Saturday, December 25, 2004

GEZA VERMES has an article on Jesus in yesterday's Times:
When you strip away all the pious fiction, what is left of the real Jesus?

It's a good summary of one mainstream view of the historical Jesus. I'm not sure whether we can really say that he had no political ambition. Nor am I prepared to rule out that he had some sort of messianic consciousness or even thought of himself as an angel or a god. There's some contemporary precedent for such ideas in the figure of Melchizedek in the Dead Sea Scrolls and also the figure of Enoch in the Similitudes of Enoch, and some of the material in the Gospels points in that direction. There's so much about Jesus which we just don't know. But the stratigraphic approach does lead to pretty much the picture Vermes presents.

He had e-mailed me earlier this week to alert me that the piece was coming out on Friday, but I couldn't find it yesterday. Evidently the Times isn't indexed by Google. But Helenann Hartley had the link.
MORE ON THE IVORY POMEGRANATE FORGERY: Today's A.P. article has some additional information on how the forgery was detected (my emphasis):
Snyder said the pomegranate was examined by several scholars before and after the purchase and was authenticated for the museum by Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad.

The director said the pomegranate was examined with the technologies available at the time. "I think care was taken," Snyder said. "If one does not take advantage of opportunities to bring into a museum setting objects that don't surface in excavations, you might miss great objects."

He said the pomegranate was re-examined with a new type of microscope that detected synthetic material in the inscription, between the ivory and the patina.

The museum said another ancient object displayed with the pomegranate, a 2,600-year-old silver amulet with a priestly blessing carved into it, was re-examined and deemed authentic.

The Ketef Hinnom silver amulets were scientifically excavated, so I don't doubt that they are authentic.

As for the pomegranate and other forgeries, I'm struck by how the forgers often seem to be some years inside the scholarly response cycle. In other words, the forgers can produce forgeries that are undetectable by the best current methods of evaluation, but the forgeries are uncovered not too many years later by new technologies unknown to the forgers or the original autheticators. I doubt the forgers care; they've already safely made their sale and crawled back into the woodwork.

I don't know if there's a solution to this problem. It may be that a century from now forgers will be producing undetectably forged first-century scrolls using nanoreplicators that deposit just the right number of C-14 atoms into the manufactured parchments to make them appear ancient, and it will only be ten or twenty years later that scholars will use the new Berry-phase data-recovery technology to detect that the quantum entanglements of the forged scrolls are all from the twenty-second century.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating.

Here's the earliest preserved meditation on Matthew's star of Bethlehem story, by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Ephesians in the early second century:
19:1 And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord -- three mysteries to be cried aloud -- the which were wrought in the silence of God.

19:2 How then were they made manifest to the ages? A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars; and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star itself far outshone them all; and there was perplexity to know whence came this strange appearance which was so unlike them.

19:3 From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom was pulled down, when God appeared in the likeness of man unto newness of everlasting life; and that which had been perfected in the counsels of God began to take effect. Thence all things were perturbed, because the abolishing of death was taken in hand.

Friday, December 24, 2004

FOR YOUR CHRISTMAS PRESENT I've updated the links page for PaleoJudaica, adding perhaps a couple dozen new sites, including some blogs I've been meaning to link to. Enjoy.
THE POOL OF SILOAM STORY is being recycled for Christmas:
Archeologists uncover pool believed to be site of Biblical miracle
Dig where Jesus said to restore blind man's sight

By Ramit Plushnick-Masti, Associated Press | December 24, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Archeologists in Jerusalem have identified the remains of the Siloam Pool, where the Bible says Jesus miraculously cured a man's blindness, researchers said yesterday -- underlining a stirring link between the works of Jesus and ancient Jewish rituals.

The archeologists are slowly digging out the pool, where water still runs, tucked away in what is now the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. It was used by Jews for ritual immersions for about 120 years until 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple.

THE IVORY POMEGRANATE IS A FORGERY according to the Israel Museum:
Museum: Solomon's Temple relic a forgery
12/24/2004, 12:47 a.m. CT
The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) � The Israel Museum announced Friday that one of its most prized possessions, an ivory pomegranate touted as the only existing relic from Solomon's Temple, is a forgery.

The thumb-sized pomegranate dates to the Bronze period, meaning it is older than the first Jewish Temple, and the inscription was added recently, the museum said, releasing findings by a committee of experts.

The inscription, in ancient Hebrew lettering, reads: "Belonging to the Temple of the Lord (Yahweh), holy to the priests."

