Saturday, November 14, 2009

From the Dead Sea to McGill

Saga of the scrolls

, The [Montreal] Gazette November 14, 2009 10:20 AM

“In the early summer of 1947, where the hot sun beat down relentlessly on the grim and silent cliffs overlooking the northern end of the Dead Sea, the casual act of an Arab shepherd led to the finding of a treasure trove of manuscripts from the time of Christ and earlier.”

– R.B.Y. Scott, Treasure from Judean Caves: The Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1955

MONTREAL – It is nearly 9,000 kilometres from McGill University's Roddick Gates to the desert caves at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered from 1947 to 1956.

But the distance is not as great as it might seem, according to a forthcoming book chronicling McGill's role in one of the greatest archaeological sagas of all time.

In 1954, the university became the first institution outside the Middle East to buy a share of the biblical manuscripts. Its $20,000 purchase rescued the scrolls from being scattered on the market and represented the largest collection of the biblical treasures outside government hands.

But McGill's "Big Biblical Bargain," as the Toronto Star Weekly dubbed it, would never reach Montreal. In 1961, Jordan cancelled the sale and barred the priceless manuscripts - which had remained in Jerusalem for study - from leaving the country. McGill's footnote to the history of the scrolls was soon forgotten.

Jason Kalman and Jaqueline du Toit seek to remedy that in Canada's Big Biblical Bargain: How McGill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls, to be published next spring by McGill-Queens University Press.

The story also receives a mention in the popular exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls on until Jan. 3 at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

Read on for a short version of the whole story. Note also this 2005 Dead Sea Discoveries article by the same authors.
SPEAKING OF MAIMONIDES, Dr. Zahi Hawass writes in Asharq Alawsat about:
A Visit to the Maimonides Synagogue


By Dr. Zahi Hawass

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- There is a ridiculous story being circulated by malicious and biased media organs that claim that a group of Jews had informed UNESCO that the floor of the Maimonides synagogue in the ancient Al-Jamaliyah district of Old Cairo is covered with garbage.

This group of Jews falsely claimed that Egypt does not look after its Jewish artifacts, and said that work to restore the Jewish synagogues had only begun in order to strengthen the position of Arab candidate Farouk Hosny with regards to being appointed head of UNESCO. Of course this campaign itself was only launched for ulterior motives prior the recent UNESCO elections.

On account my of position [as head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities], I had no choice but to visit the Maimonides synagogue with members of the press and news reporters in order to show the reality of what was taking place inside the synagogue. ...
I have not heard this claim about the Maimonides Synagogue before (and I usually hear about these things). In April of 2005 I did note an article in Egypt Election Daily News which discussed, inter alia, the Maimonides Synagogue and which claimed that most of the Egyptian synagogues were in disrepair, some direly so.

Dr. Hawass's article is worth reading in full, but here are a couple more excerpts:
The undisputable truth is that all Jewish historical monuments, including synagogues and historical sites are part of Egypt's larger history. Any attempt to destroy or abuse this heritage would be nothing more than an attempt to remove part of Egypt's history. Any country which attempts to forget or ignore its own history is committing a crime against its future generations, and will unmistakably face a number of historical problems that cannot be solved other than by reviving the history that has deliberately been excluded.


There are 9 registered synagogues in Cairo, along with a Jewish cemetery in the Al-Bassatin district. These ancient Jewish sites are preserved by the Council of Antiquities, in addition to a synagogue located in the city of Alexandria. These 10 Jewish temples have been part of an integrated restoration project since 2002. The restoration process is always preceded by scientific studies and research carried out by consultant engineers and researchers. These studies take around 2 years to be completed during which a comprehensive study on the site's soil topography is taken, along with groundwater analysis and other tests. Following this, the restoration process begins, although depending upon the condition of the site in question, this may take years to complete.

I am pleased to hear Dr. Hawass's very constructive view on this matter (especially in light of some of his other recent comments) and also to learn more about the Egyptian synagogue restoration project. More on the latter here.
ANTIQUITIES DEALER SHLOMO MOUSSAIEFF has a long interview with Lauren Gelfond Feldinger ("The genuine article") in the Jerusalem Post. Worth reading in full, but here's an excerpt from the end:
Did you only collect or did you also sell?

I sold to Narkiss, Reifenberg and Sukenik and they taught me what everything is, all the years until I left Israel. [E.L. Sukenik, the father of archeologist Yigael Yadin, was one of the premiere early state archaeologists. Adolf Reifenberg was a renowned archeologist and numismatist, and professor of art history. Bezalel Narkiss was the first director of Hebrew University, anIsrael Prize winner and the founder of an index of Jewish art, antiquities and architecture.] When I left Israel, around age 35, I stopped selling and now I only collect.


Why do you snub Israel's antiquities laws?

These are ridiculous laws from the time of the Turks. The Antiquities Authority should be teaching and not torturing. They should ignite history. Instead, they find Arab shepherds and beat them and take what they have. What do they have, broken clay pieces? Bravo. All day they sit with a telescope to see who is going in the field to look for something, it's ridiculous. For a 500-millimeter piece of parchment, they will put a man in jail.

