Thursday, October 07, 2004

TODAY IS SHEMINI ATZERET and tomorrow (starting at sundown tonight) will be Simhat Torah, except in Israel, where both holidays are today. (Sorry, this was mixed up in the original posting. Thanks to reader Michael Eliyahou for the correction. It's been one of those days.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Activists reenact Temple ritual to remove Sharon (Jerusalem Post)

A group of right-wing Jewish activists reenacted a religious ritual from the First Temple period at the Shiloah Spring in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan Tuesday night, with the goal of removing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from power and instituting a Jewish monarchy.

With shofars blasting in the background, the group � led by Prof. Hillel Weiss, a well-known Temple Mount activist and a lecturer on literature at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Yosef Dayan, who recently threatened to instigate a death curse against Sharon � conducted the nisuah hamayim ritual, which they said "will begin the process of removing the secular Israeli government."

"This ceremony will lay the foundations for instituting a Jewish king, a Jewish court, and the Third Temple," Weiss told the 40 participants sitting near the Shiloah Spring. "We will draw inspiration and strength from the ceremony as the holy priests did in Temple times, and we will ensure that the Jewish people will not be removed from their land."


Well, I think the stuff about rebuilding the third temple and replacing the secular government with a religious monarchy is pretty creepy, but as long as they keep their actions to rituals and words (not involving, say, incitement to murder), they can do whatever they like as far as I'm concerned.
MORE ON THE DISCOVERIES CONCERNING EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHICS by a medieval Arab alchemist: Carla Sulzbach e-mails to point me to a message by Lennart Sundelin on the ANE list. Key paragraph:
Unfortunately it [the Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham] was not produced by someone who could actually read hieroglyphics. The Hermetic lore that this work was based on was circulating in Europe, too, long before Champollion, and it was an approach that long proved a dead-end for those trying to 'crack the code'. I think we're still stuck with Champollion and the Rosetta Stone. Alas!

You can find the 1806 English translation of the Arabic work (along with the Arabic original) here and decide for yourself. As Carla points out in her e-mail, whatever the accomplishment of Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah, it's important to keep in perspective that there was no follow-up and the hieroglyphics were not actually deciphered before Champollion.

It's an interesting episode in intellectual history, but my "extraordinary discovery" below was an overstatement. The Observer article overplays the story too. The article in the Daily Times is more measured.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

I'M SKEPTICAL, but this is a very interesting story and, if the claims are borne out, it would be an extraordinary discovery:
Arab scholar 'cracked Rosetta code' 800 years before the West

Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday October 3, 2004
The Observer

It is famed as a critical moment in code-breaking history. Using a piece of basalt carved with runes and words, scholars broke the secret of hieroglyphs, the written 'language' of the ancient Egyptians.

A baffling, opaque language had been made comprehensible, and the secrets of one of the world's greatest civilisations revealed - thanks to the Rosetta Stone and the analytic prowess of 18th and 19th century European scholars.

But now the supremacy of Western thinking has been challenged by a London researcher who claims that hieroglyphs had been decoded hundreds of years earlier - by an Arabic alchemist, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah.

'It has taken years of painstaking research to prove this,' said Dr Okasha El Daly, at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. 'I was convinced that Western scholars were not the first, and I have found evidence that shows Arabian scholars broke the code a thousand years ago.'


Via Bible and Interpretation News. Dr Okasha El Daly is listed as an honorary research assistant at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and you can find an abstract of one of his relevant papers here. More biography here and here.

Also, the Daily Times (Pakistan) has an article today ("Egyptian scholar finds Arab insights into hieroglyphs") with more details. Excerpt:
But Okasha El Daly, who lectures at University College London and holds an outreach post at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, says that a thousand years earlier, when Arab civilisation was close to its height, Muslim scholars not only took an interest in ancient Egypt but could also correctly interpret at least a few characters in the hieroglyphic script. From libraries in Paris and Istanbul, he has dug up manuscripts, which contain tables showing the phonetic value of hieroglyphs. Three Arab scholars between them correctly identified about 10 of the several dozen hieroglyphs, which they thought made up a phonetic alphabet, he told Reuters.

