Saturday, January 24, 2004

I THINK MARK GOODACRE is spot-on in everything he says here about the megasites concept.

UPDATE (25 January): Torrey Seland comments. He's right that setting up the software shouldn't be difficult, but I'm less confident about the following than he is: "But I am not as afraid as he is of the possible patchiness of a megasite. If it was run by a general editor, having strict guidelines on how to edit and post on the site, this could be handled." Given the success rate of general editors at, for example, getting commentary series completed on time, I don't see that having a general editor over a megasite would keep it from getting patchy. Ultimately, general editors has very little power. All they can do, really, is to take away an assignment from a dilatory contributor, and this is a very tough step that could generate bad feelings and few want to take it. And if they do, they still have the problem of finding a new contributor.

But that's just my view: if Torrey feels differently and wants to do the organizational work, he should ignore my skepticism and go ahead. There's plenty of room for experimenting in cyberspace.
NEW SITE FEED: For those of you interested in such things, Blogger now has an RSS Feed facility and I have activated it for this blog. To access it, click on the "Site Feed" link to the right near the bottom of the sidebar stuff. If you don't know what an RSS Feed is and you're curious, read this.

Warning! The new Site Feed link makes my Internet Explorer 5.2 crash, although my Netscape 7.02 doesn't have a problem with it. Clicker beware.
EMPIRES OF THE PLAIN: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon, by Lesley Adkins, is reviewed by Oxford Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley in the Financial Times. (You may not be able to access the review outside the U.K. without a subscription.) She says that Rawlinson cultivated a scholarly reputation greater than he deserved and that Adkins accepted his claims uncritically. Excerpt:

Lesley Adkins constructs Rawlinson's life by inter-weaving his successes in the East India Company with his scholarly pursuits. She seems uncritical of her subject's own version of events, however. While including much evidence refuting his claims as a decipherer, she leaves the reader with the impression that Rawlinson's scholarly rivals were jealous and mean-spirited, and that he deserves the reputation he cultivated.

In fact, Rawlinson shame-lessly failed to acknowledge that George Grotefend and other scholars had deciphered the Old Persian language and its script (essentially simple and alphabetic) to a rudimentary stage. This basic breakthrough was made years before the Bisitun text became available. On two occasions Rawlinson delayed sending work to be printed until he received the work of others, which he was glad to find coincided with his own after a few modifications. His contributions, though undoubted, were of secondary importance.

Perhaps only a cuneiformist is able to assess where credit should lie as far as the Babylonian script and language are concerned, for Adkins has listed the relevant refutations in her bibliography without making good use of them. They come from the recent work of three separate scholars, all of whom know how Babylonian cuneiform works. It is an extremely complex system, much more so than Egyptian hieroglyphs or Old Persian cuneiform.

The man whose scholarship is now generally recognised as formative was Edward Hincks, a poor clergyman from Ireland.

His brilliance in discovering that Babylonian signs could have more than one syllabic value or could stand for a whole word, and who worked out many problems of grammar and lexicography, left Rawlinson struggling to find small details to criticise and correct.

I've blogged on Rawlinson and this book a few times before. Run "Rawlinson" through the search engine to find the references.

Friday, January 23, 2004

CHAPTER TWO IS FINISHED! Written, proofread, and all its references compiled in the bibliography. No doubt I'll be fiddling with the notes for months, and it will need at least one more proofreading after it lies fallow for a while. But the real work is done. Now to return to another one of those chapters-in-progress.

THE CAROB TREE IN JEWISH FOLKLORE: The Jerusalem Post has the story.

Not quite chocolate

In the folklore and imagination of the Jewish people, a special fondness is reserved for the carob tree, which is viewed as a symbol for the sustaining qualities of the Land of Israel.

In the Talmud, for example, we learn that the saintly Hanina Ben Dosa subsisted on a diet of nothing but carobs between one Sabbath and the next.


No discussion of carob would be complete without the much-loved story of Honi Hame'agel. Honi is bothered by the passage from Psalms that refers to the Babylonian exile, which lasted for 70 years, and seems like a dream. He wonders how anyone could dream for 70 years. Honi then encounters a man planting a carob tree and asks how long it will take the tree to bear fruit. When he hears it will take 70 years, Honi questions the profitability of such a venture and falls asleep... for 70 years.

