Saturday, January 05, 2008

ROBERT ALTER'S PSALMS TRANSLATION is reviewed by Joel M. Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpts:
Alter, however, wants to "turn ancient Hebrew poetry into English verse that is reasonably faithful to the original and yet readable as poetry." He acknowledges the eloquence of the KJV, but faults that translation for ignoring "the rhythms of the Hebrew almost entirely"; that is, for achieving only one of his two goals.


Grammatical Hebrew syntax ought to become grammatical English syntax. (Again the issue can be tricky. "Working hard" is not "hardly working.") But Alter stumbles with some aspects of Hebrew syntax, mimicking them rather than conveying what they mean. Word order is more flexible in Hebrew than in English. So while Hebrew permits both "I was a lad" and "a lad I was," English allows only the former. Yet surprisingly, Alter's rendition of Psalm 37:25 reads, "A lad I was/and now I am old." He has taken ordinary, grammatical Hebrew and turned it into odd English. Rather than capturing the beauty of the original, he has destroyed it by mimicking it too closely. "A lad I was" is no more correct than "sing a song new."

Alter acknowledges that he grappled with this issue. In the introduction he discusses "syntactic fronting" (one technical name for the Hebrew construction "a lad I was") and specifically notes that "Biblical syntax is more flexible than English." But he justifies the "reversal of normal English word order" because, he says, it is so common in poetry, and, besides, he continues, the psalms incorporated an "archaic stratum" of Hebrew.

While some English poetry allows some words to be reversed, Alter has missed the point. English "syntactic fronting" is a jarring word order used for striking effect. By contrast, the same order in Hebrew is common and unobtrusive. He has turned the nicely poetic into the bizarrely foreign. And there is scant evidence that the language of the psalms is archaic or otherwise ungrammatical.

I haven't read Alter's translation, but I think I do have to raise two points in his defense. First, English poetry is more flexible in its word order than English prose, both for emphasis and to accommodate rhyme and meter. Also "a lad I was," at least to my ear, can be acceptable poetic language whereas "sing a song new" can't. Second, biblical Hebrew poetry does follow more archaic grammatical rules than Hebrew prose. It rarely has the definite article and almost never (I'm tempted just to say never) has the definite direct object marker (את) or the vav-consecutive verbal tense inversion. Some of the Psalms are more archaic still: Psalm 29, for example uses the very archaic "enclitic mem," but the language of Hebrew poetry in general, including the Psalms, is archaic (but not grammatical).
In spite of the errors that occasionally mar the work, The Book of Psalms is a marvelous translation, unsurpassed in its accuracy and poetry, replete with insights into the psalms' meanings, and graced with beautiful renderings of the ancient words.

Translation is always a compromise, and publishing a compromise is not easy. Readers of the Bible are indebted to Robert Alter, and fortunate that he struggled with the ancient text and coerced it into modern English form. The publication of The Book of Psalms is a watershed event, and from the seeds Alter has sown we all reap in joy - maybe even in glad song.

Friday, January 04, 2008

SOME BOOK NOTES by Susan Campbell in the South Bend Tribune are of interest:

• Geza Vermes is a respected Biblical scholar, specializing in Judaism during the time of Jesus. In his latest work, "The Nativity: History and Legend" (Doubleday, $17.95, 172 pp.), Vermes turns his trained eye to the story of the birth of Jesus, perhaps the pivotal tale of Christianity.

Stripping away the legends and add-ons of later years, Vermes casts his net far to explain (and, in some cases, debunk) what some believers hold true -- even while he maintains respect for the core story. According to Vermes, Mary, the mother of Jesus, could hardly have been a virgin her entire life, as the Bible specifically talks about her and husband Joseph enjoying marital relations after the arrival of their first-born. And though the world celebrates in December, the actual event most likely occurred in the spring, roughly four years later than we think.

[I think she means "roughly four years earlier than we think."]


