Thursday, December 31, 2009

RALPHIES 2009 - another best-of-the-year varia post, inspired by Ed Cook, who posts his sixth annual Ralphies here. For past PaleoJudaica Ralphies for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, follow the links.

These are my favorite items of the year. Your results may differ.

BEST FICTION BOOK: No contest here. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Published in 2008 but I read most of it in 2009 (my son gave it to me for Christmas 2008). A parallel universe in which, after a technological holocaust and other disasters, nerds are kept in secular low-tech monasteries to prevent knowledge from advancing too fast. Naturally that means that they just discover more dangerous knowledge in even weirder ways. Then something happens to cause the world to really really need their knowledge ... A demanding book that assumes a working knowledge of physics and the history of Western philosophy (all of which is replicated with a completely parallel history and terminology) but well worth the effort. I can't remember ever enjoying an SF novel more. It entered the NYT hardback bestseller list as number one in September of 2008.

I should also note that one of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Donaldson (writer of, inter alia, the Thomas Covenant series - see my 2005 and 2007 Ralphies above) received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 2009. My laureation address, given at the ceremony, is transcribed here.

BEST NONFICTION BOOK: I started some very good nonfiction tomes in 2009, but didn't finish them. Maybe I'll be able to report on one or two of them next year.

BEST SCHOLARLY BOOK: Once again, I didn't get to read nearly as many technical books as I should have or wanted to. I did read some good ones though. I'll settle on the best as Bill Rebiger and Peter Schäfer, Sefer ha-Razim I und II. Das Buch der Geheimnisse I und II: Band 1: Edition (TSAJ 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009). I'm reviewing this for the SOTS Booklist, so I'll keep my comments brief. Sefer ha-Razim (Sepher HaRazim) is the most important Jewish magic handbook from antiquity and it is foundational to the later Jewish magical tradition. Rebiger and Schäfer have produced a stunningly executed new edition full of new data. (Observant readers will recall that I only got a copy a little over a week ago, so this glowing note may seem premature. But Schäfer and Rebiger kindly gave me page proofs of much of the manuscript for my work on a translation of the text for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project when I was on research leave in 2008. So I have worked closely with the book for some months and my comments are carefully considered.)

Honorable mention goes to Hartmut Stegemann (late and lamented), Eileen Schuller, and Carol Newsom, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, vol. XL Qumran Cave 1.III: 1QHodayota with incorporation of 1QHodayotb and 4QHodayota-f (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009), the final volume in the DJD seires.

(By the way, I step down as Head of the School of Divinity, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, and Principal of St. Mary's College in February of 2010, after a little over three years total (not counting the semester of research leave) in post. It was an interesting experience and I learned a lot, and I think I led the School in good directions, but I'll be glad to be able to go back to spending more time on my research and teaching.)

BEST MOVIE: I spent even less time in the cinema in 2009 than in previous years and nothing that I saw particularly impressed me. I'll pass this year.

BEST TELEVISION SERIES: My vote would have to go to FlashForward. The novel by Robert J. Sawyer had a good concept, but the series actually sharpens it by making the gap between the present and the visions of the future only six months (rather than 21 years) and introducing other complexities not found in the book. Good acting and scripts too (not to be taken for granted these days). After 10 episodes, so far so good. I look forward to the rest of the season in 2010.

I was very sorry that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was canceled last year. (The movie Terminator Four had some good concepts but sacrificed their development with way too much CGI.) Likewise, I'm sorry for the recent canceling of Dollhouse, which has really picked up as it speeds toward its imminent conclusion. But Ashes to Ashes, which had a weak first season in 2008 picked up in 2009 and I quite enjoyed it. My favorite television moment of 2009 was the concluding topsy-turvy and maddeningly multivalent seconds of the 2009 season of Ashes to Ashes. Bolly seems to have her work cut out for her in season three.

BEST MUSIC: I listened to almost no new music in 2009. But in lieu of that, I'll leave you with a recent parody of the in-itself over-the-top 1980s video for Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart. The parody had a very strong viral presence this year. I don't know if it's the funniest video on YouTube, but it's certainly the funniest one I've seen.

Best wishes for a most excellent 2010!
A DISPUTE OVER THE BODY OF SANTA CLAUS is roiling, reminding me for some perverse reason of the dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over the body of Moses (Jude 9 and the lost Testament of Moses). You can decide who gets to be Michael and who gets to be old Nick. Not to be confused, of course, with St. Nick.

Related item here.
THE TOP DISCOVERIES OF 2009, "related to the biblical world," according to Todd Bolen have been posted at his Bible Places blog. He also has a good list of his additional 2009 posts on major discoveries and stories of 2009. And he notes the National Geographic list of Top Ten Archaeology Finds: Most Viewed of 2009. Only one of these is even tangentially related to the Bible or ancient Judaism: GOLD HOARD PICTURES: Largest Anglo-Saxon Treasure Found, the Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon gold hoard, which included a gold strip inscribed with a quotation from the Latin Vulgate, as I noted here. Photo here.
ONE MORE TIME: another Alexa-based ranking of biblioblogs, this one for December, 2009 by Joseph Kelly at Kol ha-Adam.

(Via James McGrath.)
A MEDITATION ON THE LEGEND OF AHER (Elisha ben Abuyah) is cited by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in the Five Towns Jewish Times in an essay on responses to morally fallen Torah scholars in Jewish tradition:
In conclusion, there is a fascinating Kochvei Ohr which discusses the sin of Acher – Elisha Ben Abuyah - the teacher of Rabbi Meir and the sage who fell. While talking to his teacher who went off the path of Torah, Acher the teacher told Rabbi Meir that he had reached the Shabbos boundary. Rabbi Meir asked him how he knew. The teacher said that he was counting the footsteps of his horse. Rabbi Meir asked Acher to come back and return to Judaism. Acher responded that he could not because he was privy to a Bas Kol that said, “Return you wayward sons all except Acher – who knew my Glory and rebelled against Me..”
Rabbi Meir tried to convince him to come back anyway. Rav Yitzchok Blaser – the author of the Kochvei Ohr and student of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter asks two questions: The first is that how could it be that Hashem did not want the penance of Acher? The second question he asked was how it could be that Rabbi Meir is going against a Bas Kol – a direct request from Hashem Himself?
The Kochvei Ohr answers that generally speaking Teshuva is always somewhat tainted. We know that Hashem will accept our Teshuva ultimately if we offer it and He will forgive us. Even though it is tainted in this manner, nonetheless, Hashem does not care and accepts it anyway.
This is true for most people. However, Acher was so depraved and had fallen so far that he needed a completely perfect Teshuvah. He required a Teshuvah untainted by the knowledge that it would be accepted.
Hashem wanted Acher to perform this type of Teshuva and that is why Acher heard that Bas Kol. Rabbi Meir was aware of this, while his own teacher was not. He tried convincing him to do real Teshuvah anyway – even though it would not have been accepted.
We see from the words of Rav Blaser how very much Hashem wants everyone to do Teshuvah. May all of us be zocheh to a complete Teshuva in all that he do wrong. Amain.
I had never heard this story before. I have discussed the Aher legend in another context in an earlier post here.
Uranus and Neptune get Hebrew names at last
By Yair Ettinger (Haaretz)

Call it Star Wars. In the end, Oron defeated Shahak and Rahab prevailed over Tarshish as the Hebrew Language Academy on Wednesday unveiled the new names of two planets referred to until now by non-Hebrew names. Henceforth, Uranus will be known as "Oron" and Neptune as "Rahab."

Astronomy and language experts selected the four proposed names, but the general public was allowed to make the final decision.


Both Hebrew names were inspired by their Greek and Latin equivalents. Rahab, like Neptune, comes from the nautical world: It is the name of a sea monster in the Bible and Talmud. A source at the Academy said Oron was chosen partly because of its phonetic similarity to the word Uranus and partly because "Oron means small light - hinting at the pale light the planet emits when seen from Earth because of its great distance from the sun."

Background here.
THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE by Shlomo Sand is reviewed by Ricki Hollander for CAMERA. Not surprisingly, she doesn't like it. Excerpts:
When it comes to undermining the legitimacy of the Jewish state, there is no thesis too absurd to be published. In fact, one can assume that any book attacking the idea of Jewish nationalism will gain a following (and even garner awards), regardless of how preposterous the underlying thesis.

