Saturday, November 11, 2006

BISHOP TOM WRIGHT is dissing neo-Gnosticism:
Bishop assails Gnostic fad that ‘Code’ boosted
For AP Weekly Features

Gnosticism, the religious rival that lost out to orthodox Christi-anity in ancient times, has be-come fashionable again thanks to Dan Brown’s huge-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the efforts of professors like Princeton’s Elaine Pagels.

Harvard University picked Pagels to deliver its prestige-laden William Noble Lectures in theology for 2001. But this year’s Noble lecturer, scholarly Church of England Bishop N.T. Wright, assailed Gnostic chic.

He said the central issue is: “Do we or don’t we believe in a good God who made the world?”

For Wright, that’s no esoteric scholarly issue. He told the Ivy Leaguers that Gnosticism — ancient or modern — fosters spiritual elitism and political escapism, and undercuts truth and social betterment.

“Da Vinci” was popular because it “tapped into a deep desire in our culture for secret knowledge,” Wright said, and similarly, Gnostics conveyed Jesus’ supposed secret teachings to a spiritual elite.

Like “Da Vinci,” Gnosticism claimed that “Christianity as we have known it was based on a gigantic mistake” and “the church has hushed up the real Jesus,” he added.

That false history, the bishop asserted, appeals to growing numbers of Westerners who think truth cannot be known, who distrust authority, who seek private spiritual experience and who love conspiracy theories.

Analysts will doubtless debate Wright’s remarks about 21st-century Gnostic-style thinking. But his depiction of ancient Gnosticism is well-documented by the “Gospel of Judas,” a Gnostic text released last spring by National Geographic amid intense promotion.

I don't know a lot about modern neo-Gnosticism. Does the demiurgic myth (that the biblical creator god is actually an evil derivative and secondary god) actually play a large part in the doctrine of such groups? Can anyone point me to relevant websites, etc.?

UPDATE: Justin Dombrowski e-mails to point to this site,which contains, among many other things, a neo-Gnostic essay on "The Mystery of Iniquity." Excerpt:
Contemporary Gnostics for the most part agree with the fundamental insights of their ancient counterparts. Do modern Gnostics believe in the Demiurge? Do they believe in Messengers of Light? Do they regard such ideas as metaphysical truths or as mythologems hinting at more subtle and mysterious realities? The answer is that some Gnostics may believe these things more in a literal sense, while others may believe them symbolically; still others may hold a mixture of both views.

What matters is not the precise form of these teachings but their substance. And this is clear enough. It speaks of the reality and power of evil, of its fundamental presence in all of manifest existence. It declares that while we may not be able to rid the world or ourselves of evil, we may and indeed will rise above it through gnosis. And when the task of this extrication is accomplished, then we shall indeed no longer fear the noonday devil or the terror that walks by night.
The site also has a neo-Gnostic theological reflection on the 2004 tsunami. It does indeed draw on the demiurgic myth toward the end, but it doesn't sound to me as though it "erodes the basis for work to improve society." Excerpt:
Thus we are left with the eternal Gnostic realization: Only the liberating insight of Gnosis will ultimately lift us out of a reality where horrors of this kind prevail. In a Gnostic sense earthly life itself is a disaster. Like so many of the unfortunate men, women, and children who were living (or vacationing) in areas that were like Paradise and were then so cruelly deprived of their lives in the twinkling of an eye, so have we come forth once from the Fullness (Pleroma) and have been swept away by a dreadful torrent that carried us far away from the glories and beauty of our true home. Horrible as this realization strikes us, we must balance it with the afore noted recognition: There is a liberating insight, which we call Gnosis, that can reverse the process and take us back to our true dwelling place. In a very true sense, this is really all that matters. And until then, let us treat each other with compassion, let us extend such help and love as we may be able to offer. For while it is beyond our power to change this dark and violent reality, it is within our ability to shed some light on the path upon which we move toward our goal beyond this world.
Anyway, have a look and see what you think. And let me know if you find any other interesting sites.
THE OLD CITY OF JERUSALEM has been named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World by USA Today:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
Posted 11/10/2006 6:00 AM ET

By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY
Mankind's capacity for wonder is profoundly expressed in Jerusalem's Old City, which has served as a spiritual nexus for the world's three major monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — for millennia.

Our six experts chose the ancient city as one of the seven New Wonders of the World for its central place in religious history and struggles for tolerance.

The Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple: Lhasa, Tibet has also been put on the list.

Friday, November 10, 2006

MORE TEMPLE TREASURE LEGENDS -- sort of. I found this today in a bookstore in Edinburgh:
Paul Sussman, The Last Secret of the Temple (Bantam, 2005)
It's blurbed by the Independent as "The intelligent reader's answer to The Da Vinci Code."