• One of the best writers on religion today, Bruce Chilton, takes us into "Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" (Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pp.). He begins his inquiry with the story of Abraham and Isaac and shows how that close brush with human sacrifice sets precedent for all three religions. He makes a compelling argument that human sacrifice didn't stop with God's encouraging and then thwarting Abraham's sacrifice of his son. It continues today with militancy and fundamentalism that would ignore and even destroy those outside the boundaries of its faith.


• And, finally, it's time to reconsider Queen Jezebel. In "Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen," (Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pp.), Lesley Hazleton shows us why so much of what we know of this "harlot" -- so called because of her religion, not her sexual practices -- is wrong. Jezebel was a powerful, pragmatic ruler, deeply loyal to her husband, King Ahab, and able to survive as a leader for 30 years in a ruthless age that devoured the weak. Translating original Hebrew scriptures, Hazleton, a journalist and a former psychologist, traces the queen's life from her early years in the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, to her marriage at age 15 to the king of Israel, to her coming to grips with a culture that worshipped one god and rejected all others. And then there is her final scene, where she is thrown out a window and eaten by dogs. By the time Jezebel's life ends, Hazleton has convinced the reader that this is a truly sad loss, an end to tolerance that also spelled the end of the Israelites' freedom.
ALEPPO CODEX UPDATE: The New Jersey Jewish Standard has an article on the current efforts to recover lost pages of the Aleppo Codex. It mostly covers the same ground as previous treatments, but there's one interesting detail I don't recall seeing before. In any case, it deserves to be highlighted:
Glatzer told JTA the institute is negotiating with several former members of the Aleppo community in hopes of retrieving at least part of the remaining codex. He would not give any further details about the discussions for fear of disrupting progress.
That seems to indicate that some additional fragments do survive, which is very good news. I wish them success.

Background here.
BIBLICAL STUDIES CARNIVAL XXV has been posted by Chris Brady at Targuman.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

THE EARLY MANUSCRIPTS ELECTRONIC LIBRARY, based in Los Angeles, has a website and a blog. The mission of the EMEL is:
The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library uses digital technologies to make manuscripts and other historical source materials accessible for study and appreciation by researchers and the public.
Their two big projects are:
National Center of Manuscripts, Tbilisi, Georgia

In September 2007, EMEL will travel to Tbilisi to collaborate with Georgia’s National Center of Manuscripts to digitize a selection of its most important manuscripts. The Center preserves outstanding manuscripts in a variety of languages that are the heritage of Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. This project will feature the digitization of early Georgian manuscripts that originate from St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai.

St. Catherine’s Monastery ‘Diaspora’ Manuscripts Project

EMEL seeks to digitize manuscripts that were once part of the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai but are now scattered in libraries around the world. In this way, scholars will be able to study the history of the world’s oldest continually operating library and reconstruct the relationships among its manuscripts. As the first installment of the project, EMEL digitized the Peckover-Foot Codex, a 12th century Greek New Testament manuscript in the Department of Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA.
The blog has details of the trip to Georgia. Both projects have lots of scope for interesting discoveries. Consider the following from the Tbilisi trip:
The problem that both our Georgian and Armenian colleagues face is how to read the erased layer of palimpsests. A palimpsest is a recycled manuscript. A scribe would scrape the surface of an old parchment manuscript to remove most of the original layer of ink so that the parchment could be used to make a new manuscript. The original, erased layer of ink is of great interest to scholars because it can be centuries older than the second layer.

The scraping of old manuscripts to make new ones was practiced more routinely in the Christian East than in the West, and the national libraries of Georgia and Armenia have between them some 10,000 pages of palimpsests. Some of these manuscripts are very early (5th and 6th centuries AD), and almost all of them have never been studied. It’s as if 10,000 pages of ancient Christian manuscripts were discovered in a cave--it would be big news! But these have been under our noses the whole time. We just need the right technology to make them legible again.

