Saturday, July 03, 2010

Gold coin excavated at Bethsaida

AN ANCIENT GOLD COIN has been excavated at Bethsaida:
Rare coin bears good tidings for UNO's Israeli excavations

By John Keenan

Dr. Rami Arav didn't get into archaeology for the money.

He was very excited, however, when his team of researchers uncovered a rare gold coin during excavation work in the ancient city of Bethsaida, near the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

Arav is director of excavation and research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Bethsaida Excavations Project, a 24-year effort to uncover the archaeological mysteries of the biblical-era city.

The coin, which weighs 7 grams, is 97.6 percent gold, Arav said.

The find was unexpected because Bethsaida primarily was home to humble fishermen, he said. Arav said somebody must have been doing good business a little more than 100 years after the birth of Christ.

The gold coin, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, carries the image of Antoninus Pius, the 15th Roman emperor, who reigned between A.D. 138 and 161.

More on recent finds (including other gold objects) at Bethsaida here.

Proton beams for DSS analysis

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Proton beams used to analyze the Temple Scroll:
The analyses, which were conducted by INFN physicists in collaboration with researchers from IBAM-CNR, have revealed that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular, the Temple Scroll (which is not part of the biblical narration and instead describes the construction and life of a temple and dictates how laws are to be communicated to the people), may have been made near the Dead Sea, in the area of Qumran, where the scrolls were found. In other words, the scrolls may have been created locally.
Much depends on what "may" adds up to here. This is potentially a very exciting development: if it can be established on the basis of the physical composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls that they (or even some of them) were produced in the vicinity of Qumran, this would have important implications for theories about the origins of the Qumran library. But the very cautious phrasing of the claim makes it fairly uninteresting. We already knew that the Temple Scroll may have been produced locally.

Be that as it may, here are more details about the analysis:
The analyses were conducted on seven small samples of the scrolls (average size of one square centimetre), following a request made by Dr. Ira Rabin of BAM (Bundesanstalt fur Materialforschung) in Berlin. The scrolls belong to the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum and the Ronald Reed Collection of the John Rylands University Library.

At the LANDIS laboratory (one of the INFN laboratories in Catania), non-destructive analyses were performed to obtain results on the origin of the scrolls. To produce a scroll, which was the writing material used at the time, a great quantity of water is needed. By analysing water samples taken in the area where the scrolls were found, the presence of certain chemical elements was established, and the ratio of their concentrations was determined. The ratio of chlorine to bromine in the fragments of the Temple Scroll was then analysed using proton beams of 1.3 MeV, produced by the Tandem particle accelerator at the INFN National Laboratories of the South. According to this analysis, the ratio of chlorine to bromine in the scroll is consistent with the ratio in local water sources. In other words, this finding supports the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found. The next step in the research will be to analyse the ink used to write the scrolls.
I keep harping on non-destructive and non-invasive analysis being the future of archaeology and this story offers some support for that point. But again, the wording is exceedingly cautious. What does "is consistent with" mean? Is the ratio inconsistent, say, with the ratio of water samples taken from Jerusalem? It may "support the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found," but does it refute the hypothesis that it was produced in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Judea?

I'm not getting too excited about this one until I see some more robust conclusions.

UPDATE (23 July): Robert Cargill has a useful discussion here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

"Mystery" in the DSS and its Perso-Babylonian background

"MYSTERY" (RAZ) in the Dead Sea Scrolls and its Perso-Babylonian background:
Mystery, Secrecy and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Rigorous philology is still the best place to begin a study of ancient texts, and it can be well complemented by a clear interpretive/theoretical framework that seeks to bring focus to a particular angle of vision. But we should always be clear about the limits of our imaginative effort. Extracting history from ancient texts is difficult enough; trying to apprehend what ancient writers thought is an even dicier business.

