Saturday, August 01, 2009

PHOENICIAN WATCH: The site of Baalbek, with its annual festival currently in progress, is reviewed in the WSJ:
What the Romans Wrought in Lebanon

Shadowed by Hezbollah, a visitor finds Baalbek’s temples to Jupiter and Bacchus an intoxicating sight


These days, if you visit the Roman ruins of Baalbeck in Lebanon you will likely be followed by Hezbollah before, during and after the visit. On the Bekaa Valley main road that runs into the town of Baalbeck, your car is likely to be tailed by nippy little BMWs with blackened windows. Aggressively antennaed opaque vans sit parked along the road every few miles—they are Hezbollah surveillance vehicles. Stretched overhead, banners depicting Hezbollah leaders multiply. Entering Baalbeck itself, you will pass by a garishly tiled blue-and-turquoise mosque built recently with Iranian help.

Nevertheless, a first glimpse of Baalbeck’s six 72-feet-high Corinthian columns will instantly raise your spirits and turn unease into adventure. Like the Parthenon or the Pyramids, the Baalbeck complex is one of the glorious monuments of history. No matter which angle you look from, the two lofty temples—to Jupiter and to Bacchus—seem to ride the sky and will intoxicate your faculties. You will know how it feels to be a besotted idolater.

THE MT. ZION CUP INSCRIPTION has come to the notice of the Los Angeles Times:
2,000-year-old ritual cup found in Old City of Jerusalem

The 10 lines of Aramaic or Hebrew script on the artifact is 'unprecedented,' an archaeologist says. Researchers are not yet able to decipher it.

By Thomas H. Maugh II
August 1, 2009

U.S. archaeologists have found an extremely rare 2,000-year-old limestone cup inscribed with 10 lines of Aramaic or Hebrew script near the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Such ritual cups are common, especially in areas that were inhabited by priests, but usually they are unmarked or bear only a single line of text, such as a name, said archaeologist Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who led the dig along with James Tabor of the same school.

"To have 10 lines of text is unprecedented," he said in announcing the find Wednesday.

Although the script itself is not eroded or otherwise degraded, he said, researchers are not yet able to decipher it because the text is in an informal cursive script and is apparently deliberately cryptic. They know it contains the Hebrew word for God, YHWH or Yahweh, indicating it was probably important to the priests who used it in rituals. Gibson expected it to take two to six months to understand its meaning.

There's not much new in the article, apart from the guess about how long the decipherment might take (which sounds reasonable, but it's only a guess), but it looks accurate overall.

Friday, July 31, 2009

ON STAGE – Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Kadmos establishes bridges among cultures via theater

(Today's Zaman)

The world knows about mythological Phoenician Prince Kadmos from the ancient texts of Greek mythology in which he is sent to rescue his sister, Europa, from Zeus, who kidnapped her from the shores of Phoenicia.
Now, the spirit of Kadmos, the founder of the Greek alphabet and the ancient Greek city of Thebes, is being revived in a multinational project that brings four Mediterranean countries together around the same ambition: theater.

A pan-Mediterranean production of renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai's “The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness,” the first-ever project by the newly established international theater network Kadmos, will be staged tonight and tomorrow night at the historic Rumeli Fortress on the Bosporus coast. The play's cast brings French, Greek, Spanish, Israeli, Palestinian and Turkish theatrical actors together on the same stage and most notably features veteran French stage and screen actress Jeanne Moreau as its narrator.

Kadmos was formed by France's Avignon Festival, the Grec Festival of Barcelona, Athens' Epidaurus Festival and the İstanbul International Theater Festival with the aim of strengthening cultural ties across the Mediterranean.


Prominent Turkish stage actor Cüneyt Türel plays the Roman Emperor Titus in Amos Gitai's “The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness,” in which Jeanne Moreau plays the narrator, Josephus Flavius, and Jerome Koenig plays the role of Emperor Vespasianus.

In the play, Flavius narrates the horrors of war, which has become a destiny for all peoples in the Middle East. Besides the story of how Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, based on accounts by Flavius in the A.D. first century and the Dead Sea scrolls, the play also features quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke and Oscar Wilde. The play recalls a multilingual oratorio as it combines a number of languages, including French, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew.

