Saturday, March 01, 2008

CHALDO-ASSYRIAN WATCH: Bad news from Iraq.
Iraqi Chaldean archbishop seized (BBC)

Gunmen have kidnapped the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and killed three of his aides, his church says.

Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was seized as he left a church in the eastern al-Nour district, it added.

Pope Benedict XVI deplored the kidnapping as a "despicable" crime.

Most of Iraq's estimated 700,000 Christians are Chaldeans - Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognise the Pope's authority.


Originally made up of members of the Nestorian Church, the traditional liturgical language of the Chaldean church is Syriac - a descendent of Aramaic, which is thought to have been spoken by Jesus and his disciples.

Barbaric. We pray for his safe return.

The BBC has more on the Chaldeans in Who are the Chaldean Christians?
Dead Sea Scrolls myths unfurled

GateHouse News Service (Wellsville Daily Reporter)
Fri Feb 29, 2008, 12:50 PM EST

Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, wanting to separate Hollywood movie fiction from fact, are holding a symposium at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Palmyra Stake Center.

“One of the things that most Dead Sea scholars realize is that we have an obligation to get out what the Dead Sea Scrolls really are,” said Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. “There is so much misinformation out there. When there is an opportunity to educate a lot of people, you have to do that.”


The original documents are housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Facsimiles of the scrolls, painstakingly reproduced to look like genuine leather, are currently on display at the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center at 603 Route 21 in Manchester until the end of March.

Joining Schiffman is his long-time friend and colleague Dr. Donald Parry, professor of Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls at Brigham Young University. Parry is also a member of the International Team of Translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both men have spent more than 20 years dedicated to the preservation, translation and research of the scrolls.

The two will be conducting tours of a traveling exhibit of scroll facsimiles at the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center, as well as giving evening lectures on various aspects of the scrolls in the evenings at the Palmyra Stake Center at 2801 Temple Road.


Friday, February 29, 2008

MARK GOODACRE is mixed up with the BBC Jesus movie. Good for him (and them!) and why am I not surprised? He's been blogging on it. for some time and went to the premiere yesterday.
CIVILIZED, OR WHAT? Here I am at a School retreat in a Georgian mansion in the woods in Edzell -- and it has Wifi! We live in an age of wonders.
I'M AWAY THIS WEEKEND and am not likely to have Internet access on Saturday. Look for me again late on Sunday.
THE STORY OF THE LATEST INSCRIBED SEAL FROM JERUSALEM is taken up by the Jerusalem Post and Arutz Sheva.
THE LOST ARK OF THE COVENANT, by Tudor Parfitt, is excerpted by MSNBC. Here's an excerpt of the excerpt:
This was the gist of the document he held in his hand: Muhammad swears in the letter that it was the Jews of Medina and the other oasis towns of Arabia who had always come to his aid in his many battles against the heathen tribes of the desert. The Jews were even ready to desecrate their holy Sabbath to help him. They never left his side. They never betrayed him. During a single bloody campaign, the Jews killed over 20,000 heathen enemies of the Prophet: 7,000 knights, 7,000 regular horsemen, and 7,000 foot soldiers.

“This is what the Prophet actually promised the Jews,” declared Reuven reverently, raising one finger for emphasis. “Not centuries of contempt and persecution!” “Just listen.” He put on a pair of reading glasses, scrutinized the document, and read aloud. “‘O men of the Children of the lost ark of the covenant Israel, by Allah I shall reward you for this … I shall grant you my protection, my covenant, my oath and my witness for as long as I live and as long as my community shall live after me, until they see my face upon the Day of Resurrection.’ “Did you hear that?” he asked, his voice suddenly shrill, thrusting the document in my face and revealing an immaculately laundered cuff. “If the Muslim world knew about this, they would change their attitude to Israel overnight! There’d be no more Arab–Israel wars! No more terrorist attacks!”

Unfortunately, there was more to the letter than met the eye. It was probably quite old, I could see that.

