Saturday, December 30, 2006

STAND UP FOR HEROD! A site called "" has published an essay by Uri Cohen which offers us some more Herod revisionism. Cohen seems to want to rehabilitate Herod the Great and even to draw an analogy between him and the current president of the Palestinian Authority.
Stand up, stand up for Herod!
by Uri Cohen - 21st Century Socialism Thursday, Dec 28 2006, 3:41pm phone: UK 07968-859-322
mashriq / arabia / iraq / history / non anarchist press

Ancient Palestine
It is a seasonal story of ancient Palestine: the Arab Jewish king, the suicidal religious militants, the re-invention of God and the abolition of Jerusalem. The historical truth is both stranger and more familiar than the tales in the Gospel. It is a sound historical analysis of Palestine 37-4 BC.
Stand up, stand up for Herod!
A seasonal story of ancient Palestine: the Arab Jewish moderate king, the suicidal religious militants, the re-invention of God and the abolition of Jerusalem. The historical truth is both stranger and more familiar than the tales in the Gospel.

King Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine from 37 to 4 BC, is vilified by both Jewish and Christian traditions. Like more recent Palestinian leaders, King Herod enjoyed relative autonomy under the menacing shadow of the world’s most powerful empire and its brutal army of occupation. Like the current Palestinian president, King Herod was politically undermined by popular religious militants. The ancient Jewish fundamentalists denounced Herod as a Roman imperialist puppet and a corrupt heathen ruler.

But why stand up for Herod? Partly, for the sake of historical truth. For example, Herod’s massacre of the innocents as described in the Gospel of Mathew – which is the main thing that people today ‘know’ about the much-maligned monarch - certainly never happened. The event is not mentioned in any other contemporaneous account and cannot be reconciled with the date on which we are told that Jesus was born.

Yes, the story in Matthew doesn't have any verification and is generally taken to be a legend. But it's not correct that the supposed date of the event is irreconcilable with the date of Jesus' birth, since we don't actually know exactly when Jesus was born. It's true that it's widely recognized that if Herod was still around when Jesus was born, Jesus must have been born before Herod's death, which is generally taken to have been 4 BCE. But if the massacre of Bethlehem story is legendary, any connection of Jesus' birth with the reign of Herod becomes tenuous. Luke does place the conception of John the Baptist in Herod's day (1:5], but his chronology of Jesus' birth has its own problems.
Monotheism, the cult of the single invisible god, was imposed on the Jerusalem city-state by the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, at around 500 BC. The Persian invaders installed a priestly aristocracy who set out to merge a number of pagan deities into a single male god: called Jehovah. To achieve this spiritual task, the Jerusalem priesthood reformed the old Palestinian gods and goddesses.

In Palestine, the pagan pantheon of deities was dominated by the male god Jehovah and his female consort, the goddess Ashera, and another prominent male god El or Elion and his female consort Eilat. The Jerusalem monotheists divorced the female goddesses from their husbands, banishing the female side of godliness and violently repressing all female cults. Then the monotheists set about merging the remaining male gods into a single male, invisible, macho and homicidal God. This single God was called either Jehovah or Elohim (the Hebrew plural for Gods).


In 37 BC Palestine, Herod inherited a kingdom that was beset by social and religious strife. While maintaining the authority of the priestly aristocracy, Herod tried to rule in name of all Palestinians.

He was later vilified by Jews and Christians for tolerating pagan communities and promoting religious freedom. Herod was an Arab leader with a strong Jewish faith, who ruled in a secular way - he could perhaps teach current Arab and Jewish politicians a trick or two. But above all he had to please imperial Rome and its insatiable appetite for material tribute, new highways, forts, conscript armies and mineral riches.

Was Herod an Arab? One can make that case. He was three-quarters Nabatean (his mother was Nabatean and his father Idumean but with a Nabatean mother), but culturally he was Idumean. The Nabateans were an Arabian ethnic group that spoke an Arabic dialect originally, but adopted Aramaic language and culture, at least in educated circles. The Idumeans, however, were not Arabians; they were descendants of the Edomites, an ethnic group that spoke a Northwest Semitic dialect (i.e, closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician) in the Iron Age II and had a polytheistic religion that included the worship of a god called Qaus. The surviving Idumean inscriptions in the Persian and Hellenistic periods are in Aramaic. (See here and here.) The Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism in the Hasmonean period and from that point on they seem to have considered themselves Jews.