“The play is a work of historian Josephus Flavius about the war which the Roman Empire started in order to stamp out the uprisings of the Jews,” notes Dikmen Gürün. “The play, which focuses on concepts such as a nation's homeland, war, oppression and domination, in fact stands against all wars throughout the world. While questioning the violence experienced [in the Middle East] throughout history, Amos Gitai's political stance can clearly be observed in this play.”

ARAMAIC WATCH? Arutz Sheva has an article on the new stone-jar inscription excavated on Mt. Zion and raises doubt on whether the inscription is in Aramaic or Hebrew:
Stone Vessel with 'Priestly Inscription' Uncovered In Jerusalem

by Hana Levi Julian and Gil Ronen

( A rare 2,000-year-old ritual vessel made of limestone and inscribed with 10 lines of text has been discovered in an excavation near the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is an unprecedented find, according to Dr. Shimon Gibson, the archaeologist who heads the University of North Carolina team conducting the dig.

Inscription found on Mt. Zion. Israel news photo: UNC

"Such stone vessels were used in connection with maintaining ritual purity related to Temple worship, and they are found in abundance in areas where the priests lived," Gibson reported. "We have found a dozen or more on our site over the past three years. However, to have ten lines of text is unprecedented. One normally might find a single name inscribed, or a line or two, but this is the first text of this length ever found on such a vessel," he said.

Although the letters are clearly visible it will take some time before their meaning can be discerned due to the style of the writing. Gibson estimated in his preliminary report that it could take up to six months to translate the inscription. "It is written in a very informal cursive hand and is quite difficult to read," he explained.

Initially, Gibson thought the inscription was written solely in Aramaic. However, a group of experts consulting on the matter was not convinced; they say there is a possibility that the text contains the sacred name of G-d and is deliberately cryptic.

"Stephen Pfann, of the University of the Holy Land, is leaving open the possibility that it is Hebrew. He has also suggested that the text might have had meaning within a closed circle of priests, similar to texts at Qumran," said Dr. James D. Tabor, co-director of the dig.

If they are not yet sure what language it is in, that's a good sign that it's a difficult text and decipherment is still at an early stage.

There's also this bit of context:
Also uncovered were at least half a dozen Murex snail shells with holes drilled through them. "Prior to our excavation one or two such shells had been found in all of Jerusalem," Gibson said. "That so many would be found at our site further supports our supposition that we are in a priestly residential area."
Also, Joseph I. Lauer has noted a larger version of that photo of the two lines of the inscription, this at the Mt. Zion excavation website.

Background here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

THE NEW YORK TIMES has been dissing the Pharisees and Philologos calls them out on it in The Forward:
The New York Times: Ignorant and Antisemitic?

On Language

By Philologos
Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.

‘Pharisees on the Potomac” is the headline from a July 18 attack by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on what she considers to be the moral hypocrisy — “the ancient political art of Tartuffery,” as she calls it — of Republican Party leaders on Capitol Hill.

Let’s stay away from politics. Let’s even stay away from Maureen Dowd, being it’s likely that her column’s headline was written by the editors of the Times’ op-ed page rather than by the columnist herself. Headlines of newspaper and magazine articles are generally an editorial prerogative.

Let’s stick to the word “Pharisee” in its common English sense of a hypocrite who preaches morality to others without practicing it himself. Is this a usage Jews should be up in arms about? Should we be bombarding The New York Times, and others who resort to it, with our protests?

