Saturday, January 17, 2009

PROFESSOR DAN SCHOWALTER is speaking on Herodian archaeology at Arizona State:
Scholar explores fusing archeological remains, historic texts
January 29, 2009
7 p.m.

Scholar Dan Schowalter will investigative the three temples built by Herod the Great that Jewish historian Josephus writes about in his texts at a lecture at 7 p.m., Jan. 29 in Life Sciences A Building, room 1919, Arizona State University Tempe campus. Schowalter will examine the difficulty of integrating material remains at these archeological sites with textual evidence from Josephus’ texts and the New Testament.

The lecture is sponsored in partnership by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Religious Studies, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, School of International Letters and Cultures, and the Central Arizona Society of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Schowalter will discuss the political significance of holy places in both the ancient and modern world. The remains of the temples at the cities of Caesarea Maritima and Samaria Sebaste in Israel have been discovered for years. But the discovery of a three-phase temple site at Omrit, in northern Israel, has created a debate about the location of the third temple.

These would be pagan temples built to please the Roman authorities etc., not to be confused with his "third" (i.e., heavily reconstructed second) Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

THE LAYOFFS at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have been mentioned in various archaeology-related sources online, but I haven't yet noted them here. Jack Sasson on the Agade list has linked to a petition cum blog about them. You can read background on the controversy at that site in the right-hand sidebar. The situation sounds pretty grim and I hope a way can be found to preserve these positions.
THE EXPEDITION ARTIST of the Good Ship Phoenicia, Daniella Eubanks, is interviewed in the LA Weekly. Excerpt:
When the Phoenicia crosses the Suez Canal, Eubank and the rest of the crew will row the boat through — you can’t use a sail. Killer, but not so bad, considering that the ancient Phoenicians carried their vessels overland across the Suez, which hadn’t yet been carved through. From there, the ship will hug the east coast, round the Cape, then continue up the west coast through the Strait of Gibraltar. It will cross the Mediterranean to return home to Syria.

The crew is divided into two teams, which sleep in shifts. Pirates, being not so civilized, tend to strike at night. Eubank’s duties will include cooking and keeping watch for big tankers or strange floating objects with which the ship could collide. “We are such a tiny boat on the sea,” she says. “You know when you do something long enough that it feels like you haven’t done anything else? It was like, ‘I’m on this boat. This is my life. This is what I do.’”

Meals are her favorite times, when everybody gets together to talk and tell stories — the three guys from the tiny Mediterranean island who spoke no English, who had one TV set on the entire island. The several 20-something college students. The Swede, the Iranian photographer, the carpenter, the smattering of Brits and Aussies. What do you eat on a re-created ancient ship? On the Borobudur it was rice, fish and Navy beef, donated by the Indonesian government. Eubank made a Bolognese pasta, which the Indonesians refused to eat. “Yes, the rice did get weevils. We picked them out.” At port, they ordered pizza.

Mostly, Eubank drew and painted onboard. She painted the reflection of the purple striped sail in water, which seemed to resolve into eyes and faces and mouths agape. She painted the harbor lights glimmering on the black water at night, then the golden-yellow morning sun warming the ship’s large, arching bow, which curves up into an edged point like a scimitar. She painted the vessel’s belly. “The ship has a voluptuous curve right in the middle,” she says of the painting. “Difficult to capture.”
She also commented on the ship's anti-pirate strategy:
The pirate plan, as Danielle Eubank, expedition artist aboard the good ship Phoenicia, sees it, is to run like hell in case of attack and try to escape with her life. The pirates are real, mainly Somalian, but there are no guns aboard the Phoenicia — largely to reduce misunderstandings with potential attackers and to ensure that innocent people aren’t accidentally shot ...
Accurate as far as it goes, but I hear there's more.
BUSY TODAY. May find time to do some blogging this evening.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. had nice things to say about biblical Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, according to an odd press release by one Don Boys. The article excoriates King, basically for not being a conservative Christian, using unpublished papers he wrote in Seminary.
He clearly asserted that the book of Jeremiah was not infallible. He also espoused the heretical view that the non-canonical books were as good as or better than the Old Testament books! “To my mind, many of the works of this period were infinitely more valuable than those that received canonicity. The materials to justify such statements are found mainly in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. These works, although presented pseudonymously, are of lasting significance to the Biblical student.”
I don't think it's a matter of which is more valuable in principle, which would be a very subjective judgment and would depend on the criteria applied. I would say that the stories in the Hebrew Bible are generally of a higher literary quality than their retellings in later Rewritten Scripture. There are also some very good stories in the Apocrypha/Deuteroncanonica. But literary considerations aside, all of these books are of considerable historical value, although not necessarily because the stories they tell have any useful historical data about the events they narrate. Very often they don't. But the books themselves, when one reads them carefully and asks them the right questions, provide an enormous amount of historical information about the writers who produced them and, by extension, about the circumstances and social worlds of those writers.
TECHNOLOGY WATCH: DNA profiling is being applied to medieval manuscripts:
How Old Is That Book? DNA May Hold the Answer
Hide and Seek: genetic material from animal-skin pages may trace medieval manuscript origins