Scholars had believed that the cream-colored pomegranate, which has a hole in the bottom, was used as the top of a scepter carried by a temple priest.

The temple was built in the 6th century B.C. and expanded by Herod before being destroyed in the year 70. Today, the Dome of the Rock � a Muslim shrine that is part of the Al Aqsa complex � is located near the site of ancient temple.

Actually, it's the second temple that's dated to the six century B.C.E. Solomon's temple would have been built in the tenth century, and it was from the latter that the ivory pomegranate was thought to come.

In addition, as already noted by Mark Goodacre and others, Oded Golan is to be indicted on forgery charges next week:
Israel's Justice Ministry said Thursday it will charge the owner of the ossuary and the tablet, Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan, with forgery next week. However, ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti would not say whether the charges referred to the ossuary and the tablet, or to others.

UPDATE: More details on the ivory pomegranate story in this Ha'aretz article.

UPDATE (25 December): More here.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES is well known for his ghost stories, classic dramatizations of which are currently being shown on BBC4, as pointed out by Mark Goodacre. Mark notes his Apocryphal New Testament, but James was also a major contributor to the recovery and publication of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I cite his editions a number of times in The Book. Bob Kraft has some interesting information in Reviving, Refurbishing, and Repurposing the Lost Apocrypha of M.R. James page. And here's a page by Rosemary Pardoe (whom I don't know) on M.R. James and The Testament of Solomon, which includes some of James's work on the T.Sol. In June I linked to James's translation of Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities.

As for his ghost stories (some of which you can find here), I agree with Mark that they're a great read. When I read them years ago, I remember being convinced that one was set in St. Andrews (which has a perfect Lovecraftian atmosphere for such things), although I can't remember which one now. The whole collection is available in Britain in a cheap paperback, although it seems to be out of print in the USA.

UPDATE (28 December): More here.
MY PORTUGUESE IS VERY RUDIMENTARY, but I could make out that this (Google translation here) is a compliment. Thanks!

UPDATE (28 December): A better translation, plus more, here.
HELENANN HARTLEY, whom I first met a few years ago at my Dead Sea Scrolls Conference (she was Helenann Francis then), has been assimilated to the blogosphere. Her new blog, "Helenann Hartley," has to do with "general musings on daily life with a focus on all matters religious" and she promises to keep a special look out for news relating to the Apostle Paul. Welcome Helenann. (Heads-up, Mark Goodacre.)
THERE'S A BRIEF OBITUARY for Jonathan A. Goldstein by Linda Yannay in today's H-Judaic Digest.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

HAPPY BLOGIVERSARY (slightly belated) to Torrey Seland's Philo of Alexandria blog!
CANA IN GALILEE, the site where Jesus is reported in John 2 to have turned water into wine, is being excavated. Maybe. There seems to be some dispute over the exact identification of the town, and two rival sites are being excavated. Stone jar fragments have been found at both (cf. John 2:6).

We're off to buy some lumber for those shelves. More later, maybe.

UPDATE: David Meadows over at Rogue Classicism notes the silliness of the A.P. article. This occurred to me too, but I didn't have time to pursue it because we were about to go out the door. The article (second link above) has this bit:
Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexander says the Arab town was built near the ancient village.

The jar pieces date to the Roman period, when Jesus traveled in the Galilee.

"All indications from the archaeological excavations suggest that the site of the wedding was [modern-day] Cana, the site that we have been investigating," said Alexander as she cleaned the site of mud from winter rains.

American archaeologists excavating a rival site several miles to the north also have found pieces of stone jars from the time of Jesus and say they have found biblical Cana.

Another expert, archaeologist Shimon Gibson, cast doubt on the find at modern Cana, since such vessels are not rare and it would be impossible to link a particular set of vessels to the miracle.

"Just the existence of stone vessels is not enough to prove that this is a biblical site," and more excavations are needed, he said.

My bold-font emphasis. The emphasized phrase is weird. It seems to imply that someone was claiming not only that the excavation is of the right town at the right time (which is possible, if yet to be proven), but that it had found the actual room of the wedding and the actual jars that Jesus used (which is silly). I'm quite sure the archaeologists said no such thing. The only guesses I can hazard are either that the reporter misunderstood and incorrectly paraphrased whatever Gibson said or that the reporter misunderstood what the excavators said and asked Gibson if he thought that the jars were the ones from the wedding at Cana story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

TWO MORE SUGGESTIONS on what bloggers on biblical subjects should call themselves:

Scriptoblogger - Peter Kirby on the Christian Origins blog.