Such is the case with "The Invention of the Jewish People," a book by Shlomo Sand who teaches French history at Tel Aviv University. The thesis: There is no such thing as a Jewish people; today's Jews have no connection to biblical Israelites or to Jews who inhabited Israel during the time of the Second Temple; rather, they are descended from disparate groups of people who converted to Judaism and had no ties to the land of Israel. Conversely, there was no exile of Jews from the land of Israel; most Jews remained in the land, converted to Islam and were the progenitors of present-day Palestinians.

Sand acknowledges his mission is to prove invalid the foundation of Zionism – the idea of a Jewish state built on a Jewish ancestral homeland — and to promote instead the idea of a single non-Jewish state of Arabs and Jews. His qualifications for this project lie – not in Jewish history scholarship (his field is French nationalism and cinema), but – in his communist, anti-nationalist and anti-Zionist background and politics (which he proudly mentions in the book's preface). His thesis whereby Arabs – and not Jews– are the rightful inheritors of the land provides the support for his political argument.


Sand is unable to adequately explain away this longstanding belief in a common heritage, or the writings, prayers, practices,, customs and rituals which form the essence of a Jewish national consciousness. He feebly attempts to dismiss them as inconsequential, religious practices and the bible as a "marginal" book of fairy tales. But by pretending that a true national consciousness arose only as a result of recent historians who "invented" the concept of a Jewish people, Sand essentially ignores everything that Jews believed in before that. It is just such a longstanding, shared consciousness (even among those who are not religiously observant) that forms the core of nationhood. The very fact that for thousands of years, Jews shared the same bonds to the land of Israel and regarded themselves — and others regarded them — as a people, itself invalidates Sand's contentions to the contrary. Unable to dismiss this salient fact, Sand involves himself with irrelevant, meaningless arguments, however false.

More reviews here.
WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY? At the Bible and Interpretation website, Professor Gerd Lüdemann has a brief essay on "What Jesus Never Said," i.e., the sayings of Jesus recorded in the canonical and noncanonical gospels which are judged to be inauthentic by modern scholars. Excerpt:
It has long been a truism of Biblical criticism that the New Testament abounds in examples of words attributed to Jesus both incorrectly and subsequent to the actual or purported events to which those utterances are related. In reconstructing what Jesus actually did say, researchers have largely ignored the invented sayings in order to concentrate on the authentic passages. Exhaustive work has been done in the latter domain – examining how the sayings are connected and attempting to determine their specific context – in order to assemble as complete a picture as possible.

In this essay I propose to inspect the other side of the coin by considering a selection of the inauthentic words of Jesus – both clearly invented sayings and those that reveal noteworthy alterations to what must have been their original form. In the latter cases, of course, it will be necessary to include both versions. My collection of inauthentic logia will, I trust, enable the reader to see the fictional sayings as a collective phenomenon worthy of serious consideration. At the same time, they will yield an important image of the early Christian mentality and thus a better concept of how the early church came into being.
Oddly, the essay does not cite or quote a single saying of Jesus, authentic or inauthentic, although it does manage to quote the Apostle Paul twice. Apparently this is a teaser for the author's 2001 and 2008 books. But an example or two would have been nice.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE HELIODORUS STELE are being asked by Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher at the Bible and Interpretation website. Excerpt:
In short, we would argue that there are many questions which need to be answered about the Heliodorus Stele, above and beyond the inscription written upon it: when was it found; how was it found; if it were looted from Beit Guvrin, did the dig directors know when and how it was taken; did the IAA and the Parks Authority know that such looting was going on and, if so, what steps did they take to prevent further looting; how did Gil Chaya really come into possession of the stele; how did the Steinhardts find out about it and buy it; how much did they pay for it and was Chaya allowed to keep the money; why wasn't the sale stopped; why was the sale allowed in the first place; what role did the Israel Museum play in this; and why isn't the IAA (and the dig directors) questioning all this if the object has been shown through analysis to come from the same place on a licensed dig as three other similar objects?
Background here.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

WILLIS BARNSTONE, author of The Restored New Testament is interviewed about his long and interesting career by Bowdoin Magazine (he is a Bowdoin College alumnus). Excerpt:
On Translating:

In your introductions to your Biblical translations, you mention translators from ages past whose lives were endangered by their work. As you've labored on the New Testament, have there been any passages where you wondered if your own choice of words might be considered threatening to prevailing beliefs?

Of course, throughout. That, and the literary love I have for demotic Greek, is one of the main reasons for doing that 10-year project. This is a huge subject, so I should probably stop here. But in my Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (Yale, 1993), I do talk a lot about such things. Yes, restoring the biblical Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew names of place and person, may be threatening. Actually, my response from people, from right to left, from atheist to believer, is that what I've offered is not a threat but good information. We're in a fine ecumenical period, and people want to know more. Hence the luck now with The Gnostic Bible. Silence now.
I suppose that more technically accurate transliterations of the names and more literal translations of key phrases could be helpful to novice readers and for getting the attention of non-specialist readers who are used to current translations. It seems a little grating to me, but that may be because things seem obvious to me which are not obvious to the target audience.

Reviews of The Restored New Testament are noted here. And I noted a review of The Gnostic Bible some years ago here.
THE ZOHAR is briefly profiled by Eli Dahan in the Learning Biblical Hebrew blog. Substantially accurate, although there is some room for thinking that the composition of the Zohar involved collaboration by R. Moses de Léon and others, sometimes using older sources. Background here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

EGYPTIAN BLOGGER Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman (Karim Amer) continues to languish in an Egyptian prison for criticizing Islamic extremists and the Egyptian Government. He has just lost his final appeal.
Egypt court upholds 4-year sentence for blogger

Tue Dec 22, 2009 3:36pm EST

CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court confirmed the four-year jail sentence imposed on an Egyptian student blogger for posting writings critical of Islam and the government, the state news agency MENA said.

Background here and keep following the links back.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION coming to Milwaukee receives coverage in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle:
Controversy and intrigue surround Dead Sea Scrolls

By Leon Cohen

Controversy has swirled around the Dead Sea Scrolls since the first ones were discovered in 1947. Some of these controversies have been scholarly, but others have been theological and even involve anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israel conflict.

The Milwaukee Public Museum will be mounting the largest temporary exhibit it has ever produced around some of these scrolls and associated artifacts for a limited engagement beginning Jan. 22.

According to Carter Lupton, head of the museum’s history and anthropology sections, this exhibit, titled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible,” is probably the first time these materials have been brought to the city and the state.

But to obtain and display them, he and the museum have had to thread their way through some of those controversies.

The article covers the issues with a high level of accuracy for the most part, but I do have one significant criticism:
This campaign intensified in 1990, when [John] Strugnell revealed himself to be an anti-Semite in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 1990. (“Judaism is originally racist…. The correct answer of Jews to Christianity is to become Christian.)
Frankly, I think it is irresponsible journalism to include this paragraph without ever noting that Strugnell suffered from bipolar disorder (aggravated at the time by alcoholism) and that he made these comments during a manic episode. More on that here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

THE RESTORED NEW TESTAMENT by Willis Barnstone has been reviewed a couple of time recently. I have not yet seen this new translation.

First, "Writer seeks to restore Bible's Jewish roots" by Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpt:
We're here to talk about this extraordinary opus, a lifetime of work that seeks to radically restore the historical Jewish context of these all-too-familiar stories about the lives and times of an itinerant rabbi named Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus Christ.

Back to Jewish names

That's the first thing you notice about this Bible. The names have been changed, and not to protect the innocent. Other Bibles make it too easy to forget the fact that Jesus and his first 12 followers were Jews. This Bible starts by restoring the Jewish names of the purported authors of the familiar gospel stories. Matthew becomes Mattityahu. Mark morphs into Markos, Luke is Loukas. John appears as Yohanan. John the Baptist is renamed Yohanan the Dipper.

Barnstone adds three other versions of the story, the recently discovered Gnostic gospels of Toma (Thomas), Yehuda (Judas) and Miryam of Magdala (Mary Magdalene), and argues in his commentary that they are at least as important and potentially accurate depictions as the canonical accounts that made it past the theological censors and into that ancient anthology we call the Bible.

The next thing you notice about the Barnstone Bible is the poetry, which is this translator's real passion.

