Saturday, January 03, 2009

THE CAIRO GENIZA DIGITIZATION PROJECT is covered in the London Times. Excerpt:
The fragments are known collectively as the Cairo Genizah (or Geniza) from the Hebrew for a document-store. Nearly a third of the materials are scattered around the world in universities and research institutes; the remaining two thirds are in Cambridge.

Now, documents in all locations are being scanned and catalogued and within five years should be available to the world via the web, thanks to an initiative launched in 1999 by the Friedberg Geniza Project, an international foundation. The main player in the project is the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit (widely called the Geniza Unit), set up in the mid-1970s to manage the Cambridge collection.

The importance to Jewish studies research of this online archive is expected to be revolutionary. The Geniza is “the greatest single hoard of primary sources for the study of Judaism and Jewish history ever uncovered,” says the University of Manchester professor Philip Alexander. The Dead Sea Scrolls, he argues, “have gained huge publicity because they are earlier in date and because they throw light on the origins of Christianity.” But the Cairo documents “are much larger in bulk and more varied in content, and they illuminate the ‘mainline’ rather than a sectarian ‘branchline’ of Judaism — Christianity.”
The article gives several examples of the importance of the Geniza texts (light shed on the work of Maimonides, the text of the Jerusalem Talmud, etc.). There are also important early fragments of some of the the Hekhalot documents which clarify their original text and there are lots of magical amulets, recipes, and handbooks that vastly increase our knowledge of early Jewish magic.

Background on the digitization project is here and here.

Friday, January 02, 2009

THE OLDEST RECORDED HANUKKAH MENORAH? This press release claims that it's is in a museum in Brooklyn:
During a recent excavation in Jerusalem, one of the workers uncovered an unusual artifact that was brought to the attention of the office of Antiquities. Designed from hand pottery and small enough to be held in the palm of an adults hand, this discovery has revealed to be what is known to be the world’s oldest recorded Hanukkah Menorah known to mankind since the establishment of the Hanukkah holiday. Accompanied by a certified letter of authenticity, issued by the Head of Antiquities, this Menorah has found it’s way through a private donor to a museum based in the Orthodox Jewish community of Boro Park located in Brooklyn, New York. Named “The Living Torah Museum” this museum is privately owned and operated with the help of generous donations from saviors from all over such as David H. Brooks
Presumably we are to picture an ancient nine-branched candelabrum. But if such a thing has been discovered recently, I've heard nothing about it. I also checked the Museum website but I can't find anything about a Hanukkah menorah.

First, Tod Bolen lists his Best Blog Posts of 2008 on his own Bible Places blog.

Second, Thaddeus Nelson posts his Top Ten Pseudo-Archaeological Subjects of 2008 at the Archaeoporn blog.
VISION OF GABRIEL WATCH: An article in The Liberty Vindicator notes the inscription's presence in Houston.
Controversial 'Dead Sea Scroll in Stone' featured at Houston Museum of Natural Science

The Jeselsohn Stone, also known as “Gabriel’s Revelation,” has made headlines across the globe and stirred much debate among biblical scholars, archaeologists, and others.

Google the ancient tablet and hundreds of thousands of links appear.

Now, see the world premiere of the three-foot-tall artifact - described by some as a “Dead Sea Scroll in Stone”- on public display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, a new special exhibition opening Dec. 12, 2008 through April 12, 2009.

Dr. David Jeselsohn, a noted collector of Mediterranean antiquities, acquired the stone from a Jordanian antiquities dealer in London about 10 years ago. Covered with ancient Hebrew script, the odd tablet piqued his curiosity. However, it wasn’t until three years ago when Jeselsohn asked Ada Yardeni, an Israeli scholar, to examine writings on other pieces in his collection that the stone would be, in a sense, re-discovered. Yardeni was drawn to the stone and its Hebrew writing, which she said resembled the Dead Sea Scrolls because the text is written in ink, not engraved. Click here to read her findings. While experts agree that the stone itself is a properly dated, authentic archeological artifact, there is spirited disagreement regarding the exact meaning of the text.

The "click here to read" links are dead.

Background here and here
MY FRIEND ROB headed home this morning. We had a really good visit.

I made vegetarian lasagna for Christmas dinner. Came out pretty well, huh?