Biblogger (apparently pronounced "bye blogger") - Ed Cook here and here at Ralph.

Meanwhile, Rub�n G�mez at the Bible Software Review blog is sticking with biblioblogger.
TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: More on the planned (or is it just proposed?) rebuilding of the Mughrabim Gate walkway:
Engineer: Western Wall embankment could collapse
By Nadav Shragai (Ha'aretz)

The Jerusalem Municipality is demanding that an embankment leading from beside the Western Wall, via the Mughrabi Gate, to the Temple Mount be demolished immediately, for fear of its collapse.

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: This sounds ominous:
Target: The Temple Mount
By Nadav Shragai (Ha'aretz)


But among the extremists in the Temple Mount movements, a different wind is blowing these days. As the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements draws near, a return to the old beliefs - the ones that Rabbi Yeshua Ben Shushan tried to put into practice 25 years ago, in the framework of the Jewish underground - has become evident. On the eve of the evacuation of the Yamit settlement in Sinai, Ben Shushan, basing himself on kabbalistic sources, concluded that "Muslim control of the Temple Mount is the root of the corruption of the Jewish nation, and this control gives Islam a spiritual wellspring from which its believers draw the strength of their presence in Israel." Ben Shushan and some of his comrades therefore reasoned that removing this "abomination" from the mount by blowing up the mosques would halt the withdrawal from Sinai.

In recent years, this simplistic outlook has penetrated the extreme margins of religious society, particularly the group known as the "Hilltop Youth" and small groups of the newly religious. The worldview of some of these groups is characterized by uncompromising messianism, alongside an anachronism that almost blatanly disconnects them from Israeli society and the state. Some of these young men "dropped out" of mainstream ultra-Orthodox or religious Zionist society because of crime or drug problems.


The writer does see some room for hope though:
The only people capable of reaching such groups - or groups that are not "kabbalistic," but view blowing up the Temple Mount as an effective means of torpedoing the evacuation of Gush Katif - in order to prevent an attack on the mount and the disaster that the Muslim world would wreak on us in retaliation, are the rabbis of the Temple Mount movements.

Most of these rabbis understand that blowing up the mosques would not only fail to hasten the redemption or prevent territorial withdrawals and settlement evacuations, but would in fact accelerate the withdrawals and evacuations. Most also understand that even though it might have been possible to act differently 37 years ago and establish a significant Jewish presence on the mount, the wall that separates the people of Israel from the mount would only be reinforced by such a mad act, while the state of Israel and its government would pay a much higher price, first and foremost on the Temple Mount, if the mosques were damaged.
HERE'S AN OBITUARY from the Times of London for the Rev Professor Carsten Thiede, who died last week. The obit mentions his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls but doesn't note his controversial attempt to support the presence of New Testament documents among them. Requiescat in pace.
HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE (or whatever it is you're supposed to say) to any Neopagan readers.

UPDATE: Also, happy Shab-e Cheleh (Festival of Yalda) to any Iranian readers.

Monday, December 20, 2004

ANOTHER SUGGESTION: Rick Brannan on Ricoblog proposes:
It seems the common thread that holds such blogs together as a group is a primary focus on Biblical literature. Yes, it's about the Bible (hence �biblioblogger� and other suggestions �bibliablogger�, �biblicoblogger�, �biblicablogger�) but y'all reference other material as well � as evidenced by the excellent multi-blog thread on NT background literature last week. So, I thought, how about �Bib-Lit Blogger�? I'm not sure if it would be better dashed (Bib-Lit Blogger) camel-cased (BibLit Blogger or BibLitBlogger) or as a compound word (Biblitblogger or Biblit Blogger). But it has some of the same alliterative goodness that makes �biblioblogger� roll off the tongue, with just a bit more specificity than �biblioblogger� offers.

Doesn't grab me, although it's no worse that many of the other suggestions. So far none of the proposals (including mine) combine what we do in a few intuitively obvious, baggage-free, esthetically tolerable syllables. Let's keep trying.
THE JAMES OSSUARY STORY is profiled by 60 Minutes in an article called "Holy Fake?" based on a program shown last night, which I haven't seen. (I guess they have good reason nowadays to take an interest in forgery detection. Better late than never.) There's little if anything new in it as far as I can see (I'm not sure I've heard the accusations in the last paragraph before this), but it's not a bad summary of the history and state of play. It concludes:
Does he think the ossuary is real or fake? "I would say it's probably real," says [Ben] Witherington.