Because Honi focused only on the immediate material benefits of planting carobs, he lost 70 years of his life; in the same way, the nation's focus on materialism and idol worship in the closing years of the First Temple led to exile and the loss of 70 years of life in the Land of Israel.

PEGGY NOONAN, Opinion Journal columnist, has a strange tale of possibly faked Vatican e-mails concerning the Pope's (now denied) "It is as it was" quotation. See her column "'Passion' and Intrigue: The story of the Vatican and Mel Gibson's film gets curiouser" (heads up, Christian Brady).

Thursday, January 22, 2004

THERE'S A REVIEW of The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, in Salon. It's blocked off if you're not a paid subscriber, but you can get a day pass by reading a brief, interactive, commercial. I looked at the book at the SBL conference last November and it's a good collection. But the reviewer, Donna Minkowitz, thinks that Barnstone and Meyer don't talk enough about sex.
THE JEWISH MUSEUM IN NEW YORK has just turned 100. I noted its website back in August.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

WAS "THE BROTHER OF JESUS" added to the "James Ossuary" in the 1990s? Eric Meyers reports in "Well-known Israeli Archeologist Casts More Doubt on Authenticity of James Ossuary" (at the Bible and Interpretation website) that a "prominent Israeli archaeologist" who wishes to remain anonymous saw the ossuary in an antiquities shop in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s and that last bit of the inscription wasn't there yet. Someone reported this at the Sunday morning SBL session I blogged on in November, but I didn't mention it because I didn't want to pass on a rumor from an unverified source. It's interesting, and I believe Meyers is reporting what he heard from his source, but I'm not going to put much stock in it until the anonymous archaeologist goes public and gives us a firsthand account I can evaluate for myself.

UPDATE (22 January): Stephen C. Carlson comments on the article.
MESSIAH OF INCEST? Did Shabbetai Zvi decide he was the Messiah in reaction to sexual abuse he experienced as a small boy? So argues Eli Shai in Mashiakh Shel Gilui Arayot: Historia Hadasha Uvilti Metzunzeret Shel Hayesod Hamini Bamistika Hameshikhit Hayehudit (Messiah of Incest: New and Uncensored History of the Sexual Element in Jewish Mystical Messianism). Roni Weinstein reviews the book (which I have not read) in the Ha'aretz article "He was the great pretender" (via Bible and Interpretation News), and gives what looks to me to be a sensible analysis:

Shai believes that he has uncovered the secret behind Sabbatai Sevi's deviant behavior. The secret, claims Shai, is a truly traumatic incident that occurred when Sabbatai Sevi was 6 years old, which caused him to deviate from a normal way of life and turned him, for the rest of his life, into a radical, marginal figure. As a child, he underwent an entire series of acts of sexual abuse, apparently committed by Muslim youths in his neighborhood, who not only raped him, forcing him to engage in homosexual relations, but also inflicted burns on his penis. Shai bases this claim on a single piece of evidence - testimony presented by Nathan of Gaza in an essay, "Mareh Avraham": "From the age of 5 or 6 he submitted his body ... He saw a dream in which he is 6 years old and is caught in a giant flame. He suffers burns to his skin in his private parts and dreams throw him into utter confusion ... He told no one about this incident and promiscuous youth pretended to be his friends simply in order to lead him astray and to beat him ... They, the children of Na'ama, perverted human beings, consistently persecuted him in order to mislead him."

Reliance on this testimony - which neither Scholem nor any other scholar has interpreted literally - is problematic because all of the biographical depictions of Sabbatai Sevi have been enveloped in mythical mantles and have attempted to present him as "larger than life" - in the same style used in hagiographic literature to depict the saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Every event, even bathing in the sea and the theft of the messiah's clothes, is described against the background of the struggle with the demonic world. Thus, even the term "promiscuous youth" should not be interpreted, in the absence of other pieces of corroborating evidence, simply as flesh-and-blood, evil-minded neighbors. The term "in his private parts" sounds like a de facto attempt to explain, on the one hand, the messiah's refusal to have sex with his first two wives and, on the other, his problematic sex life later on.

