Saturday, December 23, 2006

ANOTHER REVIEW of Geza Vermes's new book, The Nativity: History and Legend, has appeared in the London Times. Excerpt:
In sum, it becomes evident, from Vermes’s account, that Matthew and Luke manipulated quotations from earlier texts, invented episodes and elaborated upon earlier myths to provide compelling narratives of Christ’s birth. Few people will be surprised or offended by his conclusions.

The “facts”, as we may call them, are not new. German biblical scholarship of the 19th century effectively dismissed the scriptures as documents of unimpeachable accuracy. But they are the next best thing. They are works of genius. They have enshrined the mystery, and the majesty, of Incarnation. There may not have been a star, or a flock, or gold, or frankincense, or myrrh. But they constitute the power of a compelling narrative that remains, for many millions of people, the source of inspiration and of comfort. That, in itself, is perhaps worth celebrating in this period of the year.
ARAMAIC WATCH -- Aramaic in Minnesota:
In Jesus' language

Aramaic, the ancient Middle Eastern tongue, is kept alive in churches in the Twin Cities.

By Jean Hopfensperger, [Minneapolis] Star Tribune

Last update: December 23, 2006 – 12:51 AM

The Rev. Rodrigue Constantin belongs to a rare group of Minnesotans who can carry on a conversation in Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago.

When he consecrates the bread during his Christmas services, Constantin's words, "Ho no den ee tow faghro deel," will carry an added authenticity, because this is how Jesus would have told his disciples: "This is my body."I find that people are really fascinated by the language; there's a mysterious aspect to it," said Constantin, of Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church in St. Paul. "There's a historic thread starting 2,000 years ago that has reached me."

He is among roughly 100 people in Minnesota who can order loaves and fishes -- or lefse and lutefisk -- in Aramaic. They are mainly immigrants from small Christian communities in southeastern Turkey, one of a few pockets of the Middle East where a dialect of Aramaic remains a living language.

Aramaic also lives on in Minnesota as a liturgical language, used during church services at Holy Family and St. Maron Catholic Church in Minneapolis.


Downstairs in the church social hall, Susan Youmes is having breakfast with her husband. The daughter of the Cans, she's among the next generation of Aramaic speakers, and proud of it. Listening to Aramaic prayers and songs in church, she says, "brings something to your heart."When I watched 'The Passion of the Christ,' I didn't have to read the subtitles," boasted the young mother from Burnsville.

Language of cinema

That comment brings a smile to the Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and Aramaic scholar who translated the dialogue in Mel Gibson's movie from English into the ancient language. He also was an adviser to producers of "The Nativity Story," released this month.

Syriac, the Aramaic dialect that Youmes and the Cans speak, is the modern language closest to what Jesus would have spoken, said Fulco, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Well, maybe, but it's not all that close. Jesus spoke first-century Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, which was a Western dialect. Syriac is an Eastern dialect that was spoken somewhat later in Edessa (in modern-day Turkey) and which became the standardized language of the Eastern, Aramaic-speaking Church. The two dialects are not all that similar, although speakers of one Aramaic dialect can generally get the gist of what's being said in another Aramaic dialect.
THE PERSECUTION OF IRAQ'S RELIGIOUS MINORITIES has now (at last) been the subject of testimony to Congress:
Nina Shea Testifies Before Congress on Behalf of Iraq's Assyrians and Other Minorities
Posted GMT 12-22-2006 21:56:15

(AINA) -- The following testimony of Nina Shea, Director Center For Religious Freedom, was delivered on December 21 Before The US Congressional Committee On International Relations, Subcommittee On Africa, Global Human Rights, And International Operations.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for allowing me to testify today on behalf of the Center for Religious Freedom.

Chairman Chris Smith has been a dedicated and passionate leader on human rights for many years, and I wish to commend him for all the important hearings held under his chairmanship in this subcommittee. They have held governments around the world accountable, including our own, and given hope and relief to millions of the world's oppressed. This hearing today is no exception.

Egregious religious persecution occurs in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan and several other countries officially designated by the State Department as "Countries of Particular Concern," and is being addressed by the other witnesses today. There is an additional country where religious groups of various faiths face some of the bloodiest persecution in the world today, a country that is not listed among the CPC's. It is Iraq, and it is on this country, and particularly on the persecution faced by Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable minorities, that I will direct my testimony.

