middle East, classics, history, and religion.

They called it Gorgias, Christine explains, because they wanted a name from classics (Gorgias was a Sophist philosopher and rhetorician credited with transplanting rhetoric to Greece), and they liked the fact that this one sounded a little like George’s name.


Like many other PMA members who want to build a catalog quickly, George did reprints. He selected a dozen titles from the collection of antique books he had started as a teenager and secured reprint rights. “Even in the book antiquarian market, it took me years to find these titles myself—but they were still very important both to scholars and to general readers interested in Syriac and the ancient Near East,” he explains.


Two technologies made Gorgias viable at the outset: email and print-on-demand. Email made marketing almost cost-free. Even with list-rental payments, the cost was thousands of dollars less with email than it would have been with graphic design, printing, labeling, and postage.

The big advantage, however, was print-on-demand. As Christine points out, “POD enabled us to build a backlist quickly, without high production and inventory costs, and to publish titles that would have been rejected by our competitors because of their highly specialized nature.” But, she cautions, POD is not cost-effective for every book. “It makes sense if the publisher has a limited budget, if the readership is a small niche market, and if the books can be priced higher than trade books.”


Luck—in the person of Mel Gibson—also played an important role in Gorgias’s early success. The 2004 release in Aramaic of Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, created awareness of Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, and generated an unexpected number of sales for the publisher.
(Via the Hugoye list, which is also a Kiraz production.)
Mark A. Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 304. ISBN 0-521-84647-1. $90.00.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus, Hilpoltstein (
C. succeeds in challenging the overstating of a Greek setting for first century Galilee (and Palestine). His references to numismatic, epigraphic, and architectural evidence are compelling. They can serve as a role model for further studies in that field and direction. However, one may be skeptical about C.'s interpretation of Hengel's work (cf. C.'s introduction), which itself may be an overstatement. Furthermore, C. often rejects suggestions by others, who did not offer adequate archeological findings as evidence. That can turn out as tricky and deceitful. History is a discipline that can't help doing without filling gaps and bridging lacks of evidence from archeological artifacts now and then; and it can't do without suggestions and imaginative hypotheses. Some of C.'s reflections will need further discussion. Some others will need to be challenged in order to prove whether they can stand plausible counterarguments or not. Leaving these points of criticism aside, C. presents many essential and interesting details about first, second, and third century Galilee. With this volume C. brings his readers one more step closer to the environment in which Jesus lived and taught, the days in which the writings of the New Testament were written, and the impact Hellenism and Romanization actually had. Further studies will prove whether C.'s archeological evidence can really serve as a foundation for judgments on 'Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus'.
(Via the Agade list.)
A PHOTO GALLERY OF DEAD SEA SCROLLS appears today in the Seattle Times, associated with the upcoming exhibition. I was the editor of #3, the Genesis manuscript.