The body of the text was in Arabic and there was a short introduction in Hebrew.

I knew something about Hebrew palaeography—the study of the form of ancient writing—and I could see this was a medieval Hebrew Yemenite script.

This much was genuine. Then I recalled that once in the Yemen I had seen an almost identical document in the home of an antiquarian in Sana’a, the capital of the Yemen. It was called Dhimmat al-Nabi (The Protection of the Prophet) and was an ancient Jewish fabrication, an old forgery, which the Yemenite Jews had created to counter the animosity of their Muslim neighbors. There was no Jewish community in the Muslim world quite as wretched and persecuted as the Jews of the Yemen. They needed all the help they could get. However, this document would not persuade many Muslim scholars to turn their received opinions upside down. It would not change the world. “It’s a shame,” I said, “but it is a forgery. A very old forgery.” A yellow hamseen wind was blowing in from the desert. It was stiflingly hot. Reuven’s face fell when I gave him my assessment of his document, and he grew silent. He just sat there grimacing, rubbing the side of his head where he had been grazed by an Egyptian bullet in the last of his wars.
Background here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Paul Magdalino, Maria Mavroudi, The Occult Sciences in Byzantium (la pomme d'or, 2008)

This volume represents the first attempt to examine occult sciences as a distinct category of Byzantine intellectual culture. It is concerned with both the reality and the image of the occult sciences in Byzantium, and seeks, above all, to represent them in their social and cultural context as a historical phenomenon.
The eleven essays demonstrate that Byzantium was not marginal to the scientific culture of the Middle Ages, and that the occult sciences were not marginal to the learned culture of the medieval Byzantine world.


Paul Magdalino, Maria Mavroudi, Introduction.

Maria Mavroudi, Occult Sciences and Society in Byzantium: Considerations for Future Research.

Katerina Ierodiakonou, The Byzantine Concept of Sympatheia and its Appropriation in Michael Psellos.

Paul Magdalino, Occult Sciences and Imperial Power in Byzantine History and Historiography.

Maria Papathanassiou, Stephanos of Alexandria: a Famous Byzantine Scolar, Alchemist and Astrologer.

Michèle Mertens, Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy in Byzantium.

David Pingree, The Byzantine Translations of Masha’alla’s Works in Interrogational Astrology.

William Adler, Did the Biblical Patriarch Practice Astrology? Michael Glykas and Manuel Komnenos I on Seth and Abraham.

Anne Tihon, Astrological Promenade in Byzantium in the Early Palaiologan Period;

Joshua Holo, Hebrew Astrology in Byzantine Southern Italy.

Charles Burnett, Late Antique and Medieval Latin Translations of Greek Texts on Astrology and Magic.

George Saliba, Revisiting the Astronomical Contacts between the World of Islam and Renaissance Europe: the Byzantine Connection.
Women’s Choirs in Late Antiquity Offered More Than Just Hymns, Scholar Says

Contact: Gina Vergel
(212) 636-7175

Though the voices of biblical women were rarely heard, they were prominent and significant, and used as a vehicle of teaching by the Church in late antique Syriac homilies and hymns, according to a scholar at the Orthodoxy in America lecture at Fordham University on Feb. 26.

"The hymns assigned to the women’s choirs in the middle of the fourth century were explicitly liturgical," Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Brown University. "The church spoke through these women’s choirs."

In a lecture titled, "Women’s Voices Bearing Witness: Biblical Memories in Ancient Orthodox Liturgy," Ashbrook Harvey said Syriac writers, such as Ephrem Syrus, gave women, such as the Virgin Mary and Sarah, a rhetorical voice in the lyrics of Madrashes, stanzaic poems of different meters that dealt with doctrinal matters.

"These voices were often lacking in biblical narratives," Ashbrook Harvey said. "Ephrem’s Mary embraces her social sufferings as a form of power. She was a figure who embodied challenge … and whose voice is a teaching voice."

