Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RALPHIES 2008: Once again it's time to take up Ed Cook's invitation to post best-of-the-year varia. For my Ralphies of 2005, 2006, and 2007, follow the links. Ed's 2008 Ralphies are here. Mark Goodacre's are here. Doug Chaplin has posted his Ralphies for films here at MetaCatholic.

As before, these are my favorites of the year and probably say little about anything except my own idiosyncratic tastes and what I happened to see or hear.

BEST FICTION BOOK: I don't think I've read any fiction that was actually published in 2008. I'm frequently running a year or more behind on such things. Of the things I did read, by far the best was The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God. Actually, I re-read it, having read it the first time in 1998-2001 as it came out. It was one of the major contribution to the revival of space opera and its concept, like most really brilliant ones, was simple: an ill-timed accident breaches the gap between Hell and our universe and allows the souls of the damned to cross over and possess the bodies of the living. This is set in a twenty-seventh century context in which nanotechnology and FTL travel are taken for granted (and given adequate scientific rationales), the emerging human galactic empire is presented with an amazing level of plausible detail, the wider tapestry is brought to life with a host of reasonably to highly convincing characters, and the finale is stunning. Highly recommended.

Honorable mention goes to the more recent Black Man (Gollancz, 2007), by Richard Morgan, which had a similar feel to his earlier Takeshi Kovacs novels (noted here), although set in a different world. Morgan has now set his hand to epic fantasy in The Steel Remains, which I am looking forward to reading.

More novels are noted below.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: Since becoming Head of School I've had very little time to keep up with professional reading, but I do try to do a few short reviews so as not to fall entirely behind. Of the few academic books I read this year, the most impressive was:
Loren T. Stuckenbruck, 1 Enoch: Chapters 91-108 (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature; de Gruyter, 2007)
An invaluable reference work for anyone working on the Enochic literature.

BEST MOVIE: As usual I saw few films in the cinema, all of them children's films I watched with my son. The only one of these that was even bearable was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which merits a mediocre three stars of five. Brendan Fraser did the best he could, and at least the script relied on some plot instead of entirely on CGI. A bonus was that seeing the movie motivated us to get out our copy of the Jules Verne novel that was the loose inspiration for the movie and read it together, which was a lot of fun. I first read it when I was about my son's age and it was a nice complement to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, which we read earlier in the summer.

As for pre-2008 movies that I saw for the first time this year, my favorite (and my favorite overall for the year) was Sahara (2005), based on the novel by Clive Cussler. Cussler's archaeologist-adventurer hero Dirk Pitt has been around since well before the Indiana Jones movies, and Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn had just the right chemistry as Dirk Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino. It's a pity that Cussler and the movie's producer, Philip Anschutz, fell out. I would have liked to have seen more Dirk Pitt adaptations with McConaughey and Zahn. Be that as it may, the movie also introduced me to the Dirk Pitt novels, of which I have particularly enjoyed Treasure, in which Pitt recovers the lost Library of Alexandria, which luckily had been packed up and hidden in a very unexpected place by an alert ancient Roman official. Would that it were so!

BEST TELEVISION: There was a lot of good television this year and it's hard to pick out a favorite. Doctor Who was excellent again, and I'm sorry to see David Tennant leave. The Doctor even encountered (apocryphal) Old Testament Pseudepigrapha this year, and what could be better than that? Series two of Primeval was fun and I'm looking forward to series three. Series two of Torchwood was good too. I also managed to watch the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which I quite enjoyed, and series six of 24, which was okay but no more. I was disappointed with Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars (noted last year), and I think of it as a real lost opportunity.

This fall's Merlin takes the place in the autumn slot of the disappointing Robin Hood as the BBC's child-friendly British legend program. I liked Merlin. It plays fast and loose with the legend, but, heck, so did Malory. And, again, it got my son interested in Arthuriana, and we're currently reading Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.

All in all, I think my favorite television series in 2008 was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I loved the first two Terminator movies, but found the third very disappointing. It is somewhat redeemed in my eyes now that I see how it fits into the complicated mythos: it presented the failure of the attempt in Terminator 2 to prevent Judgement Day and laid the groundwork for the current series, in which Sarah and John Connor have another go at setting things right. The casting is good and the scripts have been mostly good so far, with some excellent ones. Summer Glau (River Tam in Firefly and Serenity) is particularly well cast as the hot, scary, reprogrammed-to-the-good (most of the time) Terminatrix, Cameron Phillips.

As for my favorite television moment of 2008, it's hard this year to settle on one, but I guess I'll go with moment in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Daughter" when Jenny tells her father to "watch and learn":

I hope we see Georgia Moffett again in the role of Jenny.

BEST MUSIC: I heard almost no new music this year and haven't a clue what's going on. I did, however, dig up a lot of old music on YouTube. One oldish song (1997) did stand out, and I came to think of it as my theme song for 2008: Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.

As those close to me know, 2007 was for me an annus horribilis. 2008 has been a year of nettle-grasping and rebuilding, but all in all it was a significant improvement. May the trend continue in 2009 and may you all have a good year too.

UPDATE (5 January): Chris Brady has his Fifth Annual Ralphies posted over at Targuman.
PALEOJUDAICA is a G-Rated blog:
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

* dead (3x)
* ass (1x)

How curious. I've been keeping a list of amusing search-engine referrals that might point to a stricter rating, but I'll share that with you another time.

The "ass" reference is here and, despite the proximate mention of dung, it just means donkey. Considering how often I refer to the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have no idea how the 3x for "dead" was computed. But if all of them were counted, the site probably would have figured PaleoJudaica was a zombie movie.

(Found via R-Rated Dorothy King.)
TODD BOLEN has posted his Top 8 of 2008: Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible at the Bible Place blog. It's a good list, and he rounds up more of this year's discoveries of interest as well.
DR. GREGORY BEARMAN has an informative article on the Dead Sea Scrolls multispectral imaging project, posted on the SPIE website:
Imaging the Dead Sea Scrolls for conservation purposes

Gregory Bearman

Acquisition of a complete set of new high-resolution color and IR images will allow the scrolls to remain in their environmentally controlled vault.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently decided to employ modern digital imaging and imaging spectroscopy to study the Dead Sea Scrolls. High-resolution color and IR images will be provided to text scholars for use in transcription and translation. Stored at the ideal temperature and humidity in an environmentally controlled vault at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the scrolls must occasionally be removed. Traditionally, scholars work with film negatives on a light box, removing the actual fragments only when the negatives are insufficient to their needs. However, exposure to environmental changes may cause the scrolls to degrade. This new project is driven by two main goals, both of which rely heavily on modern imaging technology. The imaging project will create a complete and accessible online database of high-resolution images that will eliminate the need for physical handling of the scrolls. In a concurrent prospective study, imaging spectroscopy will be applied to selected scrolls aimed at detecting changes in the reflection spectra as potential markers of parchment deterioration. This is a large project because there is a lot of original material to image.

Background here.

