Wednesday, December 31, 2003

THE RETURN OF THE MUMMY: Antiquities looters beware!


(Via Francis Deblauwe's 2003 Iraq War and Archaeology Website.)
THE OCCUPANTS OF THE TOMB where the Jerusalem Shroud was found have been subjected to DNA analysis. The Jerusalem Post reports:

The underground area contained pieces of bone dated by carbon-14 to 2,000 years ago. The team found a "non-descript black mass" of wool fabric. The fabric, proven by radioactive dating techniques to be an authentic burial shroud from two millennia ago, contained "well-groomed hair."

The microscopy techniques revealed the nature of the fabrics and weaving techniques. [Charles] Greenblatt [professor emeritus of parasitology at the Hebrew University medical school] said that though the "Shroud of Turin" - which allegedly showed the shadow of the body of Jesus after his crucifixion" - was proven a fraud, the Jerusalem remains are authentic.

But the most interesting results were of the bones from the closed niche. These bones had not been gathered up for a secondary burial in an ossuary, which had been the practice of that time. DNA testing showed the handful of individuals were genetically related. "Two were perhaps a mother and son or brother and sister, and there were three other siblings, plus two related individuals in a closed stone casket," said Greenblatt, who added that an archeologist with the Antiquities Authority lent the team some fragments for DNA analysis.

The man found in the closed niche was clearly upper class, asserted Greenblatt, and may have been a kohen. He suffered from leprosy, which can weaken the immune system and thereby lead to tuberculosis, which was the actual cause of his death. The niche was probably sealed because the family that buried him feared getting infected with leprosy.

Read the whole article.

UPDATE: There are more details in the Ha'aretz article "2,000-year-old leper found in Jerusalem." Excerpt:

"Up until now, the oldest archaeological findings of leprosy were from the Byzantine period, in the fifth century C.E.," says [archaeologist Shimon] Gibson. "This is the oldest archaeological finding of leprosy in the Middle East. Leprosy is mentioned in the Bible, but until now, we could not be sure whether these biblical references are to the disease we know as leprosy, or to something

And the headlines just get more lurid. Ireland On-Line says: "Ancient leper remains found in valley named Hell."
FURTHER TO MY POST on sermons from preachers employed by the Palestinian Authority, Seth Sanders e-mails:

"Oh beloved of Allah, who are the Jews? Regarding their belief about Allah: The Jews have said that the hand of Allah is fettered in chains; [but] it is their hand that is fettered in chains, and they are cursed for their words? According to the Jews' belief, as it is written in some of their holy books, such as the Talmud, Allah divides his time into three parts. One third of the time he weeps. Why? Because his [chosen] people are dispersed in all directions. Another third he spends playing with the whales, and the final third he spends doing nothing in particular. This is their perverted belief about Allah..."

I am not sure if Mr. Ibrahim Madhi (or is that Mahdi, "messiah"?) has seen the Talmud for himself, but the Jewish� themes� he spitefully reinterprets are indeed there. In fact the image of divine bondage is of such stunning boldness and pathos that it would be hard for an ill-disposed reader *not* to garble it this way. First of all, the line about God's hand being in chains is from the Qur'an, Sura 5.64. That Muhammad did correctly attribute this to the Jews is clear from Michael Fishbane's learned and inspiring new Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking:

Commenting on the statement in the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana (17.5, i 286f in the Mandelbaum ed.) that God's own fearsome and potent right hand, with which he redeemed Israel, has gone into bondage and exile and will only be redeemed when the Jewish people are, Fishbane says that this image "recurs in midrashic literature as a sign that God was involved in the sufferings of Israel, and would not forget or abandon Zion. By means of an even more dramatic link to Ps 137:5 (read as a divine oath) God is said to have put His arm behind Him in remembrance of the Levites' act of cutting off their fingertips when their hands were bound, so that they would remember Jerusalem and not rejoice in psalmody while in exile. Obviously, such passages were intended as positive expressions of divine compassion. But others were less impressed. Struck by the bold anthropomorphic detail...some were scandalized and noted such texts negatively. One such author was the Karaite Al Qirqidani...who adduces the synagogue poet R. Eleazar Kallir's reference to God's arm being bound, as well as an ' the Jews' to the same effect. The latter is undoubtedly a citation from the Koran...which states that 'The Jews say: Allah's hand is chained up.' Such a reference was not intended as a compliment."
(p. 149).

The material about the weeping and playing with Leviathan is also there, though I have not found the locus.

Seth is quite right and I should have made clear in my brief comment that Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi (the name appears spelled thusly repeatedly in the MEMRI report) is alluding to some actual Jewish themes but is twisting them for his own purposes. I too have read somewhere about God weeping, and the playful Leviathan appears first in Psalm 104:26 and I think it is picked up in rabbinic passages. I'm not sure where the idea of God's spending his time "doing nothing in particular" comes from; perhaps it's a deduction from the tradition of his right hand being tied behind his back.

Nevertheless, I still doubt that the Sheikh's comments reflect long and thoughtful study of the Talmud or Jewish literature. And, more to the point, this particular formulation isn't exactly helpful in a sermon paid for by the PA and combined with Holocaust revisionism and a call for a new caliphate centered in Jerusalem.

Seth's review of the book by Fishbane is linked to and excerpted here.

UPDATE (1 January): Rebecca Lesses has more information on these early Jewish traditions and the Karaite and Muslim polemic against them in her blog Mystical Politics.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

ON THE MACCABEES: I just ran across an interesting discussion of them by Jonathan Edelstein (the "Head Heeb") in which he develops a post from last year on why he might not have supported them if he had lived in their time. He concludes, "I am glad the Maccabees were there when they were needed, but if I could change the past, I would prefer to make them unnecessary." Judging the ancients by our standards is always a tricky proposition, but it makes for an intriguing thought experiment. There's lots of discussion in the comments and the various links as well.
ON THE KADDISH PRAYER: Beliefnet excerpts Ari L. Goldman's Living a Year of Kaddish. Excerpt of the excerpt:

Kaddish, an Aramaic poem that praises God, is one of the oldest parts of the synagogue liturgy. It is also one of the most powerful and most enduring. Dating back to the first century, it was probably recited in the very first synagogues established after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 c.e. The central lines of kaddish are mentioned in the Talmud, which was written and edited in the third to the sixth centuries. The early rabbinic sources show kaddish associated with the study of sacred texts--it was said at the conclusion of Torah study-but by the Middle Ages, it became linked with mourning. At a certain point in the synagogue service, the head of the congregation would go outside where the mourners sat and say kaddish for them. Later, it was mourners who led the prayer. In his book "When a Jew Dies," Samuel C. Heilman writes that saying kaddish publicly "turns this prayer from a sterile mourner's monologue into a dialogue of praise of life." Rabbi Maurice Lamm, the author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," calls kaddish "a self-contained, miniature service that achieves the heights of holiness."

You can read a translation of the Mourner's Kaddish, with commentary, by following the link.

Monday, December 29, 2003

THE ORION CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS will be holding one of its annual symposia next month:

Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity (January 11�13, 2004)

The schedule and abstracts of many of the papers are already posted on the web page.
MORE JEWISH-TEMPLE DENIAL (and other weird things) from the Palestinian Authority:

MEMRI has just published a report on sermons delivered in 2000-2003 by preachers who are paid employees of the Palestinian Authority. There's not a dull paragraph in it, but I'll limit my comments to a a couple of passages. The first was delivered on August 15, 2003, by Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris in the Sheikh 'Ijlin Mosque in Gaza. The sermon is on the attempt by an Australian Christian fundamentalist to burn down the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1969. The bold-font emphasis is mine.

