Saturday, December 26, 2009

THE ERETZ ISRAEL MUSEUM in Tel Aviv is profiled by Carl Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:
HOW DID this eclectic mix of attractions come into being? According to spokeswoman Miri Tzdaka, 37, the Eretz Israel Museum began in 1953 as an on-site exhibition of the archeological excavations of Tel Qasile, a Philistine port city that flourished along the Yarkon River from the 12th to the 10th centuries BCE. Among the first archeological sites unearthed within the new State of Israel, excavation at Tel Qasile was started in 1948 by Prof. Benjamin Mazar. Subsequent excavations on three Philistine temples, built one on top of the other, were conducted in 1971-1972. The Eretz Israel Museum grew around the Tel Qasile excavations, which continue to be a focal point and major attraction of the museum.

The main pavilions are clustered not far from the entrance to the complex at Rehov Haim Levanon 2. First, however, the visitor passes a vintage 1917 fire engine, rescued from a junk heap and lovingly restored at the instigation of Ilan Cohen, current director of the museum.

The ceramics and glass pavilions are extensive, offering comprehensive displays of objects from this area's successive historical periods. The Ceramics Pavilion tells the story of Neolithic people's discovery that fired clay becomes watertight; the introduction of pottery; and the evolution of pottery designs and functions. Thepavilion also contains a reconstruction of a biblical-period home. The popular Glass Pavilion features rare and beautiful objects from 3,000 years of glass-making, from its introduction to Israel in the 15th century BCE through the Medieval era.

The Kadman Numismatic Pavilion features an extensive collection of coins from all of the country's historical periods, right up until today, as well as bank notes, certificates and other marginalia, like weights.
TREASURE HUNTERS in the Holy Land:
Tales of hidden gold reveal mysterious niche in Ottoman-era bridge

By Eli Ashkenazi (Haaretz)

The Ottoman-era railway bridge stood over Tavor Stream for more than a century, but recently it was nearly brought down by rumors about a trove of gold hidden in its foundations.


Three years ago, however, tunnels were found at the bridge's foundation. under the bridge. "We didn't have the slightest idea why someone would be digging there," the deputy director of the Society for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites, Omri Shalmon, who visited the site, related.

His organization, together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Israel Railways, began regular patrols of the area and apprehended the diggers. The perpetrators, men from the nearby village of Shibli, told police officers they were digging for Ottoman gold hidden in the bridge by its builders. They even produced tattered maps they claimed clearly indicated the location of the treasure trove.


To the preservation society's surprise, during the work a mysterious niche was uncovered in the northwest corner of the bridge, made of concrete slabs. Shalmon believes it was probably built into the bridge several years after its completion. "It's not from the Turkish period, they didn't have slabs like that," he said.

The purpose of the niche remains unclear, but it may well be the source of the tales told in Shibli about hidden gold. Some believe it was made by the British, for weapons storage or with the aim of holding explosives in the event the bridge needed to be destroyed.

Another chapter in the long and creative history of treasure maps for this part of the world, some apparently real and some not so much. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

APOCRYPHA WATCH: Some weird, but I suppose seasonally-relevant, medieval Ben Sira apocrypha (which I guess counts as meta-apocrypha?) is noted by Michael Handelzalts in his Pen Ultimate column in Haaretz. This in the context of a discussion of the origins of the term "New Testament" in a phrase first used by the prophet Jeremiah.
The birth of Jesus commemorated on Christmas Day is a result of virginal conception by Mary. In the context of Jeremiah and the New Testament, it is particularly relevant to note here that there was a virginal conception in his own family as well (more of which anon).

One of the apocryphal books of the Bible - the third collection of writings (the so-called Apocrypha) - is the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet, in the Old Testament). It is a book, as stated in its prologue, of "[the wisdom of] Jesus, as he himself witnesseth, [who] was a man of great diligence and wisdom among the Hebrews, who did not only gather the grave and short sentences of wise men, that had been before him, but himself also uttered some of his own, full of much understanding and wisdom. When as therefore the first Jesus died, leaving this book almost perfected, Sirach his son receiving it after him left it to his own son Jesus, who, having gotten it into his hands, compiled it all orderly into one volume."

Ecclesiasticus is not part of the Jewish canon, of course, but a book attributed to Ben Sira is mentioned by the Hebrew sages. It includes two collections, one in Aramaic and the other in Hebrew, of proverbs and pearls of wisdom, arranged in alphabetical order, written or compiled probably in the 11th century. In the preface to the second collection is the story of Ben Sira himself. Born with the ability to speak (and thus to argue with his teachers from a very early age, like Jesus did with the doctors), Ben Sira was the son of Jeremiah's daughter - and the fruit of virginal conception. Since she was virtuous and could not have sinned, the assumption was that she fell pregnant while immersing herself in a ritual bath, by the seed of a male who bathed in it beforehand.