But more importantly, at a time when medieval Europeans thought that hieroglyphs were just magical symbols, the Arab scholars grasped two of the basic principles - that some signs represented sounds while others were determinatives, signs that conveyed the concept of the word pictorially.

That breakthrough was the work of Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiyah, a ninth and 10th century polymath who lived in Iraq and wrote about everything from chemistry to the environment to agriculture and pre-Islamic cultures.

There's more and it's a very interesting read. I wonder if any of it has been published in peer-review journals. If any Egyptologists out there have comments, drop me a note.

UPDATE (6 October): See the next post for more.
Prof. Yisrael Ta-Shema, halakhic scholar, dies at 68

By Avi Katzman

Prof. Yisrael Ta-Shema passed away yesterday at the age of 68, following a long illness. Ta-Shema was a 2003 Israel Prize laureate for Talmud studies and a renowned scholar of the halakha of the Middle Ages and early modern period.


May his memory be for a blessing.

Monday, October 04, 2004

VERY STRANGE. As noted below, I had great difficulty posting today. Blogger has been doing very odd things to me lately in any case: on my office iMac it makes IE 5.2 crash every time I try to open it, yet the same browser works fine on my eMac at home. And now Netscape 7.2 at my office and 7.0 at home are having weird but somewhat different Blogger problems involving buttons that won't work. So I spent the day looking in frustration at a typo in a name which Blogger refused to repost with the correction. Grrrrr.

Is anyone else out there experiencing problems with Blogger?
I REGRET TO INFORM YOU OF THE DEATH OF PROFESSOR ERNEST ("PADDY") BEST, who taught New Testament at the University of St. Andrews (I believe in the 1960s and 70s) before moving to the University of Glasgow. He retired quite a few years ago and moved back to St. Andrews, and I saw him now and again, especially in my early years here. I have no futher details at present, but I'll let you know when I know more.

Blogger is in a bad mood this morning and is consenting to post only very sporadically. I'm doing my best to work around this.
"IN THE BEGINNING": In the current issue of the Forward, Philologos discusses Bereshit, the first word in the Hebrew Bible. (Curiously, the title of the essay is "Cracking the Whip," which appears to be an accidental repetition of the title of last week's essay.) Concluding paragraph of this week's:
Ibn Ezra was expressing himself carefully because he was taking the philosophical position in one of the great medieval debates between orthodox theology and Aristotelian philosophy � namely, that concerning the question: Was matter created by God, or is it coeternal with him? Conventionally minded Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers all insisted, basing themselves on Scripture, on creation ex nihilo, whereas the Aristotelians, like the great Muslim thinker Averroes, held that God fashioned the world out of matter but not matter itself. Ibn Ezra used the reading of bara as bero to come down on the side of Averroes. The next time you are tempted to slight the Hebrew vowel points, reflect that a small difference in a couple of them can change the nature of the universe.

My doctoral student, Sam Giere, is writing a dissertation on the early history of interpretation of Genesis 1:1-5, the first day of creation, so I asked him for his thoughts on the essay. He replies:
My initial reaction is this: The ambiguity of the unpointed text can lead down three paths (helpfully outlined, if I remember correctly, by Wenham in his commentary on Genesis). (1) V.1 is a title and summary for the rest of the account. (2) V.3 is the main clause with v.1 being a temporal clause and v.2 a parenthetic clause - "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, The earth being formless and void, darkness upon the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovering upon the face of the waters, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light." (my translation) One of these first two options seems most appropriate as it is anachronistic to see creatio ex nihilo in Gen 1. Which leads me to option three (3) which preserves the possibility of creatio ex nihilo.

