Saturday, March 22, 2008

THE TALPIOT TOMB documentary and Princeton seminar and their aftermath are treated by Thomas F. Madden in The National Review. Not surprisingly, the coverage by the mainstream media does not come out looking well, although to be fair it's not entirely true that not "much of anyone" argues for a connection between the tomb and Jesus. Biblical scholar James Tabor has gone on record as thinking it "possible to likely" that it is the Jesus family tomb. But it's clear that the vast majority of the attenders and, apparently, all who presented papers, were quite skeptical about any connection.

Background on the conference is here, here, here, here, here, and here.
THE RESURRECTION, by Geza Vermes, is reviewed by Ziauddin Sardar in the London Times:
TWO DAYS AFTER THE Crucifixion of Jesus, on April 9, AD30, a perplexing event occurred. According to one story the dead Christ was reborn. The Resurrection was a physical event, a reality that occurred in a given place at a specific time. What evidence is there for this phenomenon, the cardinal belief of Christianity? Are there other possibilities? Did something entirely different happen?

These are the questions that Geza Vermes sets out to explore in this deceptively slender volume. His main concern is to establish facts, a feat he accomplishes through concise textual analysis and precise arguments. Vermes, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a renowned scholar of the Bible, dissects what the Old and New Testaments say about resurrection, and how Saint Paul propagated the idea, with an acute eye for detail. The forensic historian takes us step by step through crucial episodes from the Crucifixion to the treatment of the body, from the accounts of the witnesses to the visions of the Disciples. The end product is as compelling as it is revealing.

CAJS-Penn annual Colloquium, April 29-May 1.
This year the subject is Jewish and Other Imperial Cultures in Late Antiquity. You can download the PDF flier here.

The 26th Annual Spiritual Life Institute at St. Martin's University, June 16-20
The Dead Sea Scrolls at Sixty:
Past, Present, and Future Prospects
(Note the box on the upper left of the page, which has links to more information.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Queen Esther meets Estée Lauder
By OZZIE NOGG 20.MAR.08 [Jewish Herald Voice)
A Purim spoof

Researchers at the Jewish Oddities Studies Headquarters have determined that Queen Esther and cosmetics queen, Estée Lauder, are related. According to Professor Gonapull Yerleg, “The staff at JOSH now can say, definitively, that these two Jewish women both of whom saved our skin share the same spiritual, philosophical gene pool. Skeptics may pooh-pooh the discovery, but personally, this finding, revealed so close to Purim, gives me gooseflesh.”

Similarities between the two women are irrefutable, Yerleg explained. “Queen Esther, née Hadassah, was mentored by her uncle, Mordechai, who wound up on a horse from the royal stable. Estée Lauder, née Josephine Esther Mentzer, was mentored by her uncle, John Schotz, who mixed up face creams in a horse stable behind the family house. Amazing, no? And get this: Estée’s family house was in the New York borough of Queens. Queens! That fact alone should satisfy any doubting Thomas.”

And while Esther is getting all this attention, let's not forget her predecessor:
Queen Vashti - from disobedient wife to religious feminist role model
By Tamar Rotem, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Vashti, Feminist, Esther

Queen Esther is the religious girl's superhero. There is no prettier Purim costume than a pale blue dress tinged with gold. But it isn't just because of Esther's glamorous dress that she outnumbers Vashti at the Purim parade. Esther is the undisputed heroine of Jewish mythology. She represents the ultimate observant woman; her beauty and righteousness is hailed in Jewish literature.

In contrast, Vashti, who did not obey her husband King Ahasuerus, was excluded from the scroll and from Jewish history. However, despite the ridicule heaped on her, for the past several years the religious feminist movement has adopted the intriguing figure as a role model for women.


"This is an ancient patriarchal society," says Dr. Yaakov Maoz of the Israel Association of Community Centers' Jewish Studies Department. "The advisers warn the king against a trend of contempt for husbands in the kingdom, nipping the Vashti feminist revolution in the bud."

In a modern, feminist reading of the scroll, the heroines Vashti and Esther are diametric opposites. Vashti is strong, does not agree to showcase her beauty, does not agree to be a sex object; while Esther uses her beauty and her sexuality.

