Saturday, October 25, 2008

METATRON WATCH, and other interesting esoterica and magica:
The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star

Menachem Wecker (The Jewish Press)
Posted Oct 01 2008

The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star
Mark Podwal: Jewish Magic
Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue

Perhaps upholding Leviticus 19:31, which insists, "Do not turn to those who worship Ob or to wizards; do not desire to become defiled by them," King Saul launched a campaign to eradicate magicians from the Holy Land which was so devastating that the Bible mentions it on three separate occasions. Yet Saul decided to violate his own ban when all he heard was dead air in response to his request of God for advice on the proper military strategy to defeat the Philistine army.

Saul masked his identity and visited a "wife of the idol of Ob" to ask her to facilitate communication with the late prophet Samuel. Amazed, the conjurer asked, "Do you not know what Saul has done, that he has cut off the worshipers of Ob and the wizards from the land," and perhaps suspicious of her client's identity added, "Why are you tricking my soul, to have me killed?" (1 Samuel 28: 3-14).

Although commentators and scholars debate Saul's actions and their apparent disregard for the Second Commandment, Kabbalistic masters and Jewish artists have long embraced magic and amulets. Hamsa hands are still believed to disarm the evil eye, and some carry miniature copies of the book of the Angel Raziel to protect against fires. Mark Podwal's exhibit, "Jewish Magic" at Forum Gallery in Manhattan, continues in that tradition, drawing specifically from the artist's many visits to Prague, where he is such an important fixture that he holds his own personal seat at the Altneuschul, the Old New Synagogue.


Several other supernatural forms appear in Podwal's works in the Forum show, including Lilith, queen of the demons; Metatron, a non-biblical angel who was said to be the chief angel and divine scribe; and "The Devil Proper" (2006), represented as a brick-red bat's wing, with three demons grabbing on for the ride. Just as many Jewish medieval manuscripts show the hand of God exacting punishment on the Egyptians (but never more of God), Podwal shows just the devil's wing, which leaves the full extent of Satan's horror and menace up to the viewer's imagination. This is, of course, far more frightening - to not even know the extent of the evil present.

There are pictures and discussions of several of Podwal's works. And there's much more on the artist and the exhibition at the Forum Gallery website.
ARAMAIC WATCH - Aramaic figures importantly in a new novel about the discovery of a lost eyewitness life of Jesus:
The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber
The [London] Times review by Tom Gatti

The Fire Gospel is a titanic work - not in size (it's a slim 213 pages), but in source. Its protagonist, Prometheus, is a Titan; a member of the race of deities who, in Greek myth, were usurped by Zeus and his Olympian gods. Prometheus is famous for stealing fire for mankind, and suffering for it: Zeus had him bound to a rock and arranged for an eagle to tear out his liver. Overnight the liver would regenerate, and the next day the eagle would return. Prometheus underwent this hellish beak-hole surgery every day for 3,000 years.


In The Fire Gospel, Prometheus takes the unlikely form of a Canadian academic called Theo Griepenkerl. Theo is inspecting a ravaged museum in Iraq, hoping to borrow some treasures for his university, when a bomb goes off. It kills the curator and destroys a statue, releasing nine scrolls of Aramaic text that had been hidden inside. Theo rushes back to Toronto, the papyri burning a hole in his briefcase “like a stash of pornography he'd been forced to delay getting to grips with”. They turn out to be the memoir of Malchus, a 1st-century Christian convert and witness to the Crucifixion. Theo, an atheist, is unmoved by the prose but dizzy with dollar signs at the potential of his translation.

Malchus is named in the Gospel of John as the servant who assisted the High Priest Caiaphas in the arrest of Jesus, and had his ear cut off by Peter - but in Malchus's own account Jesus does not work a miracle to heal the ear; it remains hanging from his head “like a woman's adornment” for the rest of his life. More significantly, in Malchus's description of the Crucifixion, Christ's life ends not with a noble “It is finished” but with an evacuation of bowels and a desperate “Please finish me”. As for the tomb and the Resurrection - Malchus paints an altogether grittier picture of Jesus's “afterlife”.