ANOTHER INSCRIBED SEAL from the City of David excavation:
Seals dating to the 8th Century BCE found at City of David excavations
27 Feb 2008 (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Finds recovered from the excavations in the City of David reveal an interesting development in the ancient world: whereas during the 9th century BCE letters and goods were dispatched on behalf of their senders without names, by the 8th century BCE the clerks and merchants had already begun to add their names to the seals.

In an excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and the Elad Association in the City of David, in the National Park around the Old City Walls of Jerusalem, artifacts were found that include, among other things, a complete seal that bears the Hebrew name “Rephaihu (ben) Shalem” and fragments of bullae. The excavation directors are Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A CONFERENCE in honor of John Collins is to be held at Amherst College in April:
The Other in Second Temple Judaism: A Conference in Honor of John J. Collins, hosted by Amherst College on April 4th and 5th, 2008. Longtime colleagues and students of Professor Collins will explore a topic that embraces many of the issues and areas within biblical and hellenistic Jewish writings that Professor Collins has illuminated during his long and distinguished career.
(Via the Agade List.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

BRUCE CHILTON'S LATEST BOOK is reviewed in the Los Angeles Times:
'Abraham's Curse' by Bruce Chilton

Violence, a familiar strain in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

By Michael Harris, Special to The Times
February 26, 2008
Is there something uniquely bloodthirsty in the teachings of the Koran that has inspired a generational wave of Muslim suicide bombers and their supporters? These days a lot of people would like to know. Or is a justification for violent martyrdom to be found in any religion that relies on faith rather than reason -- and has claims to be the only true faith? A spate of atheist writers have recently made that argument. Or does the flaw lie not in our creeds but in our genes? Are human beings simply a violent species, compelled to slaughter our children over and over again?

Bruce Chilton, professor of religion at Bard College and rector of an Episcopal church in Barrytown, N.Y., describes in "Abraham's Curse" how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the murder of a young woman near his church by a deranged disciple of the Afro-Caribbean god Ogun made him ponder these questions with new urgency.


He focuses on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, a key episode for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham obeys God's command to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, but at the last moment an angel stops him, saying Abraham has proved his faith and pointing out a more suitable sacrifice: a ram caught in a thicket. The true and original meaning of the story, Chilton insists, is that human sacrifice is not God's wish, but he shows how all three religions, in times of persecution, have twisted this meaning 180 degrees to glorify martyrdom.

THE BBC is trying its hand at a Jesus movie.

Monday, February 25, 2008

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (New York: Continuum, 2007). pp. xxi + 202. ISBN-10 HB: 0-8264-9964-3; ISBN-13: HB: 978-0-8264-9964-6. $19.95.
In the spring of 2006 there was a great deal of media attention devoted to the publication by a team of specialists assembled by the National Geographic Society of a transcription and translation of the Coptic Gospel of Judas, a second-century apocryphal Gospel known to Irenaeus but lost until the present. More exciting still, the translation indicated that the Judas of the Gospel of Judas was not only good rather than evil, he was in fact the only disciple who understood the message of Jesus and it was at the behest of Jesus that Judas betrayed him in order to defeat the powers of darkness.

PaleoJudaica noted the existence of the Gospel of Judas and its impending publication in Jully of 2004, long before it came to the attention of the mainstream media. Then in early October of 2006, PaleoJudaica again broke the story that there was specialist doubt that the Gospel of Judas actually presented a good Judas rather than an evil one. So I am glad to have this opportunity to review one of the recent books on this controversy and I am grateful to Continuum for providing a copy for review on PaleoJudaica.

The Preface to the book under review explains how DeConick began to doubt the interpretation of the Gospel of Judas published by the National Geographic team and how, as it became clear to her that other specialists in Gnosticism and Coptic shared her doubts, she reluctantly found herself led to write this book.