If you build a building, you have to stop work, you have to pay for the excavation - not them. This is torture. The laws don't make any sense. This is what they do with their budget? The law should allow more freedom, let anybody display anything in his house, and not make a coin collection worth $10 illegal. They have 600,000 coins in storage, what do they display? A few pieces.

I have artifacts from the time of Abraham. I have artifacts from the second our people were born. They call me a looter. They call me an antiquities thief. Nobody wanted to publish my things [that were not found in situ]. But the museums could only pray to have such acollection as I have. Now that they realize that how much I have and that it is not fake, they all love me, they all want my collections.

What will happen to your 60,000 artifacts after you?

Museums put everything in storage. My wife should auction my collections to people who will not put them in cellars but will love them like I do. n
He also talks about the forgery trial, selling fine jewelery to the stars, being a WWII prisoner of war, and says that his precious gem business can be traced back twelve generations to David the brother of Maimonides.

Friday, November 13, 2009

MAUREEN DOWD is taken to task by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield at Beliefnet for some unfortunate comparisons in a column on Goldman Sachs:
Is Maureen Dowd an Anti-Semite?

Thursday November 12, 2009
Categories: Judaism, News, Politics, Pop Culture, Religion

The short answer is almost certainly not. But after yesterday's column in the New York Times, many people are asking, and not without some justification. In writing about Goldman Sachs, the famously/infamously successful investment bank, Dowd dredged up ancient and dangerous motifs which have inspired hatred of Jews for two thousand years.

Comparing the employees of Goldman Sachs to "the same self-interested sorts Jesus threw out of the temple", and also linking blood lust and GS bankers' lust for money, Ms. Dowd stepped over a very important line -- one which when crossed in the past cost thousands, if not millions of lives. At the very least she demonstrated how deeply the metaphors of hate are rooted even in the lives of some well meaning people, and that alone is deeply disturbing.

I think the headline goes a bit over the top and I don't think there's any question that Ms. Dowd is not an anti-Semite. Nor is criticism of Goldman Sachs out of line. But it wouldn't hurt for her to rein in some of her images and comparisons.

I see that Robert G. Sugarman, the National Chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, has raised the same issue in a letter to the NYT. I can find no other references to it through Google News or Technorati.

UPDATE (18 November): More here.
Bible That Vanished on Kristallnacht Is Heading Home

Published: November 9, 2009

On Nov. 9, 1938, a two-volume black-leather-clad Hebrew Bible vanished from a library in Vienna after that city’s Jewish community came under assault from soldiers during Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazi pogrom against Jews.

As is the case with much art looted during World War II, the Bible’s location during the following few decades was mostly unknown.

But last winter, the two volumes, printed 493 years ago, were smuggled into New York City, according to federal authorities, who noticed them advertised in a catalog of a New York auction house and confiscated them.

On Monday afternoon, at a repatriation ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, the historic Bible began its journey home, 71 years to the day after it was seized.

THE STAFF CUTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GLOUCESTERSHIRE now have a website devoted to them: TRS and RPE at the University of Gloucestershire.

Background here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FR. WILLIAM FULCO, S.J., is interviewed by the Los Angeles Loyolan in connection with an archaeology exhibition at Loyola Marymount University. The exhibition sounds good, but the really interesting bit is where Fr. Fulco (who served as Aramaic consultant for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ) talks about his consultancy work:
... Fulco claims that several film students take archaeology classes to prepare for working on films set in ancient time periods. Fulco himself has consulted on several films and TV series such as “Passion of the Christ” and “True Blood.” He is currently working with Vin Diesel on a film about Hannibal the Conqueror.

“I’ve also provided a tattoo for Angelina Jolie,” he added nonchalantly, explaining that she wanted him to translate the words “God is love” into Aramaic.
I pleased to hear that the Vin Diesel project, which involves Latin and Punic dialogue, is still proceeding. I hadn't known about True Blood or about Ms. Jolie's tattoo.

Background to the Hannibal movie is here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

MORE CUTS LOOMING: Although the dismantling of the biblical studies program at the University of Sheffield has been averted, serious new staff cuts are now looming at the Humanities Department at the University of Gloucestershire. Indeed, my understanding is that quite a few staff are facing redundancy, one of them being New Testament scholar Lloyd Pietersen, who is very well known in British New Testament studies circles. Mark Goodacre, Helen Ingram, and Simon Wood have said what needs to be said and I let their eloquence speak for itself. These short-sighted moves for short-term gains need to be resisted and the institutions that undertake them need to be reminded vigorously that such decisions have a grave cost not only in staff morale, but in reputation and (as a result of both) student recruitment. I hope the University of Gloucestershire will reconsider sending itself in what could be a rapid downward tailspin.
JAMES D. TABOR argues (at the Bible and Interpretation website) that the Gospel of John preserves a Jesus tradition independent of the Synoptics:
The Gospel of Mark: Priority Does not Mean Primacy

By James D. Tabor
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
November 2009

For Christian believers, general readers, and scholars alike the most dramatic and riveting section of our N.T. Gospels is the “Passion Narrative,” found in three versions in the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke), as well as in the gospel of John. Whether John’s Gospel offers an independent version of the narrative is a sharply disputed point among the scholars. When Dom Crossan recently addressed my students in Jerusalem he began his talk on “The Last Days of Jesus” with that very question, one he considers to be absolutely fundamental to any historical reconstruction. Is John’s account simply an edited expansion of the core account we have in Mark, our earliest gospel, or is it an independent production? Crossan is convinced that John is simply recasting Mark, just as Matthew and Luke do, taking out things here and there, expanding in other places, with each contributing their own theological perspectives and emphases relevant to their times and to the tradition and communities from which they come.