So Herod was genetically three-quarters Arabian and presumably was exposed to some Nabatean language and culture from his mother, but he himself was vigorously committed to Judaism. There is no cultural or religious continuity between the polytheistic Nabateans of Herod's time and modern Palestianian Arabs, but some of the latter surely transmit some Nabatean genetic material, and modern Palestinians speak a variant dialect (coming from Islamic Arabia) of the language that the Nabateans originally spoke. Add all that up as you will. (For more on such questions, see here.)

As to Herod's personality and rule, whether or not Matthew's story of the slaughter of the innocents is true, it's typical enough of the sort of thing he might have done. (More on that here). By the standards of his own time he may not have been as bad as he looks to us, but he was nothing to be proud of. As despots go, he accomplished more than some, but I think a little standing up for Herod goes a long way.

Also, I'm a bit baffled by this "Jehovah" business. The name Jehovah is an erroneous form created accidentally by Christian Hebraists who didn't know that the vowels added to the name YHWH in the Masoretic text were meant to indicate that the name should be read as "Adonay," "My Lord." The name Jehovah never existed in antiquity, and it's odd to see it used repeatedly in an article that is so concerned with giving the true story of Second Temple era history. Incidentally, the origin of the word Elohim is messy, but is probably something like the following. It is actually a singular abstract noun formation rather than a plural and means "divinity" (cf. Hebrew Ne(uRiM [נערים], meaning the quality "youth"). Because its ending coincidentally resembles the masculine plural noun ending, it secondarily became the plural of the word El, "god" as well, which makes for some ironic confusion.

Otherwise, the essay presents an anti-Zionist, revisionist reading of the history of the Second Temple period. This is kind of interesting but it contains a good bit of wild speculation (e.g., the claim that monotheism was imposed by the Persian Empire or the confidently reconstructed polytheistic cults of Yahweh/Asherah and El/Elyon/Eilat).

Cohen appears to be inviting modern Palestinian Arabs to claim Herod as one of their own. I suppose they can have him if they want him. His Judaism credentials are debatable too and I don't imagine many Jews would mind sharing him. But the historical links to modern Palestinians are tenuous and the historical analogy to the present strikes me as weak. Be that as it may, if Palestinians want to adopt Herod, they will need to accept the existence of the Second Jewish Temple, whose renovation and rebuilding was his greatest achievement.

UPDATE (31 December): Reader E.K. e-mails:
On the subject of Herod's Arab background (and evaluation in early Judaism), it is worthy to note a stream of exegesis that saw in Herod the fulfillment of either Daniel 9:24-27, Genesis 49:10, or both (attested in Eusebius, Epiphanius, Slavonic Josephus, with echoes in Justin Martyr and Julius Africanus), which William Adler regarded as having an earlier Jewish provenance ("The Apocalyptic Survey of History Adapted by Christians: Daniel's Prophecy of 70 Weeks," by William Adler, published in The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity, 1996). In this reading, Herod would be the prophesied Gentile who would take the scepter of Judah away and/or come "to destroy the city and sanctuary". The Herodian interpretation of these scriptures would have then survived in Christian exegesis for some time.
EPHRAIM ISAAC cites the Ethiopic book of Enoch in an interview on the Ethiopic calendar:
Ethiopia: Scholar Says Ethiopian Calendar Neither Gregorian Nor Julian

The Ethiopian Herald (Addis Ababa)

December 29, 2006
Posted to the web December 29, 2006

Addis Ababa

A renowned Ethiopian born U.S scholar, Prof. Ephraim Isaac said that the Ethiopian calendar is unique in that it belongs neither to the Julian, nor to the Gregorian calendars.

He also said that close to 2,000 African-Americans living in the U.S have been organizing themselves to come to Ethiopia for the celebration of the New Ethiopian Millennium.
Oracle Content & Collaboration

Prof. Ephraim who is Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in the United States, said that most scholars, including himself, believe Ethiopia has retained the old Egyptian system of calendar.


In addition to Mestehafe-Hissab, the professor said, there is a very famous book called, Mestehafe-henok, (The Book of Enoch) which is found only in Ethiopia with chapters that deals with some calculation of the years.