There certainly would seem to be good reasons for doing so. After all, the Pharisees were not just another ancient sect of Jews, like the Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots, who lived toward the end of the Second Temple period; they were the founders of rabbinic tradition and the direct spiritual and intellectual ancestors of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud who came after them — that is, of normative halachic Judaism as we know it. To perpetuate the English language’s equation of them with self-righteous hypocrites is to perpetuate the belief that Judaism is a self-righteous and hypocritical religion.
Philogos concludes that such usages should be challenged and I agree. One nitpick, though:
The original source of this belief is, of course, Jesus’ remarks about the Pharisees in the New Testament — remarks that owe no small part of their venom to the fact that Jesus was a maverick Pharisee himself who shared many of the Pharisees’ assumptions and values. We rebel most strongly against our own predecessors, and when Jesus is quoted as saying things like, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness… you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God,” he is venting his anger and disappointment on those to whom he is religiously closest. A loyal Jew in his fashion, it never would have occurred to him that such statements would form the basis of rabid anti-Jewish sentiments in a new religion he had no intention of founding.

We know very little about the Pharisees: they are mentioned in the New Testament and by Josephus, both of which have their own not-entirely-reliable agendas. And we can squeeze some more information from the earliest stratum of the oral traditions of the Mishnah, but that still doesn't add up to a complete or clear picture. So it is not at all clear that Jesus was "a maverick Pharisee" or any kind of Pharisee. But the point Philologos is making is valid in a more general sense: Jesus (and also his first-generation followers who transmitted and likely augmented these sayings) was a first-century Jew who shared a great many assumptions with his opponents, who was engaged in an internal dialogue with them, and who would have been horrified at the use later made of these sayings about the Pharisees.
MORE on Martin Abegg's recent lecture at the ROM Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition:
Dead Sea Scrolls almost identical to Pentateuch, Haftorahs

Written by Rick Kardonne (Jewish Tribune)
Tuesday, 28 July 2009

TORONTO – For the most part, the Torah and Jewish prophetic portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which can be seen at the Royal Ontario Museum, are identical to the traditional Pentateuch and Haftorahs. But their authorship remains a topic of scholarly debate.
So said Dr. Martin Abegg, Ben Zion Wacholder Professor of Dead Sea Scrolls Studies at the religious studies department at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute.

Professor Abegg delivered an enthusiastic speech at the Royal Ontario Museum Signy and Cleophee Eaton theatre last Thursday as part of the Anne Tannenbaum Dead Sea Scrolls lecture series, which coincides with the ROM Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.

More background to the exhibition here.
PETRA AND THE NABATEANS are discussed in a BAR article:
Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans

by Joey Corbett

For every tourist who visits the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, there is one breathtaking moment that captures all of the grandeur and mystery of this city carved in stone. After passing the final bend of the tortuous narrow canyon that leads into the site (the Siq), one is confronted by the awe-inspiring spectacle of a towering rock-cut façade, its sun-struck sandstone gleaming through the darkness of the canyon.

It's a nice and nicely illustrated article, although I think it's a little odd that it never mentions that the language of the Nabateans (at least their official written language) was Aramaic.
TISHA B'AV (the Ninth of Av) started last night at sundown. An easy fast to all observing it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ARAMAIC WATCH: The inscribed stone cup found recently at the Mt. Zion excavation turns out to be written in Aramaic:
J'lem: Rare 2nd Temple inscription found

A unique ten-line Aramaic inscription on the side of a stone cup commonly used for ritual purity during Second Temple times was recently uncovered during archaeological excavations on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, it was announced Wednesday.

Inscriptions of this kind are extremely rare and only a handful have been found in scientific excavations made within the city.


The new Aramaic inscription from the first century CE is currently being deciphered by a team of epigraphic experts in an effort to determine the meaning of the text, which is clear but cryptic. The dig also produced a sequence of building remains dating back to the First and Second Temple periods through to Byzantine and Early Islamic periods.

No word yet on what the inscription says, but the article includes a photo of two lines of it, so I'm sure Aramaists, including blogging Aramaists, will be having a go at it. (I don't have time right now.)

(Via Joseph I. Lauer's list.)

Background here.
THE SHROUD OF TURIN has Aramaic and Hebrew on it?
Traces of Aramaic on Shroud of Turin

Published: July 29, 2009 (CathNews)

As Pope Benedict confirmed his intention to visit the Shroud of Turin next year, French scientist Thierry Castex has revealed that he has found traces of Aramaic on the Shroud.