Plus, the article briefly mentions the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription:
We have applied similar imaging to a pottery shard (ostracon) with the oldest-known Hebrew inscription.3 The shard, comprising five lines of text, dates from approximately 3000 years ago. It was excavated in July 2008 and partially imaged during the pilot project. The imaging revealed and clarified the text, prompting the IAA to bring the ostracon to the USA in November 2008 for additional imaging.
Background here.
THE BIBLE is still the best-selling book in America:
Prophet Sharing: The Good Book Is the Best Seller
The Bible, Long a Commercial Hit, Gets Repackaged for Market Niches from the Homespun to the Fashion Forward


Mobile, Ala. (Wall Street Journal)

Upstairs in the Mobile Museum of Art, there's a Bible on display -- a majestic hand-drawn edition a decade in the making, and not yet finished. Presented as a work of modern art, its oversized pages are filled with ornate calligraphy and rich illustration, shot through with gold and silver leaf.

Downstairs, in the museum foyer, another Bible lies open -- this one so homespun as to be homely. An earnest young couple is carting it cross-country in an RV with a bobble-head Jesus on the dash, asking tens of thousands of ordinary Americans to each hand-write one verse. Blotches of white-out mark corrections.

The two editions on display this drizzly morning are as different as can be, yet they represent an essential truth: God's word is good business.

Throughout history, the Bible has been an object of commerce as well as of reflection. That's especially true in the modern era.

It's an astonishing fact that year after year, the Bible is the best-selling book in America -- even though 90% of households already have at least one copy. The text doesn't vary, except in translation. The tremendous sales volume, an estimated 25 million copies sold each year, is largely driven by innovations in design, color, style and the ultimate niche marketing.

MORE ON THE DONKEY DUNG as Holy Land souvenir from Green Prophet:
Recycling and Deifying Donkey Dung in Israel

Dec 29th, 2008 by James Murray-White


Menachem Goldberg, who runs a visitors centre at Kedem, has come up with the extra-ordinary idea of preserving pieces of donkey dung within a plastic cube, that is inscribed with holy writings from the Talmud. Mr Goldberg says that the idea came to him from the Talmudic phrase: (and I quote) “Let the Messiah come…may I be worthy to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s dung”. Make of this what you will!

And there's more video too.

Background here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

WE'RE BACK FROM EDINBURGH where we spent the afternoon, visiting the Castle and the National Gallery. I'm busy right now but will try to get to some blogging later.

UPDATE: Sorry, ended up watching Donnie Darko again instead. More tomorrow

Monday, December 29, 2008

WE VISITED SOME MUSEUMS in St. Andrews today. I thought I would show you a couple of things we encountered in the St. Andrews Museum in Kinburn Park. Click on the images for a larger version.

First, there's the Kilduncan Stone, a thousand-year-old carved stone containing a scene of sea dragons which may be biblically inspired:

The descriptive plaque is here:The two beasts are clearly visible on the larger image of the stone. There is no reference to two sea beasts in the Masoretic Text of Habakkuk, but an article by Fife Council Archaeologist Douglas A Speirs in History Scotland Magazine suggests that the scene is inspired by a Latin text of the book:
The reverse side of the stone is even more interesting. Its obscure Christian iconography is difficult to interpret but it is likely that the two sea beasts (known as hippocamps), enclosing the low relief encircled cross-of-arcs, symbolises a passage from the old (Vespasian Psalter) text of the prophet in the Book of Habbakuk, Chapter 3: In medio duorum animalium innotesceris: Between two beasts you will recognise Him [Christ]
The passage is Habakkuk 3:2, which the RSV translates:
O LORD, I have heard the report of thee,
and thy work, O LORD, do I fear.
In the midst of the years renew it;
in the midst of the years make it known;

in wrath remember mercy.
The highlighted passage is translated correctly in the Latin Vulgate (opus tuum in medio annorum vivifica illud in medio annorum notum facies), but the Old Latin translation (Vetus Latina) is based on the Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX). The NETS translation of the line reads:
You will be known in the midst of two living creatures ...
The LXX adds the word involving "knowing" to the first line as well as keeping it in its original spot in the second line, and it reads its grammar differently than the Hebrew of the MT. Then it misunderstands the Hebrew word "years" to be the graphically identical word "two." It also misreads the word translated "renew it" (literally, "make it live") as "living creatures" or "beasts."

And so, perhaps, we get the two dragons carved on this stone.

(This 1953 article by Leo Jung discusses the convoluted transmission of the line from Habakkuk 3:2 as well as its later use in Nativity apocrypha. [Requires JSTOR access to read.])

Second, here is a banner involving Adam and Eve produced by the Order of Ancient Free Gardeners in the town of Cupar, a few miles from St. Andrews:

The plaque is here:I don't see anything as exegetically exciting in this Lost Scroll of Cupar, but it's a nice banner.
THE TOP TEN archaeological discoveries of 2008 according to Archaeology Magazine are listed here. The new Zincirli inscription (now a.k.a. the Kuttamuwa's Soul inscription) is on the list. Background to that is here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

CONGRATULATIONS to Dr. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, who has been named Briton of the Year by the London Times:
Briton of the Year: Neil MacGregor
'Saint' whose charm and enthusiasm had a curative effect on the British Museum

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Chief Art Critic

Saint Neil is his nickname. And we are blessed to have him. The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, is far more than just the highly successful administrator of an iconic national establishment. He is a committed idealist who, in a world in which culture is increasingly presented as the acceptable face of politics, has pioneered a broader, more open, more peaceable way forward.

This year we almost lost him. He was being courted to replace Philippe de Montebello as the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It was easy to see why the Americans would covet him. Here was a man who had managed – by what often felt like charm and enthusiasm alone – to turn a financial basket case back into a cultural jewel.

When he took up his post in 2002, the British Museum was £5 million in deficit. Morale was at rock bottom. Visitor numbers had plummeted to less than a million. A third of the galleries were closed and the staff that had not yet been sacked were on strike. Six years later, under MacGregor’s auspices, it has six million visitors a year and heads the list of our cultural attractions, trumping even Blackpool’s time-honoured mass-market mecca, the Pleasure Beach.

Who wouldn’t value a man who could convince the masses that carved lumps of old rock are more worth visiting than the Pepsi Max Big One? But MacGregor stayed in Britain. He declined the Met on principle. It was not a public institution, he said. And he wanted to stay at a museum that was free to everyone. MacGregor, it would appear, is profoundly democratic. Refocusing upon the founding ideals of the institution that was established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world, he has radically redefined the role that it can play in public life.

I'm glad they held on to him. The British Museum has been mentioned frequently in PaleoJudaica during his tenure. See, for example, entries on the Babylon exhibition, the Phoenicia voyage, the Hadrian exhibition, the Vindolanda texts, the Ancient Persia exhibition, the Nebo-Sarsekim tablet, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Museum's Mesopotamia Collection. In many cases you can follow the links back for more information.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

WE'RE OFF to visit Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Edinburgh. (Apologies for the website's corny music.) I'll let you know if we catch sight of the Holy Grail or the treasures of the Templars.

Meanwhile, here's a site devoted to correcting errors about the chapel in The Da Vinci Code.

LATER: Well, we didn't find the Grail or the Templar treasures. On the way we started to suspect that the reason no one had found them was that no one had ever been able to figure out the directions to the place. But we did get there eventually, and the return trip was easier, since all I had to do was follow signs to the Forth Road Bridge to get back to familiar territory.

In any case, the chapel itself is a beautiful piece of architecture which has countless biblical themes and stories encoded in it. As for the Grail, etc., my son found a number of promising hollow-sounding spots in the walls and floors, but I didn't let him get the pry bar from the car to investigate further.

Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside the chapel, but I do have a few from the outside. Click on any of them for a larger image.

The effect is spoiled a bit by all the scaffolding, but having the whole thing as rubble on the ground would probably spoil it more.

