Saturday, October 06, 2007

SAVE THE GNOSTICS. Nathaniel Deutsch, an expert on the Mandaeans (Mandeans), editorializes in the New York Times:
THE United States didn’t set out to eradicate the Mandeans, one of the oldest, smallest and least understood of the many minorities in Iraq. This extinction in the making has simply been another unfortunate and entirely unintended consequence of our invasion of Iraq — though that will be of little comfort to the Mandeans, whose 2,000-year-old culture is in grave danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

The Mandeans are the only surviving Gnostics from antiquity, cousins of the people who produced the Nag Hammadi writings like the Gospel of Thomas, a work that sheds invaluable light on the many ways in which Jesus was perceived in the early Christian period. The Mandeans have their own language (Mandaic, a form of Aramaic close to the dialect of the Babylonian Talmud), an impressive body of literature, and a treasury of cultural and religious traditions amassed over two millennia of living in the southern marshes of present-day Iraq and Iran.


Mandean activists have told me that the best hope for their ancient culture to survive is if a critical mass of Mandeans is allowed to settle in the United States, where they could rebuild their community and practice their traditions without fear of persecution. If this does not happen, individual Mandeans may survive for another generation, isolated in countries around the world, but the community and its culture may disappear forever.

MY BROADBAND WOES CONTINUE. I've just picked up an new ADSL filter and we'll see if that does the trick. Meanwhile, I've been running errands in town this morning and have stopped here in my office for a few minutes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

MY BROADBAND CONNECTION at home is down, and we still haven't figured out what's wrong. So if PaleoJudaica is quiet this weekend, that's the reason.
THE JOURNAL OF THEOLOGICAL STUDIES has a new issue out (58.2, October 2007). One article is of particular interest:
A Messiah whom ‘The Many Do Not Know’? Rereading 4 Ezra 5:6–7
Jonathan Moo

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge



The mysterious figure who appears in 4 Ezra 5:6–7 (‘one shall reign whom those who inhabit the earth do not expect’; ‘one whom the many do not know shall make his voice heard by night, and all shall hear his voice’), usually understood to be the Antichrist, is better interpreted as a reference to the Messiah. It is argued that the description in 5:6–7 comports well with the way the Messiah is portrayed elsewhere in 4 Ezra, that there are strong links between this ‘eschatological signs’ passage and the visions of chapters 11–13, and that there is little evidence that an Antichrist figure plays any role in the author's eschatological schema. The results of this study suggest that there is greater coherence between the dialogues and visions of 4 Ezra than has sometimes been recognized and that the Messiah of the book is not only an agent of judgement who brings in the end of the age but is also a king.
Lots of interesting book reviews in this issue too, as usual.
A CARTOON CAPTION CONTEST from the Biblical Archaeology Society.
KNOWING ARAMAIC can come in handy:
Language barrier broken
Visitors to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit usually depend on translations to understand the ancient Aramaic writing in many of the scrolls. So it was a refreshing change when a Syrian Orthodox Church group visited from Burbank.

Its congregation recites Aramaic in church, and many can read the ancient script.

The visitors were amazed, however, when a San Diego State student on the Natural History Museum Visitor Services staff spoke to them in Aramaic.

Alex Henein likewise was surprised to find that the ancient language he had studied in school turned out to be a modern asset beyond research. He answered questions, especially from the older generation, and explained how to use audio wands.
A valuable companion in the biblical wilderness
By Zvia Walden (Haaretz)

"The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah," by Ellen Frankel, HarperOne, $13 (translated into Hebrew as "Midrash Miriam" by Azzan Yadin, Am Oved, 372 pages, NIS 89)

This is a unique book, representing an entirely new genre. It is unique and impressive because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the first book to offer a midrashic interpretation of the Pentateuch - following the order of the parashot (weekly readings) - written by a woman. It is also unique and surprising because sometimes its tone resembles a soap opera, and sometimes an ordinary conversation.

Dr. Ellen Frankel is the chief executive officer and editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), the most important Jewish publishing house in the United States. She chose to explicate the Pentateuch through the voices of 18 women and another representative 20 voices, which make what could be called guest appearances. Every Sabbath, she enables the previously missing voices of women from various generations to be heard. The multi-voiced nature of this one-of-a-kind work and genre is also multidisciplinary and multi-generational.

