Saturday, January 26, 2008

BATMAN IN SYRIAC? I had the same thought when I saw the announcement.
BYU'S DEAD SEA SCROLLS DATABASE receives some recognition:
Maxwell Institute Dead Sea Scrolls database honored as 'outstanding'
Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008 12:25 a.m. MST (Deseret Morning News)

Brigham Young University's "Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library," produced by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and published by Brill Academic Press, is on Choice Magazine's short list of Outstanding Academic Titles from among 7,000 or so reviewed in 2007.

From Shafiq Abouzayd

ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies is organising its Twenty Sixth International Conference on the theme of The Mandaeans, to held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 08-10 September 2008.

The conference aims to study Mandaeism and its relationship to Near Eastern religions and gnostic movements, and it will start on Monday 08 September at 9am, finishing on Wednesday 10 September at 6pm. Each speaker's paper is limited to 30 minutes, with an additional 10 minutes for discussion.

If you wish to participate in the conference, please send your answer to the above Aram email address before March 2008. If you know of colleagues who might like to contribute to the conference, please forward this message to them or send us their names and email addresses. Yet, we would like to remind our colleagues that only academics are allowed to present a paper at an ARAM conference.

The conference will start on Monday 8 September at 9am, finishing on Wednesday 10 September at 6pm. Each speaker's paper is limited to 30 minutes, with an additional 10 minutes for discussion. All papers given at the conference will be considered for publication in a future edition of the ARAM Periodical, subject to editorial review.

If you wish to know more about our ARAM Society and its academic activities, please open our website:

If you have any questions or comments at any time, I am always happy to receive them.

Shafiq Abouzayd (Dr.)
Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies
The Oriental Institute
University of Oxford
Pusey Lane
Oxford OX1 2LE – UKý
Tel: +1865-514041ý
Fax: +1865-516824ý
(From the Agade list.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

VERY BUSY: The good news is that I have six months of research leave starting in about a week. The bad news is that I have at least two weeks of work to get done before then. But for today:

A long Jerusalem Post editorial on the recent Talpiot tomb symposium. I don't have time to read it all, but maybe you will.

A Minnesota NPR audio interview with Geraldine Brooks, author of The People of the Book. I don't have time to listen to it either, but maybe you will.

A brief review in the Jewish Journal of greater LA of James Kugel, How to Read the Bible.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ancient Cemetery Unearthed in Syria

10 hours ago

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Archaeologists in northeast Syria have unearthed a 3rd century cemetery in the shape of a cross, the country's official news agency reported Wednesday.

Ten skeletons, along with pottery and coins, were found at the site in Hassaka, 441 miles northeast of the capital Damascus, SANA reported.

Some of the artifacts contained inscriptions in the ancient Aramaic language, it said.

Wednesday's find came a day after SANA reported that archaeologists had found a Roman-era cemetery in Latakia, northwest of Damascus. That cemetery was believed to date back about 1,000 years, SANA said.

I'm not sure how a Roman-era cemetery could be only 1,000 years old. There appears to be some confusion.

Neither of these cemeteries are the same as the one announced in November.

UPDATE: In response to my comment about the "Roman-era cemetery," reader Robert S. Schwartz writes, "Because what we Westerners call the Byzantine Empire, was called Roman by the Byzantines themselves?" Maybe.
Shaheen builds musical bridges between cultures
By Alexander Varty (

Although Simon Shaheen has been a professional musician since he was in his teens, his real job is building bridges—between cultures, sonic styles, and listeners of all sorts. At the moment, for instance, he’s writing a concert for oud—the acoustic guitar of the Arab world—and orchestra, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony. And, as Shaheen explains from his Brooklyn, New York, home, there’s more to this than simply waltzing in with an armful of sheet music.

“I am scheduled to go there twice, just to work with the strings on microtonality and certain concepts of ornamentation that we use in Arabic music,” says the Palestine-born musician, a powerful performer on both the oud and the violin. “Now, this doesn’t mean that the composition will be pure Arabic music…but the context will definitely be symphonic.”

Another collaboration, with storyteller Margaret Wolfson, recasts the legend of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of the region now known as Iraq. “The big question was, ‘How does Gilgamesh relate to what’s going on today?’ ” Shaheen notes. “So we want to…connect this historic epic to contemporary Iraq, especially under the circumstances.”

Actually, I should have said Gilgamesh put to music again.
TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH (indirectly):
Temple quarry becomes site for new elementary school
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS (Jerusalem Post)

A Jerusalem elementary school for girls is being constructed on the site of an ancient quarry that supplied enormous high quality limestones for the construction of the Temple Mount, calling into question whether part of the area will ever be converted into a major tourist site, officials said Wednesday.