According to Hanna Kahat, founder of religious feminist forum Kolech, the selection of Vashti as the new female model by religious women in the U.S. in the 1980s, followed by religious women in Israel, is an expression of rebellion against the religious establishment. As such, it suited early Orthodox feminists to adopt Vashti, as women sought models of women leaders with whom to identify. In this way, they began to revive and redeem marginal characters who had been excluded from mainstream interpretations because they threatened the male establishment.

"This is also what happened to Lilith," Kahat explains. "She became more popular than Eve." According to talmudic literature, Lilith was Adam's first wife and his equal. The feminists love the egalitarian aspect.

Sounds like a first wives club in the making.
TODAY IS GOOD FRIDAY. And note that the cosmic synchronicities continue to pile up this year. Today is also Purim (started yesterday evening) and yesterday (and so overlapping with Purim) was the vernal equinox, or first day of spring, and also the Persian New Year. Best wishes to all readers observing any of the above.
Scholar explores ancient Jewish reactions to ancient pagan statues
By Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor [Jewish Journal, Los Angeles]

Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. -- a monotheist's nightmare.

"The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish 'gevalt,'" said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. "We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini."

But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.

Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were everywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty's new exhibition, "The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present."

"One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way," said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. "While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response."

Eliav co-directs the multidisciplinary Statuary Project at the University of Michigan, which, among other endeavors, peruses classical Jewish texts for references to statues (there are at least 6,000 of them -- many appreciative of the figures' beauty and tolerant of female nudes).

The texts reveal that the rabbis were fluent in Greek and in the customs of the ancient world. "Not only did [they] repeatedly mention statues by name, such as Aphrodite, Mercury ... emperors, or even the 'faces which spout out water in the towns' (t. Avod. Zar. 6:6), they were also conscious of the social and political dynamics associated with the positioning of statues," Eliav wrote in an essay.

Thus they were able to work out pragmatic rulings on how Jews should interact with the ubiquitous sculpture. In a Mishnah debate on idolatry, just one scholar, Rabbi Meir, insisted that "all statues are forbidden"; most of the others argued that only statues meant to be worshipped were off limits. A passage in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, suggests that informal rituals conducted in front of public sculptures did not necessarily turn them into idols -- a practical viewpoint in a society where the informal veneration of statues, including processions and the sprinkling of libations, were common.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blasts from the Past (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem sounds off on ancient musical practices

King David playing his harp - a common translation of the Hebrew word kinor - is one of the iconic images of the Bible. In modern Hebrew the kinor is a violin, but in antiquity a kinor was a lyre, a triangular or trapezoidal stringed instrument sometimes played with a pick. It's possible that David's instrument was constructed out of sheep gut and ram's horn, a far cry from our image of a Western harp.

This is just one of the many intriguing facts that emerge from "Sounds of Ancient Music." The recently opened exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, scheduled to run through 2008, is an in-depth examination of the role of music in the ancient Near Eastern world. Based on a study of ancient visual and written sources, replicas of instruments and instruments that survived, the exhibit attempts to shed scholarly light on something seemingly lost in the mists of time - the musical culture of the peoples depicted in the Bible.

(Heads up, reader Yoel Heltai.)
THE FESTIVAL OF PURIM begins tonight at sundown. Arrangements are complicated this year, due to its proximity to the sabbath:
Fast of Esther Preceeds Three-Day Purim in Jerusalem

by Ezra HaLevi

( The Fast of Esther (Ta'anit Esther) begins Thursday morning and ends after the reading of the Scroll of Esther towards the end of evening prayers Thursday night - when the Festival of Purim begins.

The joyous month of Adar takes a "day off" to commemorate the fasting and prayers led by Queen Esther against the genocidal decree of the evil Haman. Jews around the world fast in remembrance of the prayers, fasting and repentance that preceded the Jewish People's miraculous deliverance from Haman's plan to annihilate them some 2,500 years ago.

A number of rallies and vigils this year will parallel the dangers that loomed in the time of Queen Esther to those facing the Jewish people today.

Three-Day Purim
Purim falls on Friday this year, except in Jerusalem, where the holiday will coincide with the Sabbath. However, because of the Sabbath, the mitzvot of giving gifts to the poor and sending food to at least two people cannot be carried out, and the residents of the capital will do so on Sunday, making it a three-day holiday. The Book of Esther is also not read aloud on the Sabbath, and Jerusalem will join the rest of the country in hearing it on Thursday night and Friday morning. In Yaffo (Jaffa), Acco, Tzfat, Hevron and elsewhere, both Shushan and regular Purim are celebrated due to uncertainty about their walled status during the relevant period.