They are planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is subject to acts of destruction, planned and organized in advance. Oh Muslims, Al-Aqsa is in real danger. Tunnels have been dug underneath Al-Aqsa on the pretext of uncovering the false Temple of Solomon. Oh Muslims, Al-Aqsa is subject to planned and organized acts of destruction. It is the people of Jerusalem and Palestine who protect the existence of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and we are not exaggerating. We bless you, we bless everyone whose blood flows upon this good and pure land. If a prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque is worth 1,000 prayers at another mosque, then know that a Shahid [who falls] on this land is considered more than one Shahid someplace else. Yes, there are traditions that a Shahid here [in Jerusalem] is worth 70 Shahids in a place other than this good land� Every wounded person on this land is comparable to hundreds of wounded [elsewhere]�

"The false Temple of Solomon." Once again, just a few months ago, a religious leader paid by the Palestinian Authority has repeated to his hearers the lie that the Temple of Solomon never existed. How can the PA expect to be taken seriously in its negotiations when it supports outrageous falsehoods like this?

Incidentally, the word shahid is explained earlier in the report.

Here's a passage from a sermon delivered on September 21, 2001, by Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi in the same mosque. Again, the bold-font emphasis is mine.

"Oh beloved of Allah, who are the Jews? Regarding their belief about Allah: The Jews have said that the hand of Allah is fettered in chains; [but] it is their hand that is fettered in chains, and they are cursed for their words� According to the Jews' belief, as it is written in some of their holy books, such as the Talmud, Allah divides his time into three parts. One third of the time he weeps. Why? Because his [chosen] people are dispersed in all directions. Another third he spends playing with the whales, and the final third he spends doing nothing in particular. This is their perverted belief about Allah�

"Oh beloved of Allah� One of the Jews' evil deeds is what has come to be called 'the Holocaust,' that is, the slaughter of the Jews by Nazism. However, revisionist [historians] have proven that this crime, carried out against some of the Jews, was planned by the Jews' leaders, and was part of their policy� These are the Jews against whom we fight, oh beloved of Allah.

"On the other hand, [what is our belief] about the Jews? Allah has described them as donkeys who must carry the books of the Torah - but they have not carried them. Our belief, which is true, about the Jews is that Allah is angry at them. They are cursed with the curse of Allah in this world and in the hereafter. Therefore, we say to them out of friendship: 'Oh Jews, come to your senses, return to the true faith; you must convert to Islam�'

"Our belief is that this war, between us and the Jews, will continue to escalate until we vanquish the Jews and enter Jerusalem as conquerors, [and] enter Jaffa as conquerors. We are not merely expecting a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; we are heralding [the creation of] an Islamic caliphate with Jerusalem as its capital�

Somehow I have the impression that Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi hasn't done much reading of the actual Talmud. Note also the Holocaust revisionism.

The MEMRI report is long but it has lots more interesting material. If you're in a hurry, skim through it using the search term "Jews." That will give you the general idea.

By the way, I have seen criticisms of MEMRI for their selectiveness of content, and ad hominem criticisms of its staff, but everyone seems to agree that they translate their sources accurately. See, for example, Brian Whitaker's 2002 Guardian article "Selective Memri" and Yigal Carmon's response "Media organisation rebuts accusations of selective journalism," also published in the Guardian. See also the retraction and apology of a Counterpunch writer who accused MEMRI of mistranslating their sources. I really don't see how putting the above quotes into a larger context could change their import.

As I've said before, I am not advocating a particular solution to the Israel-Palestine dilemma. That would be another discussion. Rather, I am pointing out that the PA needs to deal with history honestly if it wants to be taken seriously.

UPDATE: More here.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

MORE ON THE SAMARITANS and their problems with intermarriage in the Guardian/Observer:

Israeli star saw dark side of the Good Samaritan

Conal Urquart in Jerusalem reports that women are ostracised for daring to marry outside one of the Holy Land's tiniest and most ancient communities

Sunday December 28, 2003
The Observer

The Samaritans won renown for kindness in the time of Jesus. But today they are ruthless in defence of the purity of their tribe, prepared even to shun their own daughters to preserve their lineage, a fate that has befallen one of Israel's most celebrated actresses.

The ancient sect, which was celebrated in the Christian world through the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's gospel, now numbers only 600, divided between two communities - one near Tel Aviv in Israel and the other near Nablus in the West Bank. Women are banned from marrying outsiders; those who disobey are ostracised and rejected by the close-knit community. That is what has happened to Sophie Sedaka, who was brought up as a Samaritan but is now an outcast.

Sedaka, 28, is one of Israel's most popular soap opera stars and children's TV presenters. Despite her prominence, few in Israel know the story of how she came to be shunned by her own community. Twenty years ago, when she was only eight, her sister ran away to marry an Israeli Jew. From then on, she says, she was treated by the community as 'infected' by her sister's crime. It was the beginning of her estrangement from the Samaritans.


The Samaritans are essentially a Jewish sect, although Jews have tended to regard them as lower than the Gentiles. Their language is ancient Hebrew and their religion is akin to Judaism, although it does not contain modifications that Jews added over the past 3,000 years, such as the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. The main difference is that the Samaritans never left the holy lands and they believe Abraham bound his son, Isaac, in preparation for his sacrifice on Mount Gezirim, not on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.

This paragraph needs some correction and tuning. The main differences are that the Samaritans regard themselves as members of the lost ten tribes, so they are Israelites but not Jews, and they believe the site God chose for the temple (and they used to have a temple there) is Mount Gerizim near Nablus rather than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem).

Despite their similarities, even in the time of Jesus the Samaritans were shunned by the Jews and the two communities were often at war. Now the Samaritans find themselves in the middle of the modern-day war in the holy land. They remain strictly neutral and carry both Palestinian and Israeli identity cards.

Men can marry outside the community because for the last 200 years there have been more sons born to the community than daughters; the ratio currently stands at about five men for every three women.

The Samaritans allow their women to mix freely with the Palestinian community in Nablus and the Jewish community in Israel. Because of the doctrinal differences between Samaritans and Jews, Samaritans are educated in secular Israeli schools.


UPDATE: Earlier this month I blogged a somewhat different version of this article by the same author, and with the same irritating misspelling "Gezirim," from Newsday.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

UPDATE ON THE OXYRHYNCHUS PAPYRI that Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York auctioned off in June:
Opening a letter from antiquity (the Daily Telegraph, Australia, via Archaeologica News)


December 27, 2003

IT looks like a nondescript dump but it's actually an historical treasure trove which may help scholars unravel the origins of Christianity.

Now Australia can lay claim to a piece of that history, with Macquarie University's recent purchase of three manuscripts from the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus.


In 1895, the dump was excavated by two British scholars. All of what they found they sent back to Oxford.

The rest remained in Egypt, except for 29 fragments, which were given to the Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York.

Recently the school ran into debt, said Dr Don Barker of Macquarie University.

They decided to auction off their Oxyrhynchus papyri � to the fury of local scholars, who feared the papers would vanish forever into private collections.

They appear to have been right. Of 10 lots sold at Sotheby's in June, the world knows only where one of them went � the Macquarie.

Macquarie paid a bit more than $35,000 for its three papyri.



John Mullan reviews David Sacks, The Alphabet, for the Guardian. Excerpts:

His book sets out to show how our so-called Roman alphabet (though the Romans had no J, V or W) evolved from others. It is not the first such history of the alphabet for the general reader, but it is an especially engaging one. Sacks's clever, simple idea is to follow the individual letters, one by one. He takes us back in time to find how each came to us and how it gained its special properties. In the process, the eccentricities of English spelling and pronunciation become intelligible, even weirdly ingenious.

It is extraordinary how far and how clearly we can see back to the origins of our letters. English took its alphabet from Latin (as did many a language that the Romans never heard spoken, from Polish to Zulu to Indonesian). Latin itself was written with letters copied from the utterly dissimilar Etruscan language, a tongue still largely unintelligible to us. A few centuries before this happened, the Etruscans had appropriated the Greek alphabet, even though, again, the languages had little in common. And the Greeks had taken their letters, with minor adaptations, from the Phoenicians, though the two peoples' languages were "as different as Arabic and English".