Sitting in his kitchen, which like every other room in this house is filled with books, Barnstone lights up when he starts talking about how these texts began as spoken stories. They were later sung and chanted in verse. Most modern Bibles have lost that sense.

"It's poetry locked in prose," he says between bites of his bagel.
Then "The New Testament as Dan Brown conspiracy theory" by Fr Richard Ounsworth OP in the Catholic Herald. Excerpt:
Well, it would be ridiculous to deny that anti-Semitism has been a powerful force in the history of Christianity, and perhaps some readers of the New Testament are unaware of the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples and of St Paul and the other apostolic writers. If so, then perhaps a fresh translation that gives us the Aramaic names these men probably had is no bad thing. I must confess I find it rather contrived and irritating after a while, but perhaps I am fortunate in being more familiar with the thoroughly Jewish milieu of the New Testament, able to see in the word "Jesus" the Greek "Iesous" that translates the Hebrew "Yehoshua" and the Aramaic "Yeshua".

But it is quite unfair of Barnstone to imply that he is uncovering a 2,000-year-old plot to pretend that Christianity did not emerge from Judaism and that Christ and the Apostles were not Jews.

For every modern Scripture scholar who appears in the footnotes of this book denouncing the Church for inventing the figure of Judas there are a dozen or more others whose serious and sober scholarship engages seriously with the historical and theological questions of the origins of Christianity and is entirely ignored.

Barnstone himself is a serious scholar of literature, especially of poetry. Indeed, he discerns in many of the words of Jesus a poetic resonance which he shows by printing them as poetry within his translation; he does the same thing with many of the Epistles, and with the Apocalypse. Some of this versification is more convincing, some less.

I cannot decide whether I think these translations are powerful and resonant, offering a fresh and exciting reading of texts that are always in danger of becoming stale, or irritatingly idiosyncratic and eccentric. Perhaps they are both.

I suggest that readers make up their own minds. Just beware of accepting uncritically the impression that scholars all acknowledge a picture of Jesus and the origins of Christianity that the Church has been hiding from you for generations.
Regarding the latter review, the title is a little over the top, although the reviewer probably was not the one who came up with it. But he did say this:
So after the four canonical gospels Barnstone gives us his new and very good translations of the "Gospels" of Thomas, Mary (Magdalene) and Judas, and I can see no reason why these should not be read and studied. It is, though, perhaps a little sneaky to call a book that does this the Restored New Testament, with the implication that somehow these were hitherto either lost or hidden.

There is a little of the Dan Brown conspiracy theory about this. I suppose if one does not believe in inspiration, or the authority of the Church to determine the canon of scripture, then one can simply devise one's own canon according to one's historical theories or aesthetic preferences.
Or, whatever one's beliefs, a historian can approach these documents as a historian without worrying about the anachronistic conception of "canon." And, if I may say it, it is a little disingenuous (or perhaps just ill-informed) to imply that these documents were not "either lost or hidden." All three were lost for many centuries and the Gospel of Thomas survived complete only by virtue of someone having hidden a copy with a collection of other non-canonical scriptures (etc.; the Nag Hammadi Library) in a buried jar, possibly to prevent them from being destroyed during a time of persecution. The Gospel of Mary is known from one Coptic manuscript that was rediscovered (in a tomb?) at the end of the nineteenth century but only published in the 1950s. Small fragments of both Gospels in Greek were also recovered among the Oxyrhynchus papyri. The Gospel of Judas may also have been found among grave goods in a tomb.

UPDATE (30 December): Dead link fixed now. Sorry about that. And more here.
THE SISTERS OF SINAI by Janet Soskice is reviewed in the Christian Century by Jean K. Dudek. Excerpts:
Imagine this: after a nine-day camel ride from Suez in 1892, identical twin sisters from Scotland arrive at the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai. They find a decrepit manuscript of the Gospels, unread for at least a millennium, written in an obscure language that one of the twins had started learning only a few months previously. The manuscript astounds biblical scholars and fascinates the Bible-reading public.

It's a preposterous story. And it's true. Janet Soskice, professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College, has written a lively and lucid biography of these intrepid sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dun lop Gibson (1843-1926 and 1843-1920, respectively). Don't let the title be a turnoff. The phrase "lady adventurers" might be grating, and some of us may feel we're going to scream if we see one more book purporting to reveal hitherto unknown secrets from "hidden Gospels," but not to worry. The subjects' gender is a significant part of the story, and what they found was a manuscript of the four canonical Gospels.


Much of the book is devoted to the sisters' first trip to Mount Sinai to look for ancient biblical manuscripts, particularly those written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Their big find, in a closet in a desert monastery, was the earliest known Syriac version of the four Gospels—in the form of difficult-to-read underwriting in a palimpsest manuscript, the pages having been scraped and the text written over. The twins struggled to get the appropriate experts at Cambridge to look at their photographs, then traveled back to Sinai with scholars who could help transcribe the text. They wrangled with the various experts about getting the text published and about who deserved credit for what.

A few years after finding the Syriac Gospels, Lewis and Gibson bought some manuscript pages in Hebrew that turned out to be part of the book of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sira). This was exciting because until then Ecclesiasticus had been known only in translation, and some doubted that there had ever been an original in Hebrew.

For earlier reviews go here and follow the links back.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

World of the Sages: Guardian angels
By LEVI COOPER (Jerusalem Post)

The Talmud prescribes a statement to be made before one enters the rest room to relieve himself: "Be ennobled, O noble ones, holy ones, servants of the supreme one; render honor to the God of Israel, disengage yourselves from me until after I enter, do what I will and return to you" (B. Brachot 60b) - a request that the angels that accompany us leave while we momentarily attend to our bodily functions.

One talmudic sage - Abbaye - objected to this formula: One should not tell the angels to leave, lest they indeed leave and do not return. The danger of the angels deserting the person when he enters the rest room was reason enough for Abbaye to suggest an alternative text: "Guard me, guard me; aid me, aid me; assist me, assist me; wait for me, wait for me - while I enter and exit, for such is the way of people."

What is the charge of these angels? In this passage their function is unclear, yet elsewhere their task is apparent (B. Ta'anit 11a): Our sages tell us that whoever suffers along with the community when the community is faced with tribulations will merit to witness the consolation of the community. The Talmud notes that a person may wonder: Who will testify that I did not share in the community's anguish? According to one approach, the two angels who escort a person may serve at witnesses.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

THE ERETZ ISRAEL MUSEUM in Tel Aviv is profiled by Carl Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post. Excerpt:
HOW DID this eclectic mix of attractions come into being? According to spokeswoman Miri Tzdaka, 37, the Eretz Israel Museum began in 1953 as an on-site exhibition of the archeological excavations of Tel Qasile, a Philistine port city that flourished along the Yarkon River from the 12th to the 10th centuries BCE. Among the first archeological sites unearthed within the new State of Israel, excavation at Tel Qasile was started in 1948 by Prof. Benjamin Mazar. Subsequent excavations on three Philistine temples, built one on top of the other, were conducted in 1971-1972. The Eretz Israel Museum grew around the Tel Qasile excavations, which continue to be a focal point and major attraction of the museum.

The main pavilions are clustered not far from the entrance to the complex at Rehov Haim Levanon 2. First, however, the visitor passes a vintage 1917 fire engine, rescued from a junk heap and lovingly restored at the instigation of Ilan Cohen, current director of the museum.

The ceramics and glass pavilions are extensive, offering comprehensive displays of objects from this area's successive historical periods. The Ceramics Pavilion tells the story of Neolithic people's discovery that fired clay becomes watertight; the introduction of pottery; and the evolution of pottery designs and functions. Thepavilion also contains a reconstruction of a biblical-period home. The popular Glass Pavilion features rare and beautiful objects from 3,000 years of glass-making, from its introduction to Israel in the 15th century BCE through the Medieval era.

The Kadman Numismatic Pavilion features an extensive collection of coins from all of the country's historical periods, right up until today, as well as bank notes, certificates and other marginalia, like weights.
TREASURE HUNTERS in the Holy Land:
Tales of hidden gold reveal mysterious niche in Ottoman-era bridge

By Eli Ashkenazi (Haaretz)

The Ottoman-era railway bridge stood over Tavor Stream for more than a century, but recently it was nearly brought down by rumors about a trove of gold hidden in its foundations.