We'll see. I normally avoid such Bible-related historical thrillers, since the historical elements are often irritatingly poorly done. But I'm keeping my eyes open right now for both scholarly and popular material that deals with the lost Temple treasures, as part of my research on the Temple treasure legends in the Massekhet Kelim, The Treatise of the Vessels, for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project. I may not get around to reading this one very soon, but I'll let you know what I think.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I also got this, which is now out in paperback:
Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Arrow, 2005)
For lots more on this book, look at this post and the one immediately below it and follow the links back from there.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I SHALL BE IN EDINBURGH most of tomorrow, giving a paper at the biblical studies seminar at New College. The paper is "The Hekhalot Literature and the Ancient Jewish Apocalypses," of which I will also be presenting a shorter version at the SBL meeting in Washington D.C. in the middle of this month. Stay tuned for the short version, which I will post before I leave for D.C.

I'm busy tomorrow evening too, so blogging may be light to naught tomorrow.
UPDATE ON THE ORIENTAL INSTITUTE PLAQUE: Jonathan Hirsch, the President of Chicago Friends of Israel at the University of Chicago, has gone to look at the plaque and sends the following transcription and photo:
Land of the Bible

600 BC to the Present

Three Major Religions Grew in the Southern Levant

Long after the Canaanites and the Israelites, the southern Levant (today primarily modern Israel) has continued to play an important role in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These artifacts from the Levant dating to the last 2,500 years reflect these religious traditions: an early jewish "bone box" or ossuary, a mosaic fragment from a church floor, and a fragment from a Dead Sea Scroll.

The golden days of Israel and Judah ended at the hands of the Babylonians with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BC and subsequent mass exile of the Israelites. Although many returned to the southern Levant under the rule of the Persians (539-332 BC), they would not soon regain their autonomy. The city of Megiddo faded from prominence after 332 BC.

But the Israelite religion continued to develop. At the turn of the first millennium AD, several religious sects broke away in response to Roman rule and the local political climate. One of these lines led ultimately to the tradition of modern Jewish religion. Jesus was born into the context, and was hailed by his followers as the Messiah, son of God. Six centuries later, the Prophet Mohammed would visit Jerusalem where he would experience his Night Flight and Ascension to heaven. Today Jerusalem is the third holiest place in Islam, next to Mecca and Medinah.
(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I would say my earlier points stand. The independent Hasmonean kingdom is not mentioned and probably should have been, since one could easily take the plaque to be saying that there was no independent Jewish state in the area again until the modern period. It doesn't say this explicitly, but it lends itself to misreading along those lines.

Also, it's worth underlining that the claim that Muhammad visited Jerusalem is quite misleading, since this "visit" took place only in a vision (and this only according to a post-Qur'anic interpretation of a very enigmatic Qur'anic verse). A reader who did not know this would assume that Muhammad paid a this-worldly visit to Jerusalem by traveling there. This is not without relevance to modern political controversies about Jerusalem and the unfortunate phrasing could cause confusion.

I hope the Oriental Institute rethinks this plaque.

UPDATE (15 November): More here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

EGYPTIAN BLOGGER Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman has been arrested for his blogging -- again! -- by the Egyptian authorities. For the story of his arrest and release in 2005, go here and follow the links. For the current situation, see the Free Kareem! blog. I've also received the following e-mail from HAMSA (Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance):
The freedom to say what you believe is a universal human right. But, as two prominent Middle Eastern bloggers discovered in the last week, freedom of expression is not always guaranteed. One blogger had his site blocked for text he posted. The other is currently in jail – and needs you help.

Mahmood Al-Yousif is know as the godfather of the blogging scene in Bahrain. A Bahraini entrepreneur, he runs a popular blog called Mahmood’s Den and serves as a judge for HAMSA’s Dream Deferred Essay Contest.

Last week, Bahrain’s Ministry of Information issued an order blocking Mahmood’s Den. They objected to his blogging about a recent scandal in Bahraini politics, and so suddenly readers in Bahrain could no longer access Mahmood’s blog. Along with a group of local activists, HAMSA launched a campaign to unblock Mahmood’s blog. Over 200 people sent emails to Bahraini officials.

A few days later – after negotiations with Mahmood – the site was unblocked.

One of the Middle Eastern bloggers who supported the campaign was Abdelkareem Soliman. Kareem, as he is also known, received international attention last year when he was kicked out of Al Azhar University in Egypt for criticizing the school on his blog.

Yesterday, Kareem was called into the prosecutors office in Alexandria, Egypt, where he lives. A lawyer from the Arabic Human Rights Network went with him. The Egyptian officials began interrogating Kareem about his blog, as well as his religious beliefs (“Do you fast on Ramadan? Do you pray? What do you think of what is happening in Darfur?”).

Kareem stood firm. He would not retract anything he wrote on his blog. So the prosecutors threw Kareem in jail, where he remains as you read this. He faces several charges including "defaming the President of Egypt" and "highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt." His case is currently on the front page of The Daily Star, one of Egypt’s largest independent English papers.