And from the review in the Financial Times:
Although a trifle tasteless, and written in a style that occasionally slips towards cliché, The Fire Gospel is an entertaining story, with a vein of playful symbolism running throughout. The religious resonance of the name Theo is significant, for Theo Griepenkerl's discovery allows him to play God. Less obviously, the choice of his surname is no accident; Faber is recalling Christian Griepenkerl, a German artist noted for his paintings of Prometheus. Moreover, Theo's favourite music is by the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose fixation with measuring his Christian faith against other spiritual codes led him to renounce the dogma of organised religion. Theo's favourite Coltrane recording is Stellar Regions , which, as jazz aficionados will know, was discovered by his widow some years after Coltrane's death and published in a form he had not approved. Again, the esoteric detail is carefully calculated.
ANCIENT BABYLON is the subject of a new British Museum exhibition, reviewed here by the London Times:
Babylon, the exhibition that opens in the British Museum next month, explores the myths and relates them to historical reality. What is astonishing is the richness of both legacies: the archaeological treasures excavated from the ruins barely a century ago reveal a magnificent capital, while the myths have engendered an equally powerful legacy in art, thought, paintings, film and music. Cuneiform clay tablets, coloured tiles and brick friezes, papyruses, cylinder seals, sculptures and zodiac inscriptions testify to Babylon’s former glory while paintings, engravings, medieval manuscripts and maps show the preoccupation of later ages with this vanished city.

Many of these pictures and engravings are familiar. Who does not now see Nebuchadnezzar as William Blake saw him – a haunted and terrified man crawling on all fours, his face a mask of horror and revulsion? The poet showed the king’s madness, described in the fourth chapter of Daniel. In fact, the scriptures have conflated two historical events: there is no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar became insane; it was his successor Nabonidus who was afflicted with disease (probably scurvy) and vilified after he fled the city when it was captured by the Persians.

Friday, October 24, 2008

LARRY SCHIFFMAN was is lecturing in New York on the Dead Sea Scrolls (NYT):
JEWISH MUSEUM, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street, Thursday at 6:30 p.m., “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism and Christianity,” a lecture by Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor at New York University, in conjunction with the exhibition “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World.” (212) 423-3337,; $15; $12 for students; $10 for members.
UPDATE: I had read this as Thursday-yesterday, but reader Carl Mosser assures me it is Thursday next week (the 30th).
JOSEPH DAN, his current project - an important and ambitious history of Jewish mysticism, his biography, his relationship with Gershom Scholem, and his views on the current state of Israeli academia, are the subjects of a long article in Haaretz. Madonna and Britney even make an appearance.
Mystic circles
By Yair Sheleg
Tags: Israel News, Kabbala

Prof. Joseph Dan, 73, the renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism, rises between 5 and 6 each morning. He reads the newspaper, listens to the 7 o'clock news on the radio and then gets down to work. "I am a morning person," he says. "Those are my best hours. Usually I have prepared my materials the afternoon or evening before, so the books and studies are already on my desk, and I write for a few hours in the morning." Lest anyone think he is sacrificing his life to study, he is quick to say, "I am not a monk. By 5 or 6 P.M. my mind is no longer focused, so I go out, meet friends or watch television. I do not have an ascetic streak and I don't want to give the impression that I'm devoting my life to this enterprise. On the contrary, this enterprise gives me life."

He has lived this way for the past seven years. The result, just published, is the first three volumes of a monumental project, "Toledot Torat Hasod Ha'ivrit" ("History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism," Zalman Shazar Center, Jerusalem). It amounts to an attempt by one individual to write the entire history of Jewish mysticism: not some executive summary, but rather a full-blown academic survey abridgment for executives but with academic detail. The first three volumes deal with antiquity, from the beginning of the Second Temple period to the end of the Talmudic period, on the cusp of the Medieval era. Dan does not yet know how many volumes will be needed, and is unwilling to restrict himself. "I have the whole picture in my head, up to the end of the 20th century," he says. "But at my age, I am only prepared to commit to what is close to completion."