UPDATE: And here's another woman's commentary on the Pentateuch:
Fifteen years later, the WRJ is publishing "The Torah: A Women's Commentary," edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor at the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

While there have been a number of "women's" biblical commentaries over the years -- such as "In the Image of God, A Feminist Commentary on the Torah," by Judith S. Antonelli, and "A Women's Commentary on the Torah," edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein -- the new WRJ commentary is the most comprehensive to date; Antonelli's book intersperses biblical and rabbinic interpretations, and Goldstein presents comments from one female rabbi on each portion.

The WRJ commentary, on the other hand, incorporates the work of more than 80 female biblical scholars, rabbis, archaeologists, historians, poets, cantors and philosophers -- the "stars" of Jewish scholarship -- beginning with Eskenazi, an expert on the role of women in the biblical world and the implications of the Bible for the Jewish world today. Others include Rachel Adler, (sometimes referred to as "the mother of Jewish feminism"), Judith Plaskow, Carol Meyers ("Discovering Eve: Israelite Woman in Context"), Judith Baskin (a major scholar of rabbinic literature), as well as Los Angeles locals Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Sue Elwell and rising "stars" in the younger generation, such as associate editor Andrea Weiss and Rabbi Judy Schindler.
It's to be released in December.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


On a more serious note, the main topic of this Jerusalem Post article is actually Jen Taylor Friedman, a soferet (a female scribe) who has just finished a Torah scroll (and who created Tefillin Barbie). Soferot are still quite rare (for another one, see here and here). Kol haKavod.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

SHEMINI ATZERET begins this evening at sundown. In Israel, this is also the holiday of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel, that holiday begins tomorrow night at sundown.

Shemini Atzeret is a biblical holiday mentioned in Numbers 29:35-38. Simchat Torah is not a biblical holiday, but it marks the beginning and ending of the annual cycle of Torah readings.
REFLECTIONS ON THE MATRES LECTIONIS (Hebrew vowel letters) in the Jerusalem Post:
The Jews invent vowels

"Roughly 3,000 years ago, in and around the area we now call Israel, a group of people who may have called themselves ivri, and whom we call variously 'Hebrews,' 'Israelites,' or more colloquially but less accurately 'Jews,' began an experiment in writing that would change the world."

Almost all alphabetic writing the world today is the result of the 3,000-year-old Hebrew experiment.

That's how I began the remarkable history that links the Jewish people to its historic language and identity. (In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language; NYU Press 2004). ...

Around the time of King David (roughly 1000 BCE), the Hebrews took the Phoenician consonantal system and made a seemingly minor improvement.

They used the letter H (which we call a heh) not only as a consonant, but also to represent the vowel A. They used the letter Y (yud) to represent the vowels I and E, and W (now called vav, though back then it probably had a W-sound, not a V-sound) for the vowels O and U. By using letters for both consonants and vowels, the Hebrews created the alphabet.

(We should be careful not to confuse these vowel-letters with the "Hebrew vowels" - the dots and dashes in and around letters that have been used for only the past 1,100 years or so.)

In ancient Jerusalem, the vowel-letters were generally optional. (American President Andrew Jackson, who opined that, "it's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word," would have been proud.) The word for "high" (ram) was still written RM, but if the Hebrews wanted to make it clear that they had the word rama in mind, they could append a heh in its newly invented role as vowel: RMH. And for roma, they could add a vav, too: RWMH.

So far, so good, although the internal vowel letters (the W in RWMH) were added in Hebrew some centuries after the time of King David. (And, as an aside just to be clear, this system is close to 2000 years earlier than the invention of the Masoretic vowel points used in current Bibles. The Masoretic text has these vowel points superimposed on the old system of Matres Lectionis, which makes for confusion sometimes.)

But the speculations about the origin of the Tetragrammaton seem much less well founded to me:
Genesis 17 tells of a covenant between God and a man, Abram, whose name is spelled ?BRM. (Again, the question mark represents an alef, used for a glottal stop.) The ancient word ?B means "father," and, as we saw, RM means "exalted." ?BRM was the "exalted father," or "tribal elder."

