Saturday, September 25, 2004

PONTIUS PILATE ESSAY: Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, has an essay on Pilate on the Bible and Interpretation website:
Pontius Pilate: Roman Governor

Pilate�s enormous �life and death� power should shape how we read the gospel narratives of Jesus� crucifixion. Pilate is not a neutral or weak or minor character. He is not forced to crucify Jesus by the Jerusalem leaders against his will. He crucifies Jesus because it is in Rome�s interests to do so, interests he is charged with protecting and furthering.

Friday, September 24, 2004

TORREY SELAND profiles a 1987 Norweigen doctoral dissertation that argues that the De Aeternitate Mundi was not by Philo of Alexandria. The dissertation has subsequently been enlarged and translated into English, but it isn't easy to get at.
I'VE TAPED THIS BBC HORIZON PROGRAM on Solomon's Temple and the forged "Joash Inscription," but I haven't had time to watch it yet. When I've seen it, I'll comment further.
Building Minaret on Temple Mount 'Dangerous' Move, Expert Says
By Julie Stahl Jerusalem Bureau Chief
September 23, 2004

Jerusalem ( - Building a fifth minaret on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a dangerous move because it jeopardizes the religious status quo there, an expert in Jerusalem said.

Local press reports this week indicated that Jordanian religious officials, who oversee the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount, are planning to build a fifth minaret at the site, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif.


Dr. Yitzhak Reiter from the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies said allowing the construction of a minaret or anything on the mount is a "dangerous" and "irresponsible" move.

"The idea is a little bit dangerous because any change in the character of the site, digging, building, structural change is a violation of the status quo," Reiter said.


Archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar is concerned about the idea of building on the Mount for other reasons.

Mazar is member of the non-political, Committee for Preventing the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, which sounded the alarm about what it considers the wholesale destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount.

It is imperative that no construction be performed on the Mount without proper archeological supervision, Mazar said.

Comparing the Temple Mount's archeological significance to that of the Egyptian pyramids, she said that in the past the Wakf has used seemingly reasonable requests to engage in large building projects.


Given the WAQF's track record on this sort of thing, I'm sure not thrilled about a new construction project on the Temple Mount.
YOM KIPPUR, the Day of Atonement, begins this evening at sundown. I wish my Jewish readers an easy fast.
THE THREATENED KABBALISTIC CURSING OF ARIEL SHARON is the subject of Philologos's column this week in the Forward:
Cracking the Whip
September 24, 2004

'Who by water and who by fire," says a line in the Yom Kippur prayer U'Netaneh Tokef, which speaks of the different kinds of death in store for those not inscribed in this year's Book of Life � and if some of the extremist enemies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Gaza disengagement plan have their way, fire will be his fate. That is, the prime minister won't die in fire but of it, from a pulsa de-nura ("whip of fire") ceremony in which he will be cursed. "Once Again: Threats of Murder and Pulsa Denura," announced a banner headline in the Rosh Hashanah issue of the mass-circulation Israeli tabloid Yediot Aharonot.

"Once Again," for those unaware of it, is a reference to the pulsa de-nura that was performed by a small group of far right-wing Jews shortly before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to the efficacy of which his death was then attributed.


After describing a modern pulsa de-nura ceremony, Philologos goes on to discus the origins of the ritual:
But what does all this have to do, you may ask, with whips of fire? Not very much, it would seem. Nor will you find a single reference to a pulsa de-nura ceremony in any traditional Jewish source. All that can be found is the Aramaic term itself, which occurs in several stories in the Talmud.

The most charming and interesting of these stories � one meant to illustrate the dangers of exaggerated spiritual powers � is in the tractate of Bava Metsi'a and tells how the wonder-working Rabbi Hiyya came to synagogue on a public fast day that had been declared to pray for the end of a drought. When, the Talmud tells us, he uttered the words in the Eighteen Benedictions, "He maketh the winds blow," a strong wind sprang up at once; when he said on its heels, "And He maketh the rain fall," it began to pour cats and dogs, and as he approached the words, "And He maketh the dead rise," panic broke out in heaven lest the dead be resurrected prematurely, before the coming of the messiah. "Who has revealed such [spiritual] secrets to mankind?" God demanded to know. "[The prophet] Elijah," the angels told Him. At once, the Talmud relates, Elijah was struck by "60 whips of fire" (pulsei de-nura), which caused him to descend to earth looking "like a fiery bear" and to drive Rabbi Hiyya from the synagogue in the nick of time.