The site, uncovered last year during a salvage excavation four kilometers northwest of the Old City of Jerusalem in the outlying Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, was used during the construction of the Second Temple, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

According to an agreement worked out by the state-run archaeological body and the Jerusalem Municipality, about half of the five-dunam site, on its northeastern side, will remain an archeological site, while the other half will be used for the school, said Jerusalem regional archeologist Jon Seligman.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

TU B'SHEVAT, the New Year for trees, began last night at sundown.

CORRECTION: It started on the evening of the 21st and ended on the evening of the 22nd. Sorry about that.
KENNETH ATKINSON and his work on the Septuagint are profiled in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier (Iowa):
UNI prof helps translate ancient scriptures
By KAREN HEINSELMAN, Courier Staff Writer

CEDAR FALLS --- Hundreds of years ago, Jewish scribes wrote out their holy scriptures by hand.

Tediously. Cautiously. Lovingly.

Today, the translation and transcription of religious texts remains a time-consuming yet fulfilling process for many modern scholars with a biblical studies bent, as Kenneth Atkinson can attest.

Atkinson, an associate professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa, recently assisted with a unique and awesome project. Part of an international team of some two-dozen scholars, Atkinson helped complete an English translation of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the ancient Jewish scriptures from around 250 B.C.

Actually, the Pentateuch was translated around 250 BCE, but the rest of the books were translated over the next couple of centuries and revisions of the translations continued to be produced for some time aftet that.
Atkinson was responsible for translating one of 41 books in the Septuagint. A book of poetic writings, "Psalms of Solomon" fits between the Old and New Testament. The collection of Psalms, once used in worship, tells the story of a people awaiting a warrior Messiah.

"For Christians, this is a very important book," Atkinson said. "It helps us understand the world that Judaism, Jesus and Christendom emerged from."

So while many people of faith say they are unfamiliar with the Septuagint, actually anyone who picks up a Bible stands to encounter it, Atkinson said.

Early Christians held the Septuagint in high regard and New Testament authors referenced it, Atkinson said. Saint Augustine declared both Hebrew and Greek translations of the ancient scriptures divinely inspired, Atkinson added.

He also said that the Septuagint created a Greek theological vocabulary to convey the meaning of the Semitic languages of Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Greek Orthodox Church, actually, still uses the translation. Septuagint comes from the Greek word for 70.

The New Englisht Translation of the Septuagint is available online here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls in Context: Integrating the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Study of Ancient Texts, Languages, and Cultures
Vienna, 11th-14th February 2008

We are pleased to invite you to the international conference "The Dead Sea Scrolls in Context: Integrating the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Study of Ancient Texts, Languages, and Cultures," which will be held in Vienna from 11th to 14th February, 2008. The conference is organized within the framework of the cooperation between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Vienna.

The aim of the conference is to build a bridge between the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other fields of research. Since the majority of the scrolls from the Judean Desert has been published, scholars now focus more on the interpretation of individual texts than on text editions. As all these scrolls are now easily accessible, it is time for their full integration in the various disciplines that benefit from the discovery of these very important ancient texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls enrich many areas of biblical research, as well as the study of ancient Jewish, early Christian and other ancient literatures, languages, and cultures.

For registration please contact Dara Fischer at

We apologize if this invitation reached you more than once. Nevertheless, we would appreciate if you could forward this invitation to anyone who might be interested.

Best regards,
Dara Fischer

Institut für Judaistik der Universität Wien

Spitalgasse 2/7.3
A-1090 Wien

Tel: +43/(0)1/4277-43301
Fax: +43/(0)1/4277-9433
ANCIENT MUSIC figures in this story too:
Haran offers eclectic blend of world music
By LEE CLARK ZUMPE (Tampa Bay Newspapers)
Article published on Monday, Jan. 21, 2008

TARPON SPRINGS - Haran, the latest release from Pharaoh’s Daughter, features a collection of traditional Eastern and Western songs drawn primarily from textual sources and delivered in confident, rhythmic indie world-beat compositions.


The CD opens with “By Way of Haran,” a buoyant tune underscored by psychedelic organ. Highlights include “Kah Ribon,” the Arabic song “Samai,” a dramatic retelling of the story of Joseph called “Enpesare” and “Askinu,” sung in Aramaic and based on a Kabbalistic song from the third meal of Shabbat.

Sung in several languages – Farsi, Ladino, Arabic, Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew and English – the collection is frequently spellbinding and hauntingly harmonious. In addition to vocals, Schechter plays oud and saz. Band members include Shanir Blumenkranz, bass, electric and acoustic guitar; Jason Lindner, keyboards and piano; Yuval Lyon, drums; Meg Okura, violin; Daphna Mor, ney and recorder; Mathias Kunzli, percussion; and Uri Sharlin, accordion.