When ?BRM enters into a covenant with his God, he gets a heh inserted in the middle of his name: ?BRM becomes ?BRHM. That is, Abram becomes Abraham.

Regardless of the historical accuracy or divinity of the story - and here, obviously, well-meaning people disagree - it is clear to all that it is the special heh, one of three letters that completed the alphabet, that gets added to ?BRM to create ?BRHM. His wife, too, gets a heh added to her name: Sarai becomes Sarah.

The Hebrews didn't stop there. As we saw above, the ancient Canaanite word for "god" was el, spelled ?L, and the word for "gods," therefore, was elim, spelled in Phoenician ?LM and in Hebrew ?LYM. The Hebrews took this common Canaanite word and added a heh right in the middle to create one of God's names: ?LHYM.

In short, the patriarch, matriarch, and deity of the Hebrews all get their names by adding a heh to convert otherwise common words into special ones. The Hebrews used their vowel-letters not just to make writing possible, but to create their most important names.

In addition to ?LHYM, we find a second, four-letter name for God, the tetragrammaton (which means "four-letters" in Greek). The four letters are yud, heh, vav, heh. Common pronunciations such as "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" miss the point. What really matters here is the remarkable fact that this name consists entirely of the Hebrews' newly invented vowel letters, each included once, with the particularly special heh repeated.

The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling. It also seems to lack any plausible etymology, and is unattested in similar ancient languages. Now we know why. The Hebrews paid homage to the vowel letters that made it possible to spread the Word of God by using those letters to refer to God.

This is very speculative and not entirely accurate. The name YHWH clearly has a connection with the ancient Northwest Semitic root HYY, "to be," and one plausible etymology is that it arose in the sentence name YHWH Sebaoth (generally translated "Lord of Hosts" in English Bibles). Frank Cross proposed that the name involved a causative of the verb "to be" and meant something like "He who creates [causes to be] the heavenly armies." I would think that the name YHWH is too old to be connected with the use of the four letters as vowel letters -- it would have been around and presumably well established as the name of the God of Israel well before the tenth century.

The speculations about H in the other names are interesting, but I wouldn't push them very far.
THE FIRST HORROR SEQUEL was a Golem movie:
The Golem (1914-1920)

Hebrew mythology inspired one terrifying silent flick and the first horror sequel. Directed by German Paul Wegener, "Der Golem" ("The Monster of Fate"), (1914), showcases an ancient clay figure brought to life by a magic amulet to defend the Jews from Rudolf II of Habsburg. Neither alive nor dead, the man-made creature roams the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague and wreaks havoc.

When his job is done, the monster - just like any human being -- refuses to give up his existence and all hell breaks loose. This eerie fright-fest was followed by "The Golem and the Dancer" (1917) and "The Golem: or How He Came Into the World" (1920).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Noah's Ark Ready for the Flood Again

7:17 PM Mon 1 Oct 2007 GMT (

'Noah’s Ark in Schagen, ready for visitors - and the flood'

Since April this year, visitors have been able to visit Noah's Ark � well, not the original, but a one fifth version, and it wasn't built by Noah, but by Johan. He, with the doubtful support of his wife, built the Ark in just a year, and it is now even full of domestic animals.

It was built as a testament to his faith in the literal truth of the Bible, and now floats around the canals of the Netherlands.

Reckoning by the old biblical measurements, 48 year old Johan Huiber's fully functional ark is 150 cubits long, 30 cubits high and 20 cubits wide. That's two-thirds the length of a football field and as high as a three-story house, and he built it in Schagen, 45km north of Amsterdam.

Life-size models of giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras, bison and other animals greet visitors as they arrive in the main hold.

Looks pretty authentic. Never hurts to be prepared.
ZIPPORI/SEPPHORIS in the Galilee is covered in a Tourism piece in the Jerusalem Post:
How the capital of the Galilee housed the Sanhedrin

When Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi moved his Sanhedrin ecclesiastical court from Beit She'arim to nearby Zippori (Sepphoris), quite a few eyebrows were raised. In Beit She'arim he had his yeshiva and was surrounded by religious Jews of his own ilk. In Zippori - the capital of the Galilee - lived many secular Jews who had little or no interest in Judaism. Zippori was also home to a large number of Romans, and many Jews were enjoying their newly-adopted pagan lifestyle.


