Sunday, September 07, 2003


'John' tells Gospel truth, word for word ( - Erie Times News)

Carter Lumber

Associated Press

TORONTO � Mel Gibson take note: There's another new film about the life of Jesus that also depicts Jews' involvement in the events leading to the Crucifixion. But this one has several Jewish producers and has attracted much less controversy.

While Gibson's "The Passion" won't be released for months, Jewish and Christian commentators already are debating whether its gory treatment of Jesus' death will rouse anti-Semitism. By contrast, there's no advance acrimony surrounding "The Gospel of John," which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on a symbolically chosen Sept. 11.

"John" is a Canadian-British production made for $15 million, roughly half the cost of Gibson's film. It opens in four U.S. markets Sept. 26, then 75 others through the autumn, mostly in cinemas across the southeastern Bible Belt.

Gibson's movie, which he funded, co-wrote, produced and directed, puts all the dialogue into the ancient Aramaic and Latin languages. "John" has a different oddity. The script is in English but consists entirely of John's Gospel, word for word.


Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer who heavily shaped "John," is Jewish. He thinks John's Gospel, which most scholars believe was written around the end of the first century, is an inspirational masterpiece in which one of the themes is the conflict over Jesus among Jews.


In making the film, Drabinsky hired University of Toronto retiree Peter Richardson to enlist an advisory board of scholars consisting of five Protestants of varying views, a Roman Catholic sister and two Jews.

One of the Jewish scholars, Alan Segal of Barnard College, told a Toronto media preview that "it's a stunning and illuminating film." But Segal also acknowledged that, of the four Gospels, John is "the most Jewish in its subject matter, and the most anti-Jewish in its perception."


There's lots more; read it all.
BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW has a new issue online. Hershel Shanks responds to the summary of the IAA report on the "James Ossuary." I don�t have time to read it all right now, but here it is. And he has an editorial on the subject here. (And I thought I was sarcastic!) There are also articles on the Exodus and two reviews of a book that claims to locate one of the lost ten tribes.
GARY LEUPP has e-mailed a reply to my comments on his Counterpunch essay on Mel Gibson and The Passion. He writes:
Jim Davila posted my Counterpunch on the controversy surrounding �The Passion� on this site, generally praising it (thanks, Jim) but indicating that he had �serious problems� with three points in particular. I�d like to briefly respond to those below, at his invitation.
8. Mel Gibson is a devout, if dissident, Catholic. Anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, and accused of hostility to feminists and gays, Gibson is no model of tolerance.

Davila found this unfair, and on reflection I basically accept the criticism. Being anti-abortion or pro-death penalty is not to lack tolerance but merely to have an opinion. And I don�t know how Gibson relates to feminists and gays in his personal life. Feminists and gays have criticized aspects of some of his films (for example, the depiction of the homosexual relationship between the prince and his lover/advisor in Braveheart, and its impact on his princess-bride, although I personally have no problem with it). What I wanted to say is that Gibson is associated with conservative views that are in fact held by many anti-Semites, and for the ADL or anyone else to be concerned about his intentions in his film is thus especially understandable.

11. Objective historians consider the "real" history underlying the Passion storyline unclear. Most concede (although some scholars contest this) that there was a Jewish man living in the Roman province of Judea in the early first century CE who, killed ca. 30, became an object of worship of the Christian faith.

Davila says he knows �of no living, serious scholar in historical Jesus studies (and by �serious� I mean people who publish in the major peer-review journals and present papers at the major conferences) who holds the view that Jesus never existed�. If Professor Leupp has specific people in mind, I'd be interested in hearing names and references.�

First of all, my piece, appearing on a political website, was not intended as a thoroughly scholarly discussion, which I (as a Japan historian) am not best-qualified to produce. My point was to encourage a dispassionate approach to the question of Jesus and his representation by people holding different points of view. In that context, I think it was reasonable to include the parenthetical note that not all scholars concede Jesus� historicity. I did not specify that I referred to contemporary, peer-reviewed scholars. But Albert Schweitzer was surely a �scholar,� and he wrote that the Jesus who said he was the Messiah and preached the kingdom of heaven upon earth �never had any existence.� G. A. Wells (who is, whatever else, surely a scholar) in several works challenges the thesis that a Jesus remotely similar to the figure in the Gospels ever existed. One may dispute their scholarship, and it isn�t my point to uphold it. (My own view is more along the lines of Crossan�s.) But the alternative to expressing myself as I did would be to say, �All scholars agree that there was a Jesus such as is depicted in the Gospels.�
32. This concept of a god undergoing a horrible death, descending to the netherworld, the rising from the dead, offering salvation to humankind (or to select believers), is not unique to Christianity but occurs in other religions once popular in the Middle East. The Babylonian god Tammuz (earlier, the Sumerian god Dimmuzi) rises from the dead, due to the actions of the goddess Ishtar, on the third day.