Three years ago, however, tunnels were found at the bridge's foundation. under the bridge. "We didn't have the slightest idea why someone would be digging there," the deputy director of the Society for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites, Omri Shalmon, who visited the site, related.

His organization, together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Israel Railways, began regular patrols of the area and apprehended the diggers. The perpetrators, men from the nearby village of Shibli, told police officers they were digging for Ottoman gold hidden in the bridge by its builders. They even produced tattered maps they claimed clearly indicated the location of the treasure trove.


To the preservation society's surprise, during the work a mysterious niche was uncovered in the northwest corner of the bridge, made of concrete slabs. Shalmon believes it was probably built into the bridge several years after its completion. "It's not from the Turkish period, they didn't have slabs like that," he said.

The purpose of the niche remains unclear, but it may well be the source of the tales told in Shibli about hidden gold. Some believe it was made by the British, for weapons storage or with the aim of holding explosives in the event the bridge needed to be destroyed.

Another chapter in the long and creative history of treasure maps for this part of the world, some apparently real and some not so much. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

APOCRYPHA WATCH: Some weird, but I suppose seasonally-relevant, medieval Ben Sira apocrypha (which I guess counts as meta-apocrypha?) is noted by Michael Handelzalts in his Pen Ultimate column in Haaretz. This in the context of a discussion of the origins of the term "New Testament" in a phrase first used by the prophet Jeremiah.
The birth of Jesus commemorated on Christmas Day is a result of virginal conception by Mary. In the context of Jeremiah and the New Testament, it is particularly relevant to note here that there was a virginal conception in his own family as well (more of which anon).

One of the apocryphal books of the Bible - the third collection of writings (the so-called Apocrypha) - is the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet, in the Old Testament). It is a book, as stated in its prologue, of "[the wisdom of] Jesus, as he himself witnesseth, [who] was a man of great diligence and wisdom among the Hebrews, who did not only gather the grave and short sentences of wise men, that had been before him, but himself also uttered some of his own, full of much understanding and wisdom. When as therefore the first Jesus died, leaving this book almost perfected, Sirach his son receiving it after him left it to his own son Jesus, who, having gotten it into his hands, compiled it all orderly into one volume."

Ecclesiasticus is not part of the Jewish canon, of course, but a book attributed to Ben Sira is mentioned by the Hebrew sages. It includes two collections, one in Aramaic and the other in Hebrew, of proverbs and pearls of wisdom, arranged in alphabetical order, written or compiled probably in the 11th century. In the preface to the second collection is the story of Ben Sira himself. Born with the ability to speak (and thus to argue with his teachers from a very early age, like Jesus did with the doctors), Ben Sira was the son of Jeremiah's daughter - and the fruit of virginal conception. Since she was virtuous and could not have sinned, the assumption was that she fell pregnant while immersing herself in a ritual bath, by the seed of a male who bathed in it beforehand.

Ben Sira claims - verbally to his mother, but elsewhere in writing - that he is the son of Jeremiah himself. Of course, we only have his word on this, but he says the prophet was forced by wicked men from the tribe of Ephraim, to whom Jeremiah had preached against spilling their seed in the bath, to perform that act himself under the threat of being sodomized. The prophet's seed thus impregnated his own daughter. (Incidentally, the book of Ben Sira is used by rabbis as a basis for halakhic rulings on the use of artificial insemination.)

To make a short story long, it is possible to see in Ben Sira's book a later, Jewish parody of the story of the virginal conception of Jesus, which is the cause for worldwide celebration today. And this is a fitting coda to our discussion of the new covenant - a term first used in the Old Testament.
The chronology of the story doesn't work: Jeremiah lived in the seventh-sixth centuries BCE and Ben Sira in the third-second. But apocrypha frequently do not trouble themselves much about such matters.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating. Past historical notes on Christmas are here and here. For the New Testament birth narratives in Matthew 1 and Luke 1-2 and the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) follow the links. And don't forget the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James.

And then there's "Santa and His Asherah" by William H. Propp (BAR). Bill Propp wrote this when he was a postgraduate at Harvard and I remember he read it out at a departmental Christmas party in the mid-80s when he was back in town. I just found out that he had actually published it. Requires a paid subscription to read it all, but if you have one, do have a look and a laugh.

UPDATE: Zohar Laor has holiday photos of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which has been in the news lately because of the first-century house excavated next door.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

SHROUD OF TURIN UPDATE: I've updated this post with further information regarding the weave of the Shroud (in the context of the discussion of the very different weave of the Jerusalem Shroud).

There is a similar story about Shabbetai Zvi (Sabbetai Sevi), the seventeen-century mystical messiah of sin, although it is arguably at least indirectly dependent on the accounts of the empty tomb in the Gospels. And related is the very modern apotheosis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which reportedly includes resurrection appearances (follow the links back).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Israeli history lecturers go 'on the rails'

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Modiin, Israel

"I'm not nervous, but I hope I won't feel nauseous," joked Professor Isaiah Gafni, as he prepared to deliver his slightly unusual lecture.

But once the commuters were settled, he gripped an upholstered seat back with one hand, two weighty tomes in the other, and launched with gusto into his exposition of the documentary evidence of the Maccabean Jewish revolt in the 2nd Century BCE.

Few of the passengers on the 0905 train from Modiin to Tel Aviv were expecting this.

But most seemed willing to hear out the bespectacled historian, as he re-examined the story, taught in Israeli kindergartens and schools, of the Jewish rebellion which is commemorated in the festival of Hannukah.

'Crazy idea'

Lecturers "on the rails" is an initiative launched recently by Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to bring academia to the general public.

This is a fun idea and I can see it working in Israel, where interest in history is so pervasive, but perhaps not in many other places.
Vatican, Israel joust over Jerusalem site
The Mt. Zion site where Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples for the Last Supper was lost to the Roman Catholic Church more than 450 years ago. No accord was reached in the latest talks.
Mixed-heritage Jerusalem site

By Edmund Sanders (Los Angeles Times)

December 23, 2009

Reporting from Jerusalem - The government of Israel seems to be embracing the Christmas spirit. This week it is organizing carols and tree giveaways in Jerusalem, bus service to Bethlehem and even a fireworks show in Nazareth with an apparent eye on burnishing the nation's reputation for religious diversity.

But Israel won't be giving the Christmas gift near the top of the Vatican's wish list this year: possession of a Mt. Zion holy site where Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.

The Roman Catholic Church has been fighting for more than 450 years to win back control of the Crusader-era sanctuary, also known as the Holy Cenacle, which was seized from Franciscan monks around 1551 during the Ottoman Empire.

Vatican officials had hoped to made a deal with Israel this year, but the latest round of negotiations ended this month without an agreement, leading some to say that the impasse is souring diplomatic relations between the two sides.

MASADA'S ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE is back in use for a special project:
Behind a Glass Wall: Work on Masada's Torah Scroll

by Hillel Fendel

( A ritual scribe has begun spending his days behind a glass wall in the famous Masada synagogue – writing a Torah scroll to be installed there.

The young scribe, Shai Abramovitch, moved from the northern city of Tzfat, together with his wife and three young children, to the Negev city of Arad, in order to be able to carry out and complete the project. He will make the 45-minute Arad-Massada trek each morning after immersing in a mikveh (ritual bath) – a customary prelude to ritual scribes' work – and will return after seven and a half hours of painstaking writing.

His glass-enclosed“office” is in the very spot used as a synagogue by hundreds of Jews who found refuge from the Romans on Masada some 2,000 years ago. Hard at work throughout the day, the scribe can be seen through the glass by the many tourists who visit the famous site.

The office will include a webcam.
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, which has just received a $12 million grant from the Mandel Foundation in Cleveland.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Women are protesting patriarchal policies at the Western Wall.
Challenging Traditions at the Heart of Judaism

Published: December 21, 2009

JERUSALEM — A struggle for the character of the Western Wall, this city’s iconic Jewish holy site and central place of worship, is under way, and it is being fought with prayer shawls and Torah scrolls.

On Friday, sheets of rain obscured the Old City’s ancient domes. But by 7 a.m. about 150 Jewish women had gathered at the Western Wall to pray and to challenge the constraints imposed on them by traditional Jewish Orthodoxy and a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Under their coats many of the women, supporters of a group of religious activists called Women of the Wall, wore a tallit, or fringed prayer shawl, a ritual garment traditionally worn only by men. Some wore their prayer shawls openly, an illegal act in this particular setting that can incur a fine or several months in jail.

