Saturday, January 09, 2010

Where Heaven and Earth Meet (San Francisco Sentinel review)

BOOK REVIEW/TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Where Heaven and Earth Meet (ed. Benjamin Z. Kedar and Oleg Grabar) is reviewed by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh in the San Francisco Sentinel. It's a long review with detailed comments on the individual articles in the book. Excerpt:
Despite the multiple, interfaith/intercultural authorship, one does not feel that on an individual level most of the writers are struggling with the meaning of the mount. Rather, they seem quite comfortable in their various niches. But while the book cannot be considered “ecumenical” in terms of the individual writers’ conclusions, meaning-seeking readers would not want this book without its juxtapositions of often conflicting views. Such juxtaposition may be precisely what we need to allow us to compare and contrast what the various scholars have to say, ultimately coming away from the accumulation of perspectives educated and enriched.
More reviews here.

UPDATE: It seems this review was first published in Haaretz (via the Agade list).

Sands, Invention of the Jewish People (Guardian review)

THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE by Shlomo Sands is reviewed by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg in the Guardian. He is not impressed. Excerpt:
Uncomfortable books, if they are good, can be important. National narratives do need deconstruction; they often blind us to different perceptions of the world and deafen us to the just claims of others. This is certainly true of the Middle East, and I am one of many Jews who would agree with Sand that a decisive factor in the future of Israel will be its capacity to be far more attentive to the narratives and rights of its Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens.

But the book is a great disappointment. Its sweeping attempt to take apart the entire history of the Jewish people from its origins to present day Israel and prove it to be a wilful fabrication is marred by tendentious premises, the misreading of key events and the ignoring of central texts and institutions.
More reviews here.

Nag Hammadi murder update

Gunmen surrender after Egyptian Coptic attack
From Amir Ahmed, CNN
January 8, 2010 8:34 a.m. EST

(CNN) -- The gunmen responsible for a drive-by shooting that killed six Christians and a Muslim guard after a Mass this week have turned themselves in, government news outlets reported Friday.

The three gunmen gave themselves up after a 24-hour chase that ended in farm fields in southern Egypt, the MENA news agency reported.

The AP also reports riots on Thursday in response to the murders.

Background here.
THE CLAIMED DECIPHERMENT of the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription is being picked up by the mainstream media. The Jerusalem Post buys the whole story and presents it pretty much as fact. The AFP is commendably more cautious, reporting the content of the press release without taking a position on its correctness. But neither seems to have bothered to ask any other Hebrew epigraphers what they thought.

Background here.

ROM DSS exhibition a success

The Dead Sea Scrolls Spoke Volumes During their Toronto Engagement

(Art Daily)

TORONTO.- Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World is the most successful exhibition displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in the nine years since Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. Over 300,000 visited the exhibition during its Toronto engagement.

I'm not surprised; this sort of success is the norm for Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions.

The article has a nice picture of 11Q5, the Psalms scroll.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A decipherment of the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription

THE KHIRBET QEIYAFA INSCRIPTION has reportedly been deciphered. Press release:
Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered

'It indicates that the kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE, and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.'

Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa who deciphered the inscription: "It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research."

A breakthrough in the research of the Hebrew scriptures has shed new light on the period in which the Bible was written. Prof. Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa has deciphered an inscription dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David's reign), and has shown that this is a Hebrew inscription. The discovery makes this the earliest known Hebrew writing. The significance of this breakthrough relates to the fact that at least some of the biblical scriptures were composed hundreds of years before the dates presented today in research and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.

The inscription itself, which was written in ink on a 15 cm X 16.5 cm trapezoid pottery shard, was discovered a year and a half ago at excavations that were carried out by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley. The inscription was dated back to the 10th century BCE, which was the period of King David's reign, but the question of the language used in this inscription remained unanswered, making it impossible to prove whether it was in fact Hebrew or another local language.

Prof. Galil's deciphering of the ancient writing testifies to its being Hebrew, based on the use of verbs particular to the Hebrew language, and content specific to Hebrew culture and not adopted by any other cultures in the region. "This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah ("did") and avad ("worked"), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ("widow") are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages. The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs," Prof. Galil explains.

He adds that once this deciphering is received, the inscription will become the earliest Hebrew inscription to be found, testifying to Hebrew writing abilities as early as the 10th century BCE. This stands opposed to the dating of the composition of the Bible in current research, which would not have recognized the possibility that the Bible or parts of it could have been written during this ancient period.

Prof. Galil also notes that the inscription was discovered in a provincial town in Judea. He explains that if there were scribes in the periphery, it can be assumed that those inhabiting the central region and Jerusalem were even more proficient writers. "It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel." He adds that the complexity of the text discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute the claims denying the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

The contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality - be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.