Shared alphabetical signs do not imply that languages are closely related. When languages have passed from illiteracy to literacy, they have simply needed to find letters, and have taken them from some nearby source or impressively clever group of foreigners. Sets of letters are always purloined from somewhere else. At each stage, as an older alphabet is fitted to a newer tongue, there are changes. New sounds are affixed to old letters.


The Phoenician system is the ancestor of most of the world's alphabets: not just our own, but others such as Hebrew, Arabic and the Devanagari and Bengali scripts of India. Perhaps 19 of our letters have Phoenician counterparts. The shapes of some of these are extraordinarily intact. So the 12th letter in the Phoenician alphabet stood for an "l" sound. Called lamed (pronounced "lah-med") it meant "ox goad" and imitated the shape of a stick with a crook handle for poking livestock. There, in the very same place in our alphabet, is L, the same ox-herder's stick. There is something as miraculous in these forms as in the most beautiful relics of ancient civilisation.

The American edition of the book has a different title: Language Visible : Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z.
BIBICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW now has its January/February 2004 issue online. However, their new system is to give you the first couple of paragraphs of each article and to require you either to subscribe or to buy the individual article. No more freebies! Oh well.

Friday, December 26, 2003

WHICH ANCIENT HISTORIAN ARE YOU? (Via Rogue Classicism). It's a pretty lame quiz, but here is my result:

You're Herodotus! Father of history, father of
lies, and the first author of historical
fiction. Born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor
in the early Fifth Century BCE, you wrote about
the Persian Wars -- why Persia and Greece came
into conflict in the first place, and why the
Greeks won. You also wrote about anything else
that piqued your interest and are famous for
collecting odd stories ... some of which were
pooh-poohed for years but have since been shown
to be more accurate than your detractors
claimed. You're not half as bad a historian as
you're made out to be. Your most famous
stylistic quirk is the "legomena," or
"They say...."

Which doesn't mean I believe everything they say!

Also (see the linked Rogue Classicism post), it turns out that I am just Not Postmodern. Surprise, surprise. And I'm Athena.
SOME ARTIFACTS from the second temple period have been found outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem (Jerusalem Post via Archaeologica News.) Excerpt:

They include the remains of a mikva, various bronze and metallic utensils and coins, candles, and a stone oil-storage vessel decorated with shofarot.
REMINDER: If you're a specialist in second temple Judaism or something reasonably close and you watched the History Channel's Banned from the Bible program yesterday (listed at 9:00-11:00 pm Eastern), please drop me a note and let me know what you thought.

UPDATE: Jim West e-mails:

i did watch the special, banned from the bible. it was fairly well
done. some of their historical reconstructions were a bit off, for
instance, the narrator mentioned that Constantine saw Jesus himself and the
voice said "in me you shall conquer"- which is wrong. He saw a cross and
heard a voice say "in this sign you will conquer"- so someone doing the
advising missed the boat on that one.

as far as the pseudepigraphal materials discussed- it was pretty good. all
in all, with the typical minor disagreements we all must surely have
whenever we see a film about our field, it was very good.

Here's the relevant passage from Eusebius' Life of Constantine chap. 28, which says that Constantine and his whole army saw the sign. I vaguely remember that there's another account in which Constantine alone saw it in a dream, but I may be wrong.

ACCORDINGLY he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after-time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
FURTHER TO MY HANUKKAH POST: Menachem Brody e-mails to point out that the story about the oil lamp and the eight days appears first in the Megillat Ta'anit ("Scroll of Fasting"), which is considerably earlier than the Babylonian Talmud (perhaps as early as the first century C.E.). You can read the relevant passage in Hebrew by following the link.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

GEZA VERMES'S NEW BOOK is reviewed by Damian Thompson in the Telegraph.
JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN reflects in Beliefnet on Matthew's birth story in its ancient literary context.
CHRISTMAS is a festival celebrating the traditional birth date of a first-century, Aramaic-speaking, Galilean charismatic preacher named Yeshua, who-

What's that? You say you already knew that? Oh. Sorry.

Merry Christmas to my Christian readers as well as to others who just like to celebrate it as a Winter Festival. Have a healthy feast.

The original Christmas stories can be found in Matthew chapter two and Luke chapter two. There is also a number of apocryphal Infancy Gospels.

And if you're not into Christmas but you still want to party, there's always the Feast of Sol Invictus. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 24, 2003




December 23, 2003 -- FOR a few minutes on Christmas, children may set down their new toys from the man in the red suit and listen to transmissions from a machine on the red planet. On Thursday, the European Space Agency is scheduled to guide a British probe called the Beagle II onto the surface of Mars in what should become the first successful landing there since NASA's Mars Pathfinder in 1997.

But while Mars grabs all the extraterrestrial attention this holiday ("The Beagle has landed!"), normally Christmas is the season of Jupiter, because there's a very good chance that the biggest planet in our solar system was the Star of Bethlehem.

That's the theory of Michael Molnar, a former Rutgers University astronomer who proposed this surprising idea several years ago. Ever since, he's been gaining converts - including many people of faith who don't often look to science for confirmation of their religious beliefs.

Oddly enough, the story begins with an ancient bronze coin about the size of a quarter. When Molnar isn't gazing through a telescope, he collects old coins. In 1990, he bought one minted in Antioch for $50. It featured an image of Aries the ram and a star.

Molnar did some research and learned that Aries was a symbol of Judea. What's more, the planet Jupiter often signaled the birth of kings. Working on a computer, Molnar discovered that on the morning of April 17, 6 B.C., Jupiter rose in the east, in the sign of Aries. Joining it there were the sun, the moon and Saturn - each one a meaningful portent.

If that sounds like a bunch of astrological gobbledygook, then you're thinking too much like someone in the 21st century. Today, there's a big difference between astronomers who work at universities and astrologers who dispense dating advice. Two thousand years ago, there was no distinction. Early scientists studied the movements of the stars and planets because they wanted to divine hidden meanings in the night sky.


I'm skeptical. The meanings of astrological events and phenomena are notoriously mutifacted and inconsistent. Aries, Jupiter, etc. meant a lot of different things and once one finds an interesting astronomical confluence like this one in 6 B.C.E. it wouldn't be too hard also to find pretty much whatever meaning one is looking for. Astrology works, insofar as it does, because it is flexible enough to make some sense out of any situation it is applied to. You can read more about the theory at Dr. Molnar's web page. He is a reputable astronomer but he doesn't seem to have any training in ancient history or numismatics, which makes me nervous. There have been a great many theories that have tried to find a historical/astronomical basis for the star of Bethlehem and none of them have convinced many people. The web page quotes a bunch of reviews, but it's not clear that anyone quoted is an expert on ancient Palestine in the first century. Has anyone seen any reviews in serious journals in the fields of biblical studies and ancient Judaism? It would be great fun if he actually made a convincing case but, I repeat, I'm skeptical.
DAVID MEADOWS posts an image of a remarkable ancient artifact.

Where the language of Christ lives
Aramaic suffers slow demise despite best efforts to save it. Syrian village still speaks in ancient tongue, but prevalent use of Arabic threatens survival

The [Montreal] Gazette

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

"Apeal lehma," Ziad Said said to his father as they walked up an alley in this small village found in the rugged Qalamoun mountains of central Syria.

What the 5-year-old wanted was a piece of the hot, rounded loaf of bread his father, Hanna Said, had just bought. He was asking for the bread in Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ spoke 2,000 years ago.


It's as if history had stopped in the early Christian era in Maaloula and the nearby villages of Jabadin and Bakha, where a combined population of about 5,000 still speaks Aramaic.

Because of their isolation, the villages preserve the language that was once the vernacular throughout the Holy Land.

But that is changing.

The language, passed orally from generation to generation, appears to be suffering a slow demise despite efforts to save it.


n recent years, people in Maaloula started to realize the importance of the language and preserving it.