Dan says he approached Zvi Yekutiel, the executive director of the Shazar Center, with a proposal for the first three volumes "only when they were very close to completion, and as of now I still haven't signed a contract for them. It's the same with the rest: I'm not about to enter into a commitment I'm not sure I can meet. The fourth volume, the first of the books on the Medieval period, is already at the publishers. I am in the process of completing the fifth, which I hope will be done by January. That's why I allowed a note in the first volume indicating that the project is intended to include the Middle Ages as well, but I'm not prepared to make a commitment regarding the later periods. At my age everything is in God's hands."

Dan says that at his current rate he can complete one volume a year, "probably even one and a half.


In other words, even Maimonides, the most important figure in the history of Jewish thought, was ultimately unable to inculcate the major message of his philosophy: the rationalism that rejects not only mysticism but also denies the very assumption that a human being can describe the Godhead in any meaningful way. Engagement with the secrets of the Godhead is a central and inseparable element of Judaism, from the prophet Ezekiel, who describes God's appearance, down to the kabbala of our time. Ezekiel is also connected to another of Dan's key decisions: to begin his journey into Jewish mysticism not from the Bible but from the Second Temple.

"The Bible is filled with prophecies," he explains. "All through the Bible we have prophets who are in direct contact with God. In this situation there is no place and no need for mysticism. You do not have to 'learn' about the Godhead when you are in direct touch with it. Accordingly, Jewish esotericism begins only at the point where prophecy ends."

With the end of the prophetic age an extraordinarily rich mystical literature comes into being. The general public is unfamiliar with this body of literature, collectively termed the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. They include the works of the "Yordei Merkava," whose authors purport to "report" in great detail about the upper worlds where God and all his angels reside.

"Indeed, Ezekiel's descriptions could also fit the description of 'Yordei Merkava,' but they are not 'esoteric theology,'" Dan explains. "Ezekiel 'reports' his prophetic vision to the entire nation. He does not safeguard it for a handful of select pupils." Another distinction relates to the fact that in the popular view Jewish mysticism is wholly identified with the term "kabbala."

"The kabbala is a central branch of mysticism, which began to develop from the 13th century; indeed, since then it has been the major branch. What we researchers view as new ideas of the kabbalists, from their point of view are ones that have been passed down, received - hence the name 'kabbala' [receiving] - through the generations. The chief characteristic of this outlook is the implication of the term 'sephirot,' which in the early esoteric theology related to the physical reality of the world, to the Godhead itself [in the sense of different levels within it."

There's much more. Read it all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

FATHER J. BRIAN PECKHAM has passed away.
Father J. Brian Peckham
OBITUARY FATHER J. BRIAN PECKHAM, S.J. At the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, on Sunday, October 19th, 2008, surrounded by family and friends. He was 74 years old, in his 58th year of religious life, and 41st year of priesthood. He was born in Montreal, Quebec, on January 28th, 1934, son of Sydney Brittain Peckham and Elizabeth Caroline. Brian entered the Roman Catholic religious order the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1951, and was ordained a priest in 1967. He became a professor of Biblical Studies, and then of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at Regis College in the Toronto School of Theology and at the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. He was a respected scholar and a beloved teacher and friend. He is survived by four sisters, a brother, and numerous nephews and nieces. Friends may call at the Rosar-Morrison Funeral Home & Chapel, 467 Sherbourne St. (South of Wellesley) on Wednesday, October 22nd, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church (Sherbourne at Earl) on Thursday, October 23rd, at 10:30 a.m. Burial to follow at 3 p.m. at the Jesuit Cemetery in Guelph. In memory of Father Peckham, donations may be made to the Jesuit Development Office, 43 Queen's Park Crescent East, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2C3.
I never met Father Peckham but I've used his monograph on late Phoenician scripts a good bit. There's a tribute guest book for him here.

Requiescat in pace.