He's referring to the Astronomical Book, which was originally a separate and longer work, but now is found in chapters 72-82 of 1 Enoch. Extensive fragments of the original Aramaic Astronomical Book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Friday, December 29, 2006

‘MACCABEES’ (Sunday through Thursday) Courtesy of a time machine (bet you didn’t know Brooklyn had one), children 5 and older can journey back to ancient Judea and experience the Hanukkah story as an interactive tour. (Through Jan. 7.) Sunday at noon, 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m.; Mondays through Thursdays at 12:30, 1:30, 3 and 4:30 p.m., at the Jewish Children’s Museum, 792 Eastern Parkway, at Kingston Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, (718) 467-0660,; $10; $15 includes museum admission. (NYT)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

MUSSOLINI'S VILLA -- the one with the ancient Jewish catacombs underneath -- is back in the news. The Times of London has an article on its reopening to the public, but I don't see anything new in it.
Mussolini's Roman villa restored to glory
Paul Bompard, Rome
# Il Duce paid rent of one lira a month
# Interior ruined by Allies then vandals

The magnificent historic villa that was the home of Benito Mussolini when he was the all-powerful Duce of Italy has been reopened to the public after nearly 30 years of restoration.

The nine buildings and gardens of the Villa Torlonia, which were largely built in the 19th century by the Torlonia princes of the Vatican aristocracy, will now house an art museum dedicated to the Roman school of 20th-century painting.

The complex will also house a high-tech playground and a museum of the Holocaust, dedicated to the 2,000 Jews who were deported from Rome during the German occupation of 1943-44.


n 1919 it was discovered that the villa stood over an underground Jewish cemetery from the Ancient Roman period, and its main chamber, richly decorated, can now be visited.

After languishing for decades, the buildings and the gardens, set in peaceful tree-lined avenues with ornamental pools and fountains, are once more fully open to visitors.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

VIN DIESEL'S HANNIBAL MOVIE is still in the works:
Diesel follows trend for dead languages with film in Punic
By Jonathan Brown (The Independent)
Published: 27 December 2006

For film students with a passion for archaic languages awaiting the release of Mel Gibson's bloodcurdling Mayan adventure Apocalypto next week, 2007 could prove to be something of a vintage year.

Following in the footsteps of the controversial star comes another movie tough guy with the desire to be treated as a serious artist.

Vin Diesel is hoping to replicate the success of Gibson's Aramaic-language film The Passion of the Christ and to a lesser extent the Yucatec Maya-scripted Apocalypto by starting production of his own adaptation of the life of Hannibal Barca in the original Punic.

The Hollywood rumour mill has been abuzz with talk of the forthcoming historical epic for months. But many have dismissed as little more than a bad joke suggestions of Diesel recreating the life of the man considered by many to be the greatest military strategist of all time.

However, the shaven-headed star with the gym-buffed physique insists that he is deadly serious. Having recruited the same academic who translated Passion for Gibson, he spent much of this year scouting Spain for suitable locations. Diesel has said that he will direct and star in Hannibal the Conqueror, which is expected to go on general release in 2008.

For more on Diesel's Hannibal project, see here and follow the links. And on a related note, this month's Archaeology Magazine has an article on Hannibal (abstract here).
GNOSTICISM SCHOLAR MARVIN MEYER has given a lecture on The Gospel of Judas at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A FEW MORE ITEMS from Joseph I. Lauer's list in recent days:

First, from CNN: " Shortcuts: How to make it as an archaeologist"

An unflinching look at the profession. Excerpt:
Even Howard Carter, whose discovery, in 1922, of the tomb of Tutankhamun made him one of the few archaeologists ever to attain the status of international celebrity, endured decades of unrecognized penury before eventually hitting the big time (at one point he was so poor he was reduced to producing sketches for tourists to fund his work). If you are not utterly obsessed with the subject, to the exclusion of all else, then archaeology is probably not for you.
Second, Lauer writes the following:
The Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies has scheduled a very interesting program for its 12th Annual Meeting to be held at Bar-Ilan University on Thursday, December 28, 2006. The subject is "New Studies on Jerusalem"
Following is the English version of the day-long program.
I have also received the program in Hebrew and have it in Word document form. I would be happy to forward it to any interested person. [His e-mail address is josephlauer at hotmail dot com if you want to contact him.]