The efforts so far have not had encouraging results. Two professors from the Damascus University history department have offered free summer courses, but only a dozen students have taken the class.


Almost all villagers are proud of the efforts of Arnold Werner, a Heidelberg University professor who transliterated Aramaic into the Roman alphabet in an effort to revive it.

"Werner lived with us here and he used to ask us about every single word," Sanjar said. "We wish there were others like him.

"We have a treasure here, but we do not know how to preserve it."
LINKS UPDATE: I've just overhauled PaleoJudaica's links page, adding nearly 60 new links (with a total now of more than 240), including two entirely new categories: books and theses/dissertations online, and my own articles, conference papers, and book reviews online. (Note that the last does not include most of the many lectures I've posted for my online courses, which you can find at my Divine Mediator Figures, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls websites). Have a look and please let me know if you find any errors or bad links.

The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: Electronic Version
Reviewed by Ehud Ben Zvi

Davies, Philip R. and John M. Halligan, eds.
Second Temple Studies III: Studies in Politics, Class and Material Culture
Reviewed by Charles E. Carter

Sokoloff, Michael
A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic: Second Edition
Reviewed by Siam Bhayro

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

��MEL GIBSON'S�������� THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST now has a distributor in Canada: Equinoxe Films. It is to be released in Canada on Ash Wednesday, as in the U.S.A.

Monday, December 22, 2003

MORE ON THE "JAMES OSSUARY" INSCRIPTION: Stephen C. Carlson analyses the latest challenge to the IAA's report, which challenge he thinks does not significantly weaken the case for it being a forgery. Excerpt (but read it all):

Harrell's proposal suggests that there might be an innocent explanation for the modern, gray coating, but this assumes that the modern cleaning was innocent in the first place. So what was the intent behind the modern cleaning of the inscription? As I discussed in my note on scribal intent, there is a presumption (at least in law) that people intend the reasonably foreseeable effects of their actions. The owner of the ossuary had been an avid collector of antiquities for nearly 40 years. Such a collector would reasonably foresee that the effect of cleaning an ancient inscription is to remove the main evidence that could authenticate it, thereby reducing its value. For the modern cleaning to be innocent, it would also have to be irrational. Blaming one's mother for cleaning just pushes the analysis back one more level but does not change the result: what reasonable collector permits his mother to ruin his collection? On the other hand, a placing the gray coating over a modern inscription is a rational way to hide evidence of modern tool use, and modern tool marks were observed under the gray coating.
TEL DOR is looking for volunteers for the summer 2004 excavation season. I dug at Dor in 1984 and 1985 and have many good memories from my time there. (Via Bible and Interpretation News.)
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS is now providing the full text of some of its books online on its Oxford Scholarship Online page (as noted last week by Mark Goodacre). Books pertaining more or less to ancient Judaism include:

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Mandaeans - Ancient Texts and Modern People
Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature
J. K. Elliott. The Apocryphal New Testament - A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation
Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel
Christine E. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities - Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud
Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth - Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE - 400 CE
Deborah W. Rooke, Zadok's Heirs - The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel
Marie Noonan Sabin, Reading Mark as Theology in the Context of Early Judaism
Sacha Stern, Calendar and Community - A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE
John L. Thompson, Writing the Wrongs - Women of the Old Testament among Biblical Commentators from Philo through the Reformation
John Van Seters, A Law Book for the Diaspora - Revision in the Study of the Covenant Code
H. G. M. Williamson, The Book Called Isaiah - Deutero-Isaiah's Role in Composition and Redaction
Lawrence M. Wills, Ancient Jewish Novels - An Anthology

Great idea, OUP, and thanks! Would you consider adding Charles's The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English and Sparks's The Apocryphal Old Testament?

Thieves steal part of ancient fresco from Masada (Ha'aretz)

By Reuters

Souvenir-hunting thieves have stolen part of an ancient fresco from the archaeological site of Masada, Israeli officials said on Sunday.

The thieves removed a 15 cm (6 inch) square section of a fresco that decorated the ancient Roman headquarters at Masada, located on a barren mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, the National Parks Authority said in a statement.


The fresco had recently been the object of a further costly restoration, but the thieves - who the National Parks Authority said were probably souvenir hunters rather than professionals - may have chosen the wrong target.

Local legend has it that "those who took even a stone from Masada lived to regret it."

Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

BANNED FROM THE BIBLE: On Christmas day the History Channel will be showing a program on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and New Testament Apocrypha (although the Yahoo News press release doesn't use those terms). I would be interested in getting reviews from any specialists who see it. Excerpts from the press release:

NEW YORK, Dec. 19 /PRNewswire/ -- When Jesus was a boy, did he kill another child? Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute -- or an apostle? Did Cain commit incest? Will there be an apocalypse or is this God's trick to scare us? The answers to these questions aren't found in the Bible as we know it, but they exist in scriptures banned when powerful leaders deemed them unacceptable for reasons both political and religious. BANNED FROM THE BIBLE reveals some of these alternative tales and examines why they were "too hot for Christianity." The two-hour world premiere BANNED FROM THE BIBLE airs on Christmas, Thursday, December 25 at 9 pm ET/PT.

The Life of Adam and Eve, The Book of Enoch, The Book of Jubilees, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Apocalypse of Peter...these are just a few of the books that were left out of the Bible. The reasons why they were excluded provide astonishing insight into the concerns of church leaders and scholars responsible for spreading the faith an illuminating look at early Christian and religious history.

One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Jesus, a man named Marcion decided that a Christian Bible was needed to replace the Hebrew Bible. Church leaders opposed Marcion's banning of the Hebrew books, but they did agree that Christians should have a Bible to call their own. After Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in the 4th century, a serious effort was made to compile a Christian Bible, one that included both the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) and Christian manuscripts (the New Testament). It took another 40 years before a final list of New Testament books was officially canonized by the church. Many of the most popular were excluded. Upon examination today, many of these writings attempt to resolve inconsistencies and questions raised from reading the Bible.


BANNED FROM THE BIBLE features commentary from Bible experts and historians including Marvin Meyer, PhD, Professor of Bible and Christian Studies, Chapman University; Daniel Smith-Christopher, Ph.D, Professor of Religious Studies, Bluffton College; Anthea Butler, Ph.D, Department of Theological Studies Loyola Marymount University; and John Dominic Crossan, Ph.D, Professor Emeritus, DePaul University.
THERE'S MORE ON THE DISPUTE over the geology and potential authenticity of the "James Ossuary" inscription in the Jerusalem Post. It seems to be a longer version of the same A.P. article I cited the other day.
I'VE BEEN MEANING TO NOTE the the widely-reported reaction of the Anti-Defamation League to the Pope's response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ:

Abraham H. Foxman, U.S. director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group would respect the pope's views

"The pope has a record and history of sensitivity to the Jewish community and has a clear moral voice and understanding when it comes to anti-Semitism," Foxman said.

"We hope that Mel Gibson has heard our concerns and those of Christian and Jewish scholars and religious leaders, who expressed unease about the earlier version... and its potential to fuel, rationalize and legitimize anti-Semitism," he said.

The Gospel according to whom?

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune

If you think the Christmas pageant with its bathrobe-clad shepherds and wise men, white-sheeted angels, demure Mary and dogs dressed up like sheep is a tad predictable, try adding plot and players from traditions that never made it into the Bible.

Then you can have Jesus' half-siblings, midwives, magic swaddling clothes that withstand fire, a cave with supernatural light, and even, as the family is fleeing into Egypt, dragons who adore the Christ child. You might see infant Jesus walking through the forest of Sinai, driving away serpents or spouting theology from the manger (hey, a speaking part for the baby).

These are details culled from so-called infancy narratives, stories about Jesus' birth and childhood that were circulating in the first few centuries after his death. Some were considered forgeries by Christian leaders who selected the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Others came many years after the second-century establishment of the Christian canon.