Kareem is a soft-spoken young man. He entered the HAMSA essay contest and joined a recent human rights seminar we recently organized in Cairo. We will not abandon him. And we hope you will take a moment to speak out on his behalf.

To stay updated on the campaign, read the Free Kareem blog started by his friends. And please take one minute to sign an email/petition to Egyptian and America authorities urging Kareem’s immediate release. In less than 24 hours, over 130 people have signed.

Please add your voice. Thank you for your attention and support.

In Freedom,

Jesse Sage
HAMSA Project Director
Readers, if you get something out of PaleoJudaica and feel it makes some small contribution to your life, I would be very grateful if, in return, you would take just a minute or so to go to this site and sign the petition to release Kareem. The message will be sent to a number of Egyptian and American officials. If you don't want your name listed online, you can tick a box that keeps it off the public list. In the past, petitions like this have made a significant difference, so please do add your name and please also draw the situation and the petition to the attention of your friends.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A PLAQUE at the Oriental Institute is being challenged by Diane Muir at the History News Network as presenting revisionist history of Judaism and Palestine.

If her transcription is accurate and complete, the text of the plaque does seem to have some problems. It glosses over the independent Hasmonean state. It also asserts, oddly, that Muhammad visited Jerusalem, where he had a vision. According to Islamic tradition a passage in the Qur'an (Sura 17.1) does refer to a visionary journey of Muhammad to Jerusalem and then to heaven (the Miraj), but there is no historical claim that he ever visited Jerusalem apart from in the vision. The phrasing of the plaque is rather misleading.

Can anyone at the Oriental Institute confirm the text of the plaque?

UPDATE: More here.
Rabbis to curse parade organizers
By MATTHEW WAGNER (Jerusalem Post)

A Jewish invocation will be used by ultra Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem to curse the organizers of the Gay Pride March and the police who protect them, said a spokesman for the Edah Haredit Monday.

In a ceremony known as "Pulsa D'nura" (blows of fire), rabbis of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit rabbinic court will convene sometime before the march, which is scheduled for Friday, to conduct the kabbalistic ceremony which is believed to unleash unearthly powers against specified sinners.

It isn't a kabbalistic ceremony; it's only about a century old. For some background, see here and here. (The Philologos link seems to have rotted. Sorry.) And there are lots more PaleoJudaica posts on this ceremony. Just run the search term "pulsa" through the search engine on the right to find them.

It's interesting from a sociological perspective, but I think it's in poor taste.
AN ANCIENT GRAVEYARD in an unexpected place:
Archeologists Discover Ancient Graveyard Where Second Temple Model Once Stood
13:54 Nov 07, '06 / 16 Cheshvan 5767

( Archaeologists working at the site of the Holyland Park building project in Jerusalem have discovered a graveyard that is over 4,000 years old.

The graveyard formerly had a model of the Second Holy Temple on top of it. The model was recently relocated to the Israel Museum.


Monday, November 06, 2006

A SURPRISE PARTY at Yeshiva University for Louis Feldman's 80th birthday. Well done!
A REPORT on the preview reception and dinner for the In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000 exhibition appears in the Washington Times.
An eclectic group of social and cultural connoisseurs gathered to celebrate what is, in a sense, a double whammy since the exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. "An exceptional gift of magnificent collections, a fine building and a generous endowment that was presented to the nation in 1906 by Charles Lang Freer," in the words of Julian Raby, director of both the Freer and Sackler. "When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first fine arts museum in the Smithsonian."

Freer "was no biblical scholar," Mr. Raby noted by way of explaining how a museum devoted to mainly Asian art has undertaken an exhibit devoted to biblical scholarship. "But so important was scholarship and research to him that he supported a group of scholars to produce some of the most important 20th century studies on biblical texts of the early period." Few if any biblical manuscripts in the Freer have been on view since 1978, he added. Some never have been seen in public before.
I think Bede (mentioned in the first part of the article) would be pleased to have his work displayed in such good manuscript company.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

BUT HERE'S A MUCH BETTER PIECE on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It's an interview with local Rabbi David Weiner about the Seattle exhibition. He's involved in an interfaith forum on the Scrolls coming up next week.

These days "Second Temple period" is preferred over "Intertestamental period," as being less confessional. But otherwise, the article is pretty good.
NEIL ALTMAN'S NONSENSE has just been reprinted by the Toronto Star. (For those not familiar, he claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls are medieval and contain Chinese characters.) The article was originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last June. I commented on it then here and I posted more comments later in June here. My conclusion in the latter post applies more than ever: "Altman and his friends are making fools of a good many journalists and newspaper editors, who don't have sense enough to vet their claims independently with real specialists."

Note also this essay by Jay C. Treat.

(Heads up, Joseph I. Lauer.)