Via the Agade list.
PETER SCHÄFER is lecturing in Ann Arbor today on the Missing Baby Messiah. Wish I could go.
VISION OF GABRIEL WATCH: When I noted the article on the Jerusalem Dead Sea Scrolls conference a couple of days ago, I should also have mentioned this article by the same author: "The Dead Sea Stone, or 'Gabriel’s Revelation.'"
FORGOT TO NOTE that Shemeni Atzeret and Simchat Torah were on the 20th-21st in Israel and the 20th-22nd elsewhere. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PUNIC WATCH: A BBC Hannibal documentary is playing in New Zealand:
A battle against all the odds
Staff Reporter [The Times] Published:Oct 20, 2008

THERE are few individuals who change the course of history — Hannibal is one of them.

Born in 247BC, Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar Barca, was a skilled military leader who brought Rome to the brink of destruction.

This documentary series, entitled Hannibal — The Man, The Myth, The Mystery reconstructs the life of the commander of the Carthaginians during the seven stages of the century-long conflict between Carthage and Rome.

There's a trailer here. Apparently it came out in 2006 and I seem to have missed it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PHILO REDIVIVUS. Welcome back.
ANOTHER REVIEW of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the New York Jewish Museum, this one in the New York Jewish Weekly. It rambles, but onto interesting topics. For example, this discussion of de Vaux's field notes:
... An ongoing controversy over unpublished archaeological documents still holds up a more definitive answer to this arcane academic debate. If it seems like a rerun of the original controversy surrounding the publication of the scrolls 20 years ago, that’s precisely the point critics are trying to make.
“I’m sorry to say it’s true,” said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review. “If you dig and don’t publish, it’s destruction.”
Shanks led the campaign to get the Dead Sea Scrolls published in their entirety over two decades ago. Until then, the scrolls were kept in the hands of a close-knit group of scholars affiliated with de Vaux, a French Dominican priest and archaeologist at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. But de Vaux’s field notes from his excavations at the Qumran site, near where the scrolls were found, in the 1950s, remain unpublished. In an odd twist, it’s these papers that scholars — who mostly defend newer variants of de Vaux’s increasingly challenged Essene-sect hypothesis — argue might vindicate their ideas.
“What you have is the same exact thing as [the controversy that surrounded the publication of] the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said Jodi Magness, a prominent Dead Sea Scroll archaeologist who defends de Vaux’s original Essene theory. “But it’s worse because it’s longer.” The first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, but only a quarter of them were published shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until Shanks led his battle in the 1980s that the remaining texts that were finally published in full by the early-1990s.
But other critics say that those whose theory is increasingly under challenge are feeding it to the press. They also point to more practical impediments: de Vaux’s field notes were never properly organized nor written according to today’s publishing standards; a lack of money; and political pressure from the Israeli, Jordanian, French and American governments who have said in the past that any publication regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls — found at Qumran, in the West Bank — should wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is settled. “All we can do is wait patiently,” said Pnina Shor, head of the conservation department at the Israel Antiquities Authority. The body now safeguards the Dead Sea Scrolls and lends them to international exhibits.
The Ecole Biblique, which de Vaux headed until his death in 1971, has in fact published the first two volumes of four that comprise de Vaux’s field notes. Jean-Baptiste Humbert, the successor to de Vaux, said in an interview from Jerusalem that the third volume will be published within the next three months and the fourth and final one “within a year after that.”
Still, he said his most ardent pursuers — who largely defend one of several variants of de Vaux’s theory — will not find much evidence in them to support their theories. He increasingly sides with the newer ideas about who might have used the texts. “Everyone inside the Ecole Biblique, we separate from the Father de Vaux interpretation,” he said. “The Dead Sea Scrolls could not have been the library of the people at Qumran.”
A REPORT on the July 2008 conference in Jerusalem on the Dead Sea Scrolls has been published by Peter Nathan in Belated, but quite detailed.
The Legacy of the Scrolls

Fall 2008 Issue

Sixty years after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls still spark controversy and debate. What, if anything, have they established so far, and how will they be remembered?

Proclaimed as the greatest discovery of the century, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) quickly became the preserve of a limited academic circle. That meant that any hope they would increase our collective understanding of the Bible became rather remote. In July 2008, leading DSS scholars gathered at an international conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the scrolls’ discovery. The event, titled The Dead Sea Scrolls and Contemporary Culture, took place at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, designed and built specifically to house seven of the celebrated scrolls, and now home to all of them that are in Israel’s possession. The declared focus of the conference was “to reflect on the progress made in the last ten years and to articulate our hopes for the future of Qumran studies.”