Brigham Young University professor John Gee describes these stories as a kind of entertainment, like an early Christian version of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" or "Little Drummer Boy," which add fictional characters to the traditional nativity. Or they were like ancient analogs to today's National Enquirer, which often fills in missing information with unsubstantiated details.

"We simply don't know why they were written," says Gee of BYU's Institute for the Preservation and Study of Ancient Religious Texts. "Were they someone's creative Christmas story meant to inspire their family or local congregation but which spun out of control? Or were the writers trying to be historical?"


It has descriptions of many of these Gospels and a list of them at the end. You can read them online in J. K. Elliott's The Apocryphal New Testament (OUP website).

Saturday, December 20, 2003

"ARCHAEOLOGISTS DECRY LACK OF TEMPLE MOUNT SUPERVISION" (Jerusalem Post via Bible and Interpretation News)


Bemoaning the "insufferable indifference" of the Antiquities Authority on the issue, Hebrew University professor of archeology Eilat Mazar charged that the authority had failed to function as the supervisory body it is mandated to be by law, noting that it has even failed to enforce its own rules barring the use of cement by Jordanian engineers to fix the bulge on the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

Mazar, a leading spokeswoman of the independent non-partisan Committee against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, said that her committee will shortly renew and intensify its public campaign to seek full archeological supervision at the site.

The office of Education Minister Limor Livnat, which oversees the Antiquities Authority, declined request for comment, referring queries on the matter to the Prime Minister's Office.

The Prime Minister's Office said Thursday in a generally worded statement that "the issue of archeology on the Temple Mount is carried out in joint cooperation with several bodies including the police and the Antiquities Authority, cooperation which was seen in [the resolution to] the bulge on the southern wall of the Temple Mount."

Wakf officials, who have opposed the reentry of non-Muslim visitors to the site to begin with, say they have their own inspectors on the compound.
ELIE WIESEL'S BOOK Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters is reviewed by Erin Leib in the New York Times. Excerpt:

Wiesel's storytelling is, of course, much more than an act of transmission. It is an act of love and of lesson-giving. ''Wise Men and Their Tales'' continues the series he began years ago of intimate snapshots from the ancient world of the Bible and the Hasidic world of the shtetl, this time adding Talmudic personalities, rabbis of the third to sixth centuries A.D. who expounded upon biblical law and lore. Just as, for Wiesel, biblical stories are not events of bygone times but paradigmatic tales of complex human beings navigating complex relationships, Talmudic masters are not disembodied rabbis debating obscurities but brilliant and flawed men struggling to make sense of God's will and God's world. And Hasidic life, in all of its glory and all of its difficulty, is his lost world, as present to him as the present.

The book begins with the exuberant proclamation ''I love Rashi,'' the medieval Jewish commentator. Thereafter, Wiesel is very eager -- indeed, a little too eager -- to tell us whom else he loves. He loves Gideon the prophet ''because he was not afraid to doubt certainties.'' He loves Rabbi Tarfon because he was humble; in fact, he loves ''all of the sages in the Talmud, even those who lose.'' He likes the Hasidic rabbis of Zanz and Sadigur a great deal, though they hated each other. And he really loves speaking Yiddish. His enthusiasm lies somewhere between engaging adoration and irritating obsequiousness.

And yet, ''Wise Men and Their Tales'' is not saccharine. It is a soft but also a demanding book, as Wiesel insists upon justice for both the characters traditional Jewish interpretation favors and those it maligns.
GEZA VERMES is interviewed today in the Independent. Excerpt (but read it all):

"My view of Jesus," he protests, picking his words slowly and with great care, "is that he was a totally eschatologically inspired person, very charismatic, who fitted very well into the world in which he lived." So Jesus did, in his opinion, most certainly exist - but not as most of us have come to know. He was not, Vermes believes, the son of God. And, of course, he adds almost casually, he didn't say many of the best-known phrases associated with him.

There is, as we talk, an odd counterpoint between this wholesale destruction of Christian tradition that Vermes is delivering from his armchair and the joyful, almost sing-song tone of his voice, which would be better suited to telling tales of reindeer in Lapland. With his chubby cheeks, copious beard and propensity to chuckle, Vermes could easily pass for one of Santa's elves. If the publishers' blurb hadn't told me he was 79, I would have guessed his age as early sixties. He has the same youthful exuberance and evident delight in talking about his subject that he also brings to the pages of his books.

Popularising religion and its history can be a thankless task. The theological establishment accuses you of selling out. Jews are suspicious of one of their number waving a flag for Jesus. And the zealots in the pews only want opinions that confirm all their prejudices. Vermes is, for all these interest groups, something of a maverick. He is the first to admit that his crusade to engage a wide audience, interested in but not wedded to organised religion, can be a lonely one. "Now is the season for books of the year and religion is never ever mentioned as a category," he laments.

His own longevity in the general marketplace rests partly on the phenomenal success of his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient documents which give a unique insight into the world in which Jesus lived. When Vermes's version came out in 1962, it broke a taboo because the rest of the academic world was carefully keeping to itself the Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s by shepherds in caves at Qumran. Vermes's trust in his readers' intelligence remains the key to his writings to this day.

His latest book is The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. It is available in the U.K., but Amazon U.S.A. doesn't list it yet.

UPDATE: The Guardian also reviews the book today.
WHEN WAS JESUS REALLY BORN? Bottom line: we just don't know.

Friday, December 19, 2003

HAPPY HANUKKAH to my Jewish readers! The holiday begins tonight at sundown. Its origins are described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees 4:52-59. This is the earliest account (late second century B.C.E.). I quote from the RSV:

52: Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year,
53: they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built.
54: At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals.
55: All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them.
56: So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.
57: They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors.
58: There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed.
59: Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.

There's a somewhat later (first century B.C.E.) account in 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 (again, RSV):

1: Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city;
2: and they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts.
3: They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence.
4: And when they had done this, they fell prostrate and besought the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.
5: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev.
6: And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.
7: Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.
8: They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

The story about the lamp that didn't run out of oil for eight days is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 2 (p. 34):

What is 'Hanukah? The rabbis taught: "On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev 'Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.

UPDATE: More here.
I HAVE ADDED a number of of updates to posts from 11 December on, so if you haven't been going back to recheck earlier posts, please do.
THE ECONOMIST reviews Margaret Barker's book The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy. The entry point is Mary the mother of Jesus in early Christian and Islamic tradition, but there's lots more and it's a hard article to excerpt. Here are a few selections:

Her latest book, �The Great High Priest�, is a collection of densely woven arguments about the continuity between Judaism and early Christian practices. It touches on at least two interlocking themes: the sex of divinity, and the locus of holiness.

From Judaism to Christianity

As she (and many others) have observed, much of the poetry dedicated to Mary comes from what is called the �wisdom tradition� of the Jewish religion. This takes the form of passages in which wisdom is perceived as a form of feminine divinity. One of the most explicit references to wisdom as a sort of female agency or power is in the Book of Proverbs: �Wisdom hath builded her house...She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine and furnished her table.� Mrs Barker believes that there are scores of other places in the Jewish scriptures where �wisdom language� is lurking just below the surface. Some of this language was transferred, in Christianity, to Christ or the Holy Spirit, but most of it was applied to Mary.

Mrs Barker believes the worship of a deity in feminine form was more explicit before the catastrophe of 586BC when the first Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed and the Jews went into exile in Babylon. As evidence, she cites a passage in the book of Jeremiah where Jewish exiles in Egypt are scolded for continuing to offer cakes, libations and incense to the �queen of heaven�.

They reply defiantly that everything had been going well in Jerusalem's Temple, and among the Jews generally, so long as the heavenly monarch was given her due. Only when that practice ceased had disaster befallen. Other scholars have noticed references in the Old Testament to �groves� and �high places� where forbidden religious rites were going on, and have assumed, perhaps reasonably, that these too were rites associated with a feminine deity.