By Katherine Harmon (Scientific American)

Long before musty old paper volumes and Google Book Search, most tomes in medieval Europe were written on animal skins—a practice which might now hold the key to tracing their origins.

Timothy Stinson, an associate English professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has started using DNA testing to track the history and age of medieval manuscripts. His goal: to create a DNA database from the books with known publication dates and places (such as calendars and histories) in an effort to use the genetic information gleaned from them as a baseline to date those manuscripts whose backgrounds are unknown.

"There are these tantalizing hints that this would work for parchment," he says of the DNA testing, "but no one was really using it." He says that in addition to tracing the roots of written documents, genetic clues may help piece together manuscripts that were separated over time.


DNA testing has previously been used to study Greek manuscripts as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nikos Poulakakis, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Crete in Greece who conducted some of that research, says he's eagerly awaiting the results of the U.S. study. He notes that in addition to revealing important information about old manuscripts and library collections, the genetic material may also shed light on ancient trade routes and even domestic animal herds of the time.

I've posted on DNA analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The application to medieval manuscripts is also welcome and could be useful, for example, for studying Old Testament Pseudepigrapha manuscripts, most of which are medieval.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DR. NATHAN MACDONALD, my Hebrew Bible colleague, has received some more media attention on his work on food in ancient Israel:
Biblical diet 'not very healthy'

Ancient Israel was far from "the land of milk and honey," and instead people suffered from the lack of a balanced diet, according to a theologian.

Dr Nathan MacDonald, an Old Testament lecturer at St Andrews University, used biblical texts and archaeological evidence to study the ancient diet.

He has concluded that there were frequent famines and people's meals often lacked vitamins and minerals.

However, he believes the Bible contains important messages about sharing food.

Dr MacDonald feels his study disputes the notion held by many that the bible provides not just religious instruction and moral guidance, but the recipe for healthy living.

In North America, books based on the diet of the bible such as What Would Jesus Eat? and The Maker's Diet are bestsellers.

Dr MacDonald explained: "Though many people have thought otherwise, the evidence is that the diet in biblical times was not very healthy.

Nathan, who is a Biblical scholar, was bemused to find that he had been promoted to paleo-osteologist as well:
By examining human remains from the Israelite period, Dr MacDonald found evidence of iron-deficiency anaemia, consistent with a diet high in flat bread and low in meat and vegetables.
Otherwise the article is pretty accurate.

(Via Dorothy King on Facebook. More on Dr. MacDonald's work here and here.)
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA'S REPUTED CAPITAL is profiled in the Yemen Times:
Where a woman once ruled

Salma Ismail

German archaeologists have been conducting excavation and restoration works in Yemen for 30 years now and have helped to preserve some of Yemen’s most valuable ancient sites. YT Photo by Salma Ismail.
Once the capital of the kingdom of Queen Sheba, also known by her Arabic name Balqis, Mareb is now largely in a state of disrepair. Blocks of stone with Sabean writing bear testament to the rich history of the city. Writing in spray-paint also stands witness to the negligence of authorities to adequately protect this historical site which has been buried in the desert for over a millennium.

Officials are calling for adequate security personnel to protect the sites while no excavation is being carried out. Most security personnel are Bedouins and do not understand the importance or the historical value of the sites.

Mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, but only recently excavated, new information grows daily about Sheba and this temple city of the Sabaean kingdom, home of the legendary Queen, who was very influential, wealthy and famous during her rein, some 3000 years ago. The Bar’an temple Mahram Bilqis, or Temple of the Moon God, was a sacred site for pilgrims through Arabia from 1200 BC to 550 AD.


Mareb, which was named in 1000 B.C, is located 172 km east of Sana’a, is considered to be one of Yemen’s richest archeological sites.