The business about "walled status" is explained in the first link above (Judaism 101):
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The 13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews, and the day that the Jews battled their enemies for their lives. On the day afterwards, the 14th, they celebrated their survival. In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the massacre was not complete until the next day. The 15th is referred to as Shushan Purim.
Best wishes to all those celebrating.
McCain Mobbed by Crowds at Western Wall

By Michael D. Shear (Washington Post)
JERUSALEM -- What was supposed to be a somber visit by Sen. John McCain to the Western Wall this morning was marred by an unruly mob of Israeli photographers, police and tourists who threw punches at each other as they engulfed the Republican presidential candidate.

McCain was not hurt, but appeared rattled by the spasm of violence as he began a second day of meetings with high-level Israeli officials as part of a congressional trip to the Middle East and Europe.

The crush of people surrounded McCain (Ariz.) after he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) briefly touched the towering wall at the base of the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood until its destruction nearly two thousand years ago. The senators placed notes in the cracks between the ancient stones, a common tradition. McCain declined through a spokesman to reveal what his note said.

ARTHUR C. CLARK died a couple of days ago and I've been looking for an excuse to mention him here. This will do:
Many writers remember the first Clarke book they read, and the profound effects his work had on them.

"My friends and I read Clarke and talked about his fiction with the awe of rabbinical students falling in love with Torah and Talmud," said Orson Scott Card, author of many science fiction novels, including "Ender's Game." "Inarticulate with youth, we would say things like, 'Wasn't it cool when ...' But we were responding to the experience of religious awe, which Arthur C. Clarke's fiction inspired in us."

Although Clarke is no longer with us, his work will live on, Card said.
Indeed. Also, SF writer Charles Stross said:
"All of us come to an end eventually, and at 90 years of age Sir Arthur had decent innings," he said. "But I'm still saddened: Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, he pretty much defined science fiction for those of us of a certain age, and news of his death signals the end of an era, far more than the end of one man."
The last of the giants is gone. Requiescat in pace and ad astra per aspera.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

VERMES'S THE RESURRECTION is reviewed by Daniel J. Harrington in the America: the National Catholic Weekly. He likes N. T. Wright's treatment of the subject better.

(Heads up, Joseph I. Lauer.)
AN ANCIENT HALF-SHEKEL COIN has been discovered in Jerusalem - an interesting cosmic synchronicity with this year's Purim festival:
Second Temple Half-Shekel Found in Jerusalem Dig

by Ezra HaLevi

( A half-shekel coin from the Second Temple was found in excavations in the City of David, just below and east of Jerusalem’s Old City. The upcoming Purim festival features the half-shekel prominently in its observance.

The ancient silver coin was discovered in an archaeological excavation that is being conducted in the main Second Temple-era drainage channel of Jerusalem. The foreign coin is of the denomination used during the turbulent Second Temple period to pay the Biblical half-shekel head-tax.

This coming Thursday night (Saturday night for Jerusalemites), before reading the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, Jews worldwide will contribute a sum of money to charity in remembrance of that half-shekel command.

“Just like today when coins sometimes fall from our pockets and roll into drainage openings at the side of the street, that’s how it was some two thousand years ago – a man was on his way to the Temple and the shekel which he intended to use for paying the half shekel head-tax found its way into the drainage channel,” theorized archaeologist Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: It appears that it is a full shekel coin, not a half. Joseph I. Lauer e-mails on his list:
Although the article refers to the coin found in the excavations in the City of David as a half-shekel, the previously circulated IAA report on the discovery stated, "This coin is a shekel denomination that was customarily used to pay a half shekel head-tax in the Second Temple period."

In addition, Jack Kilmon wrote on the biblical-studies list that "The Tyrian tetradrachm was close, monetarily, to the shekel .... When this tetradrachm/shekel was given to the money changer it was equivalent to TWO tax offerings so had to be presented with 2 kalbonot (equiv. 2 denarii) as a fee in order to get back 1/2 shekel in change or pay for two. 2 kalbonot was the equivalent of 11 prutot." See
The IAA report is here.
BIBLE PARK USA has set up an advisory board of prominent biblical scholars:
Bible Park names scholarly advisor council

A national Advisory Council (AAC) of academic theologians with specialties in history and archaeology has been established to provide a key oversight role for the Bible Park USA.