"30 Dec is cold!" at Edinburgh Castle. It was!

Princes Street as seen from the Castle.

Two Wild and Crazy Guys atop St. Rules Tower, with the city of St. Andrews in the background.

More holiday photos here and here.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A NEW MAIMONIDES BIOGRAPHY by Joel L. Kraemer is reviewed in Commentary Magazine by David C. Flatto. A good bit of the review is about Maimonides in general rather than about the book, but here's an excerpt:
Kraemer follows the stages of Maimonides’ life and work through the four geographic locations in which he resided, placing his prolific output and multiple interests within the context of his time and place. Skillfully, he weaves excerpts from the writings into the biography. Thus, the story of Maimonides’ lone visit to Jerusalem draws both on a public epistle to the Jews of Yemen and on the Mishneh Torah's “Laws of the Temple,” which include the directive that one must continue to treat the site of the ruined sanctuary with reverence. The portrait of Maimonides’ heroic efforts to ransom Jews taken hostage by Crusaders and pirates similarly cuts to the Mishneh Torah’s “Laws of Gifts to the Poor,” which enumerate no fewer than seven biblical commandments that are violated if a captive is not ransomed (“for not only is the captive included in the general category of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but also his very life is in jeopardy”). And so on.

Kraemer also sheds useful light on aspects of Maimonides’ personal life, exploring his early education and mentors, his close relationship with his brother, the ugly confrontation with a rival in Fustat nicknamed “Zuta the Wicked,” and his devotion to his student Joseph (the epistolary addressee of the Guide), his son Abraham, and his many followers. An early chapter revisits the controversial thesis, dating back to the 18th century, that Maimonides outwardly submitted to a forced conversion to Islam in his youth.

To illuminate Maimonides’ writings, Kraemer draws on a wide array of primary sources, from documents stored in the Cairo Genizah (a rich repository of manuscripts from the medieval period that was re-discovered in the 19th century) to the works of Arabic historians, geographers, poets, and philosophers. He is particularly helpful in identifying the formative influence of leading Arab Aristotelians like Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. For the major treatises, he offers sturdy introductions to genre, layout, and structure, summarizes the principal themes, and discusses intellectual roots.


There are drawbacks. Crammed with information, Kraemer’s book is at times too dense, at others too thin. One learns more than one needs to know about details like the number of biblical citations in the first book of the Mishneh Torah; by contrast, complex philosophical and rhetorical themes (e.g., the notion of God’s indwelling or the stylistic use of semantic equivalence) are merely summarized. In an instance where he offers a fuller presentation of a fundamental issue—Maimonides’ formulation of thirteen “principles of faith”—Kraemer fails to inquire into the reasons for his selecting or omitting specific dogmas, the absence of any mention of the principles in his more mature works, or the motivation behind this unprecedented theological project.

The analysis of Maimonides’ legal code is especially inadequate. ...
THE TOP 50 ANCIENT HISTORY BLOGS according to Jessica Merritt are listed at the Learn-gasm blog. Some of the choices are odd. I was quite surprised, for example, not to find Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway blog.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RALPHIES 2008: Once again it's time to take up Ed Cook's invitation to post best-of-the-year varia. For my Ralphies of 2005, 2006, and 2007, follow the links. Ed's 2008 Ralphies are here. Mark Goodacre's are here. Doug Chaplin has posted his Ralphies for films here at MetaCatholic.

As before, these are my favorites of the year and probably say little about anything except my own idiosyncratic tastes and what I happened to see or hear.

BEST FICTION BOOK: I don't think I've read any fiction that was actually published in 2008. I'm frequently running a year or more behind on such things. Of the things I did read, by far the best was The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God. Actually, I re-read it, having read it the first time in 1998-2001 as it came out. It was one of the major contribution to the revival of space opera and its concept, like most really brilliant ones, was simple: an ill-timed accident breaches the gap between Hell and our universe and allows the souls of the damned to cross over and possess the bodies of the living. This is set in a twenty-seventh century context in which nanotechnology and FTL travel are taken for granted (and given adequate scientific rationales), the emerging human galactic empire is presented with an amazing level of plausible detail, the wider tapestry is brought to life with a host of reasonably to highly convincing characters, and the finale is stunning. Highly recommended.