Landmarks of the city include the prime temple located in the southern part of the city; the temple exemplifies the Maeenian architecture, having 16 vertical and horizontal columns, formulating a grid-shape. Researchers believe that this temple was built for the worship of Athtar, the sun god. There is also another temple in the heart of the city of which four columns can still be seen.

The German Archaelogical Institute (DAI) together with the Yemeni General Organization of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) have been conducting an excavation and restoration of the ancient Sabaean town of Sirwah in the Yemeni province of Ma’rib since 2001. In March 2008 their work led to the discovery of an ancient, well-preserved Sabaean temple dating back to 7th century BC. according to Dr. Iris Gerlach, Director of the DAI in Sana’a. The discovery was made during excavation works in the ancient Sabaean town of Sirwah, at the central province of Marib.

The large town was surrounded by a fortification wall, and included many monumental buildings, of which the most prominent is the al-Maqah Temple, a sanctuary that dates back to the 7th century BC, and is currently undergoing restoration.

During the restoration work at the al-Maqah Temple, the DAI team discovered ‘another unique and well preserved Sabaean temple as part of the ancient town.’

The sacred building has a monumental entrance decorated with pillars and different rooms inside.

There are lots of sites supposedly connected with the Queen of Sheba and I am not qualified to comment on the merits of any of them, although I have the impression that people who work in the area think Yemen is the most plausible location. For more on Mareb/Marib/Mar'ib, go here. For possible connections with Sana/Sana'a (some distance from Mareb, as noted above), go here and here. For Ethiopian legend about the Queen, go here, especially the links at the end of the post. For a supposed, and apparently highly debatable, archaeological connection with Ethiopia, go here, here, and here, (Nelson link). And here is a suggested connection with Nigeria - again, highly debatable. I have noted a Queen of Sheba museum exhibition here, here, and here. Finally, here is a note about beauty products associated with her (in legend).
THE TOP 100 THEOLOGY BLOGS according to Jessica Merritt has been posted on the Christian Colleges: Online Bible Colleges & Universities website. I'm pleased to see PaleoJudaica among the history blogs. Also, unlike her earlier Top 50 Ancient History Blogs list, this one includes Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway blog - among the academic blogs.
GERSHOM SCHOLEM: A Life in Letters, 1914-1982, by Anthony David Skinner, was reviewed by Anthony Grafton in The New Republic in 2003. Robert Schwartz drew my attention to the review in reponse to my recent post on another review by Grafton which involved Scholem.
The Magician
A review by Anthony Grafton

When the Baal Shem Tov had to do something very hard, he went out into the woods, lit a fire, and said a prayer, and the task was done. In the next generation, when his disciple had to do a difficult thing, he also went out into the woods. He could no longer light the fire, but he said the prayer, and that was enough. The next disciple could no longer light the fire or say the prayer, but he could go into the woods, and the thing was done. But in the last generation, the rabbi sat down on his golden throne in his castle and said, "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place; but we can tell the story of how it was done."

S.Y. Agnon told this tale of traditions, colorful and multi-layered as a Russian doll, to Gershom Scholem. The real subject of the story is the slow metamorphosis of rituals and beliefs. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers were Hasidic wonder-workers in two senses. Exemplary figures in the great East European renewal of Judaism, they were also shrewd men who earned their livings by selling amulets that protected against illness and injury. As the generations passed, the rituals that they used for protection in a world of dangers turned into something else: not weapons stored for use in an armory, but treasures displayed under glass in a museum. Words with which magi had torn Promethean fire from the skies turned over time into glowing stories that could be re-told, but not re-enacted. Yet meaning somehow still resided in the commemoration, as well as in the performance, of these rituals of power.

The tale reads like a parable of Scholem's life. ...
There follows a very useful capsule summary of Scholem's life.

On the collection of letters:
How, then, to tell Scholem's story, and tease out its meanings, for readers who do not know the worlds he inhabited — worlds almost as alien to the modern reader as the lost ones that Scholem explored? Anthony David Skinner has adopted a traditional, even old-fashioned solution to the problem of preserving a tradition. He has produced a biography in the form of an anthology of letters, with commentary. A knowledgeable and fluent writer, Skinner divides his subject's life into segments. His introductions to these segments show how well he understands Scholem's personal situations and intellectual enterprises. Skinner writes eloquently of what philology meant for Scholem. His translations are clear and generally accurate, and many of the letters that he has selected deal with matters of the highest interest.