The Ingeborg Rennert Center, The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, The Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University
in cooperation with:
The Center for the Study of the Land of Israel,
the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jerusalem District

Invite you to
The 12th Annual Meeting of
the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies

8:45 gathering
9:00 opening remarks:
Prof. M. Orpali, Dean of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University
Prof. J. Schwartz, Director of the Ingeborg Rennert Cetner for Jerusalem Studies

Session 1 – 9:15- 10:45
Chair: Joshua Schwartz

Avraham Faust
Jerusalem's Countryside during the Middle Bronze Age
Eilat Mazar
The Fortifications of Jerusalem in the Second Millennium BCE in Light of the New Excavations in the City of David
Gabriel Barkay
An Ancient Hebrew Weight from the Temple Mount
Boaz Zissu
A "Vanished Settlement" from the Iron Age: Excavations near the “Cave of the Ramban”, Upper Qidron Valley, Jerusalem

Session 2 - 11:15- 12:45
Chair: Moshe Fischer

Joseph Patrich
The Location of the Second Temple - A New Proposal
Orit Peleg
Architectural Decoration from Judea during the Second Temple Period in Light of the Finds from Jerusalem
Eyal Regev
The Ritual Baths Near the Temple Mount: What Were They Used For?
Yehoshua Peleg
The Meaning of the Word "Xystos" in the Writings of Josephus

Lunch Break

Session 3 - 14:00 15:50
Chair: David Adan-Bayewitz

Ronny Reich and Guy Bar-Oz
The Jerusalem City Dump in the Late Second Temple Period: A Quantitative Study
Ehud Weiss, Ram Bouchnik, Guy Bar-Oz and Ronny Reich
A Dump Near the Temple? Two Difficulties Regarding the City Dump Adjacent to the Second Temple
Ram Bouchnik, Guy Bar-Oz and Ronny Reich
Faunal Remains from the Late Second Temple Period: A View from the Village of Burnat and Jerusalem City Dump Assemblages
Emmanuel Friedheim
Jerusalem in the Light of Greek and Roman Authors
Leah Di Segni
Epigraphic Finds Reveal New Chapters in the History of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Sixth Century.


Session 4: 16:20- 17:40
Chair Shimon Dar

Yuval Shahar
Was There a Civilian Settlement in Jerusalem between the Two Jewish Revolts?
Amos Kloner
New Dating for the Eastern Cardo of Aelia Capitolina
Ben-Zion Rosenfeld
The Attitude of the Sages toward Jerusalem after the Bar-Kochba Revolt
Oded Shay
The Museums and the Zoological Collections in Jerusalem in Late Ottoman Palestine

The conference proceedings (app. 180 pp. including 2 articles in English and 17 in Hebrew, with English abstracts) will be on sale during the conference

For additional information, please contact the Ingeborg Rennert Center ( or Avi Faust (
And finally, this IAA press release:
The Beit Ha-Kerem Neighborhood in Jerusalem: An Attractive Place in Antiquity Also (December 10, 2006)

In excavations being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Beit Ha-Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, an archaeological site that was hitherto unknown is currently being uncovered. The site is situated in the heart of the built-up neighborhood and the remains there indicate that throughout a number of periods in antiquity the place was considered a desirable location to live in. In the excavations remains were exposed that date to the First Temple, Second Temple, Byzantine and Mamluk periods.
The Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out a salvage excavation following the discovery of archaeological remains in a lot slated for construction on Ha-Satat Street in the Beit Ha-Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. So far remains from four periods were discovered: the end of the First Temple period (8th -7th centuries BCE), end of the Second Temple period (1st century BCE-1st century CE), Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE) and Mamluk period (14th-15th centuries CE).

In one of the excavation areas a cave was revealed that housed an olive oil extraction plant comprised of two phases. The first phase of the installation dates to the Byzantine period. The remains from this period include an especially large stone that was used as a press-bed for a screw-operated olive press from which the oil flowed into an adjacent collecting vat. In the second phase, in the Mamluk period, the floor of the cave was paved with flagstones that also covered the Byzantine press-bed and the collecting vat. Another press installation that was probably operated with weights was made in place of them. The press-bed and collecting vat of this later installation were preserved. A large stone memmel, used for crushing the olives prior to pressing them, was found in the cave.