I have struggled with this question for years and my conclusion is different from that of Crossan. Although the final editors of John are likely aware of Mark, the core narrative of John offers an independent account based on materials and testimony the authors (the “we” of John 21:24) attribute to the mysterious unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who only shows up at the “last supper” and appears again at the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and up on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples had returned to their fishing (John 21:24; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7 & 20). To what degree this source, independent of Mark, runs through earlier sections of John, is a larger and more complex question that I can not address here, though in general my sense is that the narrative and chronological materials are more likely from this source, and perhaps the “Signs Source” as well, while the extended discourses of Jesus, with the distinct theology, style, and tone we see also reflected in the letters of 1, 2, and 3rd John, are overlaid on this more primitive source. In terms of the Last Days of Jesus that would mean that the “red letter” material that runs so extensively through John 13-17 has little if any connection to the historical Jesus.

A CONFERENCE ON ASTROLOGY is being held at Bristol University in April. Included in the lineup of speakers is renowned Kabbalah specialist Elliot Wolfson from NYU.

(Heads-up, reader Sigrid Peterson.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH - from Ynetnews:
A peek into Temple Mount excavations

Western Wall Heritage Foundation holds tour of tunnels in attempt to ward off Muslim claims that al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger of collapsing. Waqf refuses offer for similar tour for Muslims, saying 'settlers won't give us approval to enter a Muslim-owned area'

Ronen Medzini
Published: 11.08.09, 18:56 / Israel News
Background here.
I DIDN'T KNOW that there are:
Traces of Mithras in Malta
by Noel Grima (Malta Independent)

The Mithraic Mysteries was a mystery religion that became popular among the military in the Roman Empire, from the 1st to 4th centuries AD. Information on the cult is based mainly on interpretations of monuments, which depict Mithras as born from a rock and sacrificing a bull. His worshippers had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, with ritual meals and they met in underground temples. Little else is known for certain.

Last week, the Archaeological Society of Malta organised a lecture by Dr Claudia Sagona, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne (Australia), entitled Looking for Mithra in Malta. Dr Sagona is the author of The Archaeology of Punic Malta and her latest publication is Looking for Mithra in Malta. ...

Monday, November 09, 2009

A VERY OLD TORAH SCROLL is up for auction at Sotheby's:
730-year-old Torah scroll on auction this month
By TALI MINSBERG (Jerusalem Post)

The oldest complete Spanish Torah scroll will be up for sale at Sotheby's Judaica auction on November 24.

The scroll, the only Spanish Torah to include the kabbalistic traditions of curved letters, has an estimated worth of $300,000-$500,000.

Yitzchok Reisman, a world-renowned sofer (scribe), discovered the 730-year-old scroll about 10 years ago, and was able to date it and identify its origin.

Need I say it? It belongs in a museum. In any case, I hope that whoever buys it will make it available to scholars for study. That will only increase its value, which makes access a win-win proposition.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

UK scholars linked to 'stolen' bowls of Babylon

Suppressed report reveals archaeological treasures were dug up after Gulf war

* Vanessa Thorpe and James Doeser
* The Observer, Sunday 8 November 2009
* Article history

A secret report on the chequered history of priceless Aramaic bowls loaned to a leading university has exposed an apparent attempt to cover up UK academic connections to a potentially deadly trade in stolen Iraqi antiquities.

The findings of the study, which was suppressed by a controversial legal agreement in 2007, have at last solved a long-standing archaeological mystery.

Commissioned by University College London in 2005, it confirms the expert view that the bowls were stolen from the historical site of Babylon and should be returned to Iraq or handed over to the police. The report was completed in 2006 but suppressed a year later in a legal settlement made between the university and the putative owner of the bowls, the multimillionaire Norwegian collector, Martin Schøyen.

But a copy of its findings recently placed in the House of Lords library reveals that specialists in archaeology are convinced that the incantation bowls, dating from the fifth to eighth centuries, must have come from Iraq illegally. They believe the rare finds were probably dug up from the remains of Babylon some time after the 1991 Gulf war and were not found in Jordan, as believed by Schøyen. The UCL report concludes that "the bowls are subject to the Iraq United Nations sanctions order 2003 as cultural objects illicitly removed from Iraq after 6 August 1990 and that UCL has therefore a duty to deliver them to a constable".

It's a little odd to see this surfacing again now. All this was known in 2007 and I don't see anything new here, except perhaps that the report was deposited in the House of Lord library recently. Background here.