Ben Sira claims - verbally to his mother, but elsewhere in writing - that he is the son of Jeremiah himself. Of course, we only have his word on this, but he says the prophet was forced by wicked men from the tribe of Ephraim, to whom Jeremiah had preached against spilling their seed in the bath, to perform that act himself under the threat of being sodomized. The prophet's seed thus impregnated his own daughter. (Incidentally, the book of Ben Sira is used by rabbis as a basis for halakhic rulings on the use of artificial insemination.)

To make a short story long, it is possible to see in Ben Sira's book a later, Jewish parody of the story of the virginal conception of Jesus, which is the cause for worldwide celebration today. And this is a fitting coda to our discussion of the new covenant - a term first used in the Old Testament.
The chronology of the story doesn't work: Jeremiah lived in the seventh-sixth centuries BCE and Ben Sira in the third-second. But apocrypha frequently do not trouble themselves much about such matters.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating. Past historical notes on Christmas are here and here. For the New Testament birth narratives in Matthew 1 and Luke 1-2 and the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) follow the links. And don't forget the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James.

And then there's "Santa and His Asherah" by William H. Propp (BAR). Bill Propp wrote this when he was a postgraduate at Harvard and I remember he read it out at a departmental Christmas party in the mid-80s when he was back in town. I just found out that he had actually published it. Requires a paid subscription to read it all, but if you have one, do have a look and a laugh.

UPDATE: Zohar Laor has holiday photos of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which has been in the news lately because of the first-century house excavated next door.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

SHROUD OF TURIN UPDATE: I've updated this post with further information regarding the weave of the Shroud (in the context of the discussion of the very different weave of the Jerusalem Shroud).

There is a similar story about Shabbetai Zvi (Sabbetai Sevi), the seventeen-century mystical messiah of sin, although it is arguably at least indirectly dependent on the accounts of the empty tomb in the Gospels. And related is the very modern apotheosis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which reportedly includes resurrection appearances (follow the links back).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Israeli history lecturers go 'on the rails'

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Modiin, Israel

"I'm not nervous, but I hope I won't feel nauseous," joked Professor Isaiah Gafni, as he prepared to deliver his slightly unusual lecture.

But once the commuters were settled, he gripped an upholstered seat back with one hand, two weighty tomes in the other, and launched with gusto into his exposition of the documentary evidence of the Maccabean Jewish revolt in the 2nd Century BCE.

Few of the passengers on the 0905 train from Modiin to Tel Aviv were expecting this.

But most seemed willing to hear out the bespectacled historian, as he re-examined the story, taught in Israeli kindergartens and schools, of the Jewish rebellion which is commemorated in the festival of Hannukah.

'Crazy idea'

Lecturers "on the rails" is an initiative launched recently by Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to bring academia to the general public.

This is a fun idea and I can see it working in Israel, where interest in history is so pervasive, but perhaps not in many other places.
Vatican, Israel joust over Jerusalem site
The Mt. Zion site where Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples for the Last Supper was lost to the Roman Catholic Church more than 450 years ago. No accord was reached in the latest talks.
Mixed-heritage Jerusalem site

By Edmund Sanders (Los Angeles Times)

December 23, 2009

Reporting from Jerusalem - The government of Israel seems to be embracing the Christmas spirit. This week it is organizing carols and tree giveaways in Jerusalem, bus service to Bethlehem and even a fireworks show in Nazareth with an apparent eye on burnishing the nation's reputation for religious diversity.

But Israel won't be giving the Christmas gift near the top of the Vatican's wish list this year: possession of a Mt. Zion holy site where Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.

The Roman Catholic Church has been fighting for more than 450 years to win back control of the Crusader-era sanctuary, also known as the Holy Cenacle, which was seized from Franciscan monks around 1551 during the Ottoman Empire.

Vatican officials had hoped to made a deal with Israel this year, but the latest round of negotiations ended this month without an agreement, leading some to say that the impasse is souring diplomatic relations between the two sides.

MASADA'S ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE is back in use for a special project:
Behind a Glass Wall: Work on Masada's Torah Scroll

by Hillel Fendel

( A ritual scribe has begun spending his days behind a glass wall in the famous Masada synagogue – writing a Torah scroll to be installed there.

The young scribe, Shai Abramovitch, moved from the northern city of Tzfat, together with his wife and three young children, to the Negev city of Arad, in order to be able to carry out and complete the project. He will make the 45-minute Arad-Massada trek each morning after immersing in a mikveh (ritual bath) – a customary prelude to ritual scribes' work – and will return after seven and a half hours of painstaking writing.