Skinner's selections inform us about Scholem's early life in Berlin and allow us to follow his rebellion against his bourgeois family and his turn to Zionism. They also record, in detail, his encounters with two transforming powers: Walter Benjamin, with whom he carried on one of history's most complex, creative, and torturous friendships; and the Kabbalah, to which he devoted his lifetime of research. We watch Gerhard become Gershom. We marvel at Scholem's unwavering sense of vocation — the sense of mastery that enabled him to reject his parents' authority, and that of bourgeois culture and society, years before he had produced anything solid to show that he was more than an angry young man. Anyone interested in Scholem's contacts with American intellectual life, especially Jewish intellectual life, will learn a good deal here about his correspondence with writers, scholars, publishers, and rabbis.

For the work of a learned editor and a great university press, however, this volume is oddly unsatisfactory. It suffers, first of all, from a surprising number of technical flaws. Source indications are scarce. Skinner tells the reader when he has used an existing translation, but when he offers his own versions he does not tell the reader whether the Hebrew or German original can be found in Itta Shedletzky's edition of Scholem's correspondence, in the standard editions of his correspondence with other individuals, or only in the archives. He claims that he has "added brief footnotes wherever letters allude to obscure people, events, or literary texts" in order to guide readers unfamiliar with the submerged German-Jewish world that Scholem and his correspondents inhabited, but he shows no clear sense of what such readers are likely to know.


Flaws like these appear in any large-scale edition or translation. More problematic are the criteria that guided Skinner's choice of letters to translate. He draws heavily on Scholem's extraordinary correspondence with his mother. Skinner's book includes not only many of Scholem's letters home, but dozens of Betty's descriptions of the difficulties, and then the horrors, of life in Nazi Berlin. These vivid letters — and Scholem's sometimes distant-sounding replies — are gripping, full of human and historical interest. Yet they shed only a limited amount of light on Scholem himself, and virtually none on the scholarly and technical work that formed the central concern of his life.

That's just a taste. It's a very long review and well worth reading.
THE JESUS PROJECT is the subject of an article at the Bible and Interpretation website in which he also critiques the earlier Jesus Seminar. He has been involved with both seminars.
Plus ├ža change… “The Jesus Seminar” and “The Jesus Project”

Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

By Bruce Chilton

Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College

January 2009

“The Jesus Project,” convened in 2007 by R. Joseph Hoffman for the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, aims to pursue the task of “The Jesus Seminar,” but in a more critical vein. In a clever turn of phrase, Dr. Hoffman has written that “The Jesus of the [Jesus Seminar] is a talking doll with a questionable repertoire of thirty-one sayings. Pull a string and he blesses the poor.”

Two serious criticisms lie behind this characterization. First, Hoffman charges the Seminar with leading its presuppositions into just the anti-Fundamentalist, liberal Jesus that the majority of its members wanted to find in the first place. Second, he calls attention to the assumption of the Seminar that the sources at our disposal directly provide historical evidence concerning Jesus.

I was a Fellow of “The Jesus Seminar,” and I have been involved with “The Jesus Project” since its formal inception. By understanding where the Seminar lapsed, the Project might indeed offer the prospect of progress. So where did the Seminar fall down, and how is the Project doing in comparison?

On the Jesus Seminar:
In various presentations at meetings of the Seminar and in its journal, I called attention to signs of Aramaic antecedents in the language of the Gospels and to indications of sources behind the Gospels, both written and oral. On the whole, however, my Judaic approach did not find much resonance within the majority.

Two factors played into that response. The first has to do with the sociology of graduate education in the field of New Testament and early Christianity, which has notoriously skimped on the study of Semitic languages, although Aramaic and Syriac, as well as Hebrew, were clearly major languages of Christianity alongside Coptic, Greek, and Latin until at least the time of the rise of Islam. The second factor was more specific to the Seminar: a pronounced preference for a Greek Jesus over an Aramaic Jesus. That preference was reinforced by fashion within the Seminar and a few other circles, which has since been contradicted directly by archaeological work, to describe Galilee as an urban and Hellenistic environment, where Greek was mostly spoken.
On the Jesus Project:
The challenge for “The Jesus Project” is to learn from the mistakes of “The Jesus Seminar.” I have contributed work to the Project, but I cannot so far report any great signs of progress.