Honorable mention goes to the more recent Black Man (Gollancz, 2007), by Richard Morgan, which had a similar feel to his earlier Takeshi Kovacs novels (noted here), although set in a different world. Morgan has now set his hand to epic fantasy in The Steel Remains, which I am looking forward to reading.

More novels are noted below.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: Since becoming Head of School I've had very little time to keep up with professional reading, but I do try to do a few short reviews so as not to fall entirely behind. Of the few academic books I read this year, the most impressive was:
Loren T. Stuckenbruck, 1 Enoch: Chapters 91-108 (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature; de Gruyter, 2007)
An invaluable reference work for anyone working on the Enochic literature.

BEST MOVIE: As usual I saw few films in the cinema, all of them children's films I watched with my son. The only one of these that was even bearable was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which merits a mediocre three stars of five. Brendan Fraser did the best he could, and at least the script relied on some plot instead of entirely on CGI. A bonus was that seeing the movie motivated us to get out our copy of the Jules Verne novel that was the loose inspiration for the movie and read it together, which was a lot of fun. I first read it when I was about my son's age and it was a nice complement to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, which we read earlier in the summer.

As for pre-2008 movies that I saw for the first time this year, my favorite (and my favorite overall for the year) was Sahara (2005), based on the novel by Clive Cussler. Cussler's archaeologist-adventurer hero Dirk Pitt has been around since well before the Indiana Jones movies, and Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn had just the right chemistry as Dirk Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino. It's a pity that Cussler and the movie's producer, Philip Anschutz, fell out. I would have liked to have seen more Dirk Pitt adaptations with McConaughey and Zahn. Be that as it may, the movie also introduced me to the Dirk Pitt novels, of which I have particularly enjoyed Treasure, in which Pitt recovers the lost Library of Alexandria, which luckily had been packed up and hidden in a very unexpected place by an alert ancient Roman official. Would that it were so!

BEST TELEVISION: There was a lot of good television this year and it's hard to pick out a favorite. Doctor Who was excellent again, and I'm sorry to see David Tennant leave. The Doctor even encountered (apocryphal) Old Testament Pseudepigrapha this year, and what could be better than that? Series two of Primeval was fun and I'm looking forward to series three. Series two of Torchwood was good too. I also managed to watch the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which I quite enjoyed, and series six of 24, which was okay but no more. I was disappointed with Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars (noted last year), and I think of it as a real lost opportunity.

This fall's Merlin takes the place in the autumn slot of the disappointing Robin Hood as the BBC's child-friendly British legend program. I liked Merlin. It plays fast and loose with the legend, but, heck, so did Malory. And, again, it got my son interested in Arthuriana, and we're currently reading Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.

All in all, I think my favorite television series in 2008 was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I loved the first two Terminator movies, but found the third very disappointing. It is somewhat redeemed in my eyes now that I see how it fits into the complicated mythos: it presented the failure of the attempt in Terminator 2 to prevent Judgement Day and laid the groundwork for the current series, in which Sarah and John Connor have another go at setting things right. The casting is good and the scripts have been mostly good so far, with some excellent ones. Summer Glau (River Tam in Firefly and Serenity) is particularly well cast as the hot, scary, reprogrammed-to-the-good (most of the time) Terminatrix, Cameron Phillips.

As for my favorite television moment of 2008, it's hard this year to settle on one, but I guess I'll go with moment in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Daughter" when Jenny tells her father to "watch and learn":

I hope we see Georgia Moffett again in the role of Jenny.

BEST MUSIC: I heard almost no new music this year and haven't a clue what's going on. I did, however, dig up a lot of old music on YouTube. One oldish song (1997) did stand out, and I came to think of it as my theme song for 2008: Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.

As those close to me know, 2007 was for me an annus horribilis. 2008 has been a year of nettle-grasping and rebuilding, but all in all it was a significant improvement. May the trend continue in 2009 and may you all have a good year too.

UPDATE (5 January): Chris Brady has his Fifth Annual Ralphies posted over at Targuman.
PALEOJUDAICA is a G-Rated blog:
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

* dead (3x)
* ass (1x)

How curious. I've been keeping a list of amusing search-engine referrals that might point to a stricter rating, but I'll share that with you another time.