The following essay is adapted from The “Mysteries” of Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls (SBLEJL 26; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009)

By Sam Thomas (Bible and Interpretation)
California Lutheran University
June 2010
If raz was such an important word in Qumran texts and if its various associations played such a central conceptual role in the self-communication (or what Carol Newsom has called the “group self-fashioning”) of the Yahad and related groups, how can we explain this in a way that takes seriously the linguistic and social (and political) contexts in which these texts were produced? Moving backward rather than forward in time, it becomes clear that there is at least an indirect—if not direct—connection between the social and discursive worlds of the Yahad and earlier Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian (and perhaps Persian) priestly-scribal groups. A comparative study of these contexts throws new light on the uses of “mystery” language in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially when buoyed by a more robust heuristic framework of secrecy and esotericism.

Samaritan Temple excavation not open to tourism

THE SAMARITAN TEMPLE EXCAVATION at Mount Gerizim languishes, its tourism potential untapped:
Ancient site near Nablus 'too problematic' to open
Mount Gerizim is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem's Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple.

By Chaim Levinson Tags: Israel news (Haaretz)

Behind the rusty iron fence surrounding the archaeological work on Mount Gerizim lies one of Israel's most impressive antiquities sites. But the Civil Administration is keeping the compound closed despite its huge tourism potential. It says planning at the site near Nablus in the West Bank is "too problematic."

Over more than two decades, Yitzhak Magen, the administration's chief archaeology officer, dug up a 2,000-year-old city, once home to 10,000 people.
Samaritan community during a pilgrimage on Mount Gerizim near Nablus

It was preserved in its entirety. The site consists of streets lined with houses, a marketplace and town center. Thousands of bones of sacrificial animals and tens of thousands of coins tell its story.


"They discovered that the destroyed temple began in the Hasmonean era and ended in the Byzantine era. The Byzantines built on its ruins an octagonal church, which has been dug up. The compound wall has remained almost entirely intact, as have parts of the central Samaritan city. The findings show a high living standard, with bathtubs, ceramics, a heating system and mosaics. You can see it was the capital of a kingdom."

The Samaritan community wants it opened up to tourists.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ugaritic as a test case for computer language-decipherment

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Progress in computer decipherment of ancient languages, with Ugaritic as a test case.
Computer program deciphers a dead language that mystified linguists


The lost language of Ugaritic was last spoken 3,500 years ago. It survives on just a few tablets, and linguists could only translate it with years of hard work and plenty of luck. A computer deciphered it in hours.

That last sentence, of course, is irresponsible hogwash. What the program did manage to do was (1) to identify almost perfectly (29 of 30) the letter correspondences between Ugaritic and Hebrew and (2) identify about 60% of the Hebrew words cognate to Ugaritic words. This is a remarkable and important achievement and it's a pity that the media coverage it has received so far is so sensationalist.

The limits of the system are (1) it needs to have identified a cognate language (Hebrew in this case) and (2) both languages need to be in an alphbetic script.

Anyone who has worked with Ugaritic will know how far this is from a decipherment. Decipherment of Ugaritic is still at a fairly primitive level and is likely to remain that way unless we recover a lot more texts. (Rumor was in my postgraduate days that a famous Semitist who shall remain nameless liked to say that he thought we were reading the tablets upside-down!) We understand Ugaritic as well as we do primarily because of all the cognates it shares with Hebrew, but a cognate word or root does no more than narrow the range of guesswork for understanding that word or root. Usage and context are also extremely important, and neither are addressed by this computer program. Indeed, the program doesn't do any translating at all. What it does do, remarkably efficiently, is to lay the groundwork for a human being to decipher an ancient language, potentially making the task much easier.