Part One: An Unfamiliar Story
Chapter one, "The Silenced Voice," begins by laying out a few of DeConick's doubts about the National Geographic interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. Then it presents brief, user-friendly summaries of most of the various movements in the early church through the second century, including the Apostolic Church (the "proto-orthodox" movement ancestral, but not yet identical to what would later become "mainstream" Christianity); the Marcionite Church (which rejected the Old Testament and elements of the New as spurious); the Ebionite Church (a Jewish-Christian movement); the Church of New Prophecy (the Montanist movement, a charismatic reform movement that predicted that the second coming of Christ would happen the year 172 CE); and the Gnostics (the Valentinian, Basilidean, and Sethian movements that disagreed much among themselves but agreed that salvation came through esoteric "gnosis" or knowledge).

Chapter two, "A Gnostic Catechism," gives a user-friendly summary of the oldest Gnostic movement, the Sethians: their Platonic cosmology; the transformation of the biblical Angel of YHWH into the Platonic Demiurge or secondary creator god Yaldabaoth; the myth of the creation of this creator god by Sophia (the personified Wisdom of the True God) and the creator god's fall and creation of the material universe; and the theology of the redemption of the human divine spark through the defeat of Yaldabaoth by means of the death of Jesus, which released his divine and redemptive spirit and opened a route for the souls of the Gnostics to ascend out of the material realm.

Part Two: Translation Matters
Chapter three, "A Mistaken Gospel," presents a compendium of what DeConick regards as incorrect translations in the National Geographic translation of the Gospel of Judas, this embedded in a highly autobiographical account of her reactions as she discovered them.

Chapter four discusses the discovery of the manuscript (the tomb where the manuscript was found, the other contents of the Tchacos Codex, and the three other books found with the Tchacos Codex in a limestone box) and then presents a complete English translation of what remains of the 58 pages of the Coptic Gospel of Judas.

Part Three: Good Old Judas?
Chapter five, "Judas the Confessor," argues that the Gospel of Judas plays upon a reasonable, literal reading of the canonical Gospel of Mark, which reading presents the disciples of Jesus as faithless, hard-hearted, and repeatedly unable to get the point, and holds that it is the demons who understand the truth about Jesus. (In DeConick's view, Mark presents a polemic by the Jesus movement associated with the Apostle Paul against the Jesus movement associated with Jerusalem.) So Judas is a demon, not a Gnostic.

Chapter six, "Judas the Demon" presents DeConick's understanding of Judas in the Gospel of Judas. In order to grieve him, Jesus reveals to Judas that it is his destiny to rule over the thirteenth aeon (realm of the demonic ruler-angels or Archons), replacing or merging with Yaldabaoth; and over the twelve apostles, who double as the twelve aeons; and over the apostolic church. Nevertheless, all of these shall curse Judas. Since Gnostic baptism can save a person from that person's fate or destiny, it appears that Judas is understood never to have undergone Gnostic baptism.

Chapter seven, "Judas the Sacrificer," continues the exposition of the theology of the Gospel of Judas. In the Sethian drama and in the Gospel of Judas, Judas is a demonic figure who sacrifices Jesus, but thereby accidentally releases his spirit, which then defeats the Archons. This story is a critique of the weak point in the canonical Passion narratives, that the sacrifice of Jesus came about through Judas, who was explicitly demon possessed. The conclusion drawn by the Sethians is that Judas sacrificed Jesus to Yaldabaoth, which could hardly support the doctrine that the death of Jesus atoned for the sins of humanity. This new spin was of concern to proto-orthodox Christians and led the Church Father Origen to conclude that it was God who used Satan to possess Judas and bring about Jesus' death, but that Satan was outwitted by his resurrection, a position that preserved the theological viability of Jesus' atoning death. Despite their great theological differences, Origen and the Sethians would have agreed that the death of Jesus brought about victory over the dark powers.

Chapter eight, "An Ancient Gnostic Parody," briefly summarizes the narrative of the Gospel of Judas and then argues that this Gospel had a surprisingly modern message about questioning authority and thinking for oneself. It is profound that Origen and the Sethians both concluded that Jesus' spirit overcame death and by that victory defeated the Devil.