Good story. There's another, in some ways similar one in the early (pre-Kabbalistic) mystical text 3 Enoch 16:
R. Ishmael said:

Metatron, the angel prince of the Presence, the adornment of the height of all, said to me:

In the beginning I was enthroned on a great throne at the gate of the seventh (celestial) palace, and I judged all the sons of the heights, the household of the Omnipresent One, with the authority of the Holy One, blessed be He. And I apportioned greatness, kingship, greatness, power, adornment, praise, the garland, the crown, and glory to all the princes of the kingdoms, when I sait enthroned in the court on high. And the princes of the kingdoms stood in attendance on me on my right and my left, with the authority of the Holy One, blessed be He. But when the Other One (Aher, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah) came to observe the vision of the Chariot and he set his eyes on me, he was afraid and troubled before me and his soul was confounded to the point of leaving him, because of dread, awe, and fear of me. When he saw me, that I was enthroned like a king and the ministering angels were standing in attendance on me like servants and all the princes of the kingdoms, wearing crowns, surrounded me, in that hour he opened his mouth and said, "Surely there are two Powers in heaven!"

At once a heavenly voice (bat qol) went forth from before the Shekhinah, saying, "Return, backsliding sons, apart from the Other One." In that hour Anapiel YHWH, the glorious, adorned, lovely, wonderful, frightening prince came by the commission of the Holy One, blessed be He, and struck me with sixty lashes of light (pulsot shel 'or) and he made me stand on my feet.

(My translation.) Metatron is the deified Enoch, who in chapter 15 was turned into an enormous being of fire and given the title the Little YHWH. He was given his own (comparatively!) little throne in the seventh heaven next to God's big one and, when the notorious heretic R. Elisha ben Abuyah ascended into heaven on a mystical journey, he was confused and concluded (perhaps not entirely unreasonably) that if there were two enthroned superbeings in heaven, that must mean there were two Gods. His punishment was to be made unable to repent and Enoch/Metatron's (effectively, for inadvertently inciting to heresy) was the "sixty lashes of light" (which looks to me like an attempt at a Hebrew translation of the Aramaic pulsei de-nura) and the loss of his seat.

Such is the mythic background of the Kabbalistic ceremony. The ritual itself, as Philologos notes, is modern. And at least one of its recipients died many years later of old age. I'm pretty sure it hasn't actually been done to Sharon, since, legally, it would probably count as incitement to murder. Rebecca Lesses has more about the threat in Mystical Politics.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

THE ALEPPO CODEX, a tenth-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, is being placed online (requires Flash). So far, material from Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel has been posted. (Via the Hirhurim blog.)

UPDATE: Jim West tells me that the complete surviving text of the Aleppo Codex is posted here, but it seems to require a font that I don't have. If there are images, as on the first site, I can't find them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

HERE'S AN ACADEMIC TRANSLATION SERVICE FOR GERMAN, geared especially toward religious studies and theology. I don't know the the translator and can't vouch for the service, so use it at your own risk. But you can read the translator's M.Th. dissertation from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Wales here. If you do use the service, drop me a note and let me know what you think.
HERE'S ANOTHER WILLIAM MCKANE OBITUARY, this one in the Scotsman. For some reason it never registered on Google News.
US report on Zayed centre is 'baseless'
By Muawia E. Ibrahim (Khaleej Times)

22 September 2004

ABU DHABI � The Office of Information Affairs for UAE Deputy Prime Minister has criticised a US State Department report on religious freedom, which accused former Zayed Centre for Co-ordination and Follow-up (ZCCF) of promoting anti-Semitic views, describing these charges as "baseless" and "false".

The 'International Religious Freedom Report 2004', issued by the Department on September 15, accused the centre of "providing a platform for some anti-Semitic individuals" and "publishing some books with anti-Semitic themes."

In a statement clarifying its position, which was made available to Khaleej Times yesterday, the deputy premier's information office rejected these claims and called on the US Administration to practice what it preaches i.e. to allow freedom of expression and exercise tolerance.

"We would like to state unequivocally that the Zayed Centre never hosted any speaker who promoted anti-Semitic views of any kind at the Centre, as claimed by the 2004 Report. It is unfortunate that the authors of this official US government report ignored this established fact and failed to substantiate their claims with names, dates and other evidence," said the statement.

This is a bit rich, now that the Zayed Centre website has been taken down and so someone who hasn't been following the story can't check to verify this claim. Fortunately I did extract some material on Jewish-Temple denial from the website when it was still there. Have a look and see if any of it sounds anti-Semitic to you. It certainly contains some bogus history. There was more and worse anti-Semitic material that I didn't copy, as anyone who perused the site will remember. The Khaleej Times article continues:
It accused the authors of the report of choosing to mimic questionable and politically-motivated charges made by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) claiming that the Centre hosted anti-Semitic speakers such as British historian David Irving and Jurgen Mollemann.