Ten individuals---all Ph.D.s with broad expertise and specialized knowledge---with varying backgrounds, education and experience will provide “dynamic, broad leadership, guidance and direction as well-loved and well-known Biblical tenets are brought to life in a new way for the education and enjoyment of our Park visitors,” said Armon Bar-Tur, Managing Director of SafeHarbor Holding, Inc., and developer of the Bible Park USA.

Bar-Tur said the Council was formed after consulting with local, regional and national experts in the theological field, including World Outreach Church Senior Pastor Allen Jackson, First United Methodist Church Pastor Michael O’Bannon and North Boulevard Church of Christ Preaching Minister John Risse. The AAC has been working with Park designers and held a two-day meeting this fall in Nashville to review preliminary plans for the Park and provide input and counsel.

It's quite a high-powered list.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

GEZA VERMES is interviewed in the Guardian about his new book, The Resurrection:
Geza Vermes: Questions arising

John Crace meets the professor of Jewish studies whom many dub the greatest Jesus scholar of his generation

Tuesday March 18, 2008
The Guardian

For Geza Vermes, retirement seems to have concentrated the mind. Since giving up the day job as professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University in 1991, he has been writing books at a faster rate than he ever did when he was meant to be working. And now, aged 83, he shows no sign of letting up. For the past eight weeks he has been taking seminars for a former Oxford colleague on study leave and in May he's off to Switzerland to speak at a rather grand interdisciplinary conference on The Truth. In between, his most recent book, The Resurrection, is published this week.

The Resurrection is the final instalment of Vermes's Jesus trilogy, which began with The Passion and The Nativity. Vermes again adopts his trademark forensic textual analysis to separate fact from myth: "I wanted to explain exactly what the New Testament does tell us about the resurrection. People usually rely on others to interpret the gospels for them and St Paul's assertion of the physical resurrection has become a cornerstone of Christianity for many people. If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then faith is rubbish.

"Yet if you look at what Jesus actually said, then you get a different picture. If he did talk about the resurrection, he forgot to write it down; so it's more likely he didn't. And if he did, then why did his resurrection come as such a surprise to the apostles? No one said, 'Of course, Jesus said it would be like this' when his tomb was found to be empty; even Mary Magdalene assumed that someone must have moved the body. Nobody's reactions correspond to the expectation of a resurrection."

Vermes goes on to argue that subsequent sightings of Jesus are best understood as visions in which the apostles felt his charisma working as it had done when he was alive. "Jesus had promised to be with them and he was," he argues. "It's a resurrection of the spirit in the hearts of believers. The idea of an afterlife predates the Christian era and the preaching of eternal life is well attested; a physical resurrection is not essential to a belief in spiritual survival."

The piece goes on to summarize Professor Vermes's life story. The University of St. Andrews gets a brief, but key, mention.

Also, A. N. Wilson has a very negative review of The Resurrection in the Telegraph which contains this remarkable observation:
At least 100 years ago, the quest for the historical Jesus was shown to be a wild goose chase. Vermes's beguiling attempt to revive it has not yielded one jot of new information.
I don't think even Bultmann would have said that it had been shown to be a wild goose chase by 1908. As for, say, Käsemann, Taylor, Dodd, Brown, Meier, Crossan, Kloppenborg, Dunn, Bauckham, and, of course, Vermes (an incomplete list off the top of my head), I guess they all have just been wasting their time. Now we know.

Seriously, I haven't read the book and can't comment on it, and Wilson is right to say that Paul is central to any accounting for the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. But that said, Wilson is too confident that he knows the answers to difficult and debated areas such as the quest for the historical Jesus or the question of the historicity of Acts.

The Resurrection has also been reviewed by Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books, but the review hasn't shown up yet online.

UPDATE: Chris Brady comments on the Guardian article over at Targuman and James Crossley comments on the Wilson review at the Earliest Christian History blog.
A NEWS IN BRIEF ITEM FROM HAARETZ regarding Jerusalem archaeology:
The High Court of Justice issued a temporary restraining order against the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), ordering a halt to an archaeological dig in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, after local Arab residents complained that the excavations were being carried out underneath their homes and without their approval. They claimed that according to the law, the IAA is required to notify property owners if they want to dig under their property. After the suit was filed, the police arrested three of the seven plaintiffs. (Meron Rapoport)

Monday, March 17, 2008

LAST NIGHT I caught most of the first episode of the BBC's The Passion. I don't have time to comment at length, but I thought it was very well done.
NOT EVEN THE JERUSALEM POST bothered to look up the source of Madonna's supposed quote from the Talmud.