LEONARD RUTGERS has a new book out on the early history of anti-Semitism:
From Roman to Third Reich: anti-Semitism has long history

Published: 21 December 2009 14:03 | Changed: 21 December 2009 15:30

The Holocaust has its roots in Roman times, according to Dutch professor Leonard Rutgers, who published a book recently on how the Jewish identity was shaped in Christian minds.

By Dirk Vlasbom (NRC International)

In 388 AD a Christian mob led by a local bishop destroyed the synagogue of Callinicum, a Greco-Roman city in northern Syria. The attack angered emperor Theodosius I, who had declared Christianity the religion of the Roman state just eight years earlier. As the Jewish community enjoyed a protected status under Roman laws, he ordered the synagogue be rebuilt be rebuilt at bishop’s expense. This triggered Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, to write the emperor a letter defending the obliteration of the Jewish temple. What could possibly be wrong with destroying a “house of betrayal and godlessness” where Christ’s name was sullied on a daily basis, Ambrose asked.

Since the second century, Christian leaders had been publishing texts denouncing “the synagogue”, a metaphor for all the followers of Judaism in the Roman empire. While American historians have dismissed these attacks as 'ideological constructions,' Leonard Rutgers, a professor of Late Antiquity at the University of Utrecht specialised in religion, recently published a book disputing this rosy perspective. His book, Making Myths – Jews in early Christian identity formation, describes how the verbal violence directed at the Jewish population by the church leaders became physical in the fourth century.

JAMES TABOR has Some Thoughts on "Silent Night" at the Bible and Interpretation website. In it he discusses the possible birthdates (year and day) and paternity of Jesus, although he notes quite correctly that the any fine-tuned discussion of the date is based on evidence "which most historians would place wholly in the realm of the theological." I suspect the December 25th date really caught on because it helped keep Europeans from killing themselves from SAD in mid-winter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

THE NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS OF BABY JESUS? A first-century Jewish house excavated in Nazareth - next to the Church of the Annuciation:
Residential building from the time of Jesus exposed in Nazareth
21 Dec 2009
The remains were discovered in an archaeological excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority near the Church of the Annunciation.

(Communicated by the Israel Antiquities Authority)

An archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority recently conducted has revealed new information about ancient Nazareth from the time of Jesus. Remains of a dwelling that date to the Early Roman period were discovered for the first time in an excavation, which was carried out prior to the construction of the "International Marian Center of Nazareth" by the the Association Mary of Nazareth, next to the Church of the Annunciation.


According to Yardenna Alexandre, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, "The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus. The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period. From the few written sources that there are, we know that in the first century CE Nazareth was a small Jewish village, located inside a valley. Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period."

In the excavation a large broad wall that dates to the Mamluk period (the fifteenth century CE) was exposed that was constructed on top of and "utilized" the walls of an ancinet building. This earlier building consisted of two rooms and a courtyard in which there was a rock-hewn cistern into which the rainwater was conveyed. The artifacts recovered from inside the building were few and mostly included fragments of pottery vessels from the Early Roman period (the first and second centuries CE). In addition, several fragments of chalk vessels were found, which were only used by Jews in this period because such vessels were not susceptible to becoming ritually unclean.

How's that for timing? Although the IAA must have been sitting on this for a while.
Daniel M. Gurtner, Second Baruch: A Critical Edition of the Syriac Text (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 5; New York: T&T Clark, 2009)

Bill Rebiger and Peter Schäfer, Sefer ha-Razim I und II - Das Buch der Geheimnisse I und II: Band 1: Edition (TSAJ 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009)
Review copies for the SOTS Booklist.
THE WINTER SOLSTICE is today. Best wishes to all those celebrating. Although maybe not at Stonehenge. And happy Yalda Festival too of course.
THE KANDO FAMILY BUSINESS is still operating:
Bethlehem souvenir shop still open


Dear Travel Diva: Is the Kando Store souvenir shop still open in Bethlehem in the West Bank? -- Middle East Wondering

Dear Wondering: Yes. "The store still open, and we are a family that will never ever think leaving our homes and our land that we've grown in, especially this city, the most holy city in this world," wrote owner Shibly Kando via e-mail. "We are like the fish; if it comes out from its water, it will die."

The Kandos are Christians, a minority in Bethlehem. The big store features antiques, jewelry and gifts made in the West Bank. Shibly Kando's grandfather, an antiques dealer, helped discover the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

"Tourism has picked up lately," Shibly Kando wrote. "We can say that it's a little better than before, but still if we compare with how it was before 2001, it's still not 10% of that yet."
Kando, of course, was the antiquities dealer who dealt with the first Dead Sea Scrolls. The article is a bit confusing: Kando's shop was in East Jerusalem (and I know it was still there at least into the late 1980s) although he also operated out of Bethlehem, where he had a cobbler's shop. Perhaps there is another family shop in Bethlehem? For more on Kando see here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

WHO WROTE THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS? asks a nice article by Andrew Lawler in the Smithsonian. The piece covers pretty much all the responsible theories about the Scrolls and the site of Qumran and is worth reading in full. Excerpt:
Tour guides shepherding the tourists through the modest desert ruins speak of the scrolls’ origin, a narrative that has been repeated almost since they were discovered more than 60 years ago. Qumran, the guides say, was home to a community of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, who devoted their lives to writing and preserving sacred texts. They were hard at work by the time Jesus began preaching; ultimately they stored the scrolls in 11 caves before Romans destroyed their settlement in A.D. 68.

But hearing the dramatic recitation, Peleg, 40, rolls his eyes. “There is no connection to the Essenes at this site,” he tells me as a hawk circles above in the warming air. He says the scrolls had nothing to do with the settlement. Evidence for a religious community here, he says, is unconvincing. He believes, rather, that Jews fleeing the Roman rampage hurriedly stuffed the documents into the Qumran caves for safekeeping. After digging at the site for ten years, he also believes that Qumran was originally a fort designed to protect a growing Jewish population from threats to the east. Later, it was converted into a pottery factory to serve nearby towns like Jericho, he says.

Other scholars describe Qumran variously as a manor house, a perfume manufacturing center and even a tannery. Despite decades of excavations and careful analysis, there is no consensus about who lived there—and, consequently, no consensus about who actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“It’s an enigmatic and confusing site,” acknowledges Risa Levitt Kohn, who in 2007 curated an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego. She says the sheer breadth and age of the writings—during a period that intersects with the life of Jesus and the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem—make Qumran “a powder keg” among normally placid scholars. Qumran has prompted bitter feuds and even a recent criminal investigation.

Nobody doubts the scrolls’ authenticity, but the question of authorship has implications for understanding the history of both Judaism and Christianity. In 164 B.C., a group of Jewish dissidents, the Maccabees, overthrew the Seleucid Empire that then ruled Judea. The Maccabees established an independent kingdom and, in so doing, tossed out the priestly class that had controlled the temple in Jerusalem since the time of King Solomon. The turmoil led to the emergence of several rival sects, each one vying for dominance. If the Qumran texts were written by one such sect, the scrolls “help us to understand the forces that operated after the Maccabean Revolt and how various Jewish groups reacted to those forces,” says New York University professor of Jewish and Hebraic studies Lawrence Schiffman in his book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls. “While some sects were accommodating themselves to the new order in various ways, the Dead Sea group decided it had to leave Jerusalem altogether in order to continue its unique way of life.”
For more on the work of Peleg, Golb, and Stacey, see here and here and follow the links. For the Raphael Golb case, go here and follow the links.
A LATE-ANTIQUE SYNAGOGUE in an Arab village southwest of Hebron has been defaced with swastikas.
Swastikas on Walls of Ancient Synagogue in PA City near Hevron

by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu

( A group of Jews, in a rare visit to the ruins of an ancient synagogue in an Arab village southwest of Hevron, was shocked to discover swastikas scrawled on the walls by Arabs. Israel National News learned that the discovery was made last Friday morning, the same day that Muslims in Samaria accused Jews of setting fire to the second floor of a mosque in a village in Samaria.