We should view Iraq's smallest religious minorities -- the Christians, Yizidis, Mandeans, Baha'is, Kaka'i and Jews -- as we once did Soviet Jews. The persecution these small minorities face stands out against even the horrific violence now wracking the rest of the population. This is demonstrated by the stark statistic that an estimated half of the members of the small minorities have been driven from their homes in the past two or three years, either to other parts of the country or abroad. Their very survival as communities within Iraq is now threatened by what amounts to ethnic, or rather cultural, cleansing. The State Department's Religious Freedom Reports accurately depicts a defenseless non-Muslim population that is being pounded by all other factions. Al Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Kurdish militants, and criminal gangs all persecute and prey on these small religious minorities.

Read it all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

UPDATES: I've posted a number of updates and corrections to posts from the last week, so scroll down and have a look.
KYLIE MINOGUE AND GNOSTIC APOCRYPHA? There is a connection, albeit indirect:
Can't get her out of his head

* Helping Kylie Minogue with choreography is just one of Akram Khan's unlikely collaborations, writes Clifford Bishop
* December 21, 2006 (The Australian)

DURING her long and incomparably pert career, Kylie Minogue has provoked some powerful responses in a wide variety of men, but it's a safe bet that no other straight man has responded in quite the same way as the Anglo-Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. "It was like looking into a mirror at my ideal self," he says. "An image of what I would like to be. The kind of honest, humble human being that I just didn't expect."

Remarkably, he seemed to have just as profound an effect on her. They met this summer, when Khan was working with a different kind of diva, the imperious French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, on a show called Sacred Monsters. Khan, trained from the age of seven in the Indian kathak style of dance, and Guillem, who was even younger than that when she realised ballet would be her life, had grown up immersed in rigorous classical traditions and wanted to explore their feelings of being liberated and, strangely, profaned as they broadened their horizons. "Kylie came to a rehearsal," Khan says, "and afterwards we talked for hours. She was really moved." It was only a matter of months since Minogue's doctors had told her she was cured of the breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 2005. "She told me about coming through that," he recalls, "of how it felt like a second chance and made her want to do something more spiritual."

So, instead of the slow, therapeutic build-up she had planned to her tour, the singer threw herself into two gruelling weeks of learning dance routines based on kathak. ...

This year, he collaborated with minimalist composer Steve Reich. Next year gets even odder. He is creating a piece with the National Ballet of China and collaborating with Juliette Binoche on a two-handed play called Gnosis, loosely inspired by the same apocrypha as The Da Vinci Code.

"It's based on the idea that the body contains all the knowledge you will ever need," he says, "and the goal of your life is to find it. It looks as if I'm diversifying, but I think I started scattered and now, in a funny way, I'm moving towards my beginning, becoming what I want to be." So, in light of what he said earlier, does that mean he's turning into Kylie Minogue? To Khan's infinite credit, whether as an actor or as a human being, when he says "I hope so", you don't doubt him for a minute.
My emphasis. No word on whether Kylie might be cast as Eve. Or Sophia.
The hidden latrines of the Essenes
By Ran Shapira


The resemblance between the 1st century historian's testimony and the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls does not end with the law forbidding spitting into the center of a circle. Magen Broshi, former curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, where the Qumran scrolls are housed, says there are dozens of parallels between Josephus' writing and the content of the scrolls. One of the main similarities regards purification rituals and the Essenes' meticulous hygiene.

Anthropologist Joe Zias, of the Hebrew University Science and Archaeology Department, recently found positive evidence of the Essenes' adherence to these rituals. Together with Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and parasitologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, Zias found the latrines that were used by the Essenes in Qumran. The three researchers say that, in addition to shedding a great deal of light on the unique culture of the Essenes in Qumran, the discovery represents an archaeological bonanza: Additional proof that the Essenes wrote the scrolls. Zias explains that when feces are left on the desert floor, exposure to sun and wind quickly annihilates intestinal parasites. But when feces are buried in the earth, intestinal parasites may survive for many months and their eggs may be preserved for as long as 2,000 years, as in the case of Qumran.
The most interesting part of the article is Yitzhaq Magen's challenge to this interpretation of the site:
However, Dr. Yitzhak Magen, staff officer of archaeology in the Civil Administration of the West Bank, was not impressed by the new discovery. Last summer, Magen and his colleague, Yuval Peleg, published findings based on 10 years of excavation in the Qumran ruins. Both researchers reached the conclusion that Qumran was not a monastery but an enormous ceramics factory. They found fragments of clay artifacts at the site and many pools, which they believe were used to submerge the sediment that surfaces, to this day, when local rivers overflow to produce tremendous, winter floods. Magen maintains that this sediment provides excellent raw material for pottery production. According to Magen and Peleg, the pools were not ritual baths; nor were they used by the Essenes, who immersed themselves in ritual baths twice a day. "In addition," Magen says, "the Qumran area and particularly the caves surrounding the site, are full of predatory animals and animals that consume carrion, like foxes, hyenas, and leopards. People who lived in this area for years were well aware of that. They feared these animals and certainly would not leave their camps to relieve themselves. Thus, it is unreasonable to assume that the camp's latrine was located at such a distance."