The "ass" reference is here and, despite the proximate mention of dung, it just means donkey. Considering how often I refer to the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have no idea how the 3x for "dead" was computed. But if all of them were counted, the site probably would have figured PaleoJudaica was a zombie movie.

(Found via R-Rated Dorothy King.)
TODD BOLEN has posted his Top 8 of 2008: Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible at the Bible Place blog. It's a good list, and he rounds up more of this year's discoveries of interest as well.
DR. GREGORY BEARMAN has an informative article on the Dead Sea Scrolls multispectral imaging project, posted on the SPIE website:
Imaging the Dead Sea Scrolls for conservation purposes

Gregory Bearman

Acquisition of a complete set of new high-resolution color and IR images will allow the scrolls to remain in their environmentally controlled vault.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently decided to employ modern digital imaging and imaging spectroscopy to study the Dead Sea Scrolls. High-resolution color and IR images will be provided to text scholars for use in transcription and translation. Stored at the ideal temperature and humidity in an environmentally controlled vault at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the scrolls must occasionally be removed. Traditionally, scholars work with film negatives on a light box, removing the actual fragments only when the negatives are insufficient to their needs. However, exposure to environmental changes may cause the scrolls to degrade. This new project is driven by two main goals, both of which rely heavily on modern imaging technology. The imaging project will create a complete and accessible online database of high-resolution images that will eliminate the need for physical handling of the scrolls. In a concurrent prospective study, imaging spectroscopy will be applied to selected scrolls aimed at detecting changes in the reflection spectra as potential markers of parchment deterioration. This is a large project because there is a lot of original material to image.

Background here.

Plus, the article briefly mentions the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription:
We have applied similar imaging to a pottery shard (ostracon) with the oldest-known Hebrew inscription.3 The shard, comprising five lines of text, dates from approximately 3000 years ago. It was excavated in July 2008 and partially imaged during the pilot project. The imaging revealed and clarified the text, prompting the IAA to bring the ostracon to the USA in November 2008 for additional imaging.
Background here.
THE BIBLE is still the best-selling book in America:
Prophet Sharing: The Good Book Is the Best Seller
The Bible, Long a Commercial Hit, Gets Repackaged for Market Niches from the Homespun to the Fashion Forward


Mobile, Ala. (Wall Street Journal)

Upstairs in the Mobile Museum of Art, there's a Bible on display -- a majestic hand-drawn edition a decade in the making, and not yet finished. Presented as a work of modern art, its oversized pages are filled with ornate calligraphy and rich illustration, shot through with gold and silver leaf.

Downstairs, in the museum foyer, another Bible lies open -- this one so homespun as to be homely. An earnest young couple is carting it cross-country in an RV with a bobble-head Jesus on the dash, asking tens of thousands of ordinary Americans to each hand-write one verse. Blotches of white-out mark corrections.

The two editions on display this drizzly morning are as different as can be, yet they represent an essential truth: God's word is good business.

Throughout history, the Bible has been an object of commerce as well as of reflection. That's especially true in the modern era.

It's an astonishing fact that year after year, the Bible is the best-selling book in America -- even though 90% of households already have at least one copy. The text doesn't vary, except in translation. The tremendous sales volume, an estimated 25 million copies sold each year, is largely driven by innovations in design, color, style and the ultimate niche marketing.

MORE ON THE DONKEY DUNG as Holy Land souvenir from Green Prophet:
Recycling and Deifying Donkey Dung in Israel

Dec 29th, 2008 by James Murray-White


Menachem Goldberg, who runs a visitors centre at Kedem, has come up with the extra-ordinary idea of preserving pieces of donkey dung within a plastic cube, that is inscribed with holy writings from the Talmud. Mr Goldberg says that the idea came to him from the Talmudic phrase: (and I quote) “Let the Messiah come…may I be worthy to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s dung”. Make of this what you will!

And there's more video too.

Background here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

WE'RE BACK FROM EDINBURGH where we spent the afternoon, visiting the Castle and the National Gallery. I'm busy right now but will try to get to some blogging later.

UPDATE: Sorry, ended up watching Donnie Darko again instead. More tomorrow

Monday, December 29, 2008

WE VISITED SOME MUSEUMS in St. Andrews today. I thought I would show you a couple of things we encountered in the St. Andrews Museum in Kinburn Park. Click on the images for a larger version.