With respect to the scrolls, the program notes raised the question, “How can we dispel myths and inaccuracies?” Answering that question may have been an impossible goal, however, as myths and inaccuracies will always abound with a trove of documents as old as these. But the conference did reveal something of even greater importance: the diversity of opinions that surround the body of related evidence from the pre-Christian settlement at Khirbet Qumran, near the caves where the scrolls were discovered. The ongoing debate strikes at the foundation of some dearly held views regarding the scrolls’ significance.

MORE ON THE REPAIRS NEEDED for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
Unholy row threatens Holy Sepulchre

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Jerusalem

An unholy row is threatening one of the most sacred places in Christianity - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The centuries-old site, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year.

A recent survey says that part of the complex, a rooftop monastery, is in urgent need of repair, but work is being held up by a long-running dispute between two Christian sects who claim ownership of the site.

There's not much new in the article, but it lays out the situation pretty clearly.

Background here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

PSEUDEPIGRAPHA WATCH: A Good Abstract (Gurtner on 2 Baruch).
Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (CUP, 2008)
My review copy for the SOTS Booklist.
ANOTHER REVIEW of Unholy Business by Nina Burleigh in the WSJ. Excerpt:
As Nina Burleigh shows in "Unholy Business," her lively account of the case, the story behind the James Ossuary remains unclear. Oded Golan, the owner of the box itself, maintains his innocence, despite the discovery -- by two Israeli detectives on an unauthorized smoking break when they were staking out Mr. Golan's apartment -- of a cache that included Tupperware containers of dirt from archaeological sites, diamond cutting tools, dentist drills and artifacts stashed in an unused laundry room. The scientific panel that the Israeli Antiquities Authority convened to examine the ossuary concluded that it appeared to be genuine but that someone had carved the inscription onto it and then covered the letters with a paste made from water and chalk concocted to mimic the natural varnish that covers objects over time.

Ms. Burleigh, who focuses her narrative primarily on the role of Mr. Golan, seems to believe that he is guilty as charged, but she suspects that his lawyers have been able to raise enough doubts in trial testimony that he may be able to avoid conviction. There is still no verdict in a court case that has dragged on for years.
Background here.
Richard E. DeMaris, The New Testament in its Ritual World. London/New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. x, 143. ISBN 9780415438261. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by V. Henry T. Nguyen, Loyola Marymount University (

Word count: 1371 words

This book tackles a neglected area in the study of the New Testament -- ritual -- by making it the focal point of the work. DeMaris states: "This study starts from the premise that ritual was central to, and definitive for, early Christian life (as it is for all social orders), and it explores the New Testament through ritual lens" (p. 11). In order to gain new insights into the ritual dimensions of the earliest Christian communities, he grounds the study in ritual theory, Greco-Roman ritual life, social history, and the literary and archeological evidence of the ancient Mediterranean world. In doing so, he reconsiders longstanding scholarly consensuses and interpretations of New Testament texts referring to rites practiced in the church (especially baptism) and surrounding cultural environments.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

PSEUDEPIGRAPHA WATCH: Ethiopic pseudepigrapha get a positive mention from the independent Catholic news agency Zenit in a report on interventions at the current ninth general congregation of the world Synod of Bishops:
-- H.E. Most. Rev. Berhaneyesus Demerew SOURAPHIEL, C.M., Metropolitan Archbishop of Addis Abeba, President of the Episcopal Conference, President of the Council of the Ethiopian Church (ETHIOPIA)

1) The Word of God was the source of Ethiopic Literature. The Bible was translated into Ethiopic between the 4th and the 6th century AD.

2) Some books are preserved in their entirety only in Classical Ethiopic and parts of the Ethiopian Biblical Canon are precious for biblical scholarship;
The Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees are important works for understanding the context of Second Temple Judaism, Qumran and the origins of Christianity. They are also significant for the study of apocalyptic literature.