Whoever did it (and I assume no one actually saw it being done), this is very disturbing. For another recent case of vandalism of an antiquities site, see here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

LECTIO DIFFICILIOR, Electronic Journal for Feminist Studies in Europe, has posted a new issue (2/2009). TOC:
• Sophie Kauz
Frauenräume im Alten Testament am Beispiel der Siedlung

• Reuven Kiperwasser
“Three Partners in a Person”
The Genesis and Development of Embryological Theory in Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism

• Ernst Axel Knauf
Salome Alexandra and the Final Redaction of Psalms

• Nancy C. Lee
Prophetic ‘Bat-‘Ammî’ Answers God and Jeremiah

• Pamela J. Milne
Son of a Prostitute and Daughter of a Warrior:
What Do You Think the Story in Judges 11 Means?

• Jane Tolmie
Eve in the Looking-Glass:
Interpretive labour in the Anglo-Norman Jeu d’Adam
(Via the Agade List.)
THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM - the discussion of Jesus that survives in the work of Josephus - is considered by Geza Vermes is a good article in Standpoint:
Jesus in the Eyes of Josephus
January/February 2010

Joseph son of Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus — surnamed after his patron, the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius — was the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity. Without his work, much of the contemporaneous history of Israel would be floating in a vacuum. Josephus's vignettes concerning Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus's brother, James, are the only pieces of outside evidence relating to first-century New Testament figures. The issue of their authenticity is, therefore, of major importance. However, before tackling it, let me say a few words about the author and his reliability as an historian.

Vermes concludes:
In conclusion, what seems to be Josephus's authentic portrait of Jesus depicts him as a wise teacher and miracle worker, with an enthusiastic following of Jewish disciples who, despite the crucifixion of their master by order of Pontius Pilate in collusion with the Jerusalem high priests, remained faithful to him up to Josephus's days.

Let me offer therefore the text that I believe Josephus wrote. The Christian additions, identified in the paragraph that follows the earlier reproduction of the English translation of Antiquities 18: 63-64, are excised and the deletions are indicated by [......]. The dubious authenticity of the phrase "[and many Greeks?]" (see the same paragraph above) is signalled by the question mark. Finally, the word [called] is inserted into the sentence "He was [called] the Christ" on the basis of Josephus's description of James as "the brother of Jesus called the Christ".

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man...For he was one who performed paradoxical deeds and was the teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews [and many Greeks?]. He was [called] the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him...And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
I agree with his general position (i.e., #3) and with most of his reconstruction.

A brief summary of a 2003 lecture by Steve Mason on Josephus is here. And my discussion of Josephus on the Essenes is here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

CONGRATULATIONS to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John's University, which has just received a major grant:
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awards $343,000 grant to HMML


The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John's University has been awarded a $343,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the cataloging of more than 15,000 Eastern Christian manuscripts digitized in the Middle East and Ethiopia.

This project builds on a Mellon-supported HMML project that began in the 1990s that developed standards for electronic cataloging of manuscripts. A 2008-09 Mellon grant laid the groundwork for this most recent award by refining those cataloging standards for use with non-western manuscripts and devising a model for distributed cataloging of these collections by scholars located in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

HMML is the only institution in the world exclusively dedicated to the photographic preservation of manuscripts, with a particular emphasis on manuscripts located in places where war, social unrest or economic conditions pose a threat to collections or to the communities holding them.

The HMML has been mentioned in earlier posts here, here, and here.
AN EARLY MODERN EXORCISM from the Cairo Geniza:
A Ghostly Trace of the Jewish Occult
By Nathaniel Popper (The Forward)
Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.

A newly discovered piece of stained, wrinkled paper conjures up the details of a Jewish exorcism that appears to have been performed sometime in the 18th or 19th century.

The ghostly document details the prayers that were performed on Qamar bat Rahmah to try to rid her of the spirit of her dead husband, Nissim ben Bonia. According to the handwritten but well-preserved Hebrew text, the rabbis asked the ghost to “leave this woman, Qamar bat Rahmah, [and forgo] all authority and control that it has over her; and Nissim ben Bonia shall have no more authority and control whatsoever over Qamar bat Rahmah in any form or manner at all.”

The 150-word text provides a haunting insight into the often forgotten world of the Jewish occult. While exorcisms are frequently described in Jewish texts from the Middle Ages on, this appears to be the first text that provides the prayer used in a specific exorcism.


Some of the geniza’s collection made its way to the University of Manchester, in England, where the exorcism text was found while Renate Smithuis, a researcher, was cataloguing the 11,000 items there. When she shared the text with an Israeli colleague, Gideon Bohak, who is an expert in Jewish dybbuks, or spirits, she realized the significance of her discovery.


The prayer makes a number of things clear. At the time of the exorcism, Qamar bat Rahmah is married to Joseph Moses ben Sarah and is bothered by the spirit of her late former husband, Nissim ben Bonia, and the “control that it has over her.” The prayer is respectful to ben Bonia’s spirit and asks that when it leaves his widow’s body, it “shall go and reunite with his [vital] soul, his spirit and his [rational] soul in the place which is appropriate for them.”

Exoricisms are known from as far back as pre-Christian polytheism and they survive in Judaism, Christianity, and other traditions today. Earlier posts on a modern cinematic exorcism and an alleged modern exorcism scam are (respectively) here and here. Gideon Bohak, who is mentioned in this article, is translating a number of ancient exorcistic hymns attributed (fictionally) to King David for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project. Some of the many past posts on the Cairo Geniza are here, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE: And here's a translation of a late antique exorcism text on an Aramaic incantation bowl.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A "BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY" LECTURE SERIES sponsored by the British Academy:
The 2010 Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology, given by Professor Fergus Millar FBA

Religion and Community in the Roman Near East – Constantine to Mahomet

27 January, 3 & 10 February 2010
5.30pm - 6.30pm, followed by a drinks reception
The British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AH

Free Admittance

Wednesday 27 January 2010
I. The Legacy of Alexander and the Bible. A Greek Christian World?

When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, acquired control of the Eastern provinces of the Empire and called the Council of Nicaea in 325, it was over six and a half centuries since Alexander had conquered the Near East. When the forces of Islam invaded in the 630s, Greek had been the primary public language there, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris and from the Taurus Mountains to the Red Sea, for almost a millennium.

But how deeply had Greek culture penetrated, and was the Christian Church in the Near East wholly Greek-speaking? What 'resistance' was offered by either an Aramaic or Syriac-speaking population, or by paganism. Where do the Jewish and Samaritan inhabitants of Palestine fit in? This long apparently ‘Greek’ phase in the Near East demands attention.

Wednesday 3 February 2010
II. Jews and Samaritans in a Greek Christian World

In the first few centuries CE, a network of Greek cities came to cover almost all of Palestine, and by the sixth century more than fifty of these places had bishops, who preached and wrote in Greek. In this context, what forms of religious, social or cultural self-expression were open to Jews or Samaritans?

In the fourth–sixth centuries churches were built almost everywhere – but so also were Jewish and Samaritan synagogues – and it was these, not the churches, which produced elaborate representational art on their mosaic floors. Jews also produced the vast corpus of rabbinic literature in Hebrew or Aramaic. But how separate was Jewish life in reality from its gentile environment? Should we think of separation into distinct geographical zones, of peaceful co-existence, or of communal conflict?

Wednesday 10 February 2010
III. Syrians and Saracens: Alternative Christianities?

Aramaic, in various dialects, persisted as a spoken language all through the centuries of Graeco-Roman rule. But, while Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic were long-established languages of culture in which religious texts were composed, at the moment of Constantine's conversion there was not a single community anywhere in the Roman Near East where Greek was not the dominant public language.

Christian literary composition in Syriac, which in origin was the Aramaic dialect and script used at Edessa, had however already begun before Constantine. The subsequent emergence of Syriac as a major language of Christian literary culture, and as expressed in the many beautiful contemporary manuscripts which survive, is of huge significance. But what was the role of Syriac-speaking Christianity in relation to Greek, and to the profound theological divisions of the time? Was it in Greek or in Syriac that the Bible and monotheism were transmitted to the Arabs of the desert?

About the Speaker
Fergus Millar was Camden Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford from 1984 to 2002. He is the author of The Roman Near East, 37 BC-AD 337 (1993) and A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II, 408-450 (2006). He was awarded the Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies in 2005. Currently Senior Associate of the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford, he is writing on the linguistic, cultural and religious history of the Roman Near East in the fourth to sixth centuries.

Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology
The Leopold Schweich Trust Fund, set up in 1907, was a gift from Miss Constance Schweich in memory of her father. It provided for three public lectures to be delivered annually (now triennially) on subjects related to 'the archaeology, art, history, languages and literature of Ancient Civilization with reference to Biblical Study'.

A poster for your notice board can be downloaded here:

Please visit our website for full details of our forthcoming events.
Telephone enquiries: 020 7969 5246 / Email:

Please note our ticketing and seating policy:

British Academy Lectures are freely open to the general public and everyone is welcome; there is no charge for admission, no tickets will be issued, and seats cannot be reserved. The Lecture Room is opened at 5.00pm, and the first 80 audience members arriving at the Academy will be offered a seat in the Lecture Room; the next 60 people to arrive will be offered a seat in the Overflow Room, which has a video and audio link to the Lecture Room. Lectures are followed by a reception at 6.30pm, to which members of the audience are invited.
THE JERUSALEM SHROUD STORY continues to be recycled in the news. Here's one article of many:
DNA of Jesus-Era Shrouded Man in Jerusalem Reveals Earliest Case of Leprosy

ScienceDaily (Dec. 16, 2009) — The DNA of a first-century shrouded man found in a tomb on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem has revealed the earliest proven case of leprosy.

The burial cave, which is known as the Tomb of the Shroud, is located in the lower Hinnom Valley and is part of a 1st century C.E. cemetery known as Akeldama or 'Field of Blood' (Matthew 27:3-8; Acts 1:19) -- next to the area where Judas is said to have committed suicide. The tomb of the shrouded man is located next to the tomb of Annas, the high priest (6-15 C.E.), who was the father in law of Caiaphas, the high priest who was said to have betrayed Jesus to the Romans. It is thus thought that this shrouded man was either a priest or a member of the aristocracy. According to Prof. Gibson, the view from the tomb would have looked directly toward the Jewish Temple.

Details of the research will be published December 16 in the journal PLoS ONE.

The molecular investigation was undertaken by Prof. Mark Spigelman and Prof. Charles Greenblatt and of the Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Carney Matheson and Ms. Kim Vernon of Lakehead University, Canada, Prof. Azriel Gorski of New Haven University and Dr. Helen Donoghue of University College London. The archaeological excavation was led by Prof. Shimon Gibson, Dr. Boaz Zissu and Prof. James Tabor on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The renewed attention to the shroud seems to have been generated by the (welcome) publication of this journal article on the DNA evidence, which is available online here (as noted by Joe Lauer on his list). This is the abstract:
Molecular Exploration of the First-Century Tomb of the Shroud in Akeldama, Jerusalem

Carney D. Matheson1,2,3*, Kim K. Vernon3,4, Arlene Lahti1,5, Renee Fratpietro1, Mark Spigelman3,6, Shimon Gibson7, Charles L. Greenblatt3, Helen D. Donoghue6

1 Paleo-DNA Laboratory, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada, 2 Department of Anthropology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada, 3 Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, The Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, Israel, 4 Department of Anthropology, Department of Zoology, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Australia, 5 Department of Biology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada, 6 Department of Infection, University College London, London, United Kingdom, 7 University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, United States of America
Abstract Top

The Tomb of the Shroud is a first-century C.E. tomb discovered in Akeldama, Jerusalem, Israel that had been illegally entered and looted. The investigation of this tomb by an interdisciplinary team of researchers began in 2000. More than twenty stone ossuaries for collecting human bones were found, along with textiles from a burial shroud, hair and skeletal remains. The research presented here focuses on genetic analysis of the bioarchaeological remains from the tomb using mitochondrial DNA to examine familial relationships of the individuals within the tomb and molecular screening for the presence of disease. There are three mitochondrial haplotypes shared between a number of the remains analyzed suggesting a possible family tomb. There were two pathogens genetically detected within the collection of osteological samples, these were Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium leprae. The Tomb of the Shroud is one of very few examples of a preserved shrouded human burial and the only example of a plaster sealed loculus with remains genetically confirmed to have belonged to a shrouded male individual that suffered from tuberculosis and leprosy dating to the first-century C.E. This is the earliest case of leprosy with a confirmed date in which M. leprae DNA was detected.
Background on the (non-)relationship to the Shroud of Turin is here. Background on the leprosy connection (from 2003) is here.

Also, Todd Bolen has a post at the Bible Places blog which summarizes current coverage. He is skeptical of the debunking of the Shroud of Turin based on the Jerusalem Shroud:
Here’s an important statement in the JPost article:
Based on the assumption that this is representative of a typical burial shroud widely used at the time of Jesus, the researchers conclude that the Turin Shroud did not originate from Jesus-era Jerusalem.
That gives you the basis for the researchers’ conclusion that the Turin Shroud is fake. As long as there was only one shroud maker in town in the first century, we can be absolutely sure that the Turin crowd [read "shroud?" JRD] is from the medieval period. (I have no interest in or knowledge about the Shroud, but I do care about assumptions necessary for conclusions. The conclusions are in the headlines; the assumptions are always buried if not omitted.)
That's not quite what it says in the Daily Mail article quoted in my post yesterday. The claim there is that "[i]t was made with a simple two-way weave - not the twill weave used on the Turin Shroud, which textile experts say was introduced more than 1,000 years after Christ lived." That is a more general claim that ought to be verifiable or falsifiable based on the reasonably ample surviving textile evidence from antiquity. If it is true that this type of weave is only attested much later, that would severely weaken any case for the genuineness of the Shroud of Turin. Are there specialists in first-century textiles out there who would like to speak up?

UPDATE (24 December): Reader Evy Nelson points me to a textile expert who headed up a 2002 restoration of the Shroud and who was featured in a PBS segment of Secrets of the Dead:
And yet, when [Mechthild]Flury-Lemberg finally did agree to head the restoration and conservation of the linen in the summer of 2002, the Shroud had a far different story to tell her. She first noticed that the entire cloth was crafted with a weave known as a three-to-one herringbone pattern. "This kind of weave was special in antiquity because it denoted an extraordinary quality," she says. (Less fine linens of the first century would have had a one-to-one herringbone pattern). That same pattern is present on a 12th century illustration that depicts Christ's funeral cloth, which, she says, is "extremely significant, because it shows that the painter was familiar with Christ's Shroud and that he recognized the indubitably exceptional nature of the weave of the cloth." Flury-Lemberg also discovered a peculiar stitching pattern in the seam of one long side of the Shroud, where a three-inch wide strip of the same original fabric was sewn onto a larger segment. The stitching pattern, which she says was the work of a professional, is surprisingly similar to the hem of a cloth found in the tombs of the Jewish fortress of Masada. The Masada cloth dates to between 40 B.C. and 73 A.D. The evidence, says Flury-Lemberg, is clear: "The linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin does not display any weaving or sewing techniques which would speak against its origin as a high quality product of the textile workers of the first century."
(Cf. here for a still stronger statement.)

But Evy also notes that Joe Zias did not think highly of this PBS show. According to USA Today:
Joe Zias of Hebrew University of Jerusalem calls the shroud indisputably a fake. "Not only is it a forgery, but it's a bad forgery."

Zias says the shroud depicts a man whose front measures 2 inches taller than his back and whose elongated hands and arms would indicate he was afflicted with gigantism if it were real.
So that leaves us about where we started, with conflicting confident evaluations attributed to specialists and with none of those evaluations put in a peer-review publication. If any other ancient-textile experts want to weigh in, drop me a note.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

THE SHROUD OF TURIN'S GENUNINENESS is being called into question on the basis of the certainly genuine first-century Jerusalem Shroud. The Daily Mail interviews archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who excavated the latter shroud.
Burial cloth found in Jerusalem cave casts doubt on authenticity of Turin Shroud

By Matthew Kalman
Last updated at 1:08 AM on 16th December 2009

Archaeologists have discovered the first known burial shroud in Jerusalem from the time of Christ's crucifixion - and say it casts serious doubt on the claimed authenticity of the Turin Shroud.

Ancient shrouds from the period have been found before in the Holy Land, but never in Jerusalem.