Shai accepts the bulk of Scholem's claim that the messiah was a manic depressive and he tries to add to that claim a psychosexual element. The term sounds familiar. Here again is the example of an attempt to psychoanalyze historical figures, based on the assumption that the patterns of human response to crisis situations, to socialization, to personal problems, etc., have remained constant over the centuries and that it is therefore possible to explain and interpret, with the use of psychoanalytical tools, the behavior of key figures in history (after all, Freud tried to psychoanalyze Moses, in addition to Michelangelo). However, as in psychoanalysis, the interpreter here always finds just what he is looking for: sex, sex and more sex.

Read the whole review. For my part, I am very wary of Freudian analyses of this sort: they tend to be infinitely adaptable to whatever circumstances (or texts) to which they're applied, and it's generally difficult to show how, even in principle, they could be demonstrated to be wrong. If a theory is unfalsifiable, it isn't well constructed.

Certainly in the case above the proof-text looks to be open to a wide range of interpretations.

Incidentally, another book with a similar theme is David Halperin's Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology, which purports to show that the weird prophethood of Ezekiel was generated by sexual abuse by his mother's partner when Ezekiel was a child.

I have provided some links on Shabbetai Zvi and related matters here.
PETRA NOW HAS ITS OWN WEBSITE: The Petra Region Authority has a Petra website up at (It has a long and rather tedious media intro, which you can skip.) The site mostly pertains to modern matters such as the building of bus stations and restaurant information for tourists, but there is some information on the archaeology of the region. The magazine, available in PDF format, is in Arabic. The Jordan Times has an article on the new website: "Petra Region Authority launches interactive website" (via Archaeologica News).
UPDATE ON THE MIT ARAMAIC (?) PUZZLE. My correspondent e-mails:

Thanks for your help with the Mystery Hunt this weekend. Here's how it turned out that the Aramaic/Hebrew puzzle worked: each line of Aramaic letters, transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet, gave a snippet from the first line of a psalm. Well, not quite: a snippet from a psalm, with a single mistake introduced. Take the letters that were supposed to be in place of the mistakes, and transliterate into the English alphabet, to get ntrlnngs. So the answer to the puzzle was the only English word consistint of those consonants: interlinings. (The answer to each Mystery Hunt puzzle is usually a word or phrase.)

I'm still not sure what "Aramaic letters, transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet" means. Aramaic and Hebrew are written in the same alphabet. I think the inventor may have meant paleo-Hebrew letters rather than Aramaic letters.

Anyhow, what an admirably diabolical puzzle!

UPDATE (22 January): By the way, my correspondent's team won, with five minutes to spare.

Jordanian experts have completed a year-long renovation project on the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound to fix a bulge caused by centuries of erosion, Jordanian Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Helayel said Monday.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

MAYBE IT'S JUST ME, but I am surprised that John R. Franke sets out to assess the legacy of Origen in his Christianity Today (Christian History) article "Origen: Friend or Foe?" without a single reference to the Hebrew language, the Septuagint, or the Hexapla. This article ignores Origen's fascination with and massive contribution to the study of the "bare letter of the text" of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek, and it seems to me that this gives an imbalanced picture of him. Much of Origen's fame as a biblical scholar came not just from his allegorical commentaries but from his text-critical work on the Bible. The Hexapla was consulted in Caesarea for centuries by important scholars in the Church, including Pamphylius, Eusebius, and Jerome, and parts of it were copied (often, granted, in a way that just caused textual confusion). The Septuagint column was translated into Syriac by Paul of Tella in the seventh century. I would think that all this counts for something in assessing Origen's contribution to theology.
"IT IS AS IT WAS" � NOT! The Vatican is now saying that the Pope didn't say this after all. Mark Goodacre has the goods.