To a large extent, immediate progress should in any case not be anticipated. Critical enterprises always need time to evolve operating principles, and the Project has had to devote time and energy to issues of method in the study of the historical Jesus. Unfortunately, however, the Project has attempted to address questions of critical approach without a thorough grounding in academic study since the eighteenth century. The result is that some of the assertions made by contributors to the Project are not well informed and invoke quests for “objectivity” that seem more at home in nineteenth-century Europe than in twenty-first century America. What is more worrying, actual knowledge of primary sources (and of their languages) does not seem as great among participants in the Project as among Fellows of the Seminar. Discussion of “method” apart from specific evidence was precisely one of the failings of the Seminar and directly fed its liberal, anti-Fundamentalist agenda.
He has lots more to say about both, so read it all. For background on the Jesus Project, go here.

(Heads up, Mark Elliott of the Bible and Interpretation website, whom I originally misidentified. Sorry to both Marks.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Diggin’ Education: Curriculum includes search for –artifacts

The Woodlands Villager
Updated: 01.10.09
Trey Thames believes students learn in places other than textbooks. Putting that belif into practice, the Biblical Studies and Latin teacher at The Woodlands Christian Academy has built a 50-foot by 50-foot simulated archaeological site on the school’s 40-acres at 5800 Academy Way.

The dig site, some 2,000 cubic yards of dirt and 15-plus tons of limestone and rock, is layered with about 50 artifacts.

As part of an elective archaeology course, TWCA students carefully unearth skeletons and bones, coins, pottery, iron tools and the foundations of four separate dwellings.

The field work helps illustrate the history and culture surrounding an Israeli city between 13th Century B.C. to 1st Century A.D.


Basically, Thames didn’t want to send students on a scattershot treasure hunt with his dig site.

“One of the things I really tried to do is make it as real as possible. There were moments in Israel when I was really excited about being there... then there were times it was like, ‘Wow, this is really hard work and I hate it,’” he said.

“Some days they were excited; some days it was a chore. It was a process, and I wanted them to get that whole experience.”

This seems to be a well thought-out and informative project. For other similated archaeology projects in recent years, see here, here, and here.

UPDATE (26 February): More here, including a dig website and a TV interview with Trey Thames.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

JUDY GRUEN is frustrated because, rather than chatting with her, her teenage sons are texting friends while doing their geometry homework and discussing Talmudic Aramaic at the dinner table.
This is, admittedly, a problem more common among boys than girls, and it was no hyperbole for the Talmud to state that there were ten measures of speech given, nine of which were given to women! (If you need any proof, watch your daughter's rapid-fire talk on her cell phone.) I have had this problem also. I have watched several sons attached by the ear to an iPod, texting endless messages to friends and doing geometry homework, all at the same time. Apparently, the dictum "Say little and do much" is one they have taken to heart.

But how do we break through that classic "strong but silent" persona? How can a mom who isn't fluent in Dodger talk have a conversation with a teen that will last longer than it takes to even utter the word "con-ver-sa-tion"? One night, as I watched one son laboring over a book of Talmud, I had an idea.

Family dinner conversations were increasingly laced with halachic references and "Talmud-speak." My public high school didn't offer Aramaic as a second language, so I felt as if I almost needed subtitles in my own kitchen. I began cribbing notes when my boys tossed off various Talmudic references, and paid close attention to the disputations at hand. After about a month of furtive note-taking and my own research, I launched Operation Confabulation – one mother's attempt to wrest recalcitrant repartee from her beloved son.
Give 'em a break, Judy, and count your blessings. All parents should have your problems. But you do get points for trying to meet them on their own ground.
ANCIENT SHIPWRECKS from Israel provide new insights into the history of shipbuilding:
Shipwrecks harbor evidence of ancient sophistication
Frame-based shipbuilding emerged surprisingly early and became more advanced within a few hundred years.

By Bruce Bower (Science News)
Web edition : Saturday, January 10th, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Surprising insights about ancient shipbuilding have floated to the surface from the submerged remnants of two major harbors, one on Israel’s coast and the other bordering Istanbul, Turkey. Researchers described their finds January 9 at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Analyses of salvaged crafts indicate that shipbuilders started making sophisticated frames for their vessels by about 1,500 years ago, 500 years earlier than had been suspected, reported Yaakov Kahanov of the University of Haifa in Israel. By a few hundred years later, craft constructors had steadily improved hull designs for a diverse collection of ships, says Cemal Pulak of Texas A&M University in College Station.

Frames provided greater structural stability for ships than an earlier hull-building technique that had relied on joining planks with adhesives and fasteners to form a shell. Such vessels date to as early as approximately 2,000 years ago.