Saturday, December 27, 2008

WE'RE OFF to visit Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Edinburgh. (Apologies for the website's corny music.) I'll let you know if we catch sight of the Holy Grail or the treasures of the Templars.

Meanwhile, here's a site devoted to correcting errors about the chapel in The Da Vinci Code.

LATER: Well, we didn't find the Grail or the Templar treasures. On the way we started to suspect that the reason no one had found them was that no one had ever been able to figure out the directions to the place. But we did get there eventually, and the return trip was easier, since all I had to do was follow signs to the Forth Road Bridge to get back to familiar territory.

In any case, the chapel itself is a beautiful piece of architecture which has countless biblical themes and stories encoded in it. As for the Grail, etc., my son found a number of promising hollow-sounding spots in the walls and floors, but I didn't let him get the pry bar from the car to investigate further.

Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside the chapel, but I do have a few from the outside. Click on any of them for a larger image.

The effect is spoiled a bit by all the scaffolding, but having the whole thing as rubble on the ground would probably spoil it more.

Close-up of a gargoyle or the like above the entrance.

A newer part of the architecture on one side.

The good thing about the scaffolding was that it could be climbed on, so we got a closer look at the outside upper level than we would have otherwise. This is a stained glass window containing St. George. The sun is shining through it from the other side, so you can see part of it in mirror inversion pretty well.

On the exact opposite side of the chapel is St. Michael's window, but the direct sunlight shining on the outside shows very little.

The gift shop was full of nonsensical tomes about Solomon, the Grail, the Templars, etc.

We didn't make it down to Roslin Castle, but you can catch a glimpse of it here in the center of the photo.

There are lots of photos of the inside of the chapel at the Rosslyn Chapel website (here). The chapel was freezing cold and after a while I started to wish I had worn triple socks instead of just double. So it would have taken a lot longer than we had patience for to look closely at all the engravings, but I noticed one right away and it was my favorite of those I noticed. It is a horned Moses holding one of the tablets in one hand and Aaron's rod in the other. (For more on Moses' horns, go here and keep following the links back.)

Also, with reference to the Da Vinci Code website above, Dorothy King e-mails, "Isaac Newton's Tomb in Westminster Abbey also does not have an apple ... LOL"
HANUKKA HEROINES OF YORE are discussed by Rachel Adelman in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:
Women are as obligated as men in the commandment to light the Hanukka candles because, according to the Talmud, "they too were involved in the miracle" (B. Shabbat 23a). According to Rashbam, this implies that women were pivotal in bringing about the miracle, and Judith is credited with this central role at Hanukka (cited in Tosafot on B. Pesahim 108b). Rashi, on the other hand, alludes to the story of Hannah, daughter of Mattathias: "'They too were involved in the miracle' refers to a time when the Greeks had decreed that a bride should be given over to the magistrate on her wedding night and a miracle was enacted at the hands of a woman" (Rashi, on B. Shabbat 23a).

Who are these mysterious women, Judith and Hannah? The story of Judith is not found in the Talmud or the classical midrashim, but, like the Book of Maccabees, in the Apocrypha. Many know the story of Judith beheading Holofernes, the Syrian general, but few are familiar with the story of Hannah, the daughter of Mattathias. The events take place during the tyrannical rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BCE).
Read on for the story.

Friday, December 26, 2008

APOCRYPHA WATCH: A Collation and Evaluation of OT Apocrypha Translations has been posted by Mark Hoffman at the Biblical Studies and Technological Tools blog. (Via Ricoblog.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

FIND A DIG is now online at the Biblical Archaeology Review website. It's not too early to start planning your summer 2009 archaeology!
CAN'T MAKE IT UP and don't think I'd want to:
Dung souvenir based on holy phrase


The manager of a tourist centre in the Holy Land has come up with an unusual idea for a souvenir.

Visitors to Menachem Goldberg's tourist compound at Kedem village in Galilee can buy pieces of donkey dung presented in a plastic cube inscribed with religious text.

Mr Goldberg based the idea on a phrase in the Jewish Talmud which says, '"Let the messiah come... may I be worthy to sit in the shadow of his donkey's dung."
Follow the link for a video that really ought to have come from Saturday Night Live.

Some Googling indicates that b. Sanhedrin 98b is the passage in question, but I don't have the text handy today to verify the reference.