Monday, January 19, 2004

UPDATE ON CLAIRE SMITH'S STATEMENT on behalf of the World Archaeological Congress (which you can find at greater length here): Dr. Uzi Dahari, Deputy Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has replied on the ANE list (heads-up, Carla Sulzbach). The RTF format garbled the reply in the list's archive, but with his kind permission I reproduce it here ungarbled.

January 13, 2004

Dr. Clair Smith
President, World Archaeological Congress
Department of Archaeology
Flinders University
Adelaide, South Australia

Dear Dr. Smith,

Subject: The WAC Accusation of Israeli Destruction of
Archaeological Sites

I have read your e-mail media release dated 7 January 2004 addressed to the world archaeological community at the conclusion of the Fifth Archaeological Conference held in June, 2003, at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in which Israel stands accused of destroying archaeological sites. I refer, as well; to the accusations at the Congress by Dr. Najat el-Hafi that appear to have influenced the Congress� decision concerning Israel�s �destruction� of Palestinian antiquities, an unacceptable one-sided judgment not worthy of the WAC.

As to the matter itself: The concept of separate Israeli (Jewish) and Palestinian (Muslim) archaeological cultural heritage is an unknown concept to me as an Israeli archaeologist. The cultural heritage of the Land of the Bible is common to all past and present groups, religions, nations, and tribes in the area, or to those that look upon this land as being holy to three monotheistic religions. From the aspect of cultural heritage, Tel Shechem (Nablus) and Tel el-Jib (both within Palestinian Authority), and Tel Megiddo or Tel Beersheba (both within the bounds of the State of Israel) are of equal importance to me as an Israeli, and I believe to Dr. Najat as well. By the same token, the Ottoman palace of Mohammed Bek Abdul-Hadi in Nablus is as important a cultural heritage site to both Israelis and Palestinians. Cultural heritage should not be confused with territorial conflicts.

Concerning Israeli observance of the 1954 Hague Convention, I would like to remind you and the entire archaeological community, that the only country in the world which returned antiquities to a neighboring country, as required by the Convention, is Israel. In 1994 Israel returned to Egypt all of the antiquities from Israeli salvage excavations in the Sinai Peninsula, up to the last pottery shard! It was my honor to head that project. The antiquities were returned in excellent condition and meticulous order accompanied by scientific reports and the required drawings. This was not only because we are signatories to the Hague convention, but also due to the fact that we respect the cultural heritage of the Sinai and recognize that the proper place for those antiquities is in Sinai.

In your media release you claimed that, between the years 1967 to 1973, the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated in Nablus and other West Bank sites. This is patently untrue! The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is charged with the enforcement of the Israeli Law of Antiquities, which is applicable in only areas where Israeli law is in force. The IAA only determines archaeological policy, and issues excavation licenses within the borders of Israel. Israel has not applied its own laws to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The existing laws in those areas are the Jordanian law (in the West Bank) and the Egyptian law (in the Gaza Strip). Therefore, until the transfer of responsibility in Nablus to the Palestinian Authority, the person responsible for enforcing Jordanian law was the Archaeological Staff Officer appointed by the Civil Administration. That body�an arm of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)�is legally responsible for the civilian matters in those territories. The Archaeological Staff Officer is not subordinate to nor a part of the IAA. Over the years, the Archaeological Staff Office did indeed conduct many salvage excavations in Nablus and its surroundings due to its flourishing growth. These excavations are of significant scientific value, having uncovered, inter alia, the Hellenistic city on Mount Gerizim (overlooking Nablus on the south), and the rich heritage of Nablus of the Roman period (Neapolis), as well as the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. The full scientific publication (now in preparation) of these excavations will shed new light on the cultural heritage of Nablus�for Israelis and Palestinians alike and for all those in the world who value science.

On some Arguments Raised in Najat�s Lecture:

Israeli archaeology is not conducted on behalf of any ideology, nor does it explicitly serve the heritage of the Jewish people on its land. It is pure science for the purpose of studying the past through its archaeological finds. No one can claim that prehistoric excavations by Israelis are meant to serve the Jewish heritage. No one can claim that the Staff Archaeological Officer excavations in Nablus that uncovered the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic city aimed to search for Jewish roots in that city. No Israeli scholar that studied the Samaritan burials and synagogues in the Nablus area claims that these belong to the Jewish nation and religion. It is patently clear to us that these are Samaritan items. No one can claim that the hundreds of Byzantine churches and monasteries uncovered in Israel and in the PA areas in the past fifty years serve the claims of the Jewish people to the land. Science is science is science, and heritage is heritage is heritage; they belong to all.