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've heard someone call an Arabic incantation and a medieval Persian poem in Aramaic "lowbrow."
Karl Jenkins: Triumph of banal manipulation

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 17/03/2008 [The Telegraph]

David Fanning reviews Karl Jenkins at Liverpool Cathedral

With their third world premiere as part of Liverpool's Capital of Culture programme, the RLPO and its Chorus have placed a large tick in the "mass appeal" box, as a near-unanimous standing ovation for Karl Jenkins's Stabat Mater in a sold-out Anglican Cathedral confirmed.

Responsible for the chart-topping Adiemus and Requiem, Jenkins has hit on a recipe for success. It consists of elementary chord progressions, four-bar phrases, primary-colour scoring with splashes of exotica, and vocal lines that lie well for children and amateurs.

Inclusiveness is evidently one of his aims; at least inclusiveness from the lowbrow down. So this Stabat Mater - in 12 movements, lasting 65 minutes - intersperses the Roman Catholic sequence with six other texts, including an Arabic Incantation, a Lament (of stupefying banality) by the composer's wife, and a 13th-century Persian poem sung in English and Aramaic.

I suppose this means Mr. Fanning didn't like the music, but the texts still sound cool.
THE AUSTRIAN SHEMA AMULET is covered in Haaretz, and the article contains some new details:
The scroll's inscription was incomprehensible at first, according to Prof. Nives Doneus, who discovered it. She says it might have been purchased for the boy by his parents as protection against evil spirits.

"The pendant was unearthed as early as 2000," Doneus told Haaretz last week in telephone conversation, "but because of the backlog we have, it wasn't examined before 2006. I found a hollow silver ornament. I extracted the golden scroll from inside the ornament, but I didn't notice the lettering the first time I examined it."

Only after reexamining the object was Doneus able to observe the Greek lettering. She then gave it to a linguist, who established that the text on the tiny scroll - which can be transliterated as "suma Istrahl adwne elwh adawt n a" - was Jewish in origin. Doneus then passed it on to Prof. Dr. Armin Lange, who heads the university's department of Jewish studies.

The bizarre-looking transcription of the sentence, which appears in Deuteronomy 6:4 ("Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one") owes, according to Lange, to the writer's decision to substitute the word "one" with the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha. Lange postulates this was done because of space considerations.

Other mis-transliterations are due to the difference between Hebrew and Greek, which lacks Hebrew's guttural ain and shin, says Lange, who is "completely certain" that the wording on the scroll is the "Shema."

"There are a number of things which set this pendant aside from others like it, which are dated from later periods," he explains. "Usually we see a longer prayer, and it's almost never engraved on a golden scroll."

This scroll, Lange adds, was written by a Jew for a Jew. "If the pendant was meant to protect [a person] from evil spirits, then only someone who knows the prayer and believes in the verse would be content to have such a short version of it," he says.
I think a Christian or a well-informed pagan magician might well have been content with it for the same purpose. I have further comments here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A COPTIC CONFERENCE IN EGYPT took place recently:
The spirit of monasticism in Upper Egypt (Al-Ahram)
The recent Coptic convention at Naqada drew scholars from all over the world. The symposium, organised by the Saint Mark Foundation for Coptic Studies, took place in the church of the Archangel Michael from 6 to 11 February. Its aim was to draw attention to the rich heritage of one of the lesser-known monastic sites in Upper Egypt; to present an overview of the current state of research, conservation and restoration in the Naqada and Qus (Coptos) region; to increase general knowledge of the area; and to activate concern for conserving and preserving its Christian heritage. Bishop Beiman gave the opening address in the grand new hall of the monastery. Attending were Magdi Ayoub, the governor of Qena, who said a word about the specialised gathering being a part of a wider culture and identity which spanned the ages, along with VIPs, participants, guests, the press, and a large number of residents of Naqada and Qena anxious to witness such an important event taking place at a site which is not on the regular tourist map and, until relatively recently, not easily accessible by road. Jill Kamil was there
Nag Hammadi, the site of the discovery of the well known Coptic Gnostic library, was the subject of a paper.

It would be nice to go to this sort of thing once in a while, but given the attitude of the Egyptian Government toward bloggers, I don't plan to. I would not feel safe.