English translaton of the deciphered text:

1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.
Via James McGrath, who cites reactions from other bibliobloggers. The press release has a drawing of the text as well. For earlier PaleoJudaica coverage, of which there is much, go here and keep following the links back.

Although this is a very interesting development, I think people are getting carried away. Someone has finally published a preliminary translation of this very difficult text and (more importantly) a drawing that gives the translator's interpretation of the readings and reconstruction of the (many) damaged letters. This in an over-hyped press release (the text, even if the decipherment is exactly correct, doesn't prove an early date for any specific [unnamed!] biblical texts). Oddly, the press release does not even give a transcription of the Hebrew. Still, this announcement is very welcome and the proposed decipherment is, as I said, quite interesting, especially the specifically Hebrew (not generically "Canaanite") words and the mention of a king in tenth-century BCE Israel.

But before we get all excited, let's see Professor Galil's interpretation published in a peer-review journal. Then let's wait a few years to give other epigraphers time to digest it and give their interpretations. Then, let's see what we have.

UPDATE: On Facebook, Stephen C. Carlson reminds me that John Hobbins posted a quite different transcription and translation of the inscription in October at John's Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog. It is much less biblically interesting: it includes some of the same specifically Hebrew words, but we don't get a king in Israel from it. I am reminded of one of the epigraphic rules of thumb I learned from my teacher, Frank Moore Cross: the more banal reading is to be preferred.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Michael Goulder has passed away

MICHAEL GOULDER, retired biblical scholar of the University of Birmingham, has passed away. The sad news comes from Mark Goodacre, who reports that Professor Goulder died yesterday. His Wikipedia entry is here. My strongest memory of Michael was at the 1999 British New Testament Conference. It was my first time there and he noticed me as a new person and bought me a beer. He was a good guy. Requiescat in pace.

Murder in Nag Hammadi

Egypt Copts killed in Christmas church attack


At least six Coptic Christians and a security official have been killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church in southern Egypt, officials say.

The shooting came as worshippers left the church in Naj Hammadi after a midnight mass on Coptic Christmas Eve.

A car pulled up and gunfire was sprayed into the crowd.

Officials say they suspect the attack is in revenge for the rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in the town in November.

There were five days of riots in the town, with Christian properties torched and damaged, following the rape.


Naj Hammadi is 40 miles (64km) from Luxor, southern Egypt's biggest city.

Naj Hammadi is also known as Nag Hammadi, the place where the ancient Coptic Gnostic library was discovered in the 1940s, mentioned frequently in PaleoJudaica, most recently a few days ago here. The library was buried in a jar, likely hidden because of persecution (this time from other Christians). This is the first I have heard of these recent events. I grieve for all the victims involved.

Philogos on new Hebrew names for Uranus and Neptune

PHILOLOGOS discusses the new Hebrew names for the planets Uranus and Neptune in The Forward:
Oron (the stress is on the second syllable) was coined by one of the contest’s Internet participants, from the Hebrew word or, meaning “light,” plus the diminutive suffix –on, thus giving us “little light.” Besides sounding like “Uranus,” it must have seemed fitting to those who voted for it, because the seventh planet is indeed a faint presence in the sky. Shaḥak, the runner-up, is a literary Hebrew word for “sky” that goes back to the Bible and would have been closer to Uranus in meaning, though without any phonetic similarity.

Rahav, the new Hebrew name for Neptune, also appears in the Bible, where it is the name of a mythological sea monster. In the Book of Job, for instance, we are told, “By His [God’s] power He stilled the sea; by His understanding He smote Rahav.” The Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra even refers to Rahav as “the lord of the sea” (sar shel yam), which makes this legendary creature a rough Hebrew parallel to the Roman sea god Neptune. Tarshish, which came in second, is the name of a distant but unidentified Mediterranean city or land mentioned many times in the Bible, sometimes in the metaphorical sense of “far over the sea.”
Philologos also notes that the other five planets that were known in antiquity already have Hebrew names and that Pluto is no longer technically a planet (too small). I think they should name Pluto Sheol anyway.

Background here.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

PaleoJudaica is one of Technorati's Top 100 Religion blogs

PALEOJUDAICA is one of Technorati's Top 100 Religion blogs, just squeaking in with a three-way tie for place #97. I don't see many biblioblogs in the top 100, but Jesus Creed comes in at #3 and Exploring our Matrix at #23. Well done, Scott and James! I may be missing others; I don't keep careful track of such things anymore.

UPDATE: James McGrath comments.