Israeli archaeology is not a means to �underline Jewish historical continuity� in Israel, as Dr. Najat contended. I would be surprised to see one scientific paper published by an Israeli with such a claim. I will be happy to refer Dr. Najat to the latest publications by Professor Israel Finkelstein, a respected archaeologist of the Biblical period in Israel, who advocates a significant reduction of the size of the Judean Kingdom. At the same time, I will be happy to refer him to the major archaeological project directed by the late Professor Benjamin Mazar south of the Haram el-Sherif in Jerusalem, where grand palaces built by Umayyad (Muslim) rulers were uncovered. There is no indication of these palaces before their excavation. They did not appear in any written historical source, until the Israeli excavations discovered them.

I will be happy to refer Dr. Najat to the accepted archaeological terminology in Israel when it was decided to label the periods Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid periods with the term �Early Islamic Period� and not with the term used in the rest of the world, �Early Arab Period�, because Israeli scholars are well aware that an Arab element existed in the Levant, west of the Jordan since Hellenistic times.

If Dr. Najat had read recent publications by Israeli archaeologists (published also in English) instead of reciting groundless slogans, he would find hundreds of published excavations with strata from Islamic periods, with excavations proving that the pinnacle of church and monastery construction in Israel took place during the Umayyad period under Islamic rule. The IAA is working to change the Law of Antiquities so that the legal definition of �antiquities� will include objects and sites dating from earlier than 1840, and not as in the law today (in effect since the British Mandate), which fixes the date at 1700. The change in this law will give us better tools for preserving sites and finds from the Ottoman period, in which it is universally accepted that the majority of the populations were Palestinians.

Is this what Dr. Najat refers to as archaeology serving Israel�s ideology?

The purpose of archaeology is to uncover history. Differing interpretation of archaeological sites should not be based upon the researcher�s origins, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Australian or others. It may be that the nascent Palestinian archaeology is still somewhat na�ve (and this is natural). Israeli archaeology is more mature.

I agree fully with every word in the concluding paragraph of Dr. Najat�s abstract, with the addition of the underlined words: �The violent events of the last two years in the Palestinian Territories and in the State of Israel, have not only caused irreversible damages to many archaeological and historical sites of intrinsic value, but also shattered hopes for a better definition of the present and the future of the cultural heritage of the Holy Land.�

In Summary:

The World Archaeological Congress will do well to concentrate on archaeology as a science, and on preserving archaeological and cultural heritage sites. It will also be appreciated were the WAC to sound the alarm for endangered archaeological sites due to armed conflict. But, taking a political position, or providing a stage for only one political position in a conflict, thereby transforming the science of archaeology into a platform for political polemics, is unacceptable. It is clear to every sensible person that �truth� is subjective�each side has its own version. A common cultural heritage of the sons of Abraham�Jews and Arabs�each with divided opinions on the fate of this country, can serve as a lever for fostering peace. A condition for this is that neither side �take possession� of archaeology for its own objectives.

Dr. Uzi Dahari

Deputy Director
Israel Antiquities Authority

Israel Warehouse Holds Mankind's History (The Guardian)

Monday January 19, 2004 10:46 AM


Associated Press Writer


The warehouse is the new home of Israel's National Antiquities Collections, housing close to 1 million artifacts unearthed in excavations in Israel since its founding in 1948.

The Beit Shemesh warehouse was unveiled Sunday. Previously, excavated items were stored in a cramped old building in Jerusalem, said a curator, Galit Litani.


The Beit Shemesh facility only holds artifacts excavated since 1948. Items dug up under pre-state British or Ottoman rule or in the West Bank or Gaza Strip before Israel captured those territories from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Mideast War are kept in various museums and international archaeological institutes in Jerusalem and abroad.