You can download a pdf file of the paper "A Statistical Model for Lost Language Decipherment," by Benjamin Snyder, Regina Barzilay, and Kevin Knight, by clicking on the link. This is the abstract:
In this paper we propose a method for the automatic decipherment of lost languages. Given a non-parallel corpus in a known re-lated language, our model produces both alphabetic mappings and translations of words into their corresponding cognates. We employ a non-parametric Bayesian framework to simultaneously capture both low-level character mappings and high- level morphemic correspondences. This formulation enables us to encode some of the linguistic intuitions that have guided human decipherers. When applied to the ancient Semitic language Ugaritic, the model correctly maps 29 of 30 letters to their Hebrew counterparts, and deduces the correct Hebrew cognate for 60% of the Ugaritic words which have cognates in Hebrew.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

JSIJ vol. 8

JUDAIC STUDIES, AN INTERNET JOURNAL has published a new volume:
Dear JSIJ Subscribers,

We are pleased to announce the official publication of vol. 8 of JSIJ (Jewish Studies - an Internet Journal), which includes the following articles (abstracts of these articles appear at the end of this email):

Michael Avioz, On the Origins of the Term Nevi'im Rishonim (Heb.)

Itzhak Hamitovsky. Rabbi Meir and the Samaritans: The Differences Between the Accounts in the Yerushalmi and the Bavli (Heb.)

Menachem Katz, Collections of Halakha or Analytic Clarifications in the Babylonian Talmud? (Heb.)

Moshe Lavee, Welfare and Education vs. Leadership and Redemption: The Stories about Rabbi and Rabbi Hiyya as an Example of the Image of the Tannaitic Past in the Babylonian Talmud (Heb.)

Itzhak Hershkowitz, The Altar as God's House: A Study in Maimonides' Temple Perspectives (Heb.)

Yossi Erel, Ramban’s Approach Toward the Plain Meaning of the Biblical Text vs. his Commitment to Halakha (Heb.)

Chanan Gafni, Hyperbolic Language in the Mishnah (Heb.)

Aron Pinker, On the Meaning of šgl

Ephraim Stulberg, The Last Oral Torah? The Division of the Torah into ‘Aliyot

You can download (view, print, etc.) the articles by going to the
following website and clicking the appropriate links (Word or PDF):


Leib Moscovitz
Managing Editor


1.On the Origins of the Term Nevi'im Rishonim
Michael Avioz

The biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are collectively known in Hebrew as Nevi'im Rishonim (Former Prophets). A review of the evidence from earliest times through the Middle Ages leads to the conclusion that the designation was coined by the Soncino family, who printed those books with Rabbi David Kimchi’s commentary in 1488.

2. Rabbi Meir and the Samaritans: The Differences Between the Accounts in the Yerushalmi and the Bavli
Itzhak Hamitovsky

This article seeks to show how the Babylonian sources placed much greater emphasis than their Palestinian parallels on the role Rabbi Meir played in connection with the changing Halakhic status of the Samaritan community. This conclusion is based on an analysis of the tannaitic sources dealing with Rabbi Meir’s relation to the Samaritans and a comparison between the Babylonian sugyot in BK 38b and Hullin 5b-6a and their Palestinian counterparts. It is suggested that according to both the tannaitic sources and the Palestinian Amoraic sources, Rabbi Meir did not make any significant contribution to the halakhic campaign against the Samaritans. Rather, it appears from these sources that Rabbi Shimon b. Eleazar, Rabbi Meir’s student, played a significant role in this campaign, during the late second century CE. The redactors of the Babylonian sources, following literary patterns attested elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud, attributed Rabbi Shimon b. Eleazar's position to his teacher, Rabbi Meir. If my analysis is correct, the attribution of this position to Rabbi Meir constitutes yet another example of the transformation of Palestinian stories by Babylonian sources in light of the concerns of the Babylonian redactors.

3. Collections of Halakhah or Analytic Clarifications in the Babylonian Talmud?
Menahem Katz

Most of the Babylonian Talmud consists of sugyot, analytical discourses which form complete and closed structures. Another type of structure found in the gemara is the collection of sayings of a particular amora or of the stam. Rashi called sugyot of this type piskei shemu‘ot or piskei halakhot (Sukkah 3b, Pesahim 9b), terms which reflect the nature of these passages – apparently random collections of rulings, edited (according to Rashi) by the school of Rav Ashi.