One of the most famous discoveries at Zippori was the large mosaic that includes an image that has become known as the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee." This is because the lady with her enigmatic smile appears to be looking at you whichever angle you view her from. However, it is but a small section of the panel surrounding the main design. This mosaic is part of a large mosaic floor in an apparently luxurious Roman home that was reconstructed to give visitors an idea of their occupants' opulent lifestyle. One of the most obvious signs of its ostentation is the discovery of an indoor toilet, almost unknown except among the exceptionally rich. As Reb Yosi Ben Halafta said in the Talmud "Who is rich? One who has his own toilet."

Nordic Network in Qumran Studies
Uppsala on 5-7 October 2007

The Nordic Network in Qumran Studies meets annually in a symposium where members as well as invited scholars and guest lecturers from around the world give papers based on their research and special expertise in Qumran studies.

Canadian Bible Society
Dead Sea Scrolls Symposium

Dates: October 11-13, 2007
Location: Trinity Western University
Details: A three-day Symposium showcasing current Canadian and international scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A PDF conference flier for the latter can be downloaded here.
(Heads up, Ian Werrett.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

BIBLICAL STUDIES CARNIVAL XXII has been posted by Tim Bulkeley at SansBlogue. Looks very thorough.
Chiclana school could be demolished to make way for archaeological dig
By m.p. - Sep 30, 2007 - 8:48 PM (Typically Spanish)

Evidence of what could be the first settlement on the Iberian Peninsula has been uncovered on the site

The Town Hall in Chiclana could decide to demolish the El Castillo state school if it proves necessary to archaeological excavations taking place on the site, where artefacts going back to Phoenician times have been discovered, possibly evidence of the first Phoenician settlement on the Iberian peninsula.

Other finds on the site date from mediaeval times and from the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

AN ARCHAEOLOGIST STRIKES BACK against the bogosity brigade. And high time too!
Raiders of the faux ark
Biblical archeology is too important to leave to crackpots and ideologues. It's time to fight back.

By Eric H. Cline | September 30, 2007
(Boston Globe)

NOAH'S ARK. The Ark of the Covenant. The Garden of Eden. Sodom and Gomorrah. The Exodus. The Lost Tomb of Jesus. All have been "found" in the last 10 years, including one within the past six months. The discoverers: a former SWAT team member; an investigator of ghosts, telepathy, and parapsychology; a filmmaker who calls himself "The Naked Archeologist"; and others, none of whom has any professional training in archeology.

We are living in a time of exciting discoveries in biblical archeology. We are also living in a time of widespread biblical fraud, dubious science, and crackpot theorizing. Some of the highest-profile discoveries of the past several years are shadowed by accusations of forgery, such as the James Ossuary, which may or may not be the burial box of Jesus' brother, as well as other supposed Bible-era findings such as the Jehoash Tablet and a small ivory pomegranate said to be from the time of Solomon. Every year "scientific" expeditions embark to look for Noah's Ark, raising untold amounts of money from gullible believers who eagerly listen to tales spun by sincere amateurs or rapacious con men; it is not always easy to tell the two apart.

The tools of modern archeology, from magnetometers to precise excavation methods, offer a growing opportunity to illuminate some of the intriguing mysteries surrounding the Bible, one of the foundations of western civilization. Yet the amateurs are taking in the public's money to support ventures that offer little chance of furthering the cause of knowledge. With their grand claims, and all the ensuing attention, they divert the public's attention from the scientific study of the Holy Land - and bring confusion, and even discredit, to biblical archeology.

Unfortunately, when fantastic claims are made, they largely go unchallenged by academics. ...

In short, the amateur arena is full of deeply flawed junk science. Important issues are cloaked in legitimate-sounding terminology, little attention is paid to the investigative process, and contrary evidence is ignored.