His glass-enclosed“office” is in the very spot used as a synagogue by hundreds of Jews who found refuge from the Romans on Masada some 2,000 years ago. Hard at work throughout the day, the scribe can be seen through the glass by the many tourists who visit the famous site.

The office will include a webcam.
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, which has just received a $12 million grant from the Mandel Foundation in Cleveland.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Women are protesting patriarchal policies at the Western Wall.
Challenging Traditions at the Heart of Judaism

Published: December 21, 2009

JERUSALEM — A struggle for the character of the Western Wall, this city’s iconic Jewish holy site and central place of worship, is under way, and it is being fought with prayer shawls and Torah scrolls.

On Friday, sheets of rain obscured the Old City’s ancient domes. But by 7 a.m. about 150 Jewish women had gathered at the Western Wall to pray and to challenge the constraints imposed on them by traditional Jewish Orthodoxy and a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Under their coats many of the women, supporters of a group of religious activists called Women of the Wall, wore a tallit, or fringed prayer shawl, a ritual garment traditionally worn only by men. Some wore their prayer shawls openly, an illegal act in this particular setting that can incur a fine or several months in jail.

LEONARD RUTGERS has a new book out on the early history of anti-Semitism:
From Roman to Third Reich: anti-Semitism has long history

Published: 21 December 2009 14:03 | Changed: 21 December 2009 15:30

The Holocaust has its roots in Roman times, according to Dutch professor Leonard Rutgers, who published a book recently on how the Jewish identity was shaped in Christian minds.

By Dirk Vlasbom (NRC International)

In 388 AD a Christian mob led by a local bishop destroyed the synagogue of Callinicum, a Greco-Roman city in northern Syria. The attack angered emperor Theodosius I, who had declared Christianity the religion of the Roman state just eight years earlier. As the Jewish community enjoyed a protected status under Roman laws, he ordered the synagogue be rebuilt be rebuilt at bishop’s expense. This triggered Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, to write the emperor a letter defending the obliteration of the Jewish temple. What could possibly be wrong with destroying a “house of betrayal and godlessness” where Christ’s name was sullied on a daily basis, Ambrose asked.

Since the second century, Christian leaders had been publishing texts denouncing “the synagogue”, a metaphor for all the followers of Judaism in the Roman empire. While American historians have dismissed these attacks as 'ideological constructions,' Leonard Rutgers, a professor of Late Antiquity at the University of Utrecht specialised in religion, recently published a book disputing this rosy perspective. His book, Making Myths – Jews in early Christian identity formation, describes how the verbal violence directed at the Jewish population by the church leaders became physical in the fourth century.

JAMES TABOR has Some Thoughts on "Silent Night" at the Bible and Interpretation website. In it he discusses the possible birthdates (year and day) and paternity of Jesus, although he notes quite correctly that the any fine-tuned discussion of the date is based on evidence "which most historians would place wholly in the realm of the theological." I suspect the December 25th date really caught on because it helped keep Europeans from killing themselves from SAD in mid-winter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

THE NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS OF BABY JESUS? A first-century Jewish house excavated in Nazareth - next to the Church of the Annuciation:
Residential building from the time of Jesus exposed in Nazareth
21 Dec 2009
The remains were discovered in an archaeological excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority near the Church of the Annunciation.

(Communicated by the Israel Antiquities Authority)

An archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority recently conducted has revealed new information about ancient Nazareth from the time of Jesus. Remains of a dwelling that date to the Early Roman period were discovered for the first time in an excavation, which was carried out prior to the construction of the "International Marian Center of Nazareth" by the the Association Mary of Nazareth, next to the Church of the Annunciation.


According to Yardenna Alexandre, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, "The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus. The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period. From the few written sources that there are, we know that in the first century CE Nazareth was a small Jewish village, located inside a valley. Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period."

In the excavation a large broad wall that dates to the Mamluk period (the fifteenth century CE) was exposed that was constructed on top of and "utilized" the walls of an ancinet building. This earlier building consisted of two rooms and a courtyard in which there was a rock-hewn cistern into which the rainwater was conveyed. The artifacts recovered from inside the building were few and mostly included fragments of pottery vessels from the Early Roman period (the first and second centuries CE). In addition, several fragments of chalk vessels were found, which were only used by Jews in this period because such vessels were not susceptible to becoming ritually unclean.