This position understands that v.1 is a statement of the first act of creation. God created the heavens and the earth, so that from that point God has something with which to work. I happen to be looking through Jubilees at the moment for a class I'm teaching and noticed that the author of Jub states unequivocally that on the first day God created the heavens, the earth, the waters, all the spirits, the abyss, darkness, and light effectively taking out of play any difficulties in the first three verses of Genesis. On the genesis of creatio ex nihilo, there is a relatively new article by J.C. O'Neill ("How Early is the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo?" JTS 53 (2002): 449-465) which readers may find interesting. O'Neill explores the question stated in the article title by looking at 2 Macc 7, Joseph and Aseneth 12, Philo's perceived interactions between Moses and Plato, Shepherd of Hermas, among others. He suggests that the Shepherd has a credal formulation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which is known by the mother in 2 Macc 7 and appropriated by in the New Testament. While I haven't had time to go over O'Neill's argument with a fine tooth comb, if his argument is correct the genesis of creatio ex nihilo is unlikely to date back to the Priestly writer/editor(s). Ibn Ezra aside, the question of the ambiguity of bereshit will not be solved from the perspective of creatio ex nihilo or not...

(His ellipses at the end.) For what it's worth, I lean toward his interpretation 2 as the correct understanding of the original sense of Gen 1:1. In other words, I think Genesis (P) taught the existence of primordial matter alongside of God. You can find roughly the same grammatical construction (noun in construct plus finite verbal clause construed together as a subordinate clause) in the Hebrew of Hosea 1:2.

UPDATE: Apologies for the multiple stuttering of this post, which has now been corrected. Blogger was having a bit of fun at my expense.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

THERE'S A NEW TRANSLATION OF THE TORAH by biblical scholar Robert Alter:
Now a noted literary scholar has produced a fresh translation with accompanying commentary. "The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary" (Norton, 800 pages, $39.95) by Robert Alter, professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, will be released this month.

Alter has a longstanding interest in the literary character of the Bible and has written several books on the subject, including "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and "The Art of Biblical Poetry." Speaking by phone from his office recently, Alter said his new book is a continuation of a translation of Genesis that he made about 10 years ago. The project was prompted by dissatisfaction with the way the literary characteristics of Hebrew have been brought into English, including the "Tanakh," which Alter said has "a peculiar insensitivity to English style."

"I felt a lot of modern translations are almost totally obtuse about the stylistic effects of Hebrew. The King James is a great translation, but in many ways it's not too accurate, and it belongs to 17th-century understandings of Hebrew," he said. "I thought it was worth an experiment to see if I could do a version in readable modern English that did much more honor to the rhythms and syntax of Hebrew."

Saturday, October 02, 2004


Peter Kirby, known already for his websites on Early Christian Writings and Early Jewish Writings and the Open Scrolls Project, has just started a new

Christian Origins Blog

He writes:
Recently I have noticed the phenomenon of blogging related to biblical and classical studies. Mark Goodacre's web site is an excellent example. Stephen Carlson has recently brought together blog and site in his Hypotyposeis and Synoptic Problem pages. Realizing that my home page for Christian Origins has been in virtual blog form anyway�brief statements with a date stamp, listed with the most recent at the top�I decided to turn this web site into a blog. Or, more accurately, a hybrid of blog and periodical, as I will continue to create blog-independent web pages for substantial papers, as these are received and reviewed.

Welcome Peter. Assimilation is painless.
A VOLUNTEER AT THE "JOHN THE BAPTIST CAVE" gives the Asheville Citizen-Times a personal account of the excavation. Excerpts:
Harry Tolley joined Dr. James Tabor at the site near the Kibbutz Tsuba in May 2001. . . .

"When I was on the dig, it had this top-secret air to it," Tolley said. "We weren't allowed to take pictures or talk to people because Shimon Gibson wanted to spring this on the archeological world. He also really wanted to have some space to work on the research for his book. I've been telling people about this for years and they never really believed me, but now I'm telling them again."
MORE ON THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBIT AT THE HOUSTON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE (Houston Chronicle), including comments from Professor Mattias Henze of Rice University and other local scholars.
"Advance ticket sales have been phenomenal," said Lydia Baehr, public relations director of the museum. More than 13,000 tickets have been sold, the most in the museum's history, she said.