"These baseless charges were debunked in an earlier clarification widely circulated in the Arab and international media on September 3, 2003, stating that the Centre never hosted these speakers because it opposes all forms of hatred and racism directed at any ethnic, religious or national group, including anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism."


Follow this link for the MEMRI report in question. Here's the relevant passage (all bold-font emphasis in what follows is in the original):
Under the title "A lot of Right that was Lost because of Some Wrong," Saudi journalist Sa'd Ibn Salih Al-Sirhan wrote on the closure of the Zayed Centre: "The problem of the Zayed Centre� and its sad end reveal a chronic mismanagement of our cultural and intellectual affairs. The Centre committed professional mistakes and allowed itself to be dragged into unscholarly allegations whose only purpose was to criticize America, rightly or wrongly. It embraced a number of racist lecturers� and devoted itself to provocations: provoking the Jews generally, both Zionist and non-Zionist, and provoking America. When those in charge of the Centre would hear of a person hostile to America and its policies or hostile to Israel or to Zionism or to Jews � they would initiate an invitation to him or establish relations with him regardless of the scholarly value of his thesis or his ideological background, which could be totally racist.

"The Centre has hosted every Holocaust denier and every one who downplayed the number of the victims - a matter which is deeply rooted in Western consciousness but is of no great interest to Arabs. When a scandal burst out in the media regarding the German leader Jurgen Mollemann because of statements he made on account of which he was accused of antisemitism � those in charge of the Centre rushed to invite him. The Centre has also established contact with the British historian David Irving � a rightwing extremist - because he denied the Holocaust. This Irving figured in the scandal of the notorious 'Hitler Diaries.' The Centre also did not fail to host a certain Saudi lecturer of mediocre level, who wrote a racist article in a Saudi paper in which she propagated a racist Western rumor, namely, that the Jews make the pastries of one of their holidays with children's blood. Even though this myth refers to one holiday only, our lecturer insisted on speaking of two holidays; in one of them pastries are made with the blood of a Christian child while in the other the pastries are made with the blood of a Muslim child. For that reason the Centre hosted her.

It actually says that, according to this Saudi journalist, Mollemann was invited to the Centre, but not that he spoke there, and that the Centre "established contact" with Irving. The statement does say that "The Centre has hosted every Holocaust denier and every one who downplayed the number of the victims," but I take that to be hyperbole. The statement then gives some specifics about two such figures but does not say that either lectured there.

More details are given in this report:
IV: The Zayed Centre Praises Antisemitic German Leader for His 'Impressive Stances Regarding the Jewish Antisemitism Claims

A controversial German politician, Jurgen Molleman, [9] as a parliamentarian for the Free Democrat party, as well as the president of the Deutsch-Arabische-Gesselschaft (German-Arab Society), has on several occasions compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and has implied that he supports Palestinian terrorist attacks, saying that he would "resist violently" [10] if he was in a similar situation. Mollemann is best known for his support of German pride and nationalism and has blamed Jews and Israel for harming the German self-image by perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust.

On July 6, 2002, the Executive Director of the Zayed Centre sent a letter to Mollemann inviting him to speak at the Zayed Centre. The letter stated that the Centre "[appreciates] your impressive stances regarding the Jewish antisemitism claims� Accordingly, we have the pleasure to invite you to give a lecture at the Zayed Centre on one of the topics related to the controversy on Semitism." [11] (See Appendix A)


V: Holocaust Denier David Irving on the Zayed Center

Holocaust Denier David Irving, whose website includes many antisemitic diatribes such as a June 1, 2003 entry quoting a letter that he wrote to London's Sunday Times: "You report that President Bush visited Auschwitz and bowed his head at the Wall of Death. Lucky he did not study the World War II aerial photos of Auschwitz first�that particular wall did not exist then. But then, he must be getting quite used to this kind of fakery.� [13]

Irving also wrote about the Zayed Centre a few days later on June 5, stating: "There is an article in the Harvard Crimson of May 23 regarding the controversy surrounding a donation from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. By Rachel Lea Fish , the article states: 'Not only does the Zayed Centre promote intolerance and hatred towards America, Jews and Israel, but it also attempts to deny the atrocities of the Holocaust and allows individuals such as notorious Holocaust deniers David Irving and Roger Garaudy, a forum to promulgate their propaganda.'" Irving then goes on to write the following response: "As those familiar with my books know (and there were forty-seven of them in the Widener Library [at Harvard University] last time I checked) I have never written about the Holocaust (I find it boring, along millions of others); and I have never set foot or eye on the Zayed Centre forum.� [14]

However, the Zayed Centre issued a report in Arabic titled "Those Who Challenged Israel" on September 2, 2001, which stated: "This study is a historical document for all readers, in particular Arab readers. It sheds light on all the figures from around the world who have challenged Israel � Charles de Gaulle who imposed an arms ban on Israel; Kurt Waldheim who admitted the PLO to the United Nations; David Irving, the premier WWII historian, who denies the holocaust; Jorg Haider, the leader of the right-wing, Austrian Freedom Party; and finally, prominent writer and thinker, Roger Garaudy who has written well known books against Israel and global Zionism.� [15]

Again, no claim is made that these two men spoke at the Centre. Indeed, the report quotes Irving to say that he did not.