Close-up of a gargoyle or the like above the entrance.

A newer part of the architecture on one side.

The good thing about the scaffolding was that it could be climbed on, so we got a closer look at the outside upper level than we would have otherwise. This is a stained glass window containing St. George. The sun is shining through it from the other side, so you can see part of it in mirror inversion pretty well.

On the exact opposite side of the chapel is St. Michael's window, but the direct sunlight shining on the outside shows very little.

The gift shop was full of nonsensical tomes about Solomon, the Grail, the Templars, etc.

We didn't make it down to Roslin Castle, but you can catch a glimpse of it here in the center of the photo.

There are lots of photos of the inside of the chapel at the Rosslyn Chapel website (here). The chapel was freezing cold and after a while I started to wish I had worn triple socks instead of just double. So it would have taken a lot longer than we had patience for to look closely at all the engravings, but I noticed one right away and it was my favorite of those I noticed. It is a horned Moses holding one of the tablets in one hand and Aaron's rod in the other. (For more on Moses' horns, go here and keep following the links back.)

Also, with reference to the Da Vinci Code website above, Dorothy King e-mails, "Isaac Newton's Tomb in Westminster Abbey also does not have an apple ... LOL"
HANUKKA HEROINES OF YORE are discussed by Rachel Adelman in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:
Women are as obligated as men in the commandment to light the Hanukka candles because, according to the Talmud, "they too were involved in the miracle" (B. Shabbat 23a). According to Rashbam, this implies that women were pivotal in bringing about the miracle, and Judith is credited with this central role at Hanukka (cited in Tosafot on B. Pesahim 108b). Rashi, on the other hand, alludes to the story of Hannah, daughter of Mattathias: "'They too were involved in the miracle' refers to a time when the Greeks had decreed that a bride should be given over to the magistrate on her wedding night and a miracle was enacted at the hands of a woman" (Rashi, on B. Shabbat 23a).

Who are these mysterious women, Judith and Hannah? The story of Judith is not found in the Talmud or the classical midrashim, but, like the Book of Maccabees, in the Apocrypha. Many know the story of Judith beheading Holofernes, the Syrian general, but few are familiar with the story of Hannah, the daughter of Mattathias. The events take place during the tyrannical rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BCE).
Read on for the story.

Friday, December 26, 2008

APOCRYPHA WATCH: A Collation and Evaluation of OT Apocrypha Translations has been posted by Mark Hoffman at the Biblical Studies and Technological Tools blog. (Via Ricoblog.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

FIND A DIG is now online at the Biblical Archaeology Review website. It's not too early to start planning your summer 2009 archaeology!
CAN'T MAKE IT UP and don't think I'd want to:
Dung souvenir based on holy phrase


The manager of a tourist centre in the Holy Land has come up with an unusual idea for a souvenir.

Visitors to Menachem Goldberg's tourist compound at Kedem village in Galilee can buy pieces of donkey dung presented in a plastic cube inscribed with religious text.

Mr Goldberg based the idea on a phrase in the Jewish Talmud which says, '"Let the messiah come... may I be worthy to sit in the shadow of his donkey's dung."
Follow the link for a video that really ought to have come from Saturday Night Live.

Some Googling indicates that b. Sanhedrin 98b is the passage in question, but I don't have the text handy today to verify the reference.

UPDATE (26 December): Yep, that's the passage, and Jacob Neuser e-mails the text from his translation:
I.105 A. Said Ulla, "Let him come, but may I not see him."
B. Said Rabba, "Let him come, but may I not see him."
C. R. Joseph said, "May he come, and may I have the merit of sitting in the shade of the dung of his ass."
D. Said Abbayye to Rabbah, "What is the reason [that some do not wish to see the coming of the messiah]? Is it because of the turmoil of the Messiah?
E. "And has it not been taught on Tannaite authority:
F. "His disciples asked R. Eliezer, 'What should someone do to save himself from the turmoil of the Messiah?'
G. "[He replied to them], 'Let him engage in study of the Torah and acts of loving kindness.'
H. "And lo, the master [at hand] practices Torah-study and acts of lovingkindness. [So why not want to see him?]"
I. He said to him, "Perhaps he fears sin will cause [him to suffer], in line with what R. Jacob bar Idi said."
J. For R. Jacob bar Idi contrasted two verses of Scripture, as follows: "It is written, 'And behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go'
(Gen. 28:15), and another verse states, 'Then Jacob was greatly afraid' (Gen. 32:8).
K. "[Why the contrast between God's promise and Jacob's fear?] Jacob feared [and thought to himself,] 'Sin which I have done may cause [punishment for me instead].'"
L. That accords with what has been taught on Tannaite authority:
M. "Till your people pass over, O Lord, till your people pass over, that you have acquired" (Ex. 15:16).
N. "Till your people pass over" refers to the first entry into the land [in Joshua's time].
O. "Till your people pass over, that you have acquired" refers to the second entry into the land [in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Thus a miracle was promised not only on the first occasion, but also on the second. But it did not happen the second time around. Why not?]
P. On the basis of this statement, sages have said, "The Israelites were worthy of having a miracle performed for them in the time of Ezra also, just as it had been performed for them in the time of Joshua b. Nun, but sin caused the miracle to be withheld."
UPDATE (31 December): More here.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating.

Yesterday I posted and linked to some relevant historical observations etc.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

MY BEST FRIEND is visiting the UK from San Diego. I'm picking him up at the train station in a couple of hours and he will be staying with me for the next week. In high school and at university, Rob and I were Two Wild and Crazy Guys together (in the nerdiest possible sense, you understand). It will be good to hang out together again. But I shall be busy over the next week and blogging may (or may not) be light.
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM is getting its annual airing in the news. Here's a BBC article:
Star of wonder

By Rebecca Ellis

A comet, an eclipse, a supernova, an alignment of planets - was the Star of Bethlehem, said to have led the wise men to the Baby Jesus, a real astronomical event?

Some 2,000 years ago, wise men saw an incredible star shining over the Holy Land. It was their signal to embark on an epic journey to visit the new Messiah. But what exactly was the Star of Bethlehem?
... perhaps it was a comet

Modern science is unravelling the mystery behind one of the most famous astronomical stories in history. New developments in technology allow astronomers to map the ancient night skies with extraordinary accuracy.

As they study the movements of the planets and stars, experts are challenging the traditional assumption that it was a blazing comet - instead there are several unusual astronomical events that the wise men could have seen in the skies.

And that's pretty much where things stand. The scientific possibilities mentioned in the article include a planetary conjunction, a stellar-planetary conjunction, a supernova, and an eclipse of Jupiter. Physicist Frank Tipler has recently discussed the possibilities in his article "The Star of Bethlehem: A Type Ia/Ic Supernova in the Andromeda Galaxy?" in Observatory 125 (2005): 168-73. He thinks the supernova possibility is the most likely option and he lays out the conditions for testing the hypothesis.

Until and unless there's a scientific consensus on an astronomical event that fits the conditions at the right time, my working hypothesis is that the writer Matthew drew on or created midrashic traditions based on Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17, which refers to a star coming out of Jacob. The passage was understood to have a messianic connotation in at least some ancient Jewish circles; for example, the title of the messianic leader Bar Kokhba (Aramaic for "Son of the Star") is based on this verse. A literal reading of it could have led to a story like the one we find in Matthew. But I see I've already noted this in a past post. Related posts are here and here. I've noted another cool Star of Bethlehem tradition here. And while I'm at it, I have posts on Matthew's Magi here and here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW has published a number of free, complete articles recently on its website:
Digs Go Digital
Our annual guide to excavations tells you which digs are looking for volunteers, how you could win a scholarship to fund your experience, and some of the hi-tech tools that you might use while you’re there.

