Saturday, March 15, 2008

BEN WITHERINGTON'S BLOG gets some coverage in Time Magazine's Future Revolutions series:
10. Re-Judaizing Jesus

Recently a popular blogger — let's call him Rabbi Ben — zinged the scholarship of a man we shall call Rabbi Rob. R. Ben claimed R. Rob did not "understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism." He helpfully provided a syllabus.

Actually, neither man is a rabbi. (Sorry.) Ben Witherington is a Methodist New Testament scholar, and Rob Bell a rising Michigan megapastor. Yet each regards sources like the Mishnah and Rabbi Akiva as vital to understanding history's best-known Jew: Jesus.

This is seismic. For centuries, the discipline of Christian "Hebraics" consisted primarily of Christians cherry-picking Jewish texts to support the traditionally assumed contradiction between the Jews — whose alleged dry legalism contributed to their fumbling their ancient tribal covenant with God — and Jesus, who personally embodied God's new covenant of love. But today seminaries across the Christian spectrum teach, as Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, that "if you get the [Jewish] context wrong, you will certainly get Jesus wrong."

This is hardly a future revolution, as the essay itself makes clear. Nevertheless, it's good to see the mainstream media paying some attention to these issues and getting their information from someone who knows what he's doing. Ben comments on the piece here.
ELAINE PAGELS will be lecturing on the Book of Revelation in Santa Barbara tomorrow.
Artifacts up for auction to pay debt

Ancient religious relics seized from collector from Akron in 2005

By David Giffels
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Saturday, Mar 15, 2008

What was once a bright constellation in the universe of art and antiquities is disintegrating in an online auction, mouse-click by mouse-click, in a major step toward satisfying millions of dollars of an Akron collector's debt.

The continuing fall of Bruce Ferrini from international prominence is being documented in real time, as eBay-style bids creep upward on 153 items, many of them ancient religious artifacts.

A 2,800-year-old strip of linen mummy wrap, inscribed with text from the Book of the Dead.

Current bid (as of Friday afternoon): $1.

A Babylonian pottery vessel, ap
proximately 3,800 years old, valued at $3,000 to $5,000.

Current bid: $150.

Ferrini owes some $5 million to a long international list of creditors. Mainly because of the eclectic nature of the collection and the controversy attached to its architect, this auction has been more than two years in the making.
Fortunately the really valuable items are not (yet) on the auction block:
Some not included

The auction does not include the three most valuable and controversial segments of Ferrini's disputed collection. An ongoing legal battle has yet to sort out the true owner of these items, worth millions:

• A batch of biblical artifacts that include fragments from the Book of Exodus and the Letter of Paul to the Colossians. It also includes part of the controversial Gnostic manuscript known as the Gospel of Judas.

• A large marble Assyrian relief believed to have belonged to Alexander the Great.

• Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose display at the John S. Knight Center in 2004 devolved into a contentious public squabble, with court injunctions and lawsuits over missing money, unpaid bills and claims of fraud.

Charlie Bowers is a Cleveland attorney who represents Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos of Switzerland, who claims to be sole owner of the papyrus pages of the Gospel of Judas. He hopes the auction represents a step forward in resolving Ferrini's complex legacy.

''We certainly hope that the receiver gains as much from the auction as possible,'' Bowers said. ''But what does still remain to be determined is the ownership of the other items that we still claim.''

Bowers declined to put a value on the Gospel of Judas fragments, and said doing so would be irrelevant, as his client has promised to donate the artifact to Egypt, where it can be properly archived, displayed and studied.
I certainly hope that the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, pitiful though they are, end up in a museum in Israel.

Besides the above link, note the following PaleoJudaica posts involving Bruce Ferrini (in chronological order) here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The last four of these deal with the fragments from the same codex as the Gospel of Judas (the Tchacos Codex). On those, note this post as well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

THE NEW IRANIAN JESUS MOVIE is covered in a CNN video.

The idea that Jesus wasn't really crucified is found in the Qur'an and also in earlier Christian Gnostic texts such as The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, in which Simon of Cyrene, not Judas, is crucified in Jesus' place.

By the way, another Jesus movie, The Life of Brian, has a scene that plays off this tradition. Start at about 7:10.

I look forward to seeing The Messiah. It sounds quite interesting.

(Heads-up, Nathan MacDonald.)
Meanwhile, a Christian archbishop kidnapped in northern Iraq last month was found dead on Thursday, according to a Nineveh province official.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paul Faraj Rahho's body was found near the town of Mosul, where he and three companions were ambushed by gunmen on February 29.