Byblos recovery

BYBLOS, the ancient Canaanite port, has made a nice recovery in the last few years. The NYT reports:
If Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, as the cliché goes, then Byblos, some 22 miles up the coastline, is its Cannes: an ancient port framed by pre-Roman ruins, white sandy beaches and cedar-topped mountains. The city is famous for its fish restaurants, which serve up fresh red snapper and sea bass to an international clientele. Party yachts cruise into its spectacular harbor at sundown, the way Brando and Sinatra did during Byblos’s prewar heyday, docking next to old dinghies and wooden fishing boats with names like “Taxi Joe.” Arab starlets and their hangers-on shimmy all day at nearby beach resorts like Eddé Sands, studded with palm trees, shimmering pools and Lebanese glitterati.

The city’s revived night life is adding a new dimension to the already powerful lure of its 7,000-year-old history and ruins. For years, Byblos’s main draws were its Crusader citadel, Phoenician ramparts and Bronze Age ruins of L-shaped temples scattered along a seaside bluff like oversized Lego blocks. Byblos lays claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world, dating its origins to 5000 B.C., as well as the birthplace of the modern alphabet (“byblos” is the Greek word for papyrus).

It was a major commercial port for ancient Egyptian seafarers buying cedar. Though many of its best-preserved sarcophagi and hieroglyphic vases are now in Beirut’s National Museum, visitors can wander through the endless maze of ruins and marvel at one of the world’s earliest examples of sophisticated urban planning.

“I come to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere,” said Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, a painter from Beirut with a shock of silvery hair. “The stones almost seem to want to talk about what happened here many millennia ago.”
Background here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Find A Dig

FIND A DIG: Biblical Archaeological Review has published its annual listing of archaeological excavations that are accepting volunteers for this year's season. More information here.

Jordan and the DSS - not over yet?

Jordan awaiting official response from Canadian government over Dead Sea Scrolls

By Khetam Malkawi
(Jordan Times)

AMMAN - Jordan has not received an official response from Canada regarding a request to seize the Dead Sea Scrolls that were displayed at a museum in Toronto until Sunday, a senior official said.

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Maha Khatib was responding to news published in some news websites that the Canadian government has announced it will not act upon Amman’s request to seize the two-millennia-old scrolls. The Kingdom will not respond until receiving an official response, the official said.

According to Khatib, the government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has requested Canada to take custody of the scrolls, citing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Jordan and Canada are signatories.

Background here. Previous reports made it sound as though the Canadian Government had already replied negatively.

I can see why they would not be anxious to get involved in this. I'm not qualified to comment on the international-law issues, but I think it's safe to say that if Canada were agree to seize the Scrolls, Canadian museums would suddenly find it exceedingly difficult to persuade any other country to lend them anything.

Helen Bond meets Gerry Adams and talks about Jesus. Really.

NEW TESTAMENT SCHOLAR HELEN BOND has been hanging out with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and talking about Jesus. Really.
Jesus through the Eyes of an Irish Republican

By Helen Bond

Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language,
Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
January 2010 (Bible and Interpretation)

Recent historical Jesus study prides itself on the diversity of participants: Jews, Christians, and secularists from a range of (first world) nationalities and backgrounds. But how diverse are we really? Despite apparent variety, we all share the same basic training in biblical languages and historical criticism, the same basic commitment to scholarly enquiry, and, broadly speaking, a similar social status in our respective settings. It was with some curiosity, then, that I travelled to Israel last month to make a TV program on Jesus for UK’s Channel 4 with Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Sinn Féin party.


Ezekiel's tomb in Iraq to be de-Judaized?

EZEKIEL'S (TRADITIONAL) TOMB in Iraq is going to be turned into a mosque and stripped of Jewish features according to "sources in Baghdad" in contact with Arutz Sheva:
Reports: Iraq De-Judaizing Ezekiel's Tomb

by Hillel Fendel

( Early reports that Iraq plans to retain the Jewish nature of the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel are apparently false. Sources in Baghdad say that the government plans to turn it into a mosque and erase all Jewish markings.

Iraq announced earlier this year that it would revamp the ancient burial site, which is located in Al-Kifl, a small town south of Baghdad. The U.S.-backed government announcement implied that its Jewish nature would continue to be emphasized.

Since then, however, reports have surfaced that the government is actually planning to build a mosque there, including removing the ancient Hebew inscriptions that adorn the site. Some reports say that all or some of the lines of Hebrew script have already been erased.

Such a "renovation" would be a travesty. I certainly hope these reports turn out to be incorrect.

More on Ezekiel's tomb here (and follow the links). CAMERA's concerns may have been justified. Watch this space.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Talmud fragments from book bindings

TALMUD FRAGMENTS from book bindings:
Exhibit Showcases Jewish Scholasticism Before the Printing Press

By Dovid Zaklikowski (
Jan 3, 2010 1:00 PM

A new exhibit at a Jewish archive in New York City is shedding light on the dissemination of religious material in the days before the printing press.