Davila says the Sumerian god was not the object of a resurrection cult. But it�s my understanding that his cult led to that of Tammuz, who was dead & resurrected. A scholar of classical Egypt wrote me in response to that piece that �one might make the case that� the dead-god-rising �is the standard pattern,� listing also the cults of Adonis and Antinous. I happily leave the details to specialists. My modest point (which I think Christians in particular need to hear) is that the death and resurrection drama is not unique to their faith and that the latter may have borrowed from pre-Christian cults.

I�m glad these issues are being debated on this site. Gary Leupp

I am grateful to Professor Leupp for taking the time to write this response. I concur that it is very much a mainstream view, although certainly not a universal one, that the historical Jesus wasn't remotely similar to the Christ of faith in the Gospels. My understanding is that it has also been called into question whether the Tammuz and Adonis cults involved resurrection (see Jonathan Smith's article in my previous post). But I am assured in an e-mail by someone who knows about such things that the dying and rising god category is still of some use as an interpretive construct. I should mention also that some people think that the ancient Davidic king may have engaged in a cultic drama of dying and rising at the annual enthronement festival (and I think this is a real possibility, although not one that can be proved with the current data). Since elements of the early Jesus movement used the Davidic royal tradition as a template for understanding Jesus, one could make a similar argument using it.

Thanks again, Gary.
I'M BACK. The conference was excellent and I want to thank Mark Goodacre, the University of Birmingham, and Mark's postgraduate assistants Catherine Smith, Helen Ingram, Kuyseok Han, and Richard Goode, who not only made everything run incredibly smoothly, but also made it look effortless. Having held a couple of conferences myself at St. Andrews, I know just how much hard work goes on behind the scenes to make one successful. Mark and team, your efforts are much appreciated.

I'm in a hurry this morning and I'm not going to try to blog the conference in any detail. But I do want to mention two things. First is the Mingana Collection, a collection of hundreds of Syriac and thousands of Arabic manuscripts (with a few in Ethiopic, Coptic, Greek, Persian, cuneiform, etc.) at the University of Birmingham. Some of us were given a tour of it and there's a great deal of fascinating material in it. We were shown codices of the Acts of Thomas in Garshuni (Arabic written in Syriac script) and Syriac, among many other things. Alphonse Mingana was an Iraqi Chaldean Christian who gathered the collection in the 1920s. See the web page for lots more information.

Second is Friday evening's presentation by an international team of scholars on "Digital Editing: A New Generation of Greek New Testaments." This team is currently producing an incredibly ambitious new edition of the Greek Gospel of John, eventually to be expanded to include the whole Greek New Testament. Spin-off projects include an edition of the Old Latin Gospel of John and an edition of the Byzantine text of the New Testament for Orthodox scholars and lay people. You can read about their work at the Institut f�r neutestamentliche Textforschung INTF website. The site is mostly in German, but a number of very interesting pages are in English. These people are the Special Forces of New Testament textual criticism and anyone interested in the subject should keep a close eye on their work. It promises to change the face of the field in years to come.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre is blogging the conference at length. Start at the link and just keep scrolling up.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I LEAVE FOR BIRMINGHAM first thing tomorrow morning for the annual British New Testament Conference. Follow the link to see the program. Most of the papers are represented at least by abstracts. (I'll be responding to a paper in the Second Temple Judaism Seminar, but since the full paper isn't online, I'm not going to post my response either. Sorry.) Some of the papers are given in full in PDF format. Some of these are marked as such, while for others you need to click on the paper title to access the full paper. Poke around in all the sections; there are plenty of papers scattered throughout which are of considerable relevance for ancient Judaism. If you want to read any of the complete papers, be sure and download them right away. They're generally taken down not long after the conference.