The archbishop's driver and two security guards were killed in the ambush. Investigators believe the archbishop may have been shot at that time, the Nineveh deputy governor said.

Nineveh Deputy Gov. Khasro Goran, in Mosul, told CNN that the kidnappers had been in touch with the church and the relatives and wanted to be paid a ransom for the archbishop's release. The contacts ended a few days ago.

He said the apparent kidnappers had contacted relatives on Thursday and told them the body was in the eastern part of town. Relatives and authorities went to the location and found the body, which had gunshot wounds.

However, the Catholic news agency in Italy, SIR, quoted Msgr. Shlemon Warduni in Baghdad as saying the abductors told church authorities that "Msgr. Rahho was very ill."

"We do not know yet whether he died because of his unstable health or if he has been killed. The abductors only told us he had died," Warduni said.

Christians are a tiny fraction of Iraq's population, but insurgents have targeted their religious sites and leaders in recent years.
Background here. This is another reminder of the barbarity of the Islamist insurgents in Iraq.

הוה שלם
Shema amulet unearthed in Austria

Published: 03/13/2008 (JTA Breaking News)

University of Vienna archeologists unearthed an amulet in a third century grave bearing the Shema prayer.

The find in eastern Austria represents the earliest sign of Jewish inhabitants in present-day Austria, the university said in a news release.

The silver amulet contains a gold scroll on which the words of the Shema are inscribed in Greek.

The grave of the child is one of about 300 graves in an ancient Roman cemetery discovered in 1986 near the town of Halbturn. The Jewish amulet was identified in 2006 and will go on public display next month in the Burgenland State Museum in Eisenstadt.
I'm surprised to hear of a Jewish inscription in Austria this early, but Western European Jewish epigraphy is not my specialty. Still, I would not rule out the possibility that this is a Christian amulet or even pagan amulet using the Shema with a magical force. I would be more confident of Jewish origin if the inscription were in Hebrew rather than Greek. It may be, though, that the archaeological context provides more information.

UPDATE: The Science Blog has a long post with more information. Excerpts:
Archaeologists from the Institute of Prehistory and Early History of the University of Vienna have found an amulet inscribed with a Jewish prayer in a Roman child's grave dating back to the 3rd century CE at a burial ground in the Austrian town of Halbturn. The 2.2-centimeter-long gold scroll represents the earliest sign of Jewish inhabitants in present-day Austria.

This amulet shows that people of Jewish faith lived in what is today Austria since the Roman Empire. Up to now, the earliest evidence of a Jewish presence within the borders of Austria has been letters from the 9th century CE. In the areas of the Roman province of Pannonia that are now part of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, gravestones and small finds attest to Jewish inhabitants even in antiquity. Jews have been settling in all parts of the ancient world at the latest since the 3rd century BCE. Particularly following the second Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire, the victorious Romans sold large numbers of Jews as slaves to all corners of the empire. This, coupled with voluntary migration, is how Jews also might have come to present-day Austria.


Suma Istrahl adwne elwh adwn a
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Greek is common with amulet inscriptions, although Latin and Hebrew and amulet inscriptions are known. In this case, the scribe's hand is definitely familiar with Greek. However, the inscription is Greek in appearance only, for the text itself is nothing other than a Greek transcription of the common Jewish prayer from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, 6:4): "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

So it's Hebrew transliterated (badly) into Greek letters. But that does not allay my suspicion. The pagan Greek magical papyri sometimes use transliterated Hebrew as part of the spell. See, for example, "BAROUCH ADONAI ELOAI ABRAAM" ("Blessed be the Lord, the God of Abraham") in PGM V.480-85. And would a Jew write Israel as "Istrael? I doubt it. In fact, Istrael is found in PGM XXXVI around line 310 as a magic word in a love spell. One could argue that this spell in PGM XXXVI is Jewish too, but one soon gets tied up in knots trying to figure out what Jewish magicians might or might not write in their spells. I'm keeping an open mind about the origin of the Austrian amulet until I hear more convincing information one way or another.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


UPDATE: Gee, there's another one!
MORE INSCRIBED MATERIALS from the Jerusalem excavations. This from an IAA press release:
This is actually the first time in the history of the archaeological research of Jerusalem that building remains from the First Temple period were exposed so close to the Temple Mount – on the eastern slopes of the Upper City. The walls of the buildings are preserved to a height of more than 2 meters.