Other MEMRI reports on the Zayed Centre are here and here. These several reports document in detail the anti-Semitic activities of the Zayed Centre. If the Centre had left its website up, this could all be readily verified from its own record, but obviously the site was an embarrassment and had to go. Evidently its sponsors now think enough time has passed that they can start denying what the Centre actually did and twisting what its critics have said about it.

Guess again.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

THE HOUSTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE has an exhibit on The Dead Sea Scrolls opening on 1 October. Cool website.
Beirut (AsiaNews) - The 9th Syriac Symposium and the 7th conference on Christian Arab Studies start today in Kaslik, near Beirut. The two events are organised jointly by the Holy Spirit University (Kaslik) and the CEDRAC of Saint Joseph University (Beirut).


More than 200 papers will be presented (and discussed beginning today till Saturday). Some will deal with decoding Syriac and Arabic translations of ancient Aramaic, Coptic, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.


Monday, September 20, 2004

THE TEMPLE MOUNT is the subject of a short article in last week's Time Magazine:
The Weight of the World:
As Israelis and Arabs bicker, the Temple Mount risks collapse

Nothing much new in it, but it does summarize the current state of play.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

THE CYRUS CYLINDER, as I noted in an earlier post, is being loaned by the British Museum to the Tehran National Museum. This article in the Art Newspaper tells the remarkable story of its loan to Iran once before, during the Shah's celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the establishment of the Persian monarchy under Cyrus in 1971. Much cloaking and daggering seems to have been involved. The article concludes:
British Museum director Neil MacGregor is astonished at the revelations in the Foreign Office file and is keen to stress that relations between British and foreign museums have changed profoundly since 1971. �In the space of a generation there has been an unprecedented sharing of cultural heritage on the international exhibition circuit. The idea of objects going out and coming back is now completely normal; in those days it was more of a big deal. Today it is done on a museum-to-museum basis, not at governmental level. I have informed the Foreign Office about our plans to lend the Cyrus Cylinder and told our ambassador in Tehran, but that is all�. Looking back, Mr MacGregor is horrified at suggestions that the Cyrus Cylinder might have been given to the Shah for short-term political and military gains. The BM�s current Keeper of the Ancient Near East, John Curtis, is convinced that it is right to lend the cylinder again to Tehran. He also points out that the cylinder was inscribed by a Babylonian scribe and discovered in Babylon, now part of modern Iraq. �The Cyrus Cylinder is just as much part of the cultural heritage of Iraq as Iran. In due course, we might consider lending it to the National Museum in Baghdad�.
BOOK REVIEW in the Washington Times:
By Jennifer Wallace
Duckworth Publishing, $25, 220 pages, illus.


As Cambridge literature lecturer Jennifer Wallace suggests in her interesting new book, "Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination," archaeology is burdened by the sheer evocativeness of its subject: the ground. The business of digging things up cannot help but be an imaginative enterprise as much as a scientific one. As such, there is a need for what the author calls an "archaeological poetics" � "a sensitivity to the ground's elegiac capacity for recording and memorializing vanished histories and personal loss."


Although archaeological methods have advanced since the days of Schliemann, people are no less moved nowadays to interpret the paltriest remains in terms of their favorite stories. We seek reassuring physical evidence of their historical truthfulness, scrape for signs that they weren't (at least not completely) made up.
Archaeology in the Holy Land is a case in point. Although Ms. Wallace offhandedly suggests that all religions probably have their archaeology, faith in the historical validity of the miraculous seems intensified in Judaism and Christianity, accounting for the age-old, profound, at times naive, archaeological obsession with the landscape of Israel � a landscape one 19th-century Protestant called the "fifth gospel." The author observes that the ways Catholics and Protestants have approached that stone-strewn ground differ markedly, reflecting different feelings about history and faith.
For Jews, whose inhabitation of that landscape is ratified by the biblical narrative, the religious significance of the stones is further complicated by politics. (Israeli-Palestinian politics, Ms. Wallace observes, is the largely unacknowledged rhinoceros in the room of contemporary biblical archaeology.)


The main theme of the book seems to be archaeology and literature but it sounds quite wide ranging. It deals with the usual suspects (Troy, Pompeii, the "Ice Man," etc.) and even the exhumation of John Milton and the excavation of Ground Zero in New York.