But the Antiquities Authority continues to insist it's a fake. And not only that. They claim Golan has been making forgeries and millions of dollars for the last 15 years. And they say the real casualty here is knowledge itself, our passion to dig down to the real foundations of our history, and our faith.

"It seems to me that there's really two possibilities when you're dealing with the James ossuary and other recent discoveries," says [Bob] Simon. "Either they're real or you've got a group of very talented forgers."

"There've been good forgers for hundreds of years," says [Neil] Silberman. "But a 16-year-old with a basic graphics program can take absolutely documented inscriptions, and rearrange the letters, and reproduce them and it makes it very much harder just to see the difference between something new and something genuine."

"So both sides are getting better. The forgers are getting better, as is science in discovering forgeries is getting better," says Simon.

"Well, that's what we call progress in archaeology, I guess," says [Neil] Silberman.

The latest twist: Oded Golan reportedly tried to sell fakes to major museums in London, Paris and New York, and he may have succeeded. The Israeli police say they plan to indict Golan on multiple charges of forgery and fraud in the next few months.

On the one hand, at least a few scholars like Witherington still seem to think that the James Ossuary inscription is probably fully genuine. On the other, the case that the IAA makes for it being partially faked seems overwhelming: (1) the fake patina and (2) the forgery lab, complete with forgeries in progress, in Golan's house. If Witherington and those like-minded want to defend the authenticity of the full inscription, those are the big charges they need to refute. I've not put the work into the inscription to form a strong opinion about it, but I am pretty skeptical. As I keep saying, I hope this comes to trial and, if so, I will be watching closely.

Two other comments. First, this passage is odd:
But 60 Minutes knows where it [the ossuary] turned up: in the Tel Aviv apartment of Oded Golan, an Israeli entrepreneur, amateur pianist and one of the world's biggest collectors of biblical antiquities.

Help me out here. Wouldn't someone who didn't know the story read this and then think that 60 Minutes was breaking the whole Golan connection right there? Golan's role as the dealer involved has been known for a long time. Maybe I'm being too picky here, but the phrasing seems kind of misleading to me. Surely the program was clearer about this?

Second, there's this passage:
The ossuary was returned to Golan. But then, just two months after it had been exhibited in Toronto, there was another extraordinary revelation.

A tablet was secretly offered to Israel's National Museum, with a reported price tag of $4 million. Why so much? It was billed as the only remnant of the Temple of King Solomon, a godsend for religious Jews, because it would strengthen their claim to the Temple Mount, which has been contested for centuries by Jews and Muslims.

First the ossuary, and then the tablet, both revealed in the space of two months? It was an amazing coincidence, but the amazing coincidences don't stop there.

Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Authority Detective Unit, was put on the tablet's trail and all leads pointed to the apartment of Golan. They confiscated the tablet and decided to take the ossuary as well. But when Golan led them to it, the detectives could barely believe their eyes.

The rest of the article never gets around to mentioning that this tablet, the so-called Joash Inscription, was shown to be a forgery too, by multiple converging lines of evidence, including its patina. Simon does refer to doubtful "other recent discoveries" but doesn't say the tablet is among them. I think that's rather careless. Again, I hope the program itself made all this clear.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

REFLECTIONS ON THE GOOGLE LIBRARY in the NYT: The Tower of Babel, the Library of Alexandria, and the Letter of Aristeas (inter alia) are discussed. The article concludes with a fictional character's reflection:
The world encyclopedia, the universal library, already exists and is the world itself.

Yes, but it could be better indexed.
My point is that St Matthew's account of the Nativity - the basis of all Christmas celebrations - appears in a quite different light when it is considered as the product of a particular Jewish linguistic, literary and religious context, rather than the sentimental narrative we have inherited.

The doctrine of the miraculous conception and birth of a God-man was based on a remarkable mistranslation into Greek - wilful or otherwise - of Isaiah's original, quite specific Hebrew words. As for the episode of the massacre of the innocents and escape to Egypt, its similarity to the rabbinic story of the birth of Moses is so striking that it hardly can be attributed to coincidence. In both we find dreams, a murderous king advised by interpreters of sacred writings, and the frustration by divine intervention of wicked plans. Nor is it conceivable that Josephus and the rabbis, spokesmen of Jewish tradition, copied their birth legend of Moses from Matthew.

We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of "birth tales" current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.

But still a great story and worth appreciating as such.

UPDATE: Ed Cook comments on the article over at Ralph.