This article discusses two such collections – Sukkah 3b-4b and Bava Kamma 26a-27a. It argues that these sugyot reflect a remarkable combination of analytical reasoning and complex literary design. In these collections of sayings, the sages of the Talmud discuss real, concrete cases, through which they explore basic concepts of Jewish law. We cannot treat these sugyot as simple collections of shemu‘ot. Rather, we must observe how they analyze in great detail the exact nature of the halakhic concepts they address.

4. Welfare and Education vs. Leadership and Redemption: The Stories about Rabbi and Rabbi Hiyya as an Example of the Image of the Tannaitic Past in the Babylonian Talmud
Moshe Lavee

This article proposes a reconstruction of the Babylonian perspective on the relations of R. Hiyya and Rabbi. We argues that shared motifs, structures and expressions justify reading a group of scattered traditions and stories as if they belong to a single cluster, which may be read coherently. A comparison to parallel traditions in rabbinic compilations from the land of Israel shows the Babylonian character of this reconstructed story. Thus, this story should not be read as reflecting the actual history of the Tannaim, but rather as expressing contrasting values and impressions that were later associated with the figures of Rabbi and Rabbi Hiyya. Rabbi represents tough political leadership, which is expressed, among other things, by restricting the spread of Torah study and by Messianic aspirations. Rabbi Hiyya symbolizes opposition to Rabbi, emphasizing Torah education for the masses, social concern, and investment in the immediate future – the next generation. The reading strategy suggested in this paper seeks to integrate two different approaches to the study of rabbinic literature: the literary approach to reading rabbinic stories, and the study of the contribution of late redactors, transmitters and editors to the formation of the Babylonian Talmud.

5. The Altar as God's House: A Study in Maimonides' Temple Perspectives
Itzhak Hershkowitz

The altar has a unique and complex status in the Bible, since two incompatible characteristics are attributed to it: it is depicted both as a portable sanctified object and as a stationary building. These opposing characteristics are evident in Maimonides' laws of the Temple (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Behirah). However, when Maimonides molds these rulings into a coherent codex of decrees, he prefers the building aspect of the altar, although he bases several rulings about the Temple, especially those concerning building materials and methods, on the conception of the portable altar.

Thus, Maimonides asserts that the altar is the fundamental essence of the Temple. Therefore, even if the Temple is not fully constructed, the presence of the altar alone is sufficient to provide a functional House of God. This view differs from that of the talmudic Sages, who regarded the altar solely as a temporary alternative to the Temple.

These conclusions derive from a textual, contextual, and linguistic study of Maimonides' writings concerning the relationship between the altar, the Temple's outer shell, and the other vessels that were utilized in the divine service.

6. Ramban’s Approach Toward the Plain Meaning of the Biblical Text vs. his Commitment to Halakha
Yossi Erel

In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban displays a deep commitment to the Halakha as it was determined by the Sages in the Talmud and in post-Talmudic traditions. Ramban often demurs when Rashi presents a Rabbinic interpretation that is not in accordance with the Halakha. However, the Ramban’s commitment to Halakha sometimes clashes with his parallel commitment to the plain meaning of the text (peshat), and in these instances the effort to be faithful to both approaches and to reconcile them creates a hermeneutic challenge.

The first two sections of this article present two hermeneutic techniques that help Ramban meet this challenge. The first technique, frequently found in his commentary on the Torah, is the principle of deriving two Halakhot from one verse: the Halakha according to the peshat, and the Halakha according to the Sages. This technique was not accepted by the Ba‘alei Tosafot in France, whose interpretation according to the peshat ignores the Halakha.

The second technique, Ramban’s main approach in analyzing Halakhic passages in the Torah, is one of synthesis between the two contradictory principles.