Comprised of old manuscripts, fading marriage certificates and handwritten editions of the Talmud – once consigned to be nothing more than filler for the bindings of printed books – the display at the central Chabad-Lubavitch library in Brooklyn represents the collective discovery of staff members cataloguing the library’s vast holdings.

According to Rabbi Sholom Ber Levine, chief librarian and archivist at the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the parchment documents also reveal a practice used by early printers, who compressed old manuscripts together to make covers for newer versions of the Talmud.

“When we were cataloging the library,” says Levine, “I felt that several of the covers were very flimsy, and that the bindings were comprised of many layers.”

The rabbi’s hunch proved correct when he took the material to a lab to extract the individual pages. The resulting treasure included several pages of the Talmud dating from before the first Jewish book was printed in the last third of the 15th century.

Levine says the find has enormous value to scholars, who examine minute variations between different versions of a text.

Also known as Ohel Yosef Yitzchak-Lubavitch, the library is named after the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Located in the Crown Heights section of the city, it houses close to 250,000 published volumes, many of them rare, and tens of thousands of antique documents and manuscripts.

Among its collections is a prayer book used by the founder of Chasidism, the 17th-century rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, whose tears stained some of the book’s pages.

The Coptic Gnostic library from Nag Hammadi also used discarded manuscripts (in this case documentary texts) as book-binding filler and the dates on some of those fragments helped establish the dates of the codices. And a fragment of the Codex Sinaiticus was very recently discovered in the binding of an 18th century book.

Update on Jordan and the DSS

Scroll exhibit closes amid controversy

Jordan claims Israel seized scrolls from Jerusalem museum. Ottawa says Canada will not intervene


From Monday's Globe and Mail Published on Monday, Jan. 04, 2010 12:00AM EST Last updated on Monday, Jan. 04, 2010 2:25AM EST

The six-month exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls closed yesterday in Toronto, with scholars baffled by the Jordanian government's last-minute request to Canada to stop the ancient manuscripts from going back to Israel.

The request, delivered to the Canadian chargé d'affaires in the Jordanian capital of Amman, underscores the tortuous history of the region, where custody of the 2,000-year-old fragments of Jewish spiritual writings has become entangled in the politics and warfare of perhaps the world's most fought over piece of geography.


The Canadian government has replied by saying Jordan, Israel and the Palestine Authority should sort out who owns the scrolls and Ottawa will not intervene - a response which, legally, the Canadian government likely had no choice but to make, said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, chair of New York University's department of Hebrew and Judaic studies and a Dead Sea Scrolls specialist.

Ottawa, he said, was likely party to an indemnification agreement signed before the scrolls left Israel to come to Canada. The agreement - a conventional document protecting cultural property - would guarantee that Israel would get the scrolls back.

What has puzzled scrolls experts is not just Jordan's timing but Jordan's intervention. Why did it wait until just before the exhibit closed? And why did it make the request when 20 years ago it declared that its previous interests in the area, such as the museum in east Jerusalem that once housed some of the scrolls that came to Canada, were now in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

The article goes on to say that there is doubt that the Hague Convention applies to the particular complicated political circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Scrolls.

Background here.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Flood Ark was round?

A NEWLY TRANSLATED FRAGMENT of the Atrahasis Epic apparently says that the great boat made by the Flood hero was round:
Relic reveals Noah's ark was circular

• Newly translated tablet gives building instructions
• Amateur historian's find was almost overlooked

* Maev Kennedy
*, Friday 1 January 2010 22.35 GMT

That they processed aboard the enormous floating wildlife collection two-by-two is well known. Less familiar, however, is the possibility that the animals Noah shepherded on to his ark then went round and round inside.

According to newly translated instructions inscribed in ancient Babylonian on a clay tablet telling the story of the ark, the vessel that saved one virtuous man, his family and the animals from god's watery wrath was not the pointy-prowed craft of popular imagination but rather a giant circular reed raft.

The now battered tablet, aged about 3,700 years, was found somewhere in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, a largely self-educated Londoner who indulged his passion for history while serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948.

The relic was passed to his son Douglas, who took it to one of the few people in the world who could read it as easily as the back of a cornflakes box; he gave it to Irving Finkel, a British Museum expert, who translated its 60 lines of neat cuneiform script.


In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same."

Noah's Ark in Genesis 6 was an oblong box. If memory serves (I don't have the text handy at home), the Gilgamesh epic described it as a cube. Read the whole article; it's entertaining. And this is worth quoting:
In the Victorian era some became obsessed with the ark story. George Smith – the lowly British museum assistant who, in 1872, deciphered the Flood Tablet which is inscribed with the Assyrian version of the Noah's ark tale – could apparently not contain his excitement at his discovery.

According to the museum's archives: "He jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement and to the astonishment of those present began to undress himself."
Slow news day.

(Via the Agade list.)