Another impressive artifact that was found in the salvage excavations is a personal Hebrew seal made of a semi-precious stone that was apparently inlaid in a ring. The scarab-like seal is elliptical and measures c. 1.1 cm x 1.4 cm. The surface of the seal is divided into three strips separated by a double line: in the upper strip is a chain decoration in which there are four pomegranates and in the two bottom strips is the name of the owner of the seal, engraved in ancient Hebrew script. It reads: לנתניהו בן יאש ([belonging] to Netanyahu ben Yaush).

The two names are known in the treasury of biblical names: the name נתניהו (Netanyahu) is mentioned a number of times in the Bible (in the Book of Jeremiah and in Chronicles) and the name יאש (Yaush) appears in the Lachish letters. The name Yaush, like the name יאשיהו (Yoshiyahu) is, in the opinion of Professor Shmuel Ahituv, derived from the root או"ש which means “he gave a present” (based on Arabic and Ugaritic). It is customary to assume that the owners of personal seals were people that held senior governmental positions.

It should nevertheless be emphasized that this combination of names - נתניהו בן יאוש (Netanyahu ben Yaush) – was unknown until now.

In addition to the personal seal, a vast amount of pottery vessels was discovered, among them three jar handles that bear LMLK stamped impressions. An inscription written in ancient Hebrew script is preserved on one these impressions and it reads: למלך חברון ([belonging] to the king of Hebron).
(Via Yitzak Sapir on the Canaanite list.)
MORE ON THE IRAQI JEWISH ARCHIVE, about which we have heard little in the last two and a half years. This article gives some addition details about the early moves to preserve the texts and says a little about their current status.
Curator ferried damaged relics from Baghdad

Peggy Lim, Staff Writer
[Charlotte News & Observer]
RALEIGH - During her 10-month deployment to Baghdad in 2003, Army Reserve Maj. Cori Wegener helped repair the recently looted Iraq National Museum, clean artifacts fetched from cesspools and rescue Jewish-Iraqi archives soaked from flooded basements.

It was the challenge of preventing wet books from growing mold in 120- degree weather that has pushed her to provide more military training on protecting cultural artifacts. She addressed the topic Sunday before about 265 people at the N.C. Museum of Art.

John Coffey, curator of the museum's Judaica gallery, said he had originally planned on asking Wegener to speak about the Judaic collection she curates at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But after talking with her, Coffey thought her Baghdad experiences would make a more interesting topic for the North Carolina museum's ninth annual Kanof lecture.

Wegener said Iraq has not been like previous wars. In World War II, a team of about 300 Americans and Europeans, trained as art historians, architects and archaeologists, mapped monuments to protect them from bombing and repatriated pieces Hitler's army had pillaged.

Wegener, who retired from the reserves in 2005, said she stayed with the military for 21 years because she provided skills the Army normally would not have. When she watched the looting of the Iraq National Museum on CNN in April 2003, Wegener was confident she was the only arts curator in the U.S. Army.

"Why aren't they calling me?" she remembers thinking. Soon, they were.

Among Wegener's early assignments in Baghdad was assisting Ambassador Paul Bremer's team with saving Hebrew and Arabic texts, dating from the 16th century to 1950s, found in the flooded basement of an Iraqi secret police building that the United States had bombed.

Until the 1940s, Iraq had a large Jewish community, as much as 20 percent of the population around Baghdad, Wegener said. After a series of pogroms, most Jews fled. But the secret police held onto its collection of Israeli-Palestinian documents.

Before Wegener was called in, members of Bremer's team spread the wet items out to dry. But the documents started to grow mold. Wegener knew that to stop the destruction, they needed to be frozen immediately.

She got a freezer truck from Jordan to store the documents. But the truck barely stayed below freezing, and the documents needed to be below 20 degrees, she said. Finally, Wegener got permission to fly the documents to the United States.

"I felt torn, because that's one of the principles of international law," she said. "Don't remove cultural property."

But she knew if she didn't act, the documents would be lost.

On the way to America, she encountered a delay on the tarmac in Spain. She called the Pentagon to request a new flight crew. Then, she ran into a local officer.

"What you got in that box, ma'am, human hearts?" the Navy lieutenant asked.

"It's none of your business ... , lieutenant," answered a famished and exhausted Wegener, pulling her senior rank.

But then Wegener noticed the yarmulke the lieutenant was wearing and changed her tone.