ANOTHER REVIEW of People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, this one in PopMatters. Excerpt:
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to like this book. I finished the New Yorker article longing to read it, hoping for a melding of Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Cooley’s The Archivist, and Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. And Brooks is an eminently capable writer with meticulous research skills and a commendable grasp of history. If only she’d turned her talents to writing a non-fiction account of the Sarajevo Haggadah instead.
Background here.
Sounds of long ago
By GAVRIEL FISKE (Jerusalem Post)

In the 21st century, music has become an ever-present commodity, providing a soundtrack for our daily lives. But before the modern age, while music was still part of daily life, it was perhaps more precious. With the proliferation of cheap MP3 players and easy access to music on the Internet, it's easy to forget that once upon a time music was something only experienced live, or not at all.

A new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem illustrates the role of music in the ancient Near East with an elegant display of musical instruments and iconography. Entitled "Sounds of Ancient Music," the exhibit opened on January 7 and features many noteworthy items, including some from as long ago as 12000 BCE.

As well as covering ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the display also has a special section examining music during the Second Temple period, and features a cornerstone from the Second Temple compound believed to be from where the priests would blow trumpets to usher in Shabbat. ...
MORE ON THE TALPIOT TOMB SEMINAR: Many of the participants have signed a statement that has been posted by Mark Goodacre on the Duke University Religion Department blog. Excerpt:
The smoking gun at the conference was the surprise appearance of Ruth Gat, the widow of the archaeologist who excavated the tomb in 1980 and died soon afterwards. Mrs. Gat announced that her husband had known about the identification all along but was afraid to tell anyone because of the possibility of an anti-Semitic reaction. However, Joseph Gat lacked the expertise to read the inscriptions. His supervisor and other members of the Israel Antiquities Authority believe that Gat could not have made such a statement in his lifetime since the inscriptions seem to have been deciphered only after he had passed away. Jacobovici now claims that Mrs. Gat’s statement has vindicated his claims about the tomb.

To conclude, we wish to protest the misrepresentation of the conference proceedings in the media, and make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance – including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb - either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly unlikely.
Read it all.

Monday, January 21, 2008

WORD IS THAT CHUCK JONES is moving to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Jack Sasson writes on the Agade list:
News from New York is that Chuck Jones is the new Librarian of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He comes there immediately from the American School at Athens, where he headed the library, but had previously choreographed the collections at the Oriental Institute. He is also well know for the many notices sent out out on Agade and other services.

He begins work at NYU in March.
Congratulations Chuck!
GEZA VERMES was also at the Talpiot tomb seminar and he e-mails the following:
Like Jim Tabor, I, too, attended the Princeton symposium held in Jerusalem on "Jewish views of the afterlife and burial practices in Second Temple Judaism", subtitled, "Evaluating the Talpiot tomb in context". Many of the papers delivered on the main subject (afterlife and burials) were illuminating. In my judgement, the arguments advanced in favour of the Talpiot burial chamber being the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth are not just unconvincing but insignificant. Discounting a handful, headed by Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, the maker of the documentary, "The lost tomb of Jesus", most of the fifty or so participants shared this opinion. Among them figured leading archaeologists such as Amos Kloner (who published the results of the Talpiot excavations), Eric Meyer, Jodi Magness and Joe Zias. Scholars being scholars, they were bound to ask for further research. However, as things are, the matter is and, short of substantial new discoveries, must remain closed. The press's claim that the experts were deeply divided is a distortion of the truth.
He also points to more information on the Talpiot tomb controversy at Stephen Pfann's site.
MORE THOUGHTS FROM JAMES TABOR on the Talpiot tomb and historical method.
APRIL DECONICK was also at the Princeton seminar on the Talpiot tomb, and she has posted her observations at the Forbidden Gospels blog. She says it all depends on Mary Magdalene. And here are her conclusions:
7. The results. We didn't take a vote, or anything like that. There seemed to me to be an enormous range of opinions, many of which were connected into theology and why theologically it can't be the tomb of Jesus and his family. There were some that said "No way" for other reasons. Most people I polled during the reception said that there wasn't enough evidence to make a positive identification (for various reasons), so they said they were "very skeptical" or "skeptical." A few people, however, did find it likely if not probable. There were a number of scholars who thought that this might be an early Christian tomb or what Professor Charlesworth called a "clan" tomb, rather than a "family" tomb.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