The conference lasts for three days and I expect to be home late on Saturday night, with blogging resuming on Sunday. I don't plan to do any blogging while I'm away. If you want something to look at in the meantime, go to Mahlon Smith's website "Into His Own: Perspectives on the World of Jesus", which contains a wealth of information on ancient Judaism, including excerpts from numerous primary texts, introductory material on Josephus, on the Dead Sea Scrolls (including a timeline of the story of their discovery and publication), and on rabbinic literature, and much more. It could be a very useful resource for your undergraduate and even postgraduate students. Also, of course, keep an eye on the blogs in my weblog links section to the right.

And if we're lucky, maybe Mark Goodacre, whose institution is holding the conference, will blog it some.

Look for me again on Sunday. Have a good week.

Traveling the Silk Road (by "S.B." in Archaeological Odyssey via Archaeologica News)


In the 1870s, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name die Seidenstrasse�the Silk Road�to refer to the 5,000-mile-long trade route that connected China and the Mediterranean in ancient times.

Richthofen thus imbued the immense terra incognita of Central Asia with romance. But he also created something of a misnomer: There was not just one route connecting East and West, but several; and silk�craved especially by Roman women�was just one of the treasured commodities transported along these routes. Intrepid caravans carried spices, gems, gold, ivory, works of art, furniture, garments, perfumes, exotic animals and much else across the Eurasian steppes.

Even more important, the great east-west highway carried knowledge: ideas about medicine, printing, engineering and cosmology. Along these routes, monks traveled side-by-side with merchants, instructing those they met in the secrets of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. From about 200 B.C. to the 15th century A.D., the oasis towns of Central Asia witnessed an exchange of cultures that had no precedent in human history.


The Silk Road�s greatest legacy is the exchange of religious beliefs and ideas that took place along its caravan routes�the teachings of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Confucianism and others. Who knows how long it would have taken Buddhism, which originated in India, to reach Central Asia and China had it not been for the merchants and monks, those early cultural ambassadors, who stopped at the oasis towns on the Silk Road�places such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Bactra and Kashgar�bearing scriptures and winning converts?
THE TWENTY-THIRD PSALM is the subject of a new book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, profiled and excerpted by MSNBC. Excerpt from chapter one:

I would guess that there is one, and only one, chapter of the Bible that most people in the English-speaking world know by heart. We may remember a lot of stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, and Moses. We may be able to recite the Ten Commandments, parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that have entered into our literature. But when it comes to an entire chapter, I suspect that the only one we remember completely is chapter twenty-three of the Book of Psalms, the Twenty-third Psalm, �The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .�

Even if you cannot recite the entire psalm perfectly, you know it well enough to say it along with a congregation, the way many of us sing along with �The Star-Spangled Banner� at a baseball game. We are so familiar with the Twenty-third Psalm that when a new translation of the Bible comes along, using archaeological and linguistic evidence to help us understand more accurately what the original Hebrew and Greek meant to say, we are uncomfortable with the �improvements.� We welcome the rewording of the stories, stripped of the Elizabethan vocabulary of the four-hundred-year-old King James translation (done in the time of Shakespeare). We don�t miss the use of �begat� and �wouldst� and �thee� and �thou.� But when it comes to our favorite psalm, we crave familiarity more than accuracy.

Why do we love this psalm so much, more than any of the other 149 psalms in the Bible? Why do we reach for it at moments of personal distress, cherishing its recitation at funerals and memorial services? It is a beautiful literary creation, but the anthologies are full of beautiful writings, and they don�t capture our hearts as the Twenty-third Psalm does. In just a few lines, it conveys the distilled wisdom of generations, offering us a way of seeing the world that renders it less frightening, teaching us to deal with the loss of people we love and with conflict with people who don�t like us or who treat us badly. It shows us how to recognize the presence of God at times and in places where we might think God was absent or when we might be so distracted by our own concerns that we would overlook God�s presence. It has the power to teach us to think differently and, as a result, to act differently.

Dr. Mark Goodacre has just started the NT Gateway Weblog as a supplement to his superb New Testament Gateway website. Bookmark it now!

Dwindling sect attempts to rebuild in Iraq

By Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Published 9/2/2003 7:43 AM

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- The end of the short war brought long-awaited news for the Mandeans, an obscure religious sect that follows the teachings of John the Baptist and takes a somewhat dim view of Christ and Mohammed though it respects all religions.