Biblical archeologists are suddenly finding themselves in a position similar to the evolutionary biologists fighting intelligent design - an entire parallel version of their field is being driven by religious belief, not research principles. The biologists' situation makes the risk clear - they did not deign to mount a public refutation of the "science" of intelligent design for years, until it was almost too late, and thus anti-evolutionary science began making its way into the public schools.

Why are we sitting the battle out?

Partly, this is a matter of a strain of snobbery that runs through many academic fields: a suspicion of colleagues who venture too far from "serious" topics or appear in the popular media too often.

Partly it is a matter of the uncertainty of the stories themselves: many biblical questions are so shrouded in uncertainty as to be inherently unsolvable. For example, even if the Garden of Eden once were a real place, and even if we knew the general location where it might have been, how would we know when we had found it? When most archeologists and biblical scholars hear that someone has (yet again) discovered Noah's Ark, they roll their eyes and get on with their business. This can leave the impression that the report might be true.

And partly it is because scientific findings may challenge religious dogma. Biblical scholarship is highly charged because the Bible is a religious book and any research carries the prospect of "proving" or "disproving" treasured beliefs. What if the Exodus might not have taken place as described in the Bible? Similarly, what will people do when told that there are identical stories to Noah and the Ark, but they were recorded between 500 and 1,000 years earlier sans Noah? And that the flood was sent because the people were too noisy and the Gods couldn't sleep, not because people were evil and sinning? Or when you tell them that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was a concept expressed in Hammurabi's Law Code nearly 1,000 years before the Bible?

This is where it can get daunting for academics, for it is at this point that the ideologues frequently weigh in. And these pundits are often sophisticated and convincing debaters, which can make them intimidating opponents for a scholar.


Even when our own investigations come up empty - we can't solve all the mysteries in the Bible - we can present the current state of our evidence. And we can promote a shared methodology, and a shared body of facts, that can be used by everyone. The data and opinions that we provide may not end any debates, but they will introduce genuine archeological and historical data and considerations into the mix. We owe it to the ancient world, and to the people who inhabited it, to do no less.
There's lots of good sense in this article and it's worth reading in full. I do wish he had noted that in recent years academic bloggers have put a lot of effort into refuting the sort of claims he is denouncing. Still, it's good to see an article like this in a major mainstream media outlet. We can use all the help we can get.

(Via Joseph I. Lauer.)
Veni, Vidi, Wiki:
Latin Isn't Dead
On 'Vicipaedia'

Online Reference Features
Britannia Spears, Disneyi;
Disputing Computatrum
September 29, 2007; Page A1 (Wall Street Journal)


For those who think Latin means Cicero's orations, caveat emptor. "We're using an ancient language, but we're writing on a computer, not papyrus," says Josh Rocchio, a graduate student and one of the most active editors. "There isn't anything that doesn't belong in Vicipaedia. You can write about Julius Caesar, or you can write about blue cheese."

That up-to-the-minute outlook, says Rafael Garcia, another editor, is a boon to beginning Latin students since "it's a little more down to earth reading about Britney Spears than it is reading about Caesar conquering Gaul."

Wikipedia is a reference work to which anyone can contribute. It comes in more than 200 languages; the English version, with more than two million articles, is by far the biggest.

Vicipaedia has 15,000 articles. Catullus, Horace and the Roman Senate all are there; so are musica rockica, Georgius Bush and cadavera animata, a k a zombies. You can read in Latin about hangman (homo suspensus), paper airplanes (aeroplanum chartaceum) and magic 8-balls (pila magica 8), as well as about famous Italians like Leonardo da Vinci and the Super Mario brothers.

"It's a slightly odd thing to do in this century," admits Andrew Dalby, another contributor. "When I first saw Vicipaedia, I thought, 'What's the point?' But then I started working on it, and I found it addictive."

Professional Latinists say they're generally impressed with Vicipaedia. While articles written by beginning Latin students often contain errata, "the articles that are good are in fact very good," said Robert Gurval, chairman of the UCLA classics department.

Here is theVicipaedia main page.

Some Bible-related entries include:

Biblica Vulgata
Personae Biblicae

A couple of article related to Judaism:
Feriae Iudaicae

And a couple of other subjects that have featured from time to time on PaleoJudaica:
Monica Bellucci
Pytho Montium