"What I have is what's left of the cultural heritage of the Jewish people of Iraq," she said.

In a heartbeat, the lieutenant asked how he could help.

"I need a Spanish electrician to hook up a Kuwaiti generator," she replied. "And a hamburger."


The Jewish-Iraqi artifacts are at the National Archives in College Park, Md. The mold stopped growing after being freeze-dried for 30 days. But money for mold removal has been hard to come by, she said, as questions remain of who will ultimately own the artifacts.

Background here, here, and here.

(Via Chuck Jones on the IraqCrisis list.)
Myrrh: Nature's Ancient Anti-Inflammatory Agent

Posted on: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 03:00 CDT [Red Orbit]

It's been used in the Middle East for thousands of years to treat infected wounds and bronchial complaints. In Mesopotamia and the Greek and Roman worlds, this powerful herb was considered a panacea for many human ailments-from lesions of the mouth to hemorrhoids. The Chinese even put it to work in treating psychiatric afflictions. MYRRH boasts a long history in Indian medicine for the treatment of mouth ulcers, gingivitis, throat infections, inflammation of the mouth, and respiratory catarrh. It's topically applied to ulcers and may be used as a mouthwash or gargle. In East Africa, it serves as an anti-inflammatory and antirheumatic agent.

High Trade Value

In ancient times, the Egyptians imported great quantities of myrrh from Palestine. Because of its unique aromatic fragrance, it was highly valued as a trade commodity. The Ishmaelite travelers who purchased Joseph from his meanspirited brothers were journeying to Egypt with camels loaded with spices, balm, and myrrh (Genesis 37:25). It was believed that the Queen of Sheba brought great quantities of the herb and other spices from Yemen as gifts for King Solomon. The long-heralded "balm of Gilead" is a member of the myrrh family, known far and wide as a healing agent for wounds.

When the sons of Jacob returned to him with the request from Joseph to bring Benjamin to Egypt the old patriarch sent products from the land of Palestine in an attempt to appease the prime minister. The shipment included myrrh, along with almonds, pistachio nuts, honey, and spices (Genesis 43:11).

Precious Perfume

Myrrh was commonly used as perfume in the Middle East. In ancient Persia, when King Ahasuerus set about choosing a new queen to replace Vashti, the eligible girls had to complete 12 months of beauty treatments, including a six-month cosmetic regimen with the oil of myrrh (Esther 2:12). That oil is still used today during massage treatments.

The herb was one of the ingredients of the anointing oil used in the Jewish tabernacle and served as incense in religious rituals centered on ancient gods. It was proved effective as a fiimigant for homes and temples of the Old Testament.

But it is Christ's life with which myrrh is most famously connected. The magi who visited Mary and Joseph at the birth of Jesus brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). That gift hinted at the future awaiting the tiny baby in the manger. Myrrh was commonly used as an embalming agent by Egyptians and others in the ancient world. After Jesus was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took His body and prepared it for burial using 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39).

I'm currently working on a translation (for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project) of the Talmudic-era compendium of magic spells called Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of the Mysteries). I've noticed that both myrrh and frankincense are frequently used as ingredients for the materia magica.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

MADONNA reportedly quoted from the Talmud during her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple of days ago:
"It is a great honor to receive this award, and I'm grateful and appreciate for the acknowledgement that this implies," said Madonna, who thanked many of the Sire executives (Seymour Stein, Michael Rosenblatt, Liz Rosenberg) who helped get her career off the ground, and also quoted the Talmud during her acceptance speech.
This is mentioned in a number of stories on the event, but none of them say what the quote actually was.

UPDATE: Søren Holst points me to Bangkok Jungle, which has the quote:
In her acceptance speech, Madonna reads a saying from the Talmud: “There’s a saying in the Talmud that for every blade of glass there’s an angel that watches over it and whispers grow, grow. And I could still hear those angels whispering. And even the naysayers, the ones that said I was talentless, that I was chubby, that I couldn’t sing, that I was a one hit wonder, they helped me too.”
Søren adds "I seem to remember Bill Clinton using that in a speech, too." Can anyone identify the quote? Is it really in the Talmud?

