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).