Pope Benedict confirmed his intention to visit the Shroud of Turin when it goes on public display in Turin's cathedral April 10-May 23, 2010, Catholic News Service reports.


A recent study by French scientist Thierry Castex has revealed that on the shroud are traces of words in Aramaic spelled with Hebrew letters.

A Vatican researcher, Barbara Frale, told Vatican Radio on July 26 that her own studies suggest the letters on the shroud were written more than 1,800 years ago.

She said that in 1978 a Latin professor in Milan noticed Aramaic writing on the shroud and in 1989 scholars discovered Hebrew characters that probably were portions of the phrase "The king of the Jews."
Count me as interested, but very skeptical. I've not heard anything about this before and I've been following Shroud of Turin news for quite a while. I don't know Thierry Castex, what kind of "scientist" he is, or who this Latin professor in Milan is, or who the unnamed other scholars are. I don't know where this recent study has been published, if it has been. Barbara Frale is a specialist in the Templars and has just published a book on them.
Castex's recent discovery of the word "found" with another word next to it, which still has to be deciphered, "together may mean 'because found' or 'we found'," she said.

What is interesting, she said, is that it recalls a passage in the Gospel of St Luke, "We found this man misleading our people," which was what several Jewish leaders told Pontius Pilate when they asked him to condemn Jesus.
I wouldn't base too much on one word that is still of uncertain meaning.
She said it would not be unusual for something to be written on a burial cloth in order to indicate the identity of the deceased.
I don't know what the basis for this statement is. We have very few Judean burial shrouds from the first century. The only one I know of is the Jerusalem Shroud (see here and here) and it is not inscribed. There is at least one other that is several thousand years older (and of course is not inscribed either). Are there other surviving Roman-era shrouds?

As I said, I am quite skeptical of this report, but I would be happy to read the evidence (with good photographs please) in a scientific (peer-reviewed) publication.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reconstructing a fragmented past
By DAVID SCHONBERG (Jerusalem Post)

Adama Shehora (Black Earth)
By Natalie Messika
(in Hebrew)
338 pp.,
NIS 78 (recommended price)

This gripping historical novel, set in the first century CE in Judea, Galilee, Rome and Pompeii, focuses upon two events: the siege and fall of Yodfat (67 CE) in Galilee during the Great Revolt and the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy several years later (79 CE) that engulfed the surrounding area, unexpectedly ending in a dramatic moment the lives of many, including the inhabitants of Pompeii.

The author is an Israeli archaeologist.

Monday, July 27, 2009

JUDAS ISCARIOT in recent scholarship and popular perception (especially as fueled by the Coptic Gospel of Judas) is the subject of a long article in the New Yorker:
Should we hate Judas Iscariot?
by Joan Acocella August 3, 2009


For two thousand years, Judas has therefore been Christianity’s primary image of human evil. Now, however, there is an effort to rehabilitate him, the result, partly, of an archeological find. In 1978 or thereabouts, some peasants digging for treasure in a burial cave in Middle Egypt came upon an old codex—that is, not a scroll but what we would call a book, with pages—written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian. The book has been dated to the third or fourth century, but scholars believe that the four texts it contains are translations of writings, in Greek, from around the second century. When the codex was found, it was reportedly in good condition, but it then underwent a twenty-three-year journey through the notoriously venal antiquities market, where it suffered fantastic abuses, including a prolonged stay in a prospective buyer’s home freezer. (This caused the ink to run when the manuscript thawed.) The book was cracked in half, horizontally; pages were shuffled, torn out. By the time the codex reached the hands of restorers, in 2001, much of it was just a pile of crumbs. The repair job took five years, after which some of the book was still a pile of crumbs. Many passages couldn’t be read.

Acocella concludes:
All this, I believe, is a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism—the idea, Christian and otherwise, that every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally. This is a childish notion, and so is the belief that we can combat it by correcting our holy books. Those books, to begin with, are so old that we barely understand what their authors meant. Furthermore, because of their multiple authorship, they are always internally inconsistent. Finally, even the fundamentalists don’t really take them literally. People interpret, and cheat. The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.
Now there's a thought.