To back her interpretation of this passage, Mrs Barker draws on a version of the Book of Enoch found among the Dead Sea Scrolls�manuscripts whose discovery 50 years ago transformed Christian and Jewish scholarship. This document asserts even more clearly that the cult of a female force called wisdom had been a feature of the first Temple, but was then abandoned, disastrously.

I think the reviewer has misunderstood her here. The passage about the departure of Wisdom from the earth to heaven is in 1 Enoch 42, from a book called the Parables of Enoch, which was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, although fragments of most of the rest of 1 Enoch (which is itself a collection of books) in the original Aramaic were found at Qumran. Chapter 42 reads (in the Charles translation):

1 Wisdom found no place where she might dwell;
Then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens.

2 Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men,
And found no dwelling-place:

Wisdom returned to her place,
And took her seat among the angels.

3 And unrighteousness went forth from her chambers:
Whom she sought not she found,
And dwelt with them,

As rain in a desert
And dew on a thirsty land.

Back to the review:

As an exercise in textual analysis, Mrs Barker's case is almost unanswerable, albeit not entirely original. The idea of wisdom as a female agency or person also existed among the Greeks, for whom Athene was the goddess of wisdom, just as Minerva was for the Romans. More recently, in the 1930s, the idea caused furious disputes in the White Russian diaspora in Paris, with bitter allegations of heresy being traded.


As many a religious historian has noted, there are two temple practices that foreshadow the Eucharist. One was the weekly ceremony in which 12 loaves of bread were brought into the temple, consecrated and then consumed by the high priests. The other was the annual rite that marks the high-point of the Jewish calendar: the Day of Atonement, the only time when the priest entered the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple.

Before doing so, the priest would select two almost identical goats. One would be slaughtered, and its blood was taken into the holy of holies before being sprinkled in various parts of the temple. The other was sent out into the desert, a �scapegoat� bearing the sins of the people.

As one standard translation puts it, the priest would sacrifice one goat for the Lord, the other to a demonic force called Azazel. But Mrs Barker, drawing in part on Christian sources, argues for a different reading of the Hebrew: one goat was sacrificed as, rather than for, Azazel, whereas the other was sacrificed asthe Lord. If she is right, then the paradoxical Christian teaching that God the Son, being crucified, is both �victim and priest� in an act of supreme sacrifice becomes easier to understand. And it is clear that the links between the Eucharist and the Atonement rite are closer than previously realised.


So how does that argument tie in with Mrs Barker's earlier observations about the worship of the feminine in early Jewish religion, and the transfer of this tradition�or at least its language and metaphors�to Mary? Very closely, she would argue.

First, the Christian (and Muslim) story of the young Mary going into the heart of the Temple indicates, in Mrs Barker's view, that sex is transcended in the divine reality that Jewish high priests entered when they made their annual procession into the holy of holies. There is thus, she argues, a sense in which the priest entering the holy of holies ceases to be male. Mrs Barker, a Methodist preacher herself, concludes that this journey to a �place beyond gender� can be made by a person of either sex, and there is no reason why women cannot be Christian priests. Conservatives may regard this as feminist claptrap but, whatever they believe about that thorny topic, many Christians may be sympathetic to the stress that Mrs Barker lays on the traditional story of Mary's early life among the temple priests, in a place of pure holiness where nobody except an elite caste of males had ever been.

Muslims, like eastern Christians, believe that Mary's mother was expecting a child who would perform unique services to God, and was therefore surprised when her baby turned out to be a girl. Christians and Muslims will never agree on the nature of Mary's child: was he God incarnate, who experienced death and rose again, or a uniquely inspired prophet who did not die but ascended to heaven? Yet Christians and Muslims alike can see in Mary an affirmation that there is no limit to the holiness, or proximity to God, that any human, whether male or female, can attain. Surely that is reason enough, for people of any faith, to feel reverence for history's foremost Jewish mother.

I haven't read the book yet (sorry Margaret) so I don't have many comments. The wisdom influence sounds plausible. The bit about the second goat being sacrificed as YHWH is certainly an original interpretation, but I'd have to see the whole argument to evaluate it.
BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW is publishing an article by an American geologist who disputes the Israeli conclusion that the inscription on the "James Ossuary" is a modern fake. This according to the Raleigh News and Observer; the January issue of BAR has not been posted to the BAR website as of this posting. Here's an excerpt from the Raleigh News and Observer article:

Israeli researchers said the main clue that the inscription was phony was that its letters had been cut through a soft gray residue that could not have built up naturally with age and thus was most likely a homemade paste smeared over the inscription to make it appear old.

James Harrell, a geologist at the University of Toledo and a member of the Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity, wrote in the publication that the Israeli investigation was flawed.

The inscription, he said, could be ancient and the traces of residue found within its letters might have been left by something used to clean the inscription, or someone might have smeared the film over the lettering to hide the cleaning.
THE JOURNAL RADIOCARBON has a recent article on the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Are the 14C Dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls Affected by Castor Oil Contamination?

Radiocarbon, 1 April 2002, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 213-216(4)

Carmi I.

The paper "The effects of possible contamination on the radiocarbon dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls I: castor oil" by Rasmussen et al. (2001) is discussed. Detailed analysis of the extant dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the pretreatment of the samples was adequate. Errors and omissions in the paper are discussed and the implications of the experiment of Rasmussen et al. (2001) are questioned.

Requires paid personal or institutional subscription to access.

(Heads up, Stephen Goranson and S�ren Holst on g-Megillot.)

Thursday, December 18, 2003

THE JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2004 ISSUE (57.1) OF ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE IS ONLINE, marking the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Archaeological Institute of America. Articles of interest include:
"Albanian Synagogue Surfaces"

"Letter From Switzerland: Theme Park of the Gods"

"Building Trust in Iraq"
Manhattan assistant district attorney and Marine Corps colonel Matthew Bogdanos on tracking down the looted artifacts of the Iraq National Museum

Excerpt from the last:
What's still missing?
You have the public gallery from which originally forty exhibits were taken. We've recovered eleven. Turning to the storage rooms, there were about 3,150 pieces taken from those, and that's almost certainly by random and indiscriminant looters. Of those, we've recovered about 2,700. So there's about 400 of those pieces, excavated pieces, missing. The final group is from the basement. The basement is what we've been calling the inside job. And I will say it forever like a mantra; it is inconceivable to me that the basement was breached and the items stolen without an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum. From there about 10,000 pieces were taken. We've only recovered 650, approximately.
THE JOURNAL NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES has a new issue online (49.4). Note in particular the following article:

Of Cherubim and the Divine Throne: Rev 5.6 in Context



This article seeks to establish that Rev 5.6, despite its imprecise language, situates Christ on the divine throne and not merely next to it or alongside it. That Christ shares the divine throne is clearly asserted elsewhere in the book of Revelation (3.21; 7.17; 22.1, 3). Since this is the case, and as the other ways in which John's language at 5.6 can be understood introduces a number of difficulties, it is probable that John also intended 5.6 to be another affirmation of Christ's enthronement on the one divine throne. This conclusion is confirmed when it is noticed that John envisioned the living creatures which surround the throne to be living, constituent parts of the divine throne itself. Christ is thus in the midst of the throne and in the midst of the living creatures because they, as components of the throne, are both a part of it and surround it. This has been argued by at least one earlier interpreter. It has not, however, been noted just how widespread or how early is the evidence for the living creatures or cherubim as both living and constituent parts of the heavenly divine throne. Archaeological evidence, as well as passages from 1 Enoch, the Song of the Three Young Men, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, Josephus, 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham and On the Origin of the World are examined and shown to support such a conception of the divine throne and of the cherubim.

Requires paid personal or institutional subscription to access.
ACCORDING TO AN "UNNAMED SENIOR VATICAN OFFICIAL", the Pope liked Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

"It is as it was."