The building is an archive, not a museum, and the boxes of history lining the aisles will not be on view to the general public, Litani said, but scholars and museum staff will be able to borrow items for research or display.

In addition to the nearly 1 million objects held at Beit Shemesh, a similar number are currently out on loan. Litani said the goal was to have as much of the collection as possible on public display.


Sunday, January 18, 2004

DEAD SEA DISCOVERIES has a new issue (10.3) online. The table of contents:

The Date of the Psalms Scroll from the Cave of Letters (5/6HEVPS) Reconsidered
Walter C. Bouzard Jr

4Q Pesher Hoseab: Reconstruction of Fragments 4, 5, 18, and 24
Gregory L. Doudna

Mastema's Attempt on Moses' Life in the "Pseudo-Jubilees" Text from Masada
Esther Eshel

A Qumranic Parallel to 1Thess 4:4? Reading and Interpretation of 4Q416 2 II 21
Menahem Kister

The Book of Jubilees and its Calendar - A Reexamination
Liora Ravid

The Punishment of the Wicked Priest and the Death of Judas
Rick Van De Water

Book Reviews

Requires paid personal or institutional subscription to access.
ROCHELLE ALTMAN, co-coordinator of the Ioudaios-L discussion list, argues that artifacts found near Newark, Ohio, in 1860 are neither proof of Israelites in Pre-Columbian America or modern forgeries: they're medieval relics from Europe, stolen from a murdered European settler in America. Most of the essay deals with paleographic matters I'm not an expert on, and I've only read it over once pretty quickly. I will say that I'm very skeptical about the the Tetrateuch being transcribed as early as the 10th century B.C.E. and about the efforts to use these relics to illuminate the biblical period. But you can read the piece on the Bible and Interpretation News website and decide for yourself:

�First, �recognize that it's a penny�: Report on the "Newark" Ritual Artifacts

She sums up her arguments here:

�� The Newark Ritual artifacts date to the Late Medieval period, as is made clear from stylistic features on the bas-relief sculpture on one of the artifacts and the Late Medieval Hebrew base-script used for the consolidated grid font that appears in the inscriptions on two of the artifacts. The artifacts are authentic, if not what they were thought to be in the 19th century, and, unfortunately, even today.60

��� Claims of modern forgery based on the "peculiar" script, or "spelling" errors (of which there is precisely one after 1500 years or more of copying the text),61 or the pose of the figure on the bas-relief are equally erroneous and have no basis in actuality. The fact that black limestone with crinoid stems can be found in Ohio also has been claimed as evidence that the artifacts are forgeries. Black limestone containing crinoid stems, however, is available throughout the world. The material may be found, for example, in Belgium, England, France, Hungary and Spain. It may also be found in Idaho and the Dakotas as well as in Mercer and Muskingum Counties Ohio.62 The artifacts pass all visual forensic analysis tests. They also pass the materials examination as far as the availability of the material at the probable site(s) of manufacture. That black limestone can also be found in Ohio is irrelevant.

��� Archaeology as a soundly based field only came into being in the 1880's. That in the 1860's claims that the artifacts were forgeries, although the evidence at the site and expert opinion was against this, can be excused. Claims today that these artifacts are forgeries and not "old" enough for where they were found are unacceptable; such claims ignore both basic archaeological standards and the evidence. We can never know whether the artifacts were deposited during the "pirate treasure hunt" phase or sometime shortly after 1832 when the workmen removed 144,000 cartloads of stones from all the stacks at the site. There is, though, little doubt: this set of ritual artifacts was deposited at the two sites during the early part of the nineteenth century. As Dr. Fischel pointed out in 1861, these artifacts are medieval and European and had been stolen from a European settler.

��� The "Newark" Ritual artifacts are neither forgeries nor relics of �Ancient America.� They are, however, very important concrete evidence of Ancient and Medieval Israelite practices. The ancient graphs included in the consolidated script on these phylacteries are also our first small pieces of concrete evidence that a factual basis underlies Exodus 32:15. The shape of the tablet held by Moses as well as the condensed "decalogue" inscribed on the hand phylactery is concrete evidence of the types of authoritative and theological disputes that divided the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In addition, these artifacts also give us some hints as to the continuation of Jewish traditions among the peoples displaced after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. This particular penny is far too important to leave in the obscurity of a wrangle between two extremist sides, both of whom ignore the evidence.