UPDATE (26 December): Yep, that's the passage, and Jacob Neuser e-mails the text from his translation:
I.105 A. Said Ulla, "Let him come, but may I not see him."
B. Said Rabba, "Let him come, but may I not see him."
C. R. Joseph said, "May he come, and may I have the merit of sitting in the shade of the dung of his ass."
D. Said Abbayye to Rabbah, "What is the reason [that some do not wish to see the coming of the messiah]? Is it because of the turmoil of the Messiah?
E. "And has it not been taught on Tannaite authority:
F. "His disciples asked R. Eliezer, 'What should someone do to save himself from the turmoil of the Messiah?'
G. "[He replied to them], 'Let him engage in study of the Torah and acts of loving kindness.'
H. "And lo, the master [at hand] practices Torah-study and acts of lovingkindness. [So why not want to see him?]"
I. He said to him, "Perhaps he fears sin will cause [him to suffer], in line with what R. Jacob bar Idi said."
J. For R. Jacob bar Idi contrasted two verses of Scripture, as follows: "It is written, 'And behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go'
(Gen. 28:15), and another verse states, 'Then Jacob was greatly afraid' (Gen. 32:8).
K. "[Why the contrast between God's promise and Jacob's fear?] Jacob feared [and thought to himself,] 'Sin which I have done may cause [punishment for me instead].'"
L. That accords with what has been taught on Tannaite authority:
M. "Till your people pass over, O Lord, till your people pass over, that you have acquired" (Ex. 15:16).
N. "Till your people pass over" refers to the first entry into the land [in Joshua's time].
O. "Till your people pass over, that you have acquired" refers to the second entry into the land [in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Thus a miracle was promised not only on the first occasion, but also on the second. But it did not happen the second time around. Why not?]
P. On the basis of this statement, sages have said, "The Israelites were worthy of having a miracle performed for them in the time of Ezra also, just as it had been performed for them in the time of Joshua b. Nun, but sin caused the miracle to be withheld."
UPDATE (31 December): More here.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating.

Yesterday I posted and linked to some relevant historical observations etc.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

MY BEST FRIEND is visiting the UK from San Diego. I'm picking him up at the train station in a couple of hours and he will be staying with me for the next week. In high school and at university, Rob and I were Two Wild and Crazy Guys together (in the nerdiest possible sense, you understand). It will be good to hang out together again. But I shall be busy over the next week and blogging may (or may not) be light.
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM is getting its annual airing in the news. Here's a BBC article:
Star of wonder

By Rebecca Ellis

A comet, an eclipse, a supernova, an alignment of planets - was the Star of Bethlehem, said to have led the wise men to the Baby Jesus, a real astronomical event?

Some 2,000 years ago, wise men saw an incredible star shining over the Holy Land. It was their signal to embark on an epic journey to visit the new Messiah. But what exactly was the Star of Bethlehem?
... perhaps it was a comet

Modern science is unravelling the mystery behind one of the most famous astronomical stories in history. New developments in technology allow astronomers to map the ancient night skies with extraordinary accuracy.

As they study the movements of the planets and stars, experts are challenging the traditional assumption that it was a blazing comet - instead there are several unusual astronomical events that the wise men could have seen in the skies.

And that's pretty much where things stand. The scientific possibilities mentioned in the article include a planetary conjunction, a stellar-planetary conjunction, a supernova, and an eclipse of Jupiter. Physicist Frank Tipler has recently discussed the possibilities in his article "The Star of Bethlehem: A Type Ia/Ic Supernova in the Andromeda Galaxy?" in Observatory 125 (2005): 168-73. He thinks the supernova possibility is the most likely option and he lays out the conditions for testing the hypothesis.

Until and unless there's a scientific consensus on an astronomical event that fits the conditions at the right time, my working hypothesis is that the writer Matthew drew on or created midrashic traditions based on Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17, which refers to a star coming out of Jacob. The passage was understood to have a messianic connotation in at least some ancient Jewish circles; for example, the title of the messianic leader Bar Kokhba (Aramaic for "Son of the Star") is based on this verse. A literal reading of it could have led to a story like the one we find in Matthew. But I see I've already noted this in a past post. Related posts are here and here. I've noted another cool Star of Bethlehem tradition here. And while I'm at it, I have posts on Matthew's Magi here and here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW has published a number of free, complete articles recently on its website:
Digs Go Digital
Our annual guide to excavations tells you which digs are looking for volunteers, how you could win a scholarship to fund your experience, and some of the hi-tech tools that you might use while you’re there.