First, there's the Kilduncan Stone, a thousand-year-old carved stone containing a scene of sea dragons which may be biblically inspired:

The descriptive plaque is here:The two beasts are clearly visible on the larger image of the stone. There is no reference to two sea beasts in the Masoretic Text of Habakkuk, but an article by Fife Council Archaeologist Douglas A Speirs in History Scotland Magazine suggests that the scene is inspired by a Latin text of the book:
The reverse side of the stone is even more interesting. Its obscure Christian iconography is difficult to interpret but it is likely that the two sea beasts (known as hippocamps), enclosing the low relief encircled cross-of-arcs, symbolises a passage from the old (Vespasian Psalter) text of the prophet in the Book of Habbakuk, Chapter 3: In medio duorum animalium innotesceris: Between two beasts you will recognise Him [Christ]
The passage is Habakkuk 3:2, which the RSV translates:
O LORD, I have heard the report of thee,
and thy work, O LORD, do I fear.
In the midst of the years renew it;
in the midst of the years make it known;

in wrath remember mercy.
The highlighted passage is translated correctly in the Latin Vulgate (opus tuum in medio annorum vivifica illud in medio annorum notum facies), but the Old Latin translation (Vetus Latina) is based on the Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX). The NETS translation of the line reads:
You will be known in the midst of two living creatures ...
The LXX adds the word involving "knowing" to the first line as well as keeping it in its original spot in the second line, and it reads its grammar differently than the Hebrew of the MT. Then it misunderstands the Hebrew word "years" to be the graphically identical word "two." It also misreads the word translated "renew it" (literally, "make it live") as "living creatures" or "beasts."

And so, perhaps, we get the two dragons carved on this stone.

(This 1953 article by Leo Jung discusses the convoluted transmission of the line from Habakkuk 3:2 as well as its later use in Nativity apocrypha. [Requires JSTOR access to read.])

Second, here is a banner involving Adam and Eve produced by the Order of Ancient Free Gardeners in the town of Cupar, a few miles from St. Andrews:

The plaque is here:I don't see anything as exegetically exciting in this Lost Scroll of Cupar, but it's a nice banner.
THE TOP TEN archaeological discoveries of 2008 according to Archaeology Magazine are listed here. The new Zincirli inscription (now a.k.a. the Kuttamuwa's Soul inscription) is on the list. Background to that is here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

CONGRATULATIONS to Dr. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, who has been named Briton of the Year by the London Times:
Briton of the Year: Neil MacGregor
'Saint' whose charm and enthusiasm had a curative effect on the British Museum

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Chief Art Critic

Saint Neil is his nickname. And we are blessed to have him. The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, is far more than just the highly successful administrator of an iconic national establishment. He is a committed idealist who, in a world in which culture is increasingly presented as the acceptable face of politics, has pioneered a broader, more open, more peaceable way forward.

This year we almost lost him. He was being courted to replace Philippe de Montebello as the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It was easy to see why the Americans would covet him. Here was a man who had managed – by what often felt like charm and enthusiasm alone – to turn a financial basket case back into a cultural jewel.

When he took up his post in 2002, the British Museum was £5 million in deficit. Morale was at rock bottom. Visitor numbers had plummeted to less than a million. A third of the galleries were closed and the staff that had not yet been sacked were on strike. Six years later, under MacGregor’s auspices, it has six million visitors a year and heads the list of our cultural attractions, trumping even Blackpool’s time-honoured mass-market mecca, the Pleasure Beach.

Who wouldn’t value a man who could convince the masses that carved lumps of old rock are more worth visiting than the Pepsi Max Big One? But MacGregor stayed in Britain. He declined the Met on principle. It was not a public institution, he said. And he wanted to stay at a museum that was free to everyone. MacGregor, it would appear, is profoundly democratic. Refocusing upon the founding ideals of the institution that was established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world, he has radically redefined the role that it can play in public life.

I'm glad they held on to him. The British Museum has been mentioned frequently in PaleoJudaica during his tenure. See, for example, entries on the Babylon exhibition, the Phoenicia voyage, the Hadrian exhibition, the Vindolanda texts, the Ancient Persia exhibition, the Nebo-Sarsekim tablet, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Museum's Mesopotamia Collection. In many cases you can follow the links back for more information.