[Cross-file under Technology Watch.]

First Person: BAR—The Next Generation
By Dorothy D. Resig

When our editor, Hershel Shanks, told me several months ago that he was going to take a two-month sabbatical to work on his autobiography and that I’d be writing the First Person for this issue of BAR, I was both excited and overwhelmed by the task of deciding what to write. Hershel suggested that I consider things that give me a different perspective from his. While that offered me a few options, I settled on our age difference and decided to discuss what I’ll call “my generation” in Biblical archaeology.


Biblical Views: Breaking the Trend of Biblical “Breaking News”
By Craig A. Evans

Scholars and the general public alike have grown accustomed, perhaps even hardened, to sensational announcements every year that have something to do with the Bible, Jesus or Christian origins. From The Da Vinci Code to the supposed tomb of Jesus and his family, and the seemingly annual reports about finding Noah’s ark or the Ark of the Covenant, much of the news in our field is incredible—literally. And, of course, several artifacts (such as the Jehoash inscription and the James Ossuary inscription) were widely publicized before being declared forgeries—although the evidence in support of forgery is far from conclusive (see Strata).
In light of all of this noise, I would not be surprised in the least if the public interest in Biblical scholarship and archaeology begins to wane. Future discoveries, even important ones, may well be met with cynical responses such as “We have heard this before.” How is the average person supposed to know when a truly remarkable discovery has been made?

[The bulk of the article has some interesting observations on recent work on the Vision of Gabriel inscription. Background here.]

Archaeological Views: The Value of Experience
[Oded Borowski reflects on how his life experiences inform his work as an archaeologist.]
Also, if you subscribe to Joseph I. Lauer's list, you will have received the full text of three of this issue's "Strata" pieces.

UPDATE: Oh, yes, I meant to include this one too:
Leading Israeli Scientist Declares Pomegranate Inscription Authentic

BAR Special News Report
Updated December 16, 2008

An Israeli scientist employed by the defense in the Jerusalem forgery trial has concluded that the inscription on the famous ivory pomegranate (“[Belonging] to the Temple of [Yahwe]h, consecrated to the priests”) is authentic.

If the inscription is authentic, the pomegranate is probably the only surviving artifact from Solomon’s Temple.

Professor Yitzhak Roman of the Hebrew University examined the pomegranate under a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to reach his conclusions. In the 1990s he was the academic director of Hebrew University’s SEM.

A committee led by Tel Aviv University’s Yuval Goren had previously concluded that the inscription was a forgery because three critical letters adjacent to an ancient break stopped before the break. The forger was apparently fearful of breaking off more of the pomegranate if he went too close to this fracture. The pomegranate itself is admittedly genuine. However, Professor Roman’s examination showed that the three critical letters, contrary to Yuval Goren’s finding, did in fact go into the ancient break.

There's a link to Professor Roman's report.

In another (long) e-mail, Joe Lauer concludes, "I wonder, though, how the claim of authenticity accords with the finding made years ago that the artifact (but not its incised writing) was from a period much earlier than that of the First Temple. Is that still the current thinking?"

Good question.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A BYZANTINE-ERA COIN HOARD has been found in Jerusalem:
Israeli archaeologists find rare gold coins

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Some Israeli archaeologists are having a particularly happy Hanukkah.

The Israel Antiquities Authority reported a thrilling find Sunday -- the discovery of 264 ancient gold coins in Jerusalem National Park.

The coins were minted during the early 7th century.


The 1,400-year-old coins were found in the Giv'ati car park in the City of David in the walls around Jerusalem National Park, a site that has yielded other finds, including a well-preserved gold earring with pearls and precious stones.

They were in a collapsed building that dates back to the 7th century, the end of the Byzantine period. The coins bear a likeness of Heraclius, who was the Byzantine emperor from 610 to 641.

For that gold earring, see here. Looks like they took my advice and felt behind the sofa cushions.

(Again, via the Agade list.)

UPDATE: Reader Carla Sulzbach reminds me that another gold coin hoard (15 from the late Second Temple period) was found near Jerusalem earlier this year. That same site (Kibbutz Ramat Rachel) also produced another Byzantine-era hoard of coins, but not gold ones.
A SYMPOSIUM on Hebrew in the Second Temple Period: The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of Other Contemporary Sources starts on 29 December at the Hebrew University, sponsored by The Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature and The Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Center for the Study of the History of the Hebrew Language. Follow the link for the program.

(Via the Agade list.)
DR. GREGORY BEARMAN, who is in charge of the multispectral imagining project on the Dead Sea Scrolls, is profiled in the Boston Globe:
Putting the past under a microscope
For a forensic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ex-executive gets Woburn firm's high-tech help
By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2008

As a former biomedicine executive, Dr. Gregory Bearman seems to be an unlikely candidate to conduct a forensic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But when the Israel Museum in Jerusalem needed someone who specializes in microscopes to analyze and catalog the scrolls for a project that will track their deterioration, it called the retired chief biomedical scientist of Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Bearman, in turn, called Cambridge Research & Instrumentation Inc., or CRi, a Woburn company that specializes in building systems for the rapidly evolving multispectral life-sciences imaging business - in simpler language, that's the business of manufacturing highly sophisticated microscopes.


"It's pretty amazing. The scrolls were physically accessible, but unreadable. Now they can make out the characters on them," said Peter J. Miller, who cofounded CRi in 1985 and serves as its chief science officer. "Of course, the system can't answer the big question, which is, 'What do they say?' "

The scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1958 in 11 caves near the shore of the Dead Sea on the West Bank, encompass about 800 documents and include texts from the Hebrew Bible. Part of Bearman's work includes making the scrolls available online. His analysis will also be used to track how they age over time.


The system used in the Dead Sea Scroll analysis is called a Nuance multispectral imaging system. Its elaborate software program can isolate certain aspects of an image - for example, noncancerous cells can be separated from cancerous ones. To treat diseases like breast cancer, such information is crucial in determining why some therapies work only for some patients.

Background here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

HANUKKAH starts this evening at sundown. No, really this time!

And, for the Department of Cosmic Synchronicities, today is also the Winter Solstice and the festival of Yalda.

Best wishes to all those celebrating!
PHOENICIAN WATCH: Lots of Phoenician news today. First, a report on the progress of the Good Ship Phoenicia from UK:
Phoenicia Departs Port Sudan for the 'Pirate Zone'

The Phoenicia, seeking to rediscover and document the secrets of ancient Phoenician mariners while circumnavigating the continent of Africa, are just about to depart Port Sudan in the Red Sea, heading towards the Gulf of Aden and the 'Pirate Zone'.

They had planned to stay for just 15 days, but it has taken two long months to make the changes to the ship that they think necessary to continue the voyage. First, they wanted to rebuild the aft end to insert a new and much larger thwart (a transverse support spreading the gunwales) to take the rudders. They also wanted to look at putting a small engine that will enable them to be less reliant on tows in and out of harbours. Compared to the ancients, the crew is quite small, and they lack the numbers to adequately row the vessel.