Researchers say the weave and design of the shroud discovered in a burial cave near Jerusalem's Old City are completely different to the Turin Shroud.

Radiocarbon tests and artefacts found in the cave prove almost beyond doubt that it was from the same time of Christ's death.

It was made with a simple two-way weave - not the twill weave used on the Turin Shroud, which textile experts say was introduced more than 1,000 years after Christ lived.

And instead of being a single sheet like the famous item in Turin, the Jerusalem shroud is made up of several sections, with a separate piece for the head.

Professor Shimon Gibson, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb, said ancient writings and contemporary shrouds from other areas had suggested this design, and the Jerusalem shroud finally provided the physical evidence.

The debate over the Turin Shroud will not go away. Last month a Vatican researcher said she had found the words 'Jesus Nazarene' on the shroud, proving it was the linen cloth which was wrapped around Christ's body.

Gibson's work makes me even more skeptical of these claims about writing on the Shroud of Turin, on which I have commented here (with links to earlier posts on the Jerusalem Shroud) and here. But as I've been saying, I will be happy to look at the evidence when it is published with good photographs. Or, better yet, let the West Semitic Research Project team loose on it. They'll sort it in no time.
ROBERT CARGILL has an essay "On False Accusations of Anti-Semitism within the Academy" at the Bible and Interpretation website in which he defends himself against accusations of anti-Semitism by Raphael Golb (this in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls sock-puppetry identity-theft case now under litigation in New York).

Background to the case is here and keep following the links back.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SETH SANDERS has just published a book: The Invention of Hebrew (University of Illinios Press).
The Invention of Hebrew is the first book to approach the Bible in light of recent epigraphic discoveries on the extreme antiquity of the alphabet and its use as a deliberate and meaningful choice. Hebrew was more than just a way of transmitting information; it was a vehicle of political symbolism and self-representation.
Note that Seth also blogs at Serving the Word.
THE SALAMANDER IN THE TALMUD: Eli Dahan has the story at the Learning Biblical Hebrew blog.
JIM WEST has an essay on Blogging the Bible at the Bible and Interpretation website. Excerpt:
Blogging the Bible is the best way for scholars to get scholarship to the mass of consumers. Scholars can and should write journal articles in peer reviewed journals. They should publish excruciatingly detailed tomes that only a few other experts in the same field will ever read. They should meet at conferences and hear papers and interact and learn and grow professionally and intellectually. Likewise, they should write “popularizing” books targeted for the wider public. And finally they should, and I would suggest must, also attend to their duties as the disseminators of publicly consumable biblical scholarship for people who will not, or cannot, read extensive treatments. This is not to suggest that they dumb down their ideas, scholars should clarify, not reduce. But, scholars should also understand that anything that can't be explained in some clear fashion, so that the majority of people can understand it, may become an exercise in self-importance, not true scholarship.

Scholarship, it seems to me, must always be aware of its audience. And communication of said scholarship means dissemination. Scholars have a tendency--when they gather--to bemoan their students’ ignorance in the most basic matters. And yet within their hands, at their very fingertips, is a formidable, under-used tool for the correction of that state of affairs: Blogging the Bible.
Fair points, all. It's good that there is now an SBL unit on this subject.

Monday, December 14, 2009

JOB ADVERT at Portland State University: Schusterman Teaching Fellow and Assistant Professor of Classical Judaism.
THE HANUKKAH NARRATIVE, and its use in various subsequent historical contexts, comes under further scrutiny:
Heroes or rabble-rousers? The real story of the Maccabees

By Gil Shefler · December 10, 2009

NEW YORK (JTA) -- In 165 BCE, a group of warriors led by Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers ushered in a new era in Jewish history when they routed the soldiers of the Greek-Syrian empire and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

That victory, and the miracle of the menorah that followed, is celebrated every year by Jews around the world at Chanukah.

But if the same thing had happened today, would contemporary Jews hail the Maccabees as heroes?

The place in Jewish history of the Maccabees -- a nickname for the first members of the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled an autonomous Jewish kingdom -- is much more complex than their popular image might suggest.


"My guess is that most liberal Jews today wouldn't necessarily get along with the Maccabees if they showed up again," said Rabbi Jill Jacob, the rabbi in residence at Jewish Funds for Justice.

“Even those of us who are regularly active in Jewish life may find it hard to identify with Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish revolt, whom the first Book of Maccabees depicts as killing a Jew who sacrifices to a pagan god," she wrote in an essay about the meaning of Chanukah.

Jacobs argues that Jews should be aware of the complicated history, though they do not have to be bound by it.

"In redefining Chanukah, each generation considers anew the questions of assimilation and ethnic identity, the tension between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people as a nation," she wrote.

Many Jews in ancient times also had their reservations regarding the exploits of Judah Maccabee and his brothers.

In general I would say that it is perilous to hold up any event, text, or narrative from antiquity as an unambiguous moral example for today. The ancients often took moral standards for granted which we find very troubling. But that should not stop us from learning from what they said and did, appreciating the courageous stands they often took under horrendous conditions it is hard for us even to imagine, and (one would hope) improving on their example.
THE HELIODORUS INSCRIPTION - now confirmed as genuine by the excavated fragments published this year - leads Senior Albright Fellow Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg to take the narrative of 2 Maccabees more seriously:
Hanukka, another version


Last year we knew that the story of Heliodorus in the Second Book of Maccabees was built around a kernel of truth. The story goes that the Emperor Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE) sends his chief minister to the Temple in Jerusalem to rob its treasury. To the consternation of the priests and the people, Heliodorus marches into the Temple, but there he is confronted by a golden rider on a warlike horse and beaten to the ground by two golden boys (3:25). He is dragged out empty-handed and hardly conscious.

It's a good story and has been illustrated by such great artists as Raphael in the 16th century and Gustav Doré in the 19th, but was it true? That sounds most unlikely, but the Heliodorus stele (inscribed tablet) that was lent to the Israel Museum by the Steinhardt family and exhibited there last year tells a related story. It is written in pure Greek bureaucrat-speak and tells howthe Emperor Seleucus instructs Heliodorus in 178 BCE to check the temples of the empire to see that they are suited to the needs of the population and their gods, and in particular to inspect the temples of Coele-Syria, the land later to be called Palestine and Israel.

Heliodorus sends the letter on to "his brother" Dorymenes, and he in turn writes to one Diophanes telling him, "You will do well to take care that everything is carried out according to the instructions." In other words,the emperor 's orders are passed down the line, and probably it was Diophanes who tried to check the Temple and was prevented from raiding it, but the author ofSecond Maccabees just remembered the most important name, that of Heliodorus.


THE STELE and its fragments now give us the confidence to follow the Hanukka story in the Second Book of Maccabees, which is rather different from the one in the First.


Antiochus has no idea how to handle Jews; he has to consult his expert, the High Priest Menelaus. First of all, he is led into the Temple by Menelaus to demonstrate to the Jews that he is the overall master of their fate, and Menelaus allows him to rob the Temple further to pay his tribute to the Romans (5:21). Then Menelaus advises him to abrogate the ancestral laws of the Jews, like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, to build an idol in the Temple and force the Jews to sacrifice to it and eat the entrails. All these indignities would keep them down.

For some Jews this was too much. The Maccabees fled into the countryside where Judah started their counterrebellion. After three years they managed to regain the Temple and cleanse it of pagan worship. They celebrated the festival of Hanukka for eight days, to make it like the Succot they had not been able to celebrate two months earlier, when they were "living like wild animals in the mountains and caves" (10:6).

They lit the menora for eight days like on Succot, not because they had found a small jar of pure oil with the seal of the high priest that lasted for eight days by miracle. If they had found such a jar, and it had on it the seal of the last High Priest Menelaus, would they have used it? This high priest who had usurped the position, who had robbed the Temple to pay his bribes, who had arranged the murder of the old priest Onias, who had led the emperor into the Temple, helped him to rob it and advised him how to forbid the Jewish laws and customs and to replace them with pagan ritual, would they have accepted the kashrut of such a man? Would you have bought a jar of oil from such a priest?
Incidentally, as I noted a few years ago (bottom of post), the sixth-century chronographer Malalas has a passage on the Maccabean revolt that appears to come from Seleucid sources and which gives yet another perspective on events. We hope to include this as "8 Maccabees" in the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project.