"It was not the Essenes who buried the scrolls in the caves near the Qumran ruins," Magen adds. "The scrolls were buried by Jews who escaped from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple." One of the main escape routes from Jerusalem passed through Qumran. Jews, who were somewhat unfamiliar with the area and had no knowledge of its predatory animals, did not fear entering the caves to bury the scrolls, he proposes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE to all those celebrating.

UPDATE (22 December): Reader Marcus Wood e-mails to point out that, according to the BBC, the solstice is today. I checked a couple of places, including the first link above, and got the 21st as an answer, but whatever. In cases of conflicting dates for sacred holidays (or opportunities to party), the sensible approach is to celebrate both.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

IT'S M. R. JAMES SEASON at BBC4. (For more on James, see here and follow the links.)

(Heads-up, Grant Macaskill.)

UPDATE (22 December): Reader Rosemary Pardoe e-mails:
A little correction to your blog. The link you give for the "M.R. James season" actually refers to last Christmas. This Christmas there isn't an MRJ season as such, but they're repeating his "A View from a Hill" from last Christmas, along with the MRJ documentary from 2004, and - most importantly - a brand new adaptation of MRJ's story "Number 13". That's tomorrow [i.e., today, the 22nd] on BBC4.
The correct link is here.
THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY has an opening for a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Post-Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Studies.

(Via the Agade list.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

AMY-JILL LEVINE'S NEW BOOK is reviewed in the Vanderbilt News Service:
A prescription for Jewish-Christian relations; "The Misunderstood Jew" is Amy Jill Levine's new book 12-18-2006

Amy-Jill Levine recalls twice being approached by “nice, silver-haired Protestant women” who had never met a Jewish person. They wanted to know where she had had her horns removed.

“They were both surprised and relieved to know that Jews don’t have horns,” Levine said.

As a Jewish expert on Jesus and the New Testament, the Vanderbilt professor has also experienced a neo-Nazi interrupting her lecture to protest the decidedly non-radical concept that Jesus was Jewish. Another time a student from Kenya was standoffish; it turned out that in the student’s native language the word “Jew” meant “someone who deceives or betrays.”

In her new book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Levine painstakingly illustrates the wasted effort that has gone into obscuring, distorting, explaining away or ignoring the simple fact that Jesus was a practicing Jew.

How a manuscript found in an Irish peat bog was saved

Restorers are hoping to separate the pages of the ninth-century psalter and recover some of the ancient text

By Martin Bailey | Posted 18 December 2006 (The Art Newspaper)

LONDON. An astonishing discovery in an Irish bog is posing an unusual conservation challenge. A chance find by a peat cutter last summer in County Tipperary, southern Ireland, turned out to be a psalter, which has been dated to around 800 AD. The discovery has been described as the Irish equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

National Museum of Ireland conservator Rolly Read and his team are now stabilising the compacted vellum mass. The difficult issue is how to separate the pages, preserving as much as possible of the ancient text.


The first stage of the work, which has almost been completed, is a full investigation of the book in its excavated condition. This has involved an analysis of the binding and book structure, photography, magnetic resonance imaging, multi spectral imaging, analysis of vellum deterioration and an investigation of pollen samples.

Work is about to start on the second stage, which will involve the delicate separation of the pages and the process of drying out the vellum. Sadly, the vellum losses mean that only a fairly small part of the text of the Psalms remains, but it should be enough to enable scholars to see how the book has been written, decorated and bound.

The article has lots more interesting details, such as the conclusion that the codex originally contained the whole book of Psalms.
REMARKS BY PRESIDENT BUSH at the White House Hanukkah reception are here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

PETER WILLIAMS, New Testament textual critic, Syriacologist, and blogger at Evangelical Textual Criticism, is leaving his post as Senior Lecturer in NT at Aberdeen University to become the new Director/Warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge. This according to Justin Taylor at the Between Two Worlds blog (via Michael Pahl at the stuff of earth) and confirmed by a Tyndale House announcement posted by Ardel Caneday on the Biblia Theologica blog. Best wishes and congratulations to Pete, but we'll be very sorry to see him leave Scotland.
WELCOME TO C. BRIAN ROSE, the new president of the Archaeological Institute of America, and kudos to Jane Waldbaum for her years of service in the office.