Documents recovered from the vaults of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provided answers for what happened to 69 of the sect's members who disappeared. They were executed. A mass funeral laid their souls to rest Aug. 8.

The Mandeans, or Sabeans as they are known in Iraq, are still awaiting news of 73 others, all of who disappeared during the 40 years Saddam's Baath Party was in power. It's a paltry number compared to what other groups have lost to political violence in Iraq, but when you are among 20,000 like-minded believers, each one counts, says Alaa Dhlh Kamar, the spokesman for the church in Baghdad.

The U.S. led war exacted its own toll -- 31 Mandeans died in the bombing of Baghdad, 13 of them in a single house, Kamar said.

Despite the losses, which are felt grievously, it is a great relief for the Mandeans to be free of Saddam. The regime made a big show of allowing the Mandeans to practice their religion unfettered, as they were considered "people of the book" -- actually mentioned in the Koran -- but Kamar says it was just that: show.

"We practices freely in the public media only," he said.

The Mandeans were a periodic stop for the international media as it trouped through pre-war Baghdad. Their unusual baptismal ritual -- often once weekly, with the adherents in glowing white robes -- and multiple simultaneous weddings made for good television and good public relations for the regime, which systematically slaughtered Kurds, Shiites and political opponents.


The Mandeans were not allowed to have schools for their children to teach them the ancient Aramaic in which their sacred texts are written. Al-Ginza Raba, which means "the greatest treasury," their holy book was translated into Arabic by a famous Iraqi poet two years ago after more than 2,000 years in the lost language. The religion will have a hard time recovering from 40 years of oppression.


The article has lots more interesting details, so read it all.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

PROFESSOR GARY LEUPP has published a piece on Mel Gibson's The Passion in Counterpunch. He is a specialist in Japanese history, but his essay, entitled "Gibson's Christ on Trial: Dispassionate Notes on the 'Passion' Controversy," is overall well informed and informative and you should take the time to read it in full. He has his own agenda, which is fair enough, but he does make a real effort to treat the matter dispassionately and the piece is a contribution to the debate. That said, I also think he gets it seriously wrong just in terms of fairness in one place, and in at least two others he gets some facts wrong. There are other places where I think the emphasis goes too far in a particular direction or where I want to quibble about details or where my opinions differ, but let those go.

The section I have serious problems with is the following:

8. Mel Gibson is a devout, if dissident, Catholic. Anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, and accused of hostility to feminists and gays, Gibson is no model of tolerance.

Actually, I thought that "tolerance" meant tolerating the views of people who disagree with you. Unfortunately, the politically correct meaning of tolerance is adhering to a particular political agenda and a particular set of political views and no others. It sounds suspiciously as though that is the operating definition here. Professor Leupp evidently is pro-choice and anti-death penalty. Fine. But are people who disagree with him by definition intolerant? Let's make it personal with a single example. I disagree with him on capital punishment. Am I intolerant as a result? I respect his view. Does he respect mine? I recognize that the issue is heavily debated and problematical and I regard my view as coming to terms with necessary evils. I have had many discussions with people who disagree with me and almost always I find them to have thoughtful and respectable reasons for their view. That sort of mutual respect and agreement to disagree is what I think of as tolerance. If Professor Leupp is labeling people who disagree with him on the issue of capital punishment as "no models of tolerance," well, he has the right to say and think whatever he likes, and I don't care if he approves of me or not, but I think that is an Orwellian and provincial opinion. If that's not what he was saying, I think he needs to speak more clearly. And if Gibson has said something outrageous about these subjects, let's hear it. Let's have links to the quotations in full context so we can judge it for ourselves.

But that is a minor point. It's the rest of the sentence that really crosses the line: "and accused of hostility to feminists and gays, Gibson is no model of tolerance." Being accused of something makes someone "no model of tolerance"? Since when? I challenge Professor Leupp either to show (again, links to quotes in full context, please) that Mel Gibson has actually said or done something disrespectful to feminists or gays or else to retract this statement. As it stands now, this just won't do.

The other two points are the following.

11. Objective historians consider the "real" history underlying the Passion storyline unclear. Most concede (although some scholars contest this) that there was a Jewish man living in the Roman province of Judea in the early first century CE who, killed ca. 30, became an object of worship of the Christian faith.