Also, The San Marcos Daily Record has an article on Randall Price and the recent Qumran excavation. As I've said before, it sounds to me as though he's overreading the evidence, but it's hard to say what it all means until a formal report comes out.

This sounds exciting:
A series of DNA tests is set to be performed on the bones found by Price and his team, because the Dead Sea Scrolls were written on the animal's skin. A test could confirm that the DNA of the skin matches that of the bones - thus showing that the same community that buried the bones also posessed the scrolls.

And so does this:
While this mode of work is significant in uncovering pieces of world history, Price would like to bring this world to his native community of San Marcos.

Price said he's considering the idea of bringing a museum to San Marcos. This museum could contain many of the discoveries found in the Middle East by Price and his colleagues - pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Egyptian artifacts were offered as possible examples.

You can find more on the debate over recent excavations at Qumran here.
Ancient bowl heads back to Middle East

Rosie Cowan, crime correspondent
Saturday October 2, 2004
The Guardian

A rare Middle Eastern incantation bowl - which is buried underneath houses to ward off evil spirits - has been handed in to Scotland Yard for return to the region.

A London art dealer, whom police refused to identify, brought in the item, which he had purchased in Jordan some years ago. It may have come from Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Syria or Israel, where it was common to place bowls upside down in the foundations of new homes.


Actually, as far as I can recall, all the incantation bowls that have sure provenances have come from Iraq. Does anyone know of an exception?

Kudos to the dealer for playing it straight and turning in the item.

Too bad there's no photograph with the article.

Friday, October 01, 2004

TWO NEW TRANSLATIONS OF 1 ENOCH: Gabriele Boccaccini e-mails:
Two new English translations of 1 Enoch have been published:

(A) George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam
1 Enoch: A New Translation
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004
[The volume contains the translation that the authors have done for the Hermeneia Commentary, based on the best critically reconstructed text that takes into consideration all of the textual data now available in the Ethiopic version, the Greek texts, and the Dead Sea Aramaic fragments]

(B) Daniel Olson (with Melkesedek Workeneh)
Enoch: A New Translation
North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 2004
[An edition with annotations and cross-references, aimed at the general reader]
THE FROM THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS TO THE BIBLE EXHIBITION is in Michiana, Elkhart County, Indiana for the month of October. The story is noted in the South Bend Tribune and WNDU-TV. From the latter:
Co-curator Joel Lampe said, "We've had people spend three hours in front of a case we've had people come back 5-6 times because there is 5000 years of history on the exhibition floor."

The exhibit is centered on these fragments of the Old Testament dating back over 2000 years, found in the 1940's in the northwest corner of the Dead Sea. Scholars say the tiny pieces of history speak volumes about religion today. "Its a powerful exhibit it shows how God has preserved His word from the beginning of time to the present. No other faith can do what this exhibit can do for the Jewish and Christian faith," said Lampe.

The exhibit also displays important historic findings including the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence printed in 1776 from the original, some of the earliest printed Bibles and ancient Egyptian artifacts.

Does that mean the Magna Carta? The original? That's impressive.
FURTHER TO THE SBL-SEMINAR-PAPER CITATION CONTROVERSY, which I started a while ago, I've been meaning to note that Paul Nikkel of Deinde has also weighed in on the subject ("Opening access while restricting interaction with papers of a 'provisional' nature discourages dialogue at the point where it is most valuable and fruitful."). And now Mark Goodacre notes that AKMA has posted on it as well ("I�m firmly in the camp of those who regard this as a spasmodic contraction of the failing muscles of the moribund model of print publication"). Near as I can tell, the blogging contingent of the SBL membership agree that the new SBL policy on citation of Seminar Papers is ill conceived and counterproductive. I'm disappointed that the Society hasn't taken the opportunity to discuss this with us more.