The quote has not been confirmed by the Vatican.
MORE ON THE "ABSALOM'S TOMB" INSCRIPTIONS from the Christian Science Monitor.

New find, old tomb, and peeks at early Christians


Scholars differ over how significant the findings at "Absalom's Tomb" are. Professor [Gideon] Foerster says, "It fills a gap and gives us one more detail of what we know about that historical site. The fact that the name Zacharias is mentioned there shows us that Christians in the 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th century believed he was buried there. If you have a literary source, it's just a literary source. If you have an inscription this is real evidence."

Foerster discounts that Zacharias was buried at the site, saying that during the 1st century those monuments belonged to the Jewish priestly families of Jerusalem, and Zacharias did not belong to such a family.

Like [Emile] Puech and [Joe] Zias, he says the building is from the 1st century and the inscription is from the 4th century. But Jim Strange, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, says the recovery of the inscription is "quite amazing."

"Here you have something showing 4th-century Christians were trying to locate the traditional places of the gospels," he says. "We don't know if it actually is Zacharias's tomb ... but it is clear someone in the 4th century was convinced it was. This suggests that the Byzantine Christians had some piece of intelligence to make the identification. They spoke to locals who told them, 'We know where Zacharias and Simeon are buried.' "

He is calling for more searches for inscriptions nearby. "The Kidron Valley could be full of sites offering insights about what 4th-century Christians believed."

Zias says his discovery also tells us about the futility of disputes over sacred sites in the Holy Land. "If the Absalom Memorial is not Absalom's tomb, but rather Zacharias's Tomb, then we could ask, What about David's Tomb, or Rachel's Tomb, or Joseph's Tomb in Nablus? The question of whether we are killing each other over something authentic is highly relevant."

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre calls attention to the odd quote from Foerster to the effect that Zacharias was not of a Jewish priestly family in Jerusalem. I had vaguely noticed it but didn't take the time to follow it up when I made the posting. According to Luke 1:5 Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah and according to 1:8-23 he was actually serving in the Temple when he had the vision in which the angel Gabriel announced the coming birth of John. I don't know what Foerster was thinking � if, of course, he was quoted correctly.

UPDATE: More here.

UPDATE (19 December): I just noticed the following in this article:

Next to the Zacharias inscription, the two have also discerned the word Simeon, a reference, they say, to the old priest who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah.

The passage in Luke that mentions Simeon (2:25-35) never says he was a priest.

The Jerusalem Post article I linked to earlier also has lots of mistakes. It's always surprising to me how sloppy journalists are with anything I know about. It seems reasonable to extrapolate that they're pretty careless about everything.
PHILOLOGOS discusses the spelling of Hanukkah (Chanukah, Hanukah, Chanukkah).

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

THE EXHIBITION "ANCIENT TREASURES AND THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS" has moved from Montreal to Ottawa and here is an update on it.

Ben Segal

Public-spirited scholar of Aramaic and Hebrew studies

Geoffrey Khan
Tuesday December 9, 2003
The Guardian

Judah "Ben" Segal, who has died aged 91, was a leading scholar in the field of Aramaic and Hebrew studies. He was professor of semitic languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), in the University of London, from 1961 until his retirement in 1979.

Among much else, he was largely responsible for a degree course that allowed students to study all the major languages of the semitic family, including Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and Ethiopic. This course, which sadly no longer exists, was unique in a British university at the time, and provided an excellent training for those who wished to undertake a research degree in semitic philology. It ensured that students gained a thorough knowledge of the languages and were able to read the most challenging texts, rather than simply learning "about" the languages.

Segal's own research was wide ranging. Several of his publications concerned the Christian Aramaic dialect known as Syriac, and the culture and literature of eastern Christianity. His first book, The Diacritical Point And The Accents In Syriac (1953), a study of the vowels of Syriac, is greatly admired by semitic philologists and often regarded as one of his best works.

In 1970, he published Edessa: The Blessed City, an erudite but very accessible historical study of the city of Edessa, modern Urfa in southern Turkey, where the Syriac language had its origins. He also made major contributions in the field of Hebrew and Jewish history; his book The Hebrew Passover From The Earliest Times To AD70 (1963) quickly became a standard work.

In retirement, Segal continued his scholarly research with considerable energy. . . .

He was also a war hero who operated in north Africa behind German lines, making good use of his knowledge of Arabic, and who provided intelligence that saved many allied lives. May his memory be for a blessing.

UPDATE (18 December): Rebecca Lesses has more on his work and, as a bonus, gives us the abstract for a paper she's now writing on images in the ancient Aramaic incantation bowls. Here's an example of one such image-bearing bowl from Gideon Bohak's Babylonian demon bowls online exhibition. I suppose we should assume that the sorcery skills of the bowl-makers were greater than their drawing skills.
THE POPE has seen the rough cut of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. No word yet on what he thought.
MORE ON THE INSCRIPTIONS AT "ABSALOM'S TOMB" from the Jerusalem Post. Not much in the article is new, but here are some things I don't remember being mentioned before:

[Emile] Puech adds that Absalom's Tomb is also mentioned in the Copper Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in a 10th-century guidebook found in the 18th century in a Cairo synagogue storeroom.

[Shimon] Gibson says it was common practice for Byzantine monks to take over plundered tombs and retreat into them for solitude.


When Gibson finally entered the tomb, whose entrance is also nine meters up the wall, he made an additional discovery: a medieval inscription by a Jewish pilgrim.

Although the Jewish inscription is mentioned in an early 20th-century history of the site, Gibson says he was able to make a more accurate survey using 21st-century technology: a tracing made using a plastic sheet and a felt-tip pen.

The inscription, on an inside wall, mentions the name of the pilgrim, who Gibson speculates may have come from Spain.

"[It was] a sort of 'I was here' kind of thing," he says.

Although he believes there is nothing more to be found on the inside of the tomb, Puech suggests that the entire outside of the site should now be surveyed for further inscriptions.

UPDATE (18 December): Some errors in the article are caught here.

UPDATE (19 December): More here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

SURVEY OF QUMRAN STUDIES: I've agreed to do a brief survey of the field of Qumran/Dead Sea Scrolls studies, covering the period 1998 to the present, for the American Journal of Archaeology. I would be very grateful if readers would help me out by sending me information on the following:

1. Archaeology. If you have done excavation work relevant in some way to the Dead Sea Scrolls or the site of Qumran or if you have published something relating to the archaeology of the site, please e-mail me with the reference and a paragraph or two on what you've done or said. Web links would be good too. Notes of archaeological work or study in progress would be very helpful, as long as I can use the material for my essay.

2. Conferences. If during the relevant period you have held a conference on the Scrolls or Qumran, or have published a conference volume on the same, please e-mail me with information on the conference and/or the volume. If you can supply summaries or web page links, so much the better.

3. Museum exhibits on the Scrolls and/or Qumran, especially before March 2003 when I started this blog and started paying more attention to such things. Again, summaries and web links would be helpful.

Please note that I have very little space and will have to speak in the most general of terms, so I can't promise that I'll be able to give specific mention to anything you send me. But I will read everything I get very carefully and it will all help in building up the general picture.

As you can see above, the piece will make its way online in due course.

Many thanks in advance for your help.
ELDER AVRAHAM BRONSTEIN of Protocols has a review of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt's Women in the Talmud in the Yeshiva University Commentator. (Requires free registration.)

Daniel C. Matt (translator), The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1

You can read a San Francisco Chronicle review by a proud nonspecialist here:

David Kipen, "Translated Kabbalah not for the layperson"


The Zohar can also be, especially toward the end of the first volume, weirdly prophetic. In the Noah section, references crop up to what seem remarkably like dinosaurs and gravitation.

Appropriately enough, the first volume of the Pritzker "Zohar" ends with commentary on the Tower of Babel's destruction. God's punishment for our building the tower, remember, was the "confusion of languages," which sowed too much chaos for us ever to pull anything like that again. But without that curse of multiple languages, professional translators like Matt would be out of a job. For him the curse shapes up as, at worst, a mixed blessing.