In the second area a trial excavation was conducted in order to ascertain what antiquities exist there. Another large cave was discovered by chance in which there was a large concentration of masonry stones and numerous fragments of pottery vessels, glass vessels and tesserae from the Byzantine period.

In the excavations that were carried out along the edge of the lot numerous pottery sherds from the end of the First Temple period were discovered on the bedrock surface thus attesting to the presence of a settlement there or in the surrounding area during this period. Two hewn shafts were also exposed from which fragments of pottery vessels were recovered that date to the time of the Hasmonean dynasty (1st century BCE).

Ya’akov Billig, director of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said, “If in the future additional excavations are conducted in the open areas that remain nearby we may learn more about the nature of the settlement that was here during the different periods”.
NORMAN GOLB takes the Seattle Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit to task for its bias in favor of the Essene hypothesis. For more on Golb and his theory see here.

(Via the Agade list and Joseph I. Lauer.)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

THE ANGEL METATRON has taken up professional wrestling in Mexico:
12/10 – Arena Coliseo de Guadalajara
1. Estrella de Jalisco & Exterminador beat Destroyer & Frayle de la Muerte by DQ when Frayle fouled Estrella.
2. Infierno/Magnum/Mr. Trueno defeated Golden/Idolo/Metal Blanco
3. Metatron beat Rey Trueno by DQ when Mr. Trueno ran in. Everyone else in the previous match also got involved and it was decided that there would be a steel cage match on Sunday where all 8 men would put up their masks.
4. Fabian el Gitano/Tigre Blanco/Tigre Metalico defeated Angel Blanco Jr./Hijo del Pierroth/Toxico
5. Dr. Wagner Jr./Gallo/Rey Bucanero beat Averno/Mephisto/Ultimo Guerrero
My emphasis.
NEW TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA WATCH: In the Sunday Times, Peter Stanford has some mostly sensible observations on the New Testamet Apocrypha, largely in response to Robert Beckford's BBC4 program The Secret Family of Jesus. (I haven't seen this show yet, but Grant Macaskill has lent me a video of it and I hope to get to it during the break.) Excerpt:
So, the alternative versions really have the capacity to set pulses racing only if the Gospels in the New Testament are labelled as gospel truth. The church certainly used to label them as such. When I was growing up Catholic in the 1970s, children were strongly dissuaded from reading the Bible. We needed, we were told, a priest to interpret it for us. Just in case we came across awkward elements such as Mary’s other children.

But the reality today, as even a Jesuit professor from the Vatican’s Bible Institute admits on screen in The Secret Family of Jesus, is that the church long ago ceased to claim that every word and detail in the New Testament is sacrosanct. If you want to dispute almost any item of church teaching or dogma, you can find plenty of evidence in the Gospels we already have in the Bible to back you up. Christianity, for instance, is infamously uptight about sex, but Jesus utters scarcely a word about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

This is not to say that the Apocrypha are not fascinating, tantalising and useful for building a more accurate picture about the circumstances and the factions that surrounded Jesus and the movement that turned his memory into a global force. But we need to be more precise about what they are and what they aren’t. What irks about Beckford’s presentation, therefore, is the underlying claim that, because more gospels have suddenly turned up, we can bin the ones we’ve already got. That is as manipulative of the truth as the early church fathers. Or even Dan Brown.
This is more or less what I've been saying and what any specialist in Christian origins will tell you: the New Testament Apocrypha generally tell us nothing about the time of Jesus, but are full of fascinating information about notions and controversies in early Christianity from about the second century on. The possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas, which may contain some early and useful information about the sayings of Jesus, but even this is contested.

One other point is worth a comment:
When David Jenkins, the erstwhile Bishop of Durham, caused headlines back in 1984 by questioning the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus, it was pointed out that he was only saying publicly what had been discussed in the common rooms of theological colleges for decades, some of it influenced by the Gnostic gospels, which often make no mention of Jesus rising from the dead.
I'm not sure which specific texts Stafford has in mind, but there aren't any apocryphal gospels that teach that Jesus was just a good man who died and that was the end of it.
PALEOJUDAICA is profiled briefly in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (January/February 2007). The article is entitled "Archaeology Enters the Blogosphere," but, ironically, the text is not given online. But I'm grateful for the publicity in any case. Welcome to any new readers who have found this blog through the BAR piece.

(Heads-up, G. R. Grena.)