[Cross-file under Technology Watch.]

First Person: BAR—The Next Generation
By Dorothy D. Resig

When our editor, Hershel Shanks, told me several months ago that he was going to take a two-month sabbatical to work on his autobiography and that I’d be writing the First Person for this issue of BAR, I was both excited and overwhelmed by the task of deciding what to write. Hershel suggested that I consider things that give me a different perspective from his. While that offered me a few options, I settled on our age difference and decided to discuss what I’ll call “my generation” in Biblical archaeology.


Biblical Views: Breaking the Trend of Biblical “Breaking News”
By Craig A. Evans

Scholars and the general public alike have grown accustomed, perhaps even hardened, to sensational announcements every year that have something to do with the Bible, Jesus or Christian origins. From The Da Vinci Code to the supposed tomb of Jesus and his family, and the seemingly annual reports about finding Noah’s ark or the Ark of the Covenant, much of the news in our field is incredible—literally. And, of course, several artifacts (such as the Jehoash inscription and the James Ossuary inscription) were widely publicized before being declared forgeries—although the evidence in support of forgery is far from conclusive (see Strata).
In light of all of this noise, I would not be surprised in the least if the public interest in Biblical scholarship and archaeology begins to wane. Future discoveries, even important ones, may well be met with cynical responses such as “We have heard this before.” How is the average person supposed to know when a truly remarkable discovery has been made?

[The bulk of the article has some interesting observations on recent work on the Vision of Gabriel inscription. Background here.]

Archaeological Views: The Value of Experience
[Oded Borowski reflects on how his life experiences inform his work as an archaeologist.]
Also, if you subscribe to Joseph I. Lauer's list, you will have received the full text of three of this issue's "Strata" pieces.

UPDATE: Oh, yes, I meant to include this one too:
Leading Israeli Scientist Declares Pomegranate Inscription Authentic

BAR Special News Report
Updated December 16, 2008

An Israeli scientist employed by the defense in the Jerusalem forgery trial has concluded that the inscription on the famous ivory pomegranate (“[Belonging] to the Temple of [Yahwe]h, consecrated to the priests”) is authentic.

If the inscription is authentic, the pomegranate is probably the only surviving artifact from Solomon’s Temple.

Professor Yitzhak Roman of the Hebrew University examined the pomegranate under a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to reach his conclusions. In the 1990s he was the academic director of Hebrew University’s SEM.

A committee led by Tel Aviv University’s Yuval Goren had previously concluded that the inscription was a forgery because three critical letters adjacent to an ancient break stopped before the break. The forger was apparently fearful of breaking off more of the pomegranate if he went too close to this fracture. The pomegranate itself is admittedly genuine. However, Professor Roman’s examination showed that the three critical letters, contrary to Yuval Goren’s finding, did in fact go into the ancient break.

There's a link to Professor Roman's report.

In another (long) e-mail, Joe Lauer concludes, "I wonder, though, how the claim of authenticity accords with the finding made years ago that the artifact (but not its incised writing) was from a period much earlier than that of the First Temple. Is that still the current thinking?"

Good question.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A BYZANTINE-ERA COIN HOARD has been found in Jerusalem:
Israeli archaeologists find rare gold coins

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Some Israeli archaeologists are having a particularly happy Hanukkah.

The Israel Antiquities Authority reported a thrilling find Sunday -- the discovery of 264 ancient gold coins in Jerusalem National Park.

The coins were minted during the early 7th century.


The 1,400-year-old coins were found in the Giv'ati car park in the City of David in the walls around Jerusalem National Park, a site that has yielded other finds, including a well-preserved gold earring with pearls and precious stones.

They were in a collapsed building that dates back to the 7th century, the end of the Byzantine period. The coins bear a likeness of Heraclius, who was the Byzantine emperor from 610 to 641.

For that gold earring, see here. Looks like they took my advice and felt behind the sofa cushions.

(Again, via the Agade list.)