For the rest of us, the new "Zohar" looks like a mixed blessing, too. The intrepid, especially those game to take one of the many Kabbalah classes offered around town, may now find the Zohar easier to tackle than ever before. But easier and easy are most emphatically not the same thing. Nobody should expect to read a few pages of the Pritzker "Zohar" and immediately see God. Just seeing straight would be an accomplishment.

There's also a customer review at the Amazon link above.
"NO SUCH THING AS A 'WAILING WALL.'" More Jewish-Temple denial:

Arafat's Mufti: No such thing as a 'Wailing Wall' (Jerusalem Post via Bible and Interpretation News)

On the same day that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was quoted as saying that he recognizes Jewish sovereignty over the Western Wall, his mufti, Ikremah Sabri, said on Friday that there is no such thing as a "Wailing Wall."


But the mufti, who was appointed by Arafat, told thousands of worshippers attending Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque that the Western Wall is part of the Al-Aqsa mosque and that it belongs to the Muslim Wakf (trust). "Seventy years ago the Committee of the League of Nations recognized the Al-Buraq Wall (Western Wall) as being part of the walls of the Al-Aqsa mosque," Sabri said.

The mufti pointed out that non-Islamic institutions accepted at the time the fact that the Al-Buraq Wall was a Muslim wall and attacked those who refer to it as the Western Wall.


In the interest of a reality check, the "Wailing Wall" is part of the western side of the massive retaining wall of Herod's Temple Mount (the lower, large stones in the photographs - especially clear in the third photo down). The Al-Aqsa mosque was built many centuries later.

Monday, December 15, 2003


This man was born in France on December 14th 1503:


And this man was captured in Tikrit on December 13th 2003:

Saddam Hussein after his capture
Saddam Hussein


Coincidence? Do you really think so?

UPDATE (16 December): a couple of readers have e-mailed to point out that I didn't take into account the ten days added by the Gregorian calendar reform. All I can say is I hope that wasn't the only problem they found in this posting.
I HAVE ADDED UPDATES to my earlier posts on Matthew and the Talmud and Leviticus and gay marriage.
ACCESS TO THE TRADITIONAL SITE OF "JOSEPH'S TOMB" in Nablus has been violently contested in recent years.

A Bad Time to Be a Samaritan (Newsday)
Middle Eastern sect fights to survive

By Conal Urquhart

December 15, 2003

Mount Gezirim, West Bank - When the apostle Luke told of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, the Jews of this region regarded the Samaritans as a sect to be shunned. Nearly 2,000 years later, the Samaritans are fighting for survival, having dwindled to a community of a mere 600 or so, and it is they who have ostracized Sophie Sedaka.

Sedaka, 28, would seem to be an advertisement for the Samaritan community. As one of Israel's best-known actresses, she is one of the most prominent of the sect, now one of the Middle East's tiniest religious minorities.

But the Samaritans have a shortage of women. In an effort to preserve the community and its "purity," women - but not men - are forbidden to marry outsiders. Those who transgress are cut off completely. Sedaka transgressed, and now is treated by her sect as a foreigner.


The story is too complicated to excerpt, so read it all. This sort of thing is very difficult and I wish the Samaritan community the best in sorting out how to deal with such situations.

Sunday, December 14, 2003


I don't think so.

Talmud confirms an early Gospel of Matthew (Toronto Star)


An ancient Jewish parody that quotes the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew may refute a major argument by biblical scholars who challenge the credibility of the Bible.

For more than a century, liberal scholars have contended that the Christian gospels are unreliable, second-hand accounts of Jesus' ministry that weren't put on paper until 70 to 135 A.D. or later � generations after those who witnessed the events of Jesus' ministry were dead.

Today's more liberal scholars say the Gospel of Matthew may have been aimed at Jews but it was written in Greek, not Hebrew.

They also believe that the Book of Mark, written in Greek, was the original gospel, despite the traditional order of the gospels in the Bible, putting Matthew first.

But a literary tale dated by some scholars at 72 A.D. or earlier, which comes from an ancient collection of Jewish writings known as the Talmud, quotes brief passages that appear only in the Gospel of Matthew. In his 1999 book, Passover And Easter: Origin And History To Modern Times, Israel Yuval of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says that Rabban Gamaliel, a leader of rabbinical scholars in about 70 A.D., is "considered to have authored a sophisticated parody of the Gospel according to Matthew."


In Rabbi Gamaliel's story, a daughter whose father had died offers a golden lamp as a bribe to a Christian judge known for his honesty, seeking a decision that would allow her to share her father's estate with her brother.

When the judge suggests that dividing the estate would be proper on the basis of a new law that had superseded the ancient Law of Moses, Gamaliel argues that the judge is wrong and loosely quotes a statement attributed to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

"Look further in the book, and it is written in it, `I have not come to take away from the Law of Moses nor add to the Law of Moses ... '" Gamaliel replies, and wins the case on the basis of that argument or the bribe he gave the judge � a "Libyan ass."


The argument, in a nutshell (and by all means read the whole article), is that the Talmud quotes Rabbi Gamaliel as quoting something rather like a passage in Matthew (5:18-19). Therefore he knew the Gospel of Matthew and it must have existed by his time, which, the authors say, means it must have been written before 70 or 72 C.E. (I'm not sure exactly why. Is this when he died? Or is the story set in pre-revolt Jerusalem?) Anyhow, I'll take their word about Gamaliel's date. There are still some big problems with the argument.

1. The Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) was edited around 600 C.E. and the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi) around 400. Whichever Talmud they're talking about (probably the Bavli but they don't say - and they don't give the exact reference either) the story of the first-century saying of Gamaliel comes to us from a text edited many centuries later. How do we know that this isn't a much later legend which puts the saying in his mouth on the basis of knowing the Gospel of Matthew? Granted, the Talmud sometimes preserves early material, but earliness has to be proved, not assumed.

2. Even if Rabbi Gamaliel actually said this, the saying is not all that close to the Gospel of Matthew. How do we know that it isn't an oral tradition that Gamaliel picked up from Jesus' followers and which was later used independently by the author of Matthew?

Perhaps the book addresses these issues, but this article certainly doesn't convince me.

UPDATE (15 December): Stephen Goranson e-mails:

As your blog properly observed, Jim, the Altman and Crowder article does not prove (nor exclude) an early date for the Gospel of Matthew. (Nor did their similar article in the Kansas City Star, 7 July 2003.) Gamaliel the II--to whom the story was apparently attributed--lived many years after their date. But if this prompts anyone to read the article to which Israel Yuval referred, that may be worthwhile: Burton Visotzky, "Overturning the Lamp," JJS 38 (1987) 72-80. It's a good article, as my dissertation noted. But his nuanced reading of b.Shabbat 116a-b certainly allows for later dating. In any case, this section has potentially interesting information about a gospel, evangelion--punned against as (avon-gilyon, book of sin or )aven-gilyon, book of vanity--and the verse said to be at the end of the book.

The section is quite interesting. It includes a discussion of whether to save books of the minim (heretics) in the case of a fire. Via puns, as long
recognized by many scholars (my 1990 diss. pp92-94 has bibliography), these are the houses of the Nazarenes and Ebionites, Be Nitsraphi and Be )Abidan. See Anchor Bible on how these two terms evolved. Gamaliel II, of course, was associated in Talmud with the origin or revising of the Birkat ha-minim, the blessing/curse on heretics, known in many versions.

The Talmud version gives the mirror image of the account of heretics in Epiphanius (Panarion, 29 & 30). For the Christian Epiphanius (circa 375), the Ebionites were the more heretical of the two groups. For the rabbis, none would save books from the Nazarene house, but some consideration was allowed for possibly rescuing books from the house of Ebionites.