I know of no living, serious scholar in historical Jesus studies (and by "serious" I mean people who publish in the major peer-review journals and present papers at the major conferences) who holds the view that Jesus never existed. I'm not a historical Jesus specialist myself, but I do publish on Jesus sometimes, and I can tell you that the scholarly debate is on how much we can tell about the historical Jesus from our problematical sources, not whether he existed at all. If Professor Leupp has specific people in mind, I'd be interested in hearing names and references.

32. This concept of a god undergoing a horrible death, descending to the netherworld, the rising from the dead, offering salvation to humankind (or to select believers), is not unique to Christianity but occurs in other religions once popular in the Middle East. The Babylonian god Tammuz (earlier, the Sumerian god Dimmuzi) rises from the dead, due to the actions of the goddess Ishtar, on the third day.

It's been awhile since I've tried to keep up with Sumerology (although, again, I have published in the area in the past). But it's common knowledge that the idea that Dumuzi (not Dimmizi) was a dying and rising god has been refuted by better Sumerian sources. Samuel Noah Kramer talked about this long ago in The Sumerians, 153-60, and Thorkild Jacobsen reinforced it in The Treasures of Darkness, chapter 2. More recently, Jacobsen has an article on "Dumuzi" in the Encyclopedia of Religion. The whole category of "Dying and Rising Gods" is dubious. See the article with that title in the Encyclopedia of Religion by Jonathan Z. Smith. This point bears on #49 as well.

I hope at this point I don't really need to repeat that I am not defending The Passion; that I haven't seen it yet and won't have an opinion until I do; that the trailer gives me causes for concern; that I just think that the debate should proceed as accurately and fairly as possible; that my criticisms of what others say about it are intended to be constructive to those ends; and blah, blah, blah. I don't need to repeat all that, do I?
ROGUE CLASSICISM has its official launch today, with a very ambitious agenda. Later today we are promised an introduction to blogging and the nonsordid story of how David's blog came to be. This is one to bookmark. (Either that or click on the convenient PaleoJudaica link to the right, under weblogs, since you'll be visiting here already. Right?)
THE MINIMALIST-MAXIMALIST DEBATE is summarized for a popular audience in the article "The Old Testament wars: Is the Bible history or fiction?" in the Baltimore Sun, with mention of a number of recent books that bear in one way or another on the Bible's historical accuracy. Excerpt:

The extreme revisionist position, as summarized by William G. Dever in the March/April issue of Biblical Archaeology, is that the Hebrew Bible is the product of the religious and cultural identity crisis of Judaism in the Hellenistic era, dating from the fourth to the first centuries B.C.

This was a period in which Judaism came into full contact with Greek culture, and needed desperately to form a clear sense of its own identity in order to survive. According to the revisionists, the Torah is essentially literature, and is a "social construct" reflecting the religious interests and propaganda of a late, elitist theocratic party within Judaism.

According to these critics, there was not an "early Israel" as a distinct ethnic entity from the 13th to the 11th centuries B.C., as described by the Torah, no Judahite state before the late eighth century, and no significant political capital in Jerusalem before the second century B.C.

Even Dever himself, once thought of as a traditionalist, does not believe in the full accuracy of Hebrew text. In his Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 280 pages, $25), Dever says that while the Exodus stories "may rest on some historical foundations, however minimal," the Israelites did not spring primarily from the people who fled Egypt, as the Bible maintains.

Monday, September 01, 2003

THE TEN SEPHIROT are a theological construct integral to the Kabbalah. Eliezer Segal explains them at this link.
����������HE'S BACK! Indiana Jones will be limping through a fourth adventure. No word on what archaeological treasure he'll be raiding this time. Via Archaeology Magazine News, although I also saw it somewhere else earlier but I forget where.

UPDATE: It was in Phluzein.
MY SABBATICAL BEGINS TODAY. I have the whole academic year off to finish the book I'm writing on Christian transmission of Jewish Pseudepigrapha. Regular readers will be familiar with some of the work I have done in this area from draft papers here, here, and here. I intend to post more draft material from the book as the year progresses, so stay tuned.

All this means that the summer is over and I shall be very, very busy from now on. I still intend to post something here most every day, except when I'm out of town or have a cold or other major distraction, but I'm not going to allow myself to waste much time on the blog during the day. Longer, more analytic posts will have to wait for evenings and weekends � and then only as time and family permit, so commentary on really interesting articles and such may come with a certain time lag.

Still, as I said, I mean to provide you with something new here daily under normal circumstances. So do keep coming.