The third section of this article focuses on excerpts from Ramban’s works on the Talmud, in which he tries to find the source of the Halakha in the plain meaning of Biblical verses even when the Talmud does not cite a Biblical verse.

The fourth section returns to Ramban’s commentary on the Torah. Here Ramban looks for the Biblical verses which were the source of the Halakha even when the Sages cited midrashic sources. Indeed, Ramban constructs an innovative Halakhic framework with regard to the Sabbath and a number of other subjects on the basis of Biblical verses.

The fifth and final section of this article analyzes Ramban’s synthetic approach within the framework of his historical and cultural background and milieu, comparing it to that of the Ba‘alei Tosafot in France on the one hand, and to the Sephardic halakhic tradition in Spain and North Africa on the other. We also point out the directions of the developments that might have been influenced by Ramban’s dispute with the Christians, which may have influenced his attempt to combine two parallel approaches in his commentary on the Torah.

7. Hyperbolic Language in the Mishnah
Chanan Gafni

One of the heated debates in nineteenth-century Jewish scholarship concerned the Talmud’s interpretation of the Mishnah, which to many seemed to deviate from the plain, original sense of the Mishnaic text. In this context, a fascinating discussion was devoted to a number of Mishnayot that, according to the Talmud, employed hyperbolic language (leshon guzma). All of these Mishnayot involved various aspects of Second Temple ritual and, according to the Amoraim, all used the number 300 in a rather arbitrary way. In the nineteenth-century debate surrounding these mishnayot, some interpreted them literally, without ascribing a tendency to hyperbole to the Tannaim. Others, determined to defend the traditional interpretation of the Mishnah at any cost, rejected these attempts. As in many other cases, nineteenth-century scholarship involved not only critical concerns, but ideological considerations as well.

8. On the Meaning of šgl
Aron Pinker

The etymology of šgl is obscure. Šgl is a verb and noun that occurs a number of times in the Hebrew Bible and has diametrically opposing meanings. A strong late tradition exists for understanding the verb šgl as an obscene term for copulation. Our analysis of biblical and Talmudic sources suggests that the obscenity of šgl (verb and noun) stems from its relation to the anus. Specifically, the verb šgl is “to sodomize a woman” and the noun šgl is “a woman that copulates anally, as a bitch.” In some cases in the Hebrew Bible that deal with foreign royalty, a borrowed Akkadian term šgl is used in the sense of “queen, lady.” The Hebrew šgl and the Akkadian term appear to be unrelated.

9. The Last Oral Torah? The Division of the Torah into 'Aliyot
Ephraim Stulberg

The origins of the present-day system by which the weekly Torah reading is divided into seven rigorously delineated aliyot are shrouded in mystery. While recent scholarship has emphasized that standardization of this practice is a relatively recent development, rabbinic literature contains no programmatic statements describing the principles upon which the modern division was founded. This article attempts to define a set of fundamental principles that appear to have guided the formulation of the aliyah divisions currently employed in synagogues throughout the world. It argues that aliyah breaks in both narrative and legal sections were determined to a surprisingly large extent by midrashic considerations, conjoining seemingly unrelated texts in order to convey connections between them that would otherwise go unnoticed. More significantly, perhaps, the aliyah divisions were also manipulated so as to heighten audience interest in the reading, either by creating an atmosphere of suspense or by consistently selecting expressions of blessing with which to conclude aliyot. This final point raises important implications for a reappraisal of audience response to the Torah reading and its importance in the lives of its listeners.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Update on proposed Western Wall museum

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: The proposed Western Wall Museum is being considered by Jerusalem's district planning council.
Western Wall museum plans threaten Roman relics, archaeologists warn
Jerusalem planning council to rule on controversial project that opponents claim would destroy valuable ancient structures beneath the Old City.

By Nir Hasson (Haaretz)

Jerusalem's district planning council was on Sunday set to rule on a controversial museum project that archaeologists claim would destroy valuable ancient structures beneath the Old City.