UPDATE: Reader Carla Sulzbach reminds me that another gold coin hoard (15 from the late Second Temple period) was found near Jerusalem earlier this year. That same site (Kibbutz Ramat Rachel) also produced another Byzantine-era hoard of coins, but not gold ones.
A SYMPOSIUM on Hebrew in the Second Temple Period: The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of Other Contemporary Sources starts on 29 December at the Hebrew University, sponsored by The Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature and The Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Center for the Study of the History of the Hebrew Language. Follow the link for the program.

(Via the Agade list.)
DR. GREGORY BEARMAN, who is in charge of the multispectral imagining project on the Dead Sea Scrolls, is profiled in the Boston Globe:
Putting the past under a microscope
For a forensic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ex-executive gets Woburn firm's high-tech help
By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2008

As a former biomedicine executive, Dr. Gregory Bearman seems to be an unlikely candidate to conduct a forensic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But when the Israel Museum in Jerusalem needed someone who specializes in microscopes to analyze and catalog the scrolls for a project that will track their deterioration, it called the retired chief biomedical scientist of Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Bearman, in turn, called Cambridge Research & Instrumentation Inc., or CRi, a Woburn company that specializes in building systems for the rapidly evolving multispectral life-sciences imaging business - in simpler language, that's the business of manufacturing highly sophisticated microscopes.


"It's pretty amazing. The scrolls were physically accessible, but unreadable. Now they can make out the characters on them," said Peter J. Miller, who cofounded CRi in 1985 and serves as its chief science officer. "Of course, the system can't answer the big question, which is, 'What do they say?' "

The scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1958 in 11 caves near the shore of the Dead Sea on the West Bank, encompass about 800 documents and include texts from the Hebrew Bible. Part of Bearman's work includes making the scrolls available online. His analysis will also be used to track how they age over time.


The system used in the Dead Sea Scroll analysis is called a Nuance multispectral imaging system. Its elaborate software program can isolate certain aspects of an image - for example, noncancerous cells can be separated from cancerous ones. To treat diseases like breast cancer, such information is crucial in determining why some therapies work only for some patients.

Background here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

HANUKKAH starts this evening at sundown. No, really this time!

And, for the Department of Cosmic Synchronicities, today is also the Winter Solstice and the festival of Yalda.

Best wishes to all those celebrating!
PHOENICIAN WATCH: Lots of Phoenician news today. First, a report on the progress of the Good Ship Phoenicia from UK:
Phoenicia Departs Port Sudan for the 'Pirate Zone'

The Phoenicia, seeking to rediscover and document the secrets of ancient Phoenician mariners while circumnavigating the continent of Africa, are just about to depart Port Sudan in the Red Sea, heading towards the Gulf of Aden and the 'Pirate Zone'.

They had planned to stay for just 15 days, but it has taken two long months to make the changes to the ship that they think necessary to continue the voyage. First, they wanted to rebuild the aft end to insert a new and much larger thwart (a transverse support spreading the gunwales) to take the rudders. They also wanted to look at putting a small engine that will enable them to be less reliant on tows in and out of harbours. Compared to the ancients, the crew is quite small, and they lack the numbers to adequately row the vessel.

Now 'Phoenicia' is ready once again to sail on the high seas. ...

he next leg for the ship, which is taking on some new crew members in the Sudan, is to head for the Port of Aden in Yemen at the head of the Gulf of Aden. With piracy hitting the international headlines frequently over the past few months, and the crew about to embark upon a passage around the horn of Africa, they have been receiving more and more enquiries about what impact this will have on the expedition.

They have been working with the assistance of risk management company Drum Cussac over the last 12 months and want to assure supporters that they are taking the risk very seriously.

One would hope so.
The trip so far:
The Phoenician Ship Expedition departed from Arwad, Syria in August, and sailed through the Suez Canal via Egypt to the Sudan. Later it intends to round the Horn of Africa and sail down the east coast. Negotiating the dangers of the Cape of Good Hope will be a critical point in the expedition. The voyage will continue up the west coast of Africa, through the Straights of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean to return to Syria. The circumnavigation will involve 17,000 miles of sailing.