EMEL is cooperating with a team of U.S. scientists that has developed advanced methods of multi-spectral imaging to read the erased layer of text on palimpsests. These scientists proved their techniques with the famous Archimedes Palimpsest ( The erased layer of the this palimpsest preserves the world’s only copies of several treatises by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Using new multi-spectral imaging techniques these scientists restored these texts for the first time. The use of multi-spectral imaging on the large group of palimpsests we will encounter in Georgia and Armenia is still experimental. There are no guarantees. But it behooves us to make every effort to let these ancient texts speak again.
Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

APRIL DECONICK has a 2007 Retrospect for the Forbidden Gospels blog.
THE PRELIMINARY REPORT on the 1993-2004 Qumran excavations has now been published by the IAA online in pdf format. Todd Bolen has details at the Bible Places blog.

Monday, December 31, 2007

RALPHIES 2007. Once again I'm taking up Ed Cook's invitation to post best-of-the-year varia. For PaleoJudaica Ralphies from 2005 and 2006, follow the links. Ed's latest Ralphies are here. All the usual disclaimers apply: the only things taken into account are those I have seen or heard (or meant to look at or deliberately avoided, etc.) and "best" is best according to my own entirely idiosyncratic tastes.

BEST FICTION BOOK: No contest here:
Stephen R. Donaldson, Fatal Revenant (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) (New York: Putnam, 2007)
(Past posts on the series are here, here, and here.) Donaldson just moves from strength to strength. The viewpoint character continues to be Thomas Covenant's companion, Linden Avery, and Covenant's involvement in the the story continues to be, well, complicated. Go Linden! Do something they don't expect.

Honorable mention goes to:
Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives (New York: Ace, 2004)
Spooks meets H. P. Lovecraft meets Dilbert. Enough said.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: I read fewer technical books this year than usual, and very few that were actually published in 2007. Of those I read that were published in the last couple of years, the best was certainly:
John M. G. Barclay, Flavius Josephus: Against Apion (Brill, 2006)
Another superb volume in the Brill commentary series on Josephus.

For honorable mention:
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006)
This one might have made first place but I haven't actually, er, read it yet. But I did read some of it in manuscript and our postgraduate seminar spent several weeks reviewing it just before Richard retired, so I do have a good idea what's in it. The book is clearly an important challenge to the field of New Testament form criticism and it will be very interesting to follow its long-term effect.

BEST MOVIE: I saw very few movies this year, partly because I was busy and partly because the offerings were so dire. I was happy to be among the droves that stayed away from the rash of rampantly money-losing Hollywood anti-war films. Apart from that, I took my eleven-year-old son to a number of children's movies. Of these, the best was Ratatouille, a hilarious mixture of American values and French cooking.

BEST TELEVISION: Last year I mentioned the British series Life on Mars. It concluded with a second season in 2007. This season had a warmed over feel to it and wasn't entirely satisfactory, but the last two episodes were spectacular. The best television moment of 2007 (and surely one of the creepiest) was Sam Tyler's moment of personal apocalyse in the concluding episode.

Sam's moment of satori

If you've seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen the series yet, the DVD really is worth renting. I look forward to the sequel spin-off Ashes to Ashes in 2008.

The 2007 season of Doctor Who was also excellent. David Tennant gets better and better and if he pulls off another season like the last two, he could displace John Pertwee as my favorite Doctor. Also deserving of honorable mention is ITV's Primeval, a time travel show involving "anomalies" from the past and future that periodically expel entertaining monsters that have to be dealt with. It was aimed at the vicinity of my son's demographic and it cannibalized the special effects from last year's Prehistoric Park, but I quite enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to series 2 in 2008.

BEST MUSIC: Thanks to airline soundtracks, access to a car radio in the States for a while, and YouTube, I actually did listen to a little new music in 2007 (both newish and new to me). Of the newish songs I heard, the one I liked best was How to Save a Life by The Fray. Of the new-to-me variety, how could I not love The Mespotamians by They Might Be Giants? And I especially enjoyed discovering the first music video ever shown on MTV, Video Killed the Radio Star, by the Buggles. My favorite new song of 2007 is this parody of the latter, posted in October: YouTube Killed the TV Star.

Best wishes for 2008!