But a group of archaeologists who have petitioned the council says the new building, designed by architect Ada Karmi, would damage an ancient Roman road, flanked by rare and elaborate columns, that runs beneath the planned construction.

They say that if Jewish relics were under threat, the project would never have been allowed.

As of last October, the IAA was defending the project.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Robert McL Wilson, R.I.P.

ROBERT MCLACHLAN WILSON, requiescat in pace. I am very sorry to inform you that St Andrews Professor Emeritus Robert ("Robin") McL Wilson, renowned scholar of the New Testament, New Testament Apocrypha, and Gnosticism, passed away yesterday as the result of a massive stroke he suffered last week. He was ninety-four years old.

At the time of his 90th birthday celebration in February of 2006 I discussed Professor Wilson's career in detail, so I will not repeat that here. Suffice to say that he was a scholar of the highest international standing who continued his research long after retirement, publishing what turned out to be his last book just in time for it to be celebrated alongside his 90th birthday.

Robin Wilson was a PaleoJudaica reader, and a couple of times he e-mailed me in response to a post. I was fortunate enough to see and chat with him a few times in 2010. During one of our recent conversations he reminded me that just after his birthday celebration he received an e-mail from a friend in New York who knew all about it from reading the PaleoJudaica account of it linked-to above.

The last time I saw him was at the beginning of June end of May, when I visited a service at St Leonard's Parish Church in St Andrews, where Robin was a regular attender. It happened that the Old Testament scripture reading that morning was Proverbs chapter 8:1-4, 22-31, the chapter that tells how Lady Wisdom was present with God at the creation of the world. I commented to Robin that the chapter was a fine foundational text for the Gnostic Sophia mythology and he agreed. I quote it here (RSV) in his honor.
[1] Does not wisdom call,
does not understanding raise her voice?
[2] On the heights beside the way,
in the paths she takes her stand;
[3] beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
[4] "To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the sons of men.
[22] The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
[23] Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
[24] When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
[25] Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
[26] before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
[27] When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
[28] when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
[29] when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
[30] then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
[31] rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men.
UPDATE (5 June): I found the order of service and have accordingly corrected the date above and the details of the scripture reading.

Computer apps and ancient Judaism (etc.)

Computer apps are bringing religion into the 21st century
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


For the uninitiated, apps are programs that users download free or for a fee to their iPhones, Androids, BlackBerry phones and other hand-held devices.

Apple dominates the industry with more than 225,000 apps at its online App Store, followed by the Google-based Android Marketplace with more than 30,000, though other smaller competitors abound.

“I tell people I’m compensating for my 17th-century looks,” said Rabbi Benzion Twerski of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Jehudah on Milwaukee’s north side, who sports both an iPhone and iPad.

Twerski has apps that let him read the Torah, the Talmud and the Siddur, the book of daily prayers; recite the appropriate blessings for meals; and vet the thousands of ingredients in his work inspecting kosher food factories.

Donald Rappe, an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, uses apps to help him translate ancient biblical texts, bone up on his Hebrew and pull down scholarly lectures by colleagues in his field.

And Muslim physician Mushir Hassan has one of the Qur’an and another that tells him when it’s time to pray, wherever he is in the world.

On my iPod Touch I have the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the Greek New Testament, the Latin Vulgate, the Arabic Qur'an, the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, the Lewis and Short Latin Lexicon, a Qur'anic Arabic vocabulary drill, and English translations of the complete works of Philo and Josephus and the Vulgate. Some of the editions are old, but all are still useful on the run.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brothel infanticide in Buckinghamshire?

INFANTICIDE by prostitutes in a late-antique brothel in Buckinghamshire?

Nearly a hundred infant burials were excavated there a century ago, but are only now being properly analyzed. The somewhat similar find of about the same number of infant corpses from about the same period in a sewer at Ashkelon, Israel, has been ascribed to prostitute infanticide, although this explanation is not without difficulties. David Meadows discusses the problems with this theory for the Buckinghamshire find.