Now 'Phoenicia' is ready once again to sail on the high seas. ...

he next leg for the ship, which is taking on some new crew members in the Sudan, is to head for the Port of Aden in Yemen at the head of the Gulf of Aden. With piracy hitting the international headlines frequently over the past few months, and the crew about to embark upon a passage around the horn of Africa, they have been receiving more and more enquiries about what impact this will have on the expedition.

They have been working with the assistance of risk management company Drum Cussac over the last 12 months and want to assure supporters that they are taking the risk very seriously.

One would hope so.
The trip so far:
The Phoenician Ship Expedition departed from Arwad, Syria in August, and sailed through the Suez Canal via Egypt to the Sudan. Later it intends to round the Horn of Africa and sail down the east coast. Negotiating the dangers of the Cape of Good Hope will be a critical point in the expedition. The voyage will continue up the west coast of Africa, through the Straights of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean to return to Syria. The circumnavigation will involve 17,000 miles of sailing.

The Phoenicia Expedition is attempting to prove that the Phoenicians were the first people to conquer such a feat. Led by businessman and adventurer Philip Beale, the expedition is recreating the voyage of a 600 B.C. Phoenician vessel. This will put to rest the popular belief that Bartholomeu Dias was the first to sail around Africa in 1488. Philip Beale has previous experience with such a journey. In 2003, he set sail aboard the Borobudur, a recreation of another historical voyage from Indonesia to Africa. Beale has used his enthusiasm to inspire his crewmembers and encourage businesses to sponsor the trip. However, it is the quest for historical truth that drives the voyage forward.
So far, so good. And it's not too late to sign up for the crew! Details here. If you send in an application, let me know. It would be nice to have a PaleoJudaica correspondent on the ship.

Background here.

Next, the BBC updates a couple of Phoenician stories:
Divided Lebanon's common genes

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Byblos, Lebanon

On the brightly lit stage dancers in colourful costumes twist and swirl in dizzying moves.

Beirut's main theatre is packed: Lebanese have come in hundreds for the premiere of a play that explores parallels between them and the Phoenicians - the ancient people who once inhabited their land.

The musical called "The Rise of Phoenix" is about defying hardships and the ability of a nation to rise from its own ashes.

But it is also a criticism of the lack of unity which led to the fall of the Phoenicians, and which is part of Lebanon's political reality today.

"We inherited that Phoenician mentality," says Osama Rahbani, one of the creators of the play.

The Phoenicians were good businessmen, but they were selfish, they were not united. I think the main point of the play is to remind the people that we must learn from our own history," Mr Rahbani says.

Background here.

The article goes on to discuss the recent work on the "Phoenician gene."
Dr [Pierre] Zalloua and his team studied DNA data from more than 6,000 men across the Mediterranean, and used a new analytical technique to detect the genetic imprint of historical migrations.

The Lebanese have been particularly enthusiastic about the project, with dozens still queuing up every day to have their DNA tested. Many, it seems, are hoping to discover their Phoenician ancestry.

"I will be more than happy to have Phoenician roots," says Nabil, a student as he waits for his turn to give blood for the test.

Lebanese team of geneticists led by Dr Pierre Zalloua (standing)
Dr Zalloua says the project's discovery is a "truly unifying message"

"Phoenicians started the civilization, they are the ones who invented the alphabet, I would be very proud to be a Phoenician," he adds.

There is a good chance that Nabil is of Phoenician descent - the study has revealed that while one in 17 people across the Mediterranean carry the Phoenician gene, in Lebanon almost a third of the population have Phoenician roots.

Dr Zalloua says in Lebanon the Phoenician signature is distributed equally among different groups and that the overall genetic make-up of the Lebanese is proving to be similar across various backgrounds.

"Whether you take a Christian village in the north of Lebanon or a Muslim village in the south, the DNA make-up of its residents is likely to be identical," says Dr Zalloua.

"I think it's a truly unifying message, and for me its very gratifying. Lebanon has been hammered by so many divides, and now a piece of heritage has been unravelled in this project which reminds us that maybe we should forget about differences and pay attention to our common heritage," says Dr Zalloua.

Background here.
MONASTIC SQUABBLING makes the news again, this time in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem:
Palestinian government forced to save birthplace of Christ as monks squabble over restoration
The monks who tend the grotto under the Byzantine basilica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem should enjoy lives of quiet, meditative service to the lofty ideals of their faith.

By Tim Butcher in Bethlehem and Angus McDowall
Last Updated: 6:53PM GMT 20 Dec 2008 (The Telegraph

When they wash the grotto's marbled altar and guard its silver lamps, they are watching over the cradle of the Christian world: the exact spot where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.

Yet despite this sacred trust, a ten-year row between the different sects that manage the church has forced the Palestinian government's Muslim leaders to intervene to prevent the basilica's ancient lead roof from collapsing on its mosaic floors.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian national authority, has taken the unprecedented step of issuing a decree that the church must be repaired.


The Palestine Exploration Fund, a British charity founded in the 19th century to preserve the monuments of the Holy Land, described the roof's condition as "nothing short of a scandal".

Discreetly announced in a Jerusalem paper, Mr Abbas' decree was careful to say the three groups would be fully consulted by a special committee set up by the Palestinian authorities.

But there was no hiding the sense of frustration at the bickering between the sects that had threatened a shrine which is one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Holy Land.

His intervention, however, appears to have worked where religious harmony did not: the heads of the three churches have agreed to put aside their squabbles and accept the planned renovation.

Architectural and archaeological experts expressed their delight at the news of the presidential decree.

Sigh. Well, I'm glad someone is seeing to this.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE TEMPLE MOUNT SIFTING PROJECT is seeking donations in order to be able to continue its work. Joseph I. Lauer has circulated a letter from Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig, which I take the liberty of posting here:

The Project of Sifting the Debris from the Temple Mount


When we began the Temple Mount Sifting Project almost five years ago we had no idea what was ahead of us. We did not understand the great amount of work that would be necessary to extract archaeological information from tons of haphazardly dumped material, and we were also completely unaware of the great interest that the public would take in the project and the scores of people who would be willing to volunteer. We also did not even begin to understand the educational impact of our work, and that we had embarked on a lifetime project with great national significance. We initially thought that after a couple of months of sifting the project will be over.

After eight months of work the project nearly closed down, but the Ir-David Foundation adopted the project with the intention of funding it until all the debris would be sifted, and we have continued to operate for nearly five years. Over the course of the past year, over 20,000 people came to volunteer, funding was abundant and we even began to make plans for permanent facilities.

Unfortunately, because of the current economic situation we are once again faced with the potential of having to end our important work. Though the Ir David Foundation found emergency funding at the last minute which will enable us to keep the project going, we have reduced our staff to a minimum and will not be able to sift or to offer educational programming at the same volume as we have been for the past five years.

Just as these words were written, we found a rare half-shekel silver coin, minted by the Temple authorities during the First Revolt in 66/67 C.E. This type of coin was used as a contribution to the Temple at the end of the Second Temple Period, as it says in Exodus (30:12-13). "When you take the sum of the children of Israel. . .This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel.”

The Temple Mount Sifting Operation is not a project for an elite group of archaeologists. It is now the property of the entire Jewish people, including the tens of thousands of volunteers who have helped us sift through the rubble over the years. Many times throughout history the most important projects are adopted by private donors who have the privilege to make a significant difference well before the state steps in to help. The Temple Mount Sifting Project is just such an opportunity. Please take part in this effort to save the Temple Mount Antiquities and help us to continue the educational programming which is having an immeasurable impact on thousands of visitors from all walks of Jewish life.