Also in the latest issue (January-February 2007) of Archaeology Magazine, there's a list of the top ten discoveries of 2006. The Irish bog Psalms manuscript comes in at number 4.
King David on trial at university event
By Chris Emery
[Baltimore] sun reporter
Originally published December 18, 2006

King David, the second monarch of the Israelites and a hero of the Bible, was defiant during his trial in a Northwest Baltimore courtroom. Wearing a golden crown and facing charges of adultery, murder and coveting another man's wife, he maintained his innocence on all counts.

"I was at my palace when he was killed," said David - being portrayed by Daniel Kirsch, a biblical scholar - when asked by the prosecuting attorney if he murdered the husband of a woman with whom he had had an affair. "I did not lay a glove on him, and if I had, it would not fit."

I'm not sure what the glove is all about, but this reaction is most uncharacteristic of the biblical David, who confessed immediately when confronted by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12 [RSV]):
7: Nathan said to David, "You are the man. Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, `I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul;
8: and I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.
9: Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uri'ah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites.
10: Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uri'ah the Hittite to be your wife.'
11: Thus says the LORD, `Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun.
12: For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'"
13: David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD."
UPDATE: Reader Joshua Waxman e-mails:
the glove reference is an OJ Simpson reference.
"If the glove don't fit, you must acquit"
UPDATE (22 December): Reader Gary Greenberg e-mails:
Also, David was the third king of the Israelites, not the second. Eshbaal, son of Saul, was the second king of the Israelite
True. The reference is 2 Samuel 2:10 ("Ish-bosheth," "Man of Shame," is probably an unfriendly bowdlerization of "Esh-baal," "Man of Baal").

Also, Seth Sanders e-mails:
As for David, the full narrative context of the II Sam 12 story suggests he would be as shrewd as Kirsch implies--after all, it is only after Nathan drew him into a brilliant poetic and legal trap, and then made an elaborate pronouncement, in the voice of the Lord himself, that David had betrayed the divine trust and would be punished, that David admitted guilt. Indeed, it is only after the Lord proclaims that David has been caught, is guilty, and will incur terrible consequences that David even confesses--note well, not explicitly to the crime itself, but only to having "sinned against the Lord" (David's centire confession is only two words in Hebrew). Even here, one could consider it more an attempt to gain forgiveness (which is immediately, though only partly, granted) than a sincere apology. David's strange act of fasting only before his son's death, could be read as a totally pragmatic attempt to escape the consequences of his actions, followed as it is by no show of remorse once his pragmatic gambit fails, upon the boy's death.

Perhaps the real anachronism here is the idea that a formal human institution like a court, rather than a prophet deploying the full arsenal of Israelite poetics and divine justice, could hold the king responsible for his actions. Anyway, fascinating stuff!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS occupies the numbers 1 and 4 spots in National Geographic News's list of top ten stories for 2006. The thesis of the number one story is now contested. And, unfortunely, a Noah's Ark story is also in the list.

(Heads up, reader G.M. Grena.)

UPDATE (22 December): Link to story now corrected.
QUMRANET is a startup firm backing a new Linux kernel:
New virtualization system beats Xen to Linux kernel

By Matthew Broersma, TechWorld, 12/14/06 (LinuxWorld)

A relatively obscure virtualization system has leapfrogged better-known rivals to make its way into an upcoming Linux kernel.

KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) has been accepted by kernel gurus such as Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton for inclusion in Version 2.6.20 of the Linux kernel, developers said earlier this week. The system consists of a loadable kernel module and a user component, and is licensed under the GNU General Public License.

Its development is backed by Qumranet, an Israel-based start-up with finance from Sequoia Capital and Norwest Venture Partners, which is still in stealth mode. Qumranet is named after Qumran, an ancient settlement near the Dead Sea best known as being the closest to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

THE INK AND BLOOD EXHIBITION is coming to Idaho. I've noted this before, but here's another brief article:
Dead Sea Scrolls Remnants To Show at Museum of Idaho
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Surviving fragments of The Dead Sea Scrolls will appear alongside some of the oldest bibles and religious texts preserved by history at the Museum of Idaho.

Museum officials will announce details of the exhibit on Tuesday.

The exhibit will come to Idaho Falls in February.

It's titled Ink and Blood -- Dead Sea Scrolls to the King James Bible.

Jerusalem Engineer: Temple Mount Ramp May Collapse
13:30 Dec 15, '06 / 24 Kislev 5767

( A Jerusalem city engineer warned this week that the ramp leading to the main tourist entrance of the Temple Mount is in danger of total collapse.