UPDATE: Manuscript Boy (from Hagahot) e-mails:
Not the Talmud but Genesis Rabba (10). Not whispers but beatings. Other than that, it's pretty close.
א"ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב ברקיע שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו ואומר לו גדל
Neusner's translation: "Said R. Simon, 'There is not a single herb whch is not subject to the influence of a planet in heaven, which smites it and says to it, "Grow!"' ..." (Gen. Rab. 10.6)

UPDATE: James Darlack has found a similar passage in the Zohar.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

KIDNAPPED CHALDEAN ARCHBISHOP UPDATE: Muslim Leaders Launch Appeal for Iraqi Archbishop's Release

I hope they get somewhere.

Background here.
From: "Steven Fine"
Subject: "Puzzling Out the Past: New Technologies Reveal Ancient Jewish Inscriptions" : Mini-Symposium at YU
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2008 6:22 PM

The Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies & The YU Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Relations invite you to a mini-symposium:

"Puzzling Out the Past:
New Technologies Reveal Ancient Jewish Inscriptions"

Speakers: Professor Bruce Zuckerman (University of Southern California),

Pinchas Roth and Eytan Zadoff
(YU Schneier Center Graduate Fellows)

March 13, 2008, 2:45-3:45, Belfer Hall 12th Floor

Bruce Zuckerman has revolutionized the study of ancient writings through the application of the newest technologies to their interpretation and study. Professor Zuckerman has provided new and important readings for such texts as the Elephantine Papyri, Ketef Hinom amulet and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As a part of their graduate studies in Jewish History at the Revel Graduate School, Eytan Zadoff and Pinchas Roth have applied Prof. Zuckerman's methods to the interpretation of a 5th-6th century Jewish Aramaic amulet that had never before been read, revealing a text of great significance for the history of Jewish magic.
Epigraphy, technology, and ancient magic! I really wish I could make it to this one. (There's more on Bruce Zuckerman here.)

(From the H-Judaic list.)
RICHARD ELLIOTT FRIEDMAN will be giving a lecture at UNC Greensboro about what life was like in the prelapsarian Garden of Eden:
‘Life Before the Fall’ Focus of Levinson Lecture April 13

By Michelle Hines, University Relations

Contact: (336) 334-5371

Posted 3-10-08

GREENSBORO, NC – Ever wonder about life before Eve gave in to her craving for forbidden fruit?

Biblical scholar Dr. Richard Friedman will discuss “Before the Apple: What Was Life Like Before the Events in Eden?” Sunday, April 13, at UNCG.

Friedman, who is professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at San Diego, will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the Elliott University Center Auditorium. His presentation will mark the 8th in UNCG’s annual Henry Samuel Levinson Lecture Series.

I wish I could attend.
THE MOSES-ON-DRUGS THEORY of Professor Benny Shannon gets coverage in the Jerusalem Post:
HU research: Revelation at Sinai was 'mind-blowing'

"What a long, strange trip it's been" may be known as a catchphrase conjured up by The Grateful Dead to describe their mind-expanding experience with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. But a Hebrew University professor of psychology claims that it may also be an appropriate title for the journey experienced by Moses and the Israelites when they wandered in the desert for 40 years.
[After such a long dispersion...]

After such a long dispersion around the world, why are the Jews so radically divided? Kevin Galder, Jacksonvilled, Florida.

Writing in the British scholarly journal Time and Mind, Prof. Benny Shanon claims that Moses and the children of Israel were likely under the influence of natural psychedelics found in the Sinai Desert when cataclysmic events like the receiving of the Ten Commandments took place.

He writes that two naturally existing plants in Sinai have the same psychoactive components as one of the most powerful psychedelic substances in existence, the Amazonian brew Ayahuasca.

I've already commented here. And Deane at the Merkavah Vision blog has an extended critique.

UPDATE: Thaddeus Nelson has a review and critique at the Archeoporn blog. (Via Alun at the Archaeoastronomy blog.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

MARK GOODACRE is interviewed in Inspire Magazine about his work on the BBC'S The Passion. Excerpt:
Mark was asked by producer Nigel Stafford-Clark to draw up a historical background on the story in advance of the production. As Frank Deasy's script took shape and filming began he remained on hand to deliver expert advice when needed.

Mark argues that the drama couldn't be taken literally from the Gospels.

"If you try to stick too strictly to the Gospels you sacrifice drama. So I tried not to be a scholarly nerd. Otherwise you end up with a wooden, literalistic interpretation, not drama," he says.

Instead he directed the production to a wide range of sources, including Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the first century AD.

The aspects that Mark was most keen to see presented in a new light were the portrayals of Pilate, Mary Magdalene and, in particular, the High Priest Caiaphas.