The Epilogue traces the evolution of Judas in Jesus movies and shows how from the 1960s to the 1980s the formerly evil figure of Judas became much more sympathetic. DeConick suggested that a similar impulse may have influenced the National Geographic team while they deciphered the Gospel of Judas. But ultimately the Judas of the Gospel of Judas is much more like the Judas of Dante than the Judas of The Last Temptation of Christ or the Judas of the National Geographic translation.

The book concludes with Appendices on: Further Reading; A Synopsis of Sethian Gnostic Literature; Testimony from the Church Fathers on the Gospel of Judas; and a Q&A with April DeConick on her interpretation of the Gospel of Judas.

This is a very useful introductory work on the Coptic Gospel of Judas. It vigorously advances the author's own views, but always puts them in the context of the scholarly debate so that the views of her opponents are clear as well. Some may find the highly autobiographical style a little irritating, but it must be kept in mind that this is a popular book, not a specialist monograph. The book offers clear explanations of the reasons for rejecting the view that the Gospel of Judas presented a Judas who was good, including detailed and commendably jargon-free discussions of the problematical passages and the philological issues, and these discussions require no knowledge of Coptic.

The debate about the meaning of the Gospel of Judas has naturally continued after the book was published (see the response of Marvin Meyer, member the National Geographic editorial team, here and DeConick's replies, beginning with this post, followed directly by seven more). Sethian Gnosticism and Coptic philology are not my areas of specialty, so I must decline to pronounce in favor of either DeConick or her opponents. But I can say that this book is an excellent entry into the Gospel of Judas for the nonspecialist, be it a scholar in a cognate discipline or an interested layperson.
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism II: The Gospel of Judas

Reflections on Gnosticism III: Valentinianism
Background here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

SYRIAC WATCH: A Symposium on Jacob of Sarug and His Times: Studies in Sixth Century Syriac Christianity is to be held at St. Mark's Cathedral in Teaneck, NJ on October 24-26, 2008. Follow the link for details and registration information.
THE ZIMBABWE "ARK OF THE COVENANT" gets coverage in the Daily Mail in an article that really plays up the Raiders of the Lost Ark angle:
The real Indiana Jones: Intrepid British don Tudor Parfitt's mission to find the Lord Ark
By ZOE BRENNAN - More by this author » Last updated at 19:14pm on 22nd February 2008

As he entered the sacred cave, a deafening roar filled the air. It was the dead of night in deepest Zimbabwe. The lone explorer reached for his gun, the beam of his torch wavering as he battled his nerves.

This was Dumghe mountain, the spiritual home of the mighty Lemba people. In this cave lay the secrets of their ancestors. A real-life Indiana Jones was determined to reach into its closely-guarded depths.

The renowned Welsh academic Tudor Parfitt had been told of a previous hapless researcher who had wandered too far down forbidden paths leading to this den of treasures. He had been brutally circumcised by the tribe. Village elders spoke of two-headed snakes which resided in the cave.

Tonight was Parfitt's opportunity to put ancient questions to rest once and for all.

He had left the Lemba drinking chibuku - home-brewed maize beer the consistency of porridge - at their chief's hut, their naked women ululating and dancing to encourage the gods to bring rain.

Later, they would collapse into an alcohol-induced slumber, leaving the cave momentarily unguarded. The treasures they hid were reputedly no ordinary tribal spoils of gold and riches. Legend had it that deep within the mountain lay the Ark of the Lost Covenant - the subject of the Steven Spielberg film Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

While conducting his research, Parfitt had found that the Lemba's stories told of a 'ngoma' - a wooden drum used to store sacred objects, which they claimed to have carried on poles from their homeland in Israel, where it had resided in "the great temple in Jerusalem". It had guided them on their long trek from Israel to Africa and was too sacred to be touched by their bare hands.

Background and comments here.