UPDATE (6 January 2007): Mark Goodacre has published his Fourth Annual Ralphies.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

AN OBITUARY FOR EDWINA M. WRIGHT has been posted on the Union Theological Seminary website. Excerpt:
Gifted Scholar, Beloved Teacher
Professor Edwina Wright joined the Faculty of Union Seminary in 1998 as an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and later became the Director of Language Studies and Adjunct Professor of Biblical Languages. She taught introductory courses in Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek and an intermediate level reading course in Biblical Hebrew.

In addition to teaching, Professor Wright directed individualized courses in Biblical Aramaic and Ethiopic. She also administered the Hebrew diagnostic examination for Old Testament doctoral students and worked with the Biblical Field in providing linguistic support for students taking the Biblical exegesis practicum. She also helped plan the Summer Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek courses. Professor Wright worked with representatives of the Union Latino community and the Academic Office to develop Union's first course taught in Spanish, which focused on the development of conversational skills and the discussion of ministry within the Latino context.
Background here.
JESUS WAS NOT BORN IN BETHLEHEM, BUT IN ANOTHER TOWN OF THE SAME NAME. This is evidently being seriously argued by an Israeli archaeologist. This Sky News article was noted just before Christmas by Jack Sasson and Joseph I. Lauer:
Archaeologist Questions Site Of Nativity

By Dominic Waghorn
Middle East correspondent
Updated:23:56, Sunday December 23, 2007
Millions are about to celebrate the story of Christ's nativity.
But - and it may not be the best time of year to bring this up - that story could have a flaw in it. We may have got wrong the place where it happened all this time.

Thousands have visited the town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, in the run-up to Christmas.

But, according to Israeli archaeologist Aviram Oshri, this is the wrong Bethlehem.

There is little evidence anyone was living in the traditional Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth, he says, and controversially he has an alternative site.

Oshri points to another Bethlehem in the rolling hills of the Galilee.

"There is the fact that Jews were living here at the time of Jesus, that is absent in the other Bethlehem," he says.

"We have a Christian community, a very large Christian community, living here and defending itself by building a fortification wall, signifying that the spot was very important for them.

"We have a large church with a cave underneath which is exactly the same as the other Bethlehem."

Oshri has found the remains of the strong fortification walls among olive trees on the edges of Bethlehem of the Galilee. Early Christians here were protecting something important, the real site of Christ's birth, he believes.

But at some point all traces linking this place to the nativity disappeared. "They did not die out, they were killed off, deliberately" says Oshri.

Why would early Christians cover up the real place of Christ's birth? The answer may be found in the bible.

The Old Testament prophets had predicted that the Saviour of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

To be the Messiah, Jesus could not be born in the Galilee - so could the early Christians have changed the story on purpose to reinforce the messianic credentials of Christ?

The problem for Oshri is that the key piece of evidence has been destroyed.

In the 1960s the Israelis built a road through the ruins of the early Christian church in the heart of his Bethlehem.

The cave underneath the church was only partially damaged but he cannot get permission or funding to excavate it.

Touting a theory undermining the claims of the established church might not make him friends.

It's hard to judge a theory on the basis of a single newspaper article on it, but this one does seem to me to be unnecessarily complicated. The birth narratives in Matthew 1 and Luke 2 clearly place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem of Judea. Matthew makes a point of associating this with the royal oracle in Micah 5, which he interprets to mean that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea. (In fact, the oracle probably just alludes to the origin of the Davidic line in David's home town, but that's neither here nor there.) Now either Jesus actually happened to be born in this Bethlehem or he was actually born somewhere else, likely in Nazareth, and the Bethlehem birth narratives are later midrashic compositions based on the messianic prophecy in Micah. (The latter seems much more likely to me.) Oshri's theory asks us to believe that Jesus was actually coincidentally born in another Bethlehem (which I confess I've never heard of before this) in Galilee, but that the Gospel birth narratives transferred the location to the Judean Galilee in light of the Micah passage and that all knowledge of the real birth in the Galilean Bethlehem was successfully suppressed, even though this was an obvious weakness that ought to have been fully exploited by the enemies of the early Jesus movement and which should have left an apologetic trail in its wake.