Some background to the Gospel of Judas is here.
WHEN CHIASMUS IS OUTLAWED, only outlaws will use chiasmus.
Jörg Rüpke, Fasti sacerdotum: A Prosopography of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Religious Officials in the City of Rome, 300 BC to AD 499. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. viii, 1107. ISBN 9780199291137. $399.00.

Reviewed by Linda Zollschan (

Word count: 2575 words

[Table of Contents below]

Scholars of ancient Rome will be delighted that Rüpke's monumental work, Fasti sacerdotum, has been translated into English and thus become accessible to a wider readership. The work of translation was done by David Richardson who has faithfully rendered the original German into English.1 For those unfamiliar with the German edition, its aim was to construct annual lists for the city of Rome of attested priests, cult officials and followers from 300 BCE to 499 CE, lists that included not just pagan priests but also the officials from Jewish and Christian groups. The work falls into two main parts: a compilation of annual lists of priests and religious functionaries and a set of alphabetically arranged individual biographies. Understandably, the whole work was 14 years in the making and required a team of assistants.

THE VISION OF GABRIEL INSCRIPTION is the subject of a popular article by John J. Collins in the Yale Forum. He thinks that, despite its lack of provenance, "for now, the text's authenticity must be given the benefit of the doubt." He also is very skeptical of Israel Knohl's theory about a reference to a dying and rising messiah in the text.

Background here and follow the many links back.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

ANOTHER REVIEW of the ROM Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition, this one in
Fragments of history

Maheen A. Rashdi
Sunday, 26 Jul, 2009 | 09:47 AM PST |

The Dead Sea lies between Israel and the West Bank on one side and Jordan to the east, with Jordan River as its main tributary. Known as the deepest and saltiest of lakes, at 1,385 feet below sea level, it is also said to have been the refuge of King David; the place where Herod went for health reasons and from where the chemicals to mummify the Egyptian royals were brought.

Most importantly though, it is the surrounding area of the caves at Qumran from where the most ancient archaeological objects were discovered, namely, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Qumran is a dry plateau bordering the Dead Sea in the West Bank.


The ROM exhibition is an exhilarating and awe-inspiring experience. The build up to the actual display of the Scrolls is most skillfully executed and it leaves one saturated with every piece of information on the worth, discovery, origin and geographical detail of the Scrolls’ resting area. The artefacts include numerous shards and complete pottery vessels, glass and stone vessels, coins that signified the various stages of the site, jewelry, ostraka and organic materials. Objects found were from the Iron Age and from the Second Temple period.

The first set currently on display—from June 27, 2009 until October 2009—includes biblical scrolls, non-biblical texts and Apocryphal (i.e. non-verified) Psalms. Intriguing were the fragments from the Book of War (non-biblical text, 1st century AD, Hebrew), which scholars believed contained the text of a blessing describing how God will enable the universe to produce fertility and prevent disease and destruction. It is supposedly a description of the apocalyptic war between good and evil.

The other most astounding scroll display for me was the biblical text from Genesis (150 BC to 68 AD, Hebrew). The details state that approximately 20 manuscripts of the Book of Genesis were uncovered in the caves and this scroll contains some of the oldest fragments of Genesis discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Twelve fragments had to be pieced together to reconstruct this portion of the Scroll.

The displayed fragments contain parts of the story of the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel and of Joseph’s encounter with the wife of Potiphar. To my own amazement reading the text translation in archaic English was almost identical to reading a verse (Surah 12; verse 23-25) from the Quran which narrates the same tale. That was my moment of becoming a believer in the authenticity of the scrolls.

The article is pretty accurate, although it takes the "theory" that the Dead Sea Scrolls are of Christian origin too seriously. It's also interesting that a Muslim reviewer appreciates the exhibition's efforts to tie the Scrolls to the three Abrahamic religions:
Without doubt though, there is one indelible truth that emerges from the discovery of the Scrolls: that there are more similarities in the origins of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—than disparities
Contrast Robert Fisk's sour evaluation here.

Further background to the exhibition is here and here.