��� If an American penny finds its way onto the Acropolis in Athens or the Colosseum in Rome, we dismiss the question of how it got there as too obvious to be worth asking. This set of late-medieval ritual artifacts found their way to these sites in the United States because they were brought there, as so many family heirlooms were, by a settler from Europe searching for a new home in the new world.

UPDATE (23 January): I have reposted the quotation, since it has been re-edited.
AN EARTHQUAKE in the Old City of Jerusalem could be devastating.

The Bible tells of earthquakes splitting open the hills of this holy city with apocalyptic fury, adding to the mayhem of battles and punctuating Jesus' crucifixion.

Now, a geological survey says the heart of biblical narrative - Jerusalem's walled Old City - would be among the worst hit parts of the city in the event of another earthquake because it rests on layers of debris, not solid rock.

A natural disaster in the Old City could also bring devastating political aftershocks because it is the fiery heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The three-year study, conducted by the Geological Survey of Israel and released this week, found that the Old City is more at risk than modern neighborhoods because of its ancient construction and the underground layers of shifting debris left behind by ransacking armies, said Amos Bein, the center's director.

"The layer below is not made of solid rock, but rather a kind of rubble," Bein said. Those weak foundations could magnify an earthquake's seismic wave, he said.


Most at risk, the report says, is the Old City and the 11-acre (4.4-hectare) elevated plaza housing two major mosques, including the gold-capped Dome of the Rock.

"IT IS AS IT WAS." That's the quote from the Pope on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and it appears he really said it. He also said it was incredibile. Frank Rich has tracked down the source. Not that he approves.

That a movie star would fan these culture wars for dollars is perhaps no surprise, but it demeans the pope to be drafted into that scheme. It also seems preposterous � so much so that I wondered whether the reports of the gravely ill John Paul's thumbs up for "The Passion" were true. A week after the stories first appeared, the highly respected Catholic News Service also raised that question, quoting "a senior Vatican official close to the pope" as saying that after seeing the movie, the pope "made no comment. The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art."

I sought clarification from the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. His secretary, Rosangela Mancusi, responded by e-mail that "this office does not usually comment on the private activities of the Holy Father" and would neither confirm nor deny the pope's feelings about "The Passion." But she suggested that I contact "the two persons who brought the film to the Holy Father and gathered his comments" � Steve McEveety, Mr. Gibson's producer, and Jan Michelini, the movie's assistant director.

Mr. McEveety declined to speak with me from Hollywood, but last week I tracked down Mr. Michelini, an Italian who lives in Rome, by phone in Bombay, where he is working on another film. As he tells it, Mr. McEveety visited Rome in early December, eager "to show the movie to the pope." Mr. Michelini, it turned out, had an in with the Vatican. "Everyone thinks it's a complex story, the pope, the Vatican and all," Mr. Michelini says. "It's a very easy story. I called the pope's secretary. He said he had read about the movie, read about the controversy. He said, `I'm curious, and I'm sure the pope is curious too.' "

A video of "The Passion" was handed over to that secretary � Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom Vatican watchers now describe as second in power only to the pope � on Friday, Dec. 5. "McEveety calls me like crazy, 20 times that weekend, saying, `I want to know what the pope thinks,' " Mr. Michelini continues. On Monday, the archbishop convened a meeting with Mr. McEveety and Mr. Michelini in the pope's apartment. There, Mr. Michelini says, the archbishop quoted the pope not only as saying "it is as it was" but also as calling the movie "incredibile." Mr. Michelini was repeating the archbishop's Italian and said that "incredibile" translates as "amazing," though Cassell's dictionary defines the word as "incredible, inconceivable, unbelievable." But why quarrel over semantics? Followed by an exclamation point, it will look fabulous in an ad, perhaps next to a quote from Michael Medved, the conservative pundit and film critic who has been vying with Ms. Noonan to be the movie's No. 1 publicist.