That said, Oshri does cite some archaeological evidence in favor of his theory. I am not qualified to speak to the accuracy of this, but if it's true that the Judean Bethlehem was not an inhabited Jewish site at the turn of the era, it does speak against the historicity of Gospel birth narratives, but these have plenty of other problems on other grounds. If they are unhistorical midrashic stories, the historical situation of Bethlehem at the time scarely matters. It's interesting that the Galilean Bethlehem seems to have been an important Christian site later on, but if this is so, the reasons are not clear.

But all that said, Oshri has formulated a falsifiable theory and I wouldn't be at all disappointed if he does get the funding to excavate the site. I doubt that he will confirm his theory, but he's bound to find something interesting.

Incidentally, I see Jesus' Davidic lineage as a different issue from his supposed birth in Bethlehem. Paul refers to Jesus descent from David in the 40s in Romans 1:3, and there is adequate evidence later on that Jesus' family were leaders in the early church and were considered to be of the Davidic line. I see no reason to doubt that genealogical traditions about the royal lineage were kept in the first century and that Jesus and his family belonged to that line.

Two recent articles in Biblical Archaeology Review make the respective cases for Jesus' birth in Bethlehem or an unknown location (Nazareth?). See Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, "Bethlehem…Of Course" and Steve Mason, "O Little Town of…Nazareth?" I think Mason makes by far the stronger case, but read them and decide for yourself.

UPDATE: Joseph Lauer e-mails to tell me that Simcha Jacobovici visited the Galilean Bethlehem and talked with an archaeologist (Oshri?) about the theory of it being Jesus' birthplace in an episode of The Naked Archaeologist series. The episode summary reads:
Jesus: The Early Years

The Gospels sometimes contradict one another in their descriptions of Jesus' early years, and to this day little is known about how he spent his childhood. Now, as host Simcha Jacobovici reveals, archaeology is helping to uncover clues about his early influences – and even his birth. Could it be that the famous manger was in a different Bethlehem entirely?
The trailer for the episode is here, but it's not very informative. I have some less than enthusiastic observations on The Naked Archaeologist series here.
THE TOP TEN DISCOVERIES OF 2007 are featured in Archaeology Magazine's January-February 2008 issue. The one of interest for PaleoJudaica is the Nebo-Sarsekim Cuneiform Tablet. From the runners-up, note also Alexander's Isthmus, Tyre, Lebanon. The two stories were discussed on PaleoJudaica here and here.

If the Vision of Gabriel inscription is genuine, it certainly belongs in the top ten.
MORE ON THE "VISION OF GABRIEL": The Biblical Archaeology Society has put up a page on it:
A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone?
You can download a transcription of the Hebrew text and an English translation. (Via Joseph I. Lauer and the Agade list.)

Also, subscribers to Biblical Archaeology Review can download Ada Yardeni's article in the Jan-Feb 08 issue of BAR here.

UPDATE: Stephen Goranson e-mails:
I'm not sure what to make of it yet. The BAR description "Dead Sea Scroll" may be less than apt since it's not a scroll and, perhaps, not reliably known to be from near the Dead Sea. It reminds me a bit of the "Angel Scroll" or "Visions of Yeshuah Ben Padiah Scroll," as Stephen Pfann called it--which has not to my knowledge been authenticated--also supposedly from Jordan. As for writing on stone, if genuine, the new text would not be quite unparalleled. In 1955 in Qumran Locus 129 de Vaux uncovered a "plaque de calcaire inscrite" (with ink or paint?), Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles... 1994 page 332, KhQ 2207). The latter was published by A. Lemaire in Humbert and Gunneweg, Khirbet Qumran...II: etudes... 2003 pages 360-2. Unfortunately, these 5 lines of text are not especially clear, though apparently religious.
Interesting. For the supposed Ben Padiah scroll, see here. As far as I know it has yet to be produced or authenticated.