The Phoenicia Expedition is attempting to prove that the Phoenicians were the first people to conquer such a feat. Led by businessman and adventurer Philip Beale, the expedition is recreating the voyage of a 600 B.C. Phoenician vessel. This will put to rest the popular belief that Bartholomeu Dias was the first to sail around Africa in 1488. Philip Beale has previous experience with such a journey. In 2003, he set sail aboard the Borobudur, a recreation of another historical voyage from Indonesia to Africa. Beale has used his enthusiasm to inspire his crewmembers and encourage businesses to sponsor the trip. However, it is the quest for historical truth that drives the voyage forward.
So far, so good. And it's not too late to sign up for the crew! Details here. If you send in an application, let me know. It would be nice to have a PaleoJudaica correspondent on the ship.

Background here.

Next, the BBC updates a couple of Phoenician stories:
Divided Lebanon's common genes

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Byblos, Lebanon

On the brightly lit stage dancers in colourful costumes twist and swirl in dizzying moves.

Beirut's main theatre is packed: Lebanese have come in hundreds for the premiere of a play that explores parallels between them and the Phoenicians - the ancient people who once inhabited their land.

The musical called "The Rise of Phoenix" is about defying hardships and the ability of a nation to rise from its own ashes.

But it is also a criticism of the lack of unity which led to the fall of the Phoenicians, and which is part of Lebanon's political reality today.

"We inherited that Phoenician mentality," says Osama Rahbani, one of the creators of the play.

The Phoenicians were good businessmen, but they were selfish, they were not united. I think the main point of the play is to remind the people that we must learn from our own history," Mr Rahbani says.

Background here.

The article goes on to discuss the recent work on the "Phoenician gene."
Dr [Pierre] Zalloua and his team studied DNA data from more than 6,000 men across the Mediterranean, and used a new analytical technique to detect the genetic imprint of historical migrations.

The Lebanese have been particularly enthusiastic about the project, with dozens still queuing up every day to have their DNA tested. Many, it seems, are hoping to discover their Phoenician ancestry.

"I will be more than happy to have Phoenician roots," says Nabil, a student as he waits for his turn to give blood for the test.

Lebanese team of geneticists led by Dr Pierre Zalloua (standing)
Dr Zalloua says the project's discovery is a "truly unifying message"

"Phoenicians started the civilization, they are the ones who invented the alphabet, I would be very proud to be a Phoenician," he adds.

There is a good chance that Nabil is of Phoenician descent - the study has revealed that while one in 17 people across the Mediterranean carry the Phoenician gene, in Lebanon almost a third of the population have Phoenician roots.

Dr Zalloua says in Lebanon the Phoenician signature is distributed equally among different groups and that the overall genetic make-up of the Lebanese is proving to be similar across various backgrounds.

"Whether you take a Christian village in the north of Lebanon or a Muslim village in the south, the DNA make-up of its residents is likely to be identical," says Dr Zalloua.

"I think it's a truly unifying message, and for me its very gratifying. Lebanon has been hammered by so many divides, and now a piece of heritage has been unravelled in this project which reminds us that maybe we should forget about differences and pay attention to our common heritage," says Dr Zalloua.

Background here.
MONASTIC SQUABBLING makes the news again, this time in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem:
Palestinian government forced to save birthplace of Christ as monks squabble over restoration
The monks who tend the grotto under the Byzantine basilica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem should enjoy lives of quiet, meditative service to the lofty ideals of their faith.

By Tim Butcher in Bethlehem and Angus McDowall
Last Updated: 6:53PM GMT 20 Dec 2008 (The Telegraph

When they wash the grotto's marbled altar and guard its silver lamps, they are watching over the cradle of the Christian world: the exact spot where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.

Yet despite this sacred trust, a ten-year row between the different sects that manage the church has forced the Palestinian government's Muslim leaders to intervene to prevent the basilica's ancient lead roof from collapsing on its mosaic floors.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian national authority, has taken the unprecedented step of issuing a decree that the church must be repaired.


The Palestine Exploration Fund, a British charity founded in the 19th century to preserve the monuments of the Holy Land, described the roof's condition as "nothing short of a scandal".

Discreetly announced in a Jerusalem paper, Mr Abbas' decree was careful to say the three groups would be fully consulted by a special committee set up by the Palestinian authorities.

But there was no hiding the sense of frustration at the bickering between the sects that had threatened a shrine which is one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Holy Land.

His intervention, however, appears to have worked where religious harmony did not: the heads of the three churches have agreed to put aside their squabbles and accept the planned renovation.

Architectural and archaeological experts expressed their delight at the news of the presidential decree.

Sigh. Well, I'm glad someone is seeing to this.