Gabriel Barkay, PhD.
Zachi Zweig

[Sorry, can't get the photo to upload - JRD]

Silver Half-Shekel coin. Obverse: A chalice from the Temple topped by the letter aleph, which means "First year". Around the perimeter is inscribed “Half a Shekel”. Reverse: A stem with three pomegranates surrounded by the words “Holy Jerusalem”.

Contributions to the Ir David Foundation

Contributions to the Ir David Foundation and the many initiatives it supports are tax-deductible in the United States.

Checks should be made payable to:“Friends of Ir David”
Please specify that the donation is designated to the Temple Mount Sifting Project, or give us a notice about it at: .

Mailing Address:

"Friends of Ir David”
1300 Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210, USA

Tax ID Number: 11-346-6176
Tax exempt status: 501 (c) (3)

Electronic Bank Transfer:

Bank: Chase Manhattan-1501 Avenue M, Brooklyn, NY
Account name: “Friends of Ir David”
Account Number: 845500431365
Routing number: 021000021

Contributions via Ir-David website
Most recent background here, with plenty of earlier background if you follow the links back.
TEN IMPORTANT ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERIES in 2008 Related to the Bible, courtesy of Claude Marriottini. It isn't presented as a top-ten list, but it doesn't make a half bad one.

(Via the BiblePlaces blog.)
Where the Story of Hanukkah Comes to Life

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page P01

"I am the old Mattathias, and I have seen a lot in my life," he says in a booming voice. "The Greeks have forbidden us from reading the Torah and observing the Sabbath. . . . We are Jews, and we will always be Jews. Whoever is for God, follow me!"

What follows is a tale of military triumph and a miraculous supply of oil, a story told the world over that gains magic when recounted in the land where it took place. The reenactment of the Hanukkah story, which commemorates the time when a small band of Jews, the Hasmoneans, fought the Greeks for the right to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, is only part of a visit to Baram's Hasmonean village, which tries to re-create life during that period, more than 2,000 years ago.

At the village, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, children can participate in several activities appropriate to Hanukkah. In one area they harvest olives from a tree and crush them into oil using an ancient olive press. In another they make mosaics, and in a third they make copies of ancient coins.

Baram says old coins were found here, less than a mile from the traditional site of the grave of the Maccabees, the leaders of the group that eventually won independence from the Greeks. He says understanding the Hanukkah story is one way to deepen Israeli children's Jewish identity.

Did I mention that Hanukkah starts tomorrow night at sundown?

Judging by the date of this article, the Washington Post also seems to be celebrating Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day a little late.

UPDATE (21 December): Dead link fixed. Sorry!
ED COOK has posted his Fifth Annual Ralphies awards. I'm working on mine and plan to put up the post on New Year's Eve, as usual.
LATIN is alive and well in Columbia Missouri:
The Latin Revival
Friday, December 19, 2008 | 1:18 p.m. CST
BY Morven McCulloch (Columbia Missourian)

COLUMBIA — It seems Latin isn’t dead anymore. It’s in the spells of Harry Potter books and on the screens in movies such as "Gladiator" and "300." In Columbia and nationwide, the language is drawing new breath.

Renewed interest in the language is evident in the fairly steady Latin class numbers at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools and Columbia Independent School. Instructors and students say it's worth taking Latin because of the language's culture and history as well as for the academic benefits.

And there's this interesting tidbit:
Latin and test scores

Research shows a strong positive correlation between a student’s academic achievement and enrollment in Latin. Ginny Lindzey, Latin teacher at Dripping Springs High School in Texas, is the webmaster for the National Committee for Latin and Greek's Web site. She said research based on the SAT II and language test scores showed students who take Latin generally do significantly better on the verbal section than students who take any other language.

According to the Web site for Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers Inc., students who take Latin not only have a higher grade point average than students who take any other language, but in 2007, the average SAT verbal score for Latin students was 678 — about 40 to 50 points higher than students enrolled in French, Spanish, Hebrew and German. The verbal score for students who did not take a language at all was 502. The same correlations have been evident since 2000.
It's possible that part of this results from self-selection: the brighter and more highly motivated students take Latin. But students who take Hebrew are generally bright and highly motivated too, so perhaps the Latin language itself gives students a better grasp of English.

That said, I see that in 2003 the opposite result was reported: Latin students did better on the SAT than everyone but Hebrew students. Unfortunately, the link has rotted. But it seems that taking any language helps one's SAT scores, with Latin and Hebrew as the most helpful.

I have more on Latin as a healthy dead language here and here, and Latin in Columbia also made the headlines a few years ago.
THE BABYLON EXHIBITION at the British Museum gets a detailed and thoughtful review in The National (UAE):
Building Babylon

* Last Updated: December 19. 2008 9:30AM UAE / December 19. 2008 5:30AM GMT

An exhibition at the British Museum explores the multiple ways in which the legendary city of Babylon has been imagined and re-imaged – mostly by Westerners. Kanishk Tharoor visits in search of a city.

Among his many sins, Saddam Hussein sought to defy history. The ruthless dictator milked all the resources of his country, making no exception for its past. While waging war with Iran, he visited the site of Babylon, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Unimpressed by the stubbly remains of the once great city, Saddam rebuilt a version of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II – Babylon’s most famous ruler – over the ruins. He even styled himself as Nebuchadnezzar’s heir, mimicking the Babylonian monarch’s inscriptions on bricks that were time-stamped, “in the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilisation and rebuilt Babylon.” Saddam’s posturing was meant to remind Iraqis of their glorious heritage, their abiding link to a vigorous and sophisticated empire that held sway over the Middle East nearly three millennia ago.

But if there is one lesson to be drawn from the Babylon of history and myth, it is that hubris begets decline and doom. Folklore, the Bible and countless artists and writers tell the story of Babylon as that of demise. Blind to these cautionary tales, Saddam forgot that Nebuchadnezzar’s city was eventually conquered (and his dynasty severed) by the Persians, a footnote equally ominous and inconvenient in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Stuttering from bloody war to bloody peace to bloody war again, Saddam was finally toppled by the Americans. The writing, as King Belshazzar realised too late in the Book of Daniel, was already on the wall. And like the tower of Babel, Saddam was bound to come crashing down.

Saddam followed, perhaps unknowingly, in the footsteps of countless Westerners who sought to build real arguments upon Babylon’s mythological foundations. Babylon: Myth and Reality, a brilliant exhibition on at the British Museum in London, explores the multiple ways in which Babylon has been imagined and re-imagined, measuring the reveries against what is known about the real city. ...
Background here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: A half-shekel coin has been found in the Temple Mount dirt that was illicitly excavated and discarded by the Waqf:
Rare first century half shekel coin found in Temple Mount dirt
By Nadav Shragai, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Shekel, Israel news, Temple

A rare half shekel coin, first minted in 66 or 67 C.E., was discovered by 14 year-old Omri Ya'ari as volunteers sifted through mounds of dirt from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The coin is the first one found to originate from the Temple Mount.