How's that for timing? Although the IAA must have been sitting on this for a while.
Daniel M. Gurtner, Second Baruch: A Critical Edition of the Syriac Text (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 5; New York: T&T Clark, 2009)

Bill Rebiger and Peter Schäfer, Sefer ha-Razim I und II - Das Buch der Geheimnisse I und II: Band 1: Edition (TSAJ 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009)
Review copies for the SOTS Booklist.
THE WINTER SOLSTICE is today. Best wishes to all those celebrating. Although maybe not at Stonehenge. And happy Yalda Festival too of course.
THE KANDO FAMILY BUSINESS is still operating:
Bethlehem souvenir shop still open


Dear Travel Diva: Is the Kando Store souvenir shop still open in Bethlehem in the West Bank? -- Middle East Wondering

Dear Wondering: Yes. "The store still open, and we are a family that will never ever think leaving our homes and our land that we've grown in, especially this city, the most holy city in this world," wrote owner Shibly Kando via e-mail. "We are like the fish; if it comes out from its water, it will die."

The Kandos are Christians, a minority in Bethlehem. The big store features antiques, jewelry and gifts made in the West Bank. Shibly Kando's grandfather, an antiques dealer, helped discover the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

"Tourism has picked up lately," Shibly Kando wrote. "We can say that it's a little better than before, but still if we compare with how it was before 2001, it's still not 10% of that yet."
Kando, of course, was the antiquities dealer who dealt with the first Dead Sea Scrolls. The article is a bit confusing: Kando's shop was in East Jerusalem (and I know it was still there at least into the late 1980s) although he also operated out of Bethlehem, where he had a cobbler's shop. Perhaps there is another family shop in Bethlehem? For more on Kando see here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

WHO WROTE THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS? asks a nice article by Andrew Lawler in the Smithsonian. The piece covers pretty much all the responsible theories about the Scrolls and the site of Qumran and is worth reading in full. Excerpt:
Tour guides shepherding the tourists through the modest desert ruins speak of the scrolls’ origin, a narrative that has been repeated almost since they were discovered more than 60 years ago. Qumran, the guides say, was home to a community of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, who devoted their lives to writing and preserving sacred texts. They were hard at work by the time Jesus began preaching; ultimately they stored the scrolls in 11 caves before Romans destroyed their settlement in A.D. 68.

But hearing the dramatic recitation, Peleg, 40, rolls his eyes. “There is no connection to the Essenes at this site,” he tells me as a hawk circles above in the warming air. He says the scrolls had nothing to do with the settlement. Evidence for a religious community here, he says, is unconvincing. He believes, rather, that Jews fleeing the Roman rampage hurriedly stuffed the documents into the Qumran caves for safekeeping. After digging at the site for ten years, he also believes that Qumran was originally a fort designed to protect a growing Jewish population from threats to the east. Later, it was converted into a pottery factory to serve nearby towns like Jericho, he says.

Other scholars describe Qumran variously as a manor house, a perfume manufacturing center and even a tannery. Despite decades of excavations and careful analysis, there is no consensus about who lived there—and, consequently, no consensus about who actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“It’s an enigmatic and confusing site,” acknowledges Risa Levitt Kohn, who in 2007 curated an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego. She says the sheer breadth and age of the writings—during a period that intersects with the life of Jesus and the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem—make Qumran “a powder keg” among normally placid scholars. Qumran has prompted bitter feuds and even a recent criminal investigation.

Nobody doubts the scrolls’ authenticity, but the question of authorship has implications for understanding the history of both Judaism and Christianity. In 164 B.C., a group of Jewish dissidents, the Maccabees, overthrew the Seleucid Empire that then ruled Judea. The Maccabees established an independent kingdom and, in so doing, tossed out the priestly class that had controlled the temple in Jerusalem since the time of King Solomon. The turmoil led to the emergence of several rival sects, each one vying for dominance. If the Qumran texts were written by one such sect, the scrolls “help us to understand the forces that operated after the Maccabean Revolt and how various Jewish groups reacted to those forces,” says New York University professor of Jewish and Hebraic studies Lawrence Schiffman in his book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls. “While some sects were accommodating themselves to the new order in various ways, the Dead Sea group decided it had to leave Jerusalem altogether in order to continue its unique way of life.”
For more on the work of Peleg, Golb, and Stacey, see here and here and follow the links. For the Raphael Golb case, go here and follow the links.
A LATE-ANTIQUE SYNAGOGUE in an Arab village southwest of Hebron has been defaced with swastikas.
Swastikas on Walls of Ancient Synagogue in PA City near Hevron

by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu

( A group of Jews, in a rare visit to the ruins of an ancient synagogue in an Arab village southwest of Hevron, was shocked to discover swastikas scrawled on the walls by Arabs. Israel National News learned that the discovery was made last Friday morning, the same day that Muslims in Samaria accused Jews of setting fire to the second floor of a mosque in a village in Samaria.

Whoever did it (and I assume no one actually saw it being done), this is very disturbing. For another recent case of vandalism of an antiquities site, see here.