JAMES TABOR was at the Princeton symposium on the Talpiot tomb and he has a report up on his Jesus Dynasty blog here, here and here. Excerpt:
There was no official “conclusion” made by the participants, nor were any polls taken, other than the agreement at the end that there should be further examination of the tomb itself in the future. My sense is that a few would say this tomb can not be the tomb of Jesus, but that the vast majority would say that although it might be possible, there is no compelling evidence, given what we now know or possibly can know, and for some, there is evidence pointing against such an identification. Since there are no bone reports, or apparently, the possibility of full DNA testing, we seem left with what we have. A very few of those who think it might be possible would go on to say it has a probability of being the Jesus family tomb. Still, to be fair here, of those who are not convinced, I would say most find the evidence in favor to be flimsy at best. Language here can be tricky of course. For example, Shimon Gibson said at the conclusion of the conference that based on all the evidence he “does not think this is the Jesus tomb,” but that should not be taken to mean he would say it is impossible, which I have never heard him say. He simply, like most, does not find the evidence compelling enough to move to the “probably” side of things.
For my part, things that "might be possible" (of which there are all too many) are much less interesting to me than things that are supported by the balance of evidence. That said, I fully agree that further work on the tomb as well as on any nearby tombs is worth carrying out. We're bound to learn something interesting.
DAVID PLOTZ does the Shrine of the Book, Qumran, and Masada. Here's his take on the Qumran sectarians (whom he identifies with the Essenes without mentioning any of the complexities involved):
There's no getting around it. The Essenes—heroic for saving the book, stirring in how they remind us of the dawn of our civilization—were some very weird cats. The tourist terminology for them is sect, but the right word is cult. They followed a "teacher of righteousness" to this godforsaken slab of barren rock to wait for the apocalypse. They surrendered all their possessions, took vows of celibacy, and engaged in religious practices that are suspiciously reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorder. They took ritual baths all the time—Qumran has more bathrooms per square foot than a McMansion in Phoenix. They were freaky about urine and excrement. They did not relieve themselves on the Sabbath—at all! And they wouldn't relieve themselves inside the city walls, meaning they schlepped up the hill behind a big pile of rocks to do their business. This, Ian says, may have been a dreadful mistake. Unlike the Bedouins of the area, who leave their excrement uncovered to dry out in the desert, the Essenes buried theirs in the hill above the town. But because they buried it, the parasites in the feces lived longer. When the rains came, those parasites were washed downslope into the ritual bathtubs. According to recent research, Ian says, the Essenes had much shorter life expectancies than their neighbors, probably because their habitual washing and crazy toilet habits made them so sick. Masada and Qumran were inhospitable, miserable, sulfurous, barren, and terrifying, populated by strange people with stranger ideas, and destroyed by a Roman Empire that was by any measure more civilized. Yet at Qumran and Masada today, we can recognize the beginning of Jewish identity. In Masada, Jews mourning the destruction of their last temple made a final stand and gave modern Jews a model of Jews as warriors. In the caves of Qumran, Jews safeguarded for 2,000 years our rituals and books, the foundations of Jewish civilization. These were defeats that became victories.
For the latrine at Qumran, see here, here, and here.
Saving the Sarajevo Haggadah


January 19, 2008


By Geraldine Brooks

Viking, 372 pages, $28.50

The craze for memoirs and reality shows suggests a contemporary addiction to what really happened - the private made public before our very eyes - and, perhaps, a failure of imagination. Wrestling with truth in all of its contradictions and complexities demands active imagining, even the creation or transformation of a world: the province of the novelist. Novel, after all, means new.

In her latest work, People of the Book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks parlays her signature gift for marrying history with invention by imagining into the global journey and survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah. This lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript, created in medieval Spain, contains the traditional text that accompanies the Passover Seder, the feast commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and is handwritten on bleached calfskin and embellished in copper and gold. Today, this manuscript is on display in a Sarajevo museum. People of the Book is a fictional account of the Haggadah's provenance and history, including its many close calls with destruction: the Spanish Inquisition's book burnings; fin-de-siècle anti-Semitism in Vienna; the Nazis' atrocities, and the Sarajevo siege of 1992. Of course, it is also the story of the people who created, rescued and preserved this codex.


Brooks makes her ambitious story accessible, no mean feat considering that the tale weaves back and forth in time and whirlwinds from Sarajevo to Vienna and on to Venice, Boston, Tarragona, London, Seville, Jerusalem and back to Sarajevo. Whoa. To orient readers, Brooks unabashedly tells as well as shows, explaining when necessary through the voice of her trenchant narrator. Sophisticated readers may forgive the obvious, and those jet-lagged by the narrative pace will be grateful for signposts. The result will surely be a wide and diverse readership.

However, a number of wild plot twists and Hollywood-style coincidences threaten to cheapen the novel; the story is too strong to be tricked out with these gaudy contrivances. For readers who wish to tease apart which elements of the story stem from historical reality and which from the author's imagination, Brooks provides a helpful afterword. I confess: I read this first. I'll admit that I too am a victim of the need to know what really happened.