For the fourth year, archaeologists and volunteers have been sifting through dirt dug by the Waqf, the Muslim authority in charge of the Temple Mount compound, in an unauthorized project in 1999. The dig caused extensive and irreversible archaeological damage to the ancient layers of the mountain. The Waqf transported the dug up dirt in trucks to another location, where it was taken to Emek Tzurim. 40,000 volunteers have so far participated in the sifting project, in search of archaeological artifacts, under the guidance of Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Yitzhak Zweig.


The coin that was found in the sifting project, though it was well preserved, showed some damage from a fire. Experts believe it was the same fire that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

Dr. Gabriel Barkay explained that "the half shekel coin was used to pay the temple taxes... The coins were apparently minted at Temple Mount itself by the Temple authorities."


An additional important archaeological discovery in the sifting project was another well preserved coin, minted between 175 and 163 B.C.E. by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, against whom the Hasmoneans revolted. This revolt brought about the re-dedication of the Temple after Antiochus seized the Temple's treasures and conducted idol worship in it. The coin depicts a portrait of Antiochus the Seleucid King.
Background on the sifting of the Temple Mount rubble is here, and keep following the links back. Also a full shekel coin was found in Jerusalem earlier this year.

UPDATE (20 December): The Jerusalem Post also has an article here on the discovery, which has a picture of the Antiochus coin.

UPDATE: Also, still more on the Temple Mount Sifting Project here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

DOROTHY KING shares her The 10 Greatest Archaeology Movies Ever list with us. I haven't seen all of them, but of those I have seen I would put Raiders at the top of the list. And I would put The Mummy and The Mummy Returns in the top ten as well. (Mummy 3 was dire and should never have seen the light of day, so to speak.) As for The Body, I liked the book better than the movie, although the book was cheesier. Maybe that's why, but the book did have (comparatively!) more and better archaeology and history. If the execrable fourth Indiana Jones movie belongs in the also-rans (I would take it out), then I suppose The Da Vinci Code movie does too. I briefly reviewed Indy 4 here and was much too nice to it. I really tried to like it, but upon reflection, one star. My review of Da Vinci is here (and of the book here).

Dorothy's #4 sounds promising and I hope someday she'll lend me the DVD.
AN ANGEL named Apocrypha.

(Slow news day, in case you hadn't guessed. I'll see if I can come up with more later on.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

RECENT ARTICLES in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures:
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8: Article 25 (2008)

Ian Young,

Late Biblical Hebrew And The Qumran Pesher Habakkuk


The most widely held scholarly view argues that Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH) developed into Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) during the sixth-fifth centuries BCE. It is claimed that on this basis scholars are able to date the composition of biblical books by analysis of their language. In contrast, we argue that EBH and LBH represent not successive chronological periods, but rather co-existing styles of Hebrew. This is demonstrated by the language of the Qumran Pesher-commentary on the biblical book of Habakkuk. Despite dating to the first century BCE and thus long after the period when LBH is said to dominate, Pesher Habakkuk is in EBH. It does not share the accumulation of LBH forms which characterises the core LBH books like Ezra, and exhibits a large number of cases where it prefers EBH linguistic forms against their LBH equivalents.

click here for the pdf version of the article

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8: Article 24 (2008)

Nadav Na'aman,

Shaaraim – The Gateway To The Kingdom Of Judah


The article discusses the location of the city of Shaaraim mentioned in Josh 15:36 and 1 Sam 17:52. It first argues that its proposed identification with Khirbet Qeiyafa, north of the Elah Valley is mistaken. Then it argues that Shaaraim is located on the main road that led from the Valley of Elah to the city of Gath. This article proposes that the place-name Shaaraim means “gate" and that the city was named so because it was located on the western border of Judah with Philistia, a place that was seen as the gateway to the kingdom of Judah.

click here for the pdf version of the article

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8: Article 23 (2008)

Andrew E. Steinmann,

Letters of Kings about Votive Offerings, The God of Israel and the Aramaic Document in Ezra 4:8–6:18


Building on Bill’s Arnold’s thesis that the presence of Aramaic in Ezra presents a shift in perspective to an external point of view, Joshua Berman has theorized that Ezra 4:8—6:18 presents a narrator who is speaking from a gentile point of view as opposed to a Judean voice for the Hebrew that precedes and follows this Aramaic section. However, Berman’s thesis does not account for all of the narration in this Aramaic text. The narrative verses that link the individual letters in this section indicate that the controlling voice for the overall narration is pro-Judean. These verses employ the Judeo-centric language and demonstrate that the author had a Judean source for much of the information he presents. Moreover, the narrative that connects the letters demonstrates the narrator’s knowledge of the Judean prophets, their names, patronymics and office as prophets (5:1; 6:14), revealing his Judean perspective. Ultimately, this narrator reveals his viewpoint by placing the command of God next to the decrees of Persian kings (6:14). Thus, Ezra 4:8—6:18 is a single literary creation, a document that is the result of an archival search and is designed to persuade the reader that the Judeans ought to be allowed to build in Jerusalem. The inclusion of this Aramaic document in Ezra is the author/editor’s way of demonstrating that even under foreign dominance, the Judeans will ultimately prosper because their God controls the events of the narrative and speaks through pro-Judean narrators even in a foreign tongue.

click here for the pdf version of the article

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8: Article 22 (2008)

Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor,

Khirbet Qeiyafa: Sha`arayimn


Khirbet Qeiyafa is a 2.3 hectare fortified early 10th century BCE site, located in the Judean Shephelah, atop a hill that bordered the Elah Valley from the north. This is a key strategic location in the biblical kingdom of Judah, on the main road from Philistia and the Coastal Plain to Jerusalem and Hebron in the hill country. It is the only site in the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel with two gates. This unique feature provides a clear indication of the site's identity as biblical Sha`arayim, a place name that means “two gates” in Hebrew. Sha`arayim is mentioned three times in the Bible (Jos 15:36; 1 Sam 17:52 and 1 Ch 4:31-32). It is located near the Elah valley, associated with King David twice, and not mentioned in conjunction with any other later First Temple period tradition. This accords with the archaeological and radiometric data that indicate a single-phase settlement in the early 10th century BCE at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

click here for the pdf version of the article

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ANOTHER JEWISH (?) TOWN from the Second Temple period has been located:
Remains of Second Temple Era Jewish Town Revealed

by Nissan Ratzlav-Katz

( Archaeological evidence of a Jewish town located on the edge of the Samaria desert during the Second Temple Period (516 BCE to 70 CE) will be made public later this month. The recently-discovered artifacts include the remains of a mikveh (ritual bath), stone tools and hidden chambers.

The town was located in the Akraba district, a frontier region northeast of Jerusalem. The poorly-developed district served as a natural division between the Samarians, who distanced themselves from Jerusalem as the political and spiritual center of Judea, and the Jews. The geographical and ethnic make-up of the region also gave rise to militant rebel sects, such as the Sicarii faction led by Shimon Bar-Giora during the First Jewish-Roman War (1st century CE).

Eitan Klein, a researcher from Bar-Ilan University, explained that "until recently, historical sources, dated from the Second Temple Period until the Bar Kochva Rebellion, testified to Jewish settlement existing in the Akraba district. As opposed to the wealth of relevant historical sources, there were few archaeological findings that supported the presence of such a settlement." The current findings, Klein said, support historical references to the Jewish presence in the Akraba region in ancient documentation.

Presumably the town is taken to be Jewish because of the ritual bath and perhaps the stone "tools" (= vessels?? - כלים?). But I'd like to see a pretty thorough case made if the excavators want to identify the ethnicity of the whole site. We'll see.

Other villages from roughly the same period have been found in recent years (see here, here, and here).

Tomorrow is shaping up to be as busy as today and yesterday, but I'll squeeze in some blogging if I can.

UPDATE (17 December): Perhaps I should have explicitly noted the obvious point that the location of the site and its time frame in themselves support its Jewishness. But methodologically it's helpful to separate such circumstantial evidence from positive evidence from excavated architecture and artifacts. I would like to hear more about those, and presumably the excavator will be addressing them in his upcoming presentation.

I'm off to the School of Divinity's Christmas lunch, then I have an afternoon of meetings around today's release of the British Research Assessment Exercise data. But I'll try to check in again at some point.

Monday, December 15, 2008

HAPPY HANUKKAH (started this evening at sundown) to all those celebrating.

Sorry for the light blogging. I had nearly back-to-back meetings all day, followed by a couple of Christmas receptions and then things to do at home. The pace is likely to stay the same through Wednesday, and blogging will be a low priority.

UPDATE: Yes, yes, sorry! Wrong date! Way wrong date! Apologies to all those whom I panicked. I have no idea what I was thinking, but obviously all the meetings in the last week have thoroughly addled me. The above is not the only evidence, but let's not go into that.

Then again, I suppose I could always claim that I was celebrating Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day late ...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

JACOB NEUSNER'S The Theology of the Oral Torah has been reviewed at length by Kevin Edgecomb in a series of posts at Biblicalia. I've noted earlier posts here and here. The final installment is here and contains links to all the others.
BIBLICAL STUDIES CARNIVAL XXXVI has been published this month by Jim West.
UPDATES: I've just added updates to posts below from the 10th and 11th of December.
THE LOST HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY by Philip Jenkins is getting some media attention. First, Beliefnet has an article that blurbs the book as follows:
Now, Jenkins is arguing that the Christian past isn't as Western as we think, either. The Lost History of Christianity is a fascinating study of the first thousand-plus years of the Church--a Church rooted in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We have much to learn from the tale of its reach, its particular way of being Christian, and its eventual decomposition.
Then there's an e-mail interview with the author. Excerpt:
Give us a sense of the scope of the Eastern Christianity that, as you explain, dominated the first half of Christian history.

Its sheer scale is astonishing. Already by the seventh century, the Church of the East - the Nestorian church - is pushing deep into Central Asia. Nestorian monks were operating in China before 550, and nobody knows when the first Christian actually saw the Pacific - that would be a great historical novel for someone to write!

As I write in the book, "Before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery, before the probable date of the British King Arthur, Nestorian bishops functioned at Nishapur and Tus in north-eastern Persia. Before England had its first Archbishop of Canterbury, the Nestorian church already had metropolitans at Merv in Turkmenistan and Herat in Afghanistan, and churches were operating in Sri Lanka and Malabar. Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, before Poland was Catholic, the Nestorian sees of Bukhara and Samarkand achieved metropolitan status. So did Patna on the Ganges, in India." What I find fascinating about that is how that history violates our usual assumptions about what Christianity looked like in the so-called Dark Ages - about what it was, and where it happened.

Also, this Eastern world has a solid claim to be the direct lineal heir of the earliest New Testament Christianity. Throughout their history, the Eastern churches used Syriac, which is close to Jesus's own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. Everything about these churches runs so contrary to what we think we know. They are too ancient, in the sense of looking like the original Jerusalem church; and they are too modern, in being so globalized and multi-cultural.

Just a suggestion. Perhaps we should think of these eastern communities - the Nestorians and Jacobites - as the real survivors of ancient Christianity. In that case, the great Western churches we know, the Catholic and Orthodox, are the "alternative Christianities."
I think the last couple of paragraphs stretch the point. It's true that the Syriac-speaking church spoke a dialect of Aramaic, but it was the dialect of Edessa in Asia Minor from (if memory serves) the second century CE, so it was some distance linguistically and considerable distance culturally from first-century Galilee and Judea. And keep in mind that although Syriac Christianity has an Aramaic New Testament, it's just the Greek New Testament translated into Syriac. So I don't see that Syriac Christianity has any greater claim to primacy than other traditions. With this sort of reasoning one could argue that Orthodox Christianity has the primacy (and Orthodox Christians sometimes do). The language of the Orthodox Church is indeed the Greek language of the New Testament but, again, the tradition is suffiently remote from the Aramaic-speaking world of first-century Palestine that such claims of primacy are not very interesting to the historian.

Jenkins also has an article in the Boston Globe: When Jesus met Buddha. Excerpt:
The most stunningly successful of these eastern Christian bodies was the Church of the East, often called the Nestorian church. While the Western churches were expanding their influence within the framework of the Roman Empire, the Syriac-speaking churches colonized the vast Persian kingdom that ruled from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. From their bases in Mesopotamia - modern Iraq - Nestorian Christians carried out their vast missionary efforts along the Silk Route that crossed Central Asia. By the eighth century, the Church of the East had an extensive structure across most of central Asia and China, and in southern India. The church had senior clergy - metropolitans - in Samarkand and Bokhara, in Herat in Afghanistan. A bishop had his seat in Chang'an, the imperial capital of China, which was then the world's greatest superpower.

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.

In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas.

One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?

These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop.
That's an interesting story, and one that I didn't know.
VISION OF GABRIEL WATCH: The stone bearing the Vision of Gabriel inscription is on display in Houston. April DeConick has the story here and promises more. I'm envious! I've already noted the Birth of Christianity exhibition here. A more recent (yesterday), very thin, article on the exhibition is here.

There's background to the Vision of Gabriel inscription here and here and keep following the links back.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

ST. ANDREWS DIVINTY NEWS: I've been meaning to post on these for awhile. First, I've mentioned Dr. Nathan MacDonald's prestigious award, but now there's a press release on it:
Prestigious German Research Prize for St Andrews' Academic

Thursday 11 December 2008

A St Andrews' academic has been awarded a prestigious research prize by the German Federal Minister of Education and Research.

Dr Nathan MacDonald, a lecturer in Old Testament at the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, is the only recipient of the award from the United Kingdom.

The Sofja-Kovalevskaja prize is worth £1.3 million over five years and will fund a small research team led by Dr MacDonald based at the University of Göttingen.

He is one of eight scholars from around the world to win the Sofja-Kovalevskaja Award and the only non-scientist from among the eight awardees.

Dr MacDonald and his research team will examine the different forms that monotheism (belief in a single God) took within early Judaism during the period 586-333 BC.

He explained, "Previous scholarship has primarily been interested in the development of monotheism within ancient Israel up to 586 BC and has not examined the mature expressions of monotheistic belief and practice.

"I hope this research will show what unified these religious expressions, whilst also examining the extent of their diversity."

The author of three books, Dr Macdonald's academic work has already been recognized in the award of an Alexander von Humboldt research fellowship and the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

The award ceremony took place in the Deutsche Parlamentarische Gesellschaft in Berlin.
Should you wish to interview Dr. MacDonald, there's more information at the link.

Second, let me congratulate Dr. Bruce Longenecker on his appointment to the W. W. Melton Chair in the Department of Religion at Baylor University as of the Fall of 2009. Mark Goodacre has a long post here on Bruce and the appointment.

Although we are very sorry to see Nathan and Bruce leave (Nathan temporarily), we are happy that these opportunities have come to them and we wish them all the best.