Saturday, September 19, 2009

2. Greco-Roman-Egyptian Magical Amulets

Venture to the third floor of Sterling Memorial Library and you may stumble across a succession of small rooms that contain Yale’s Babylonian Collection, the biggest collection of Mesopotamian objects in the United States.

But in a dusty drawer at the back of an office crammed with cuneiform tablets and maps of Mesopotamia, one can find 74 Greco-Roman-Egyptian Magical amulets left to Yale in 2005 by Dr. James H. Schwartz, a neurobiologist at Columbia University who also had an interest in numinology. The amulets are small stones or pieces of metal inscribed with text written in Greek letters, although the letters rarely say anything in classical Greek.

For some indication of what the amulets mean and what their significance might be, I visit John C. Darnell, the chair of Yale’s Egyptology Department, in his office on the third floor of the Hall of Graduate Studies.

“Primarily these are words of magical power; these can be names of gods and they can also be things that to us seem like nonsense,” explains Darnell. “These sorts of gems and magical incantations on papyri are the origins of words like ‘Abracadabra.’”

The engravings on the amulets are of Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian gods and demigods. Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, is featured prominently on some stones while others depict Yahweh, the Hebrew god.

“What’s really interesting about them is that people in the Greco-Roman world are taking these names from all over the Eastern Mediterranean and using them on these magical gems,” says Darnell. “We know sort of how they were used because there are magical papyri in Greek and in Demotic and some of these texts make specific reference to what you did with these amulets.”

Darnell proceeds to read from a translation of a magical papyrus that he has on hand:

“Take a lodestone and on it have carved a three face Hecate and after the carving is done, clean with natron and water and dip it in the blood of one who has died a violent death, then make a food offering to it and say the spell at the time of the ritual.”

Also featured on the stones is Abrasax, the Eastern Mediterranean god of Magic who Darnell believes traces his origins from the Ancient Egyptians. He shows an image of the tomb of Rameses II and explains that the double snake motif of Abrasax and that depicted on the tomb are one and the same.

“These things have a very, very old Egyptian pedigree,” he says. “They basically create a kind of magical God for the worshippers who doesn’t really exist in specific religions. It is the attempt to make a pantheistic god who is made up of all the great gods you can imagine.”

But do these stones do anything?

Darnell smiles and explains that Egyptian medicine was based not only on magic, but also on medical praxis. So the stones and the medicine went together – the stones provided psychological assurance and the medicine physical treatment.

But one should still be careful when touching the stones — a student in Darnell’s 2007 seminar “Egypt and Northeast Africa: A multidisciplinary approach” said the students were told to “be careful what they thought of” while handling the gems.

8. Dura Europos remains

In 1920, during the Arab Revolt, a British soldier digging a trench in what is now Syria chanced upon set of wall paintings that were marvelously preserved. This was the first time since the fall of the fort of Dura Europos to the Sassanid Empire in 256 or 257 A.D. that anyone had seen the remains of what was once a mighty Roman stronghold.

Due to unrest in the region, it was not until 1928 that extensive archaeological excavations could begin. Teams sponsored by Yale and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres began to plunder the site and ship their findings back to Damascus, the United States and France. The excavations ended in 1937, by which time 12,000 pieces of clothing, weapons, wall paintings and other remains had found their way back to the Yale University Art Gallery.

Dura was an incredibly multicultural city and the findings certainly reflect that:

“It was a crossroads in the region — traders would go through, caravans would go through,” explains Lisa Brody ’91, the YUAG’s associate curator of ancient art. “What’s wonderful about the site for scholars is that it’s very well preserved, and that the archaeological remains reflect all of these different cultures interacting — especially, for example, the religions.”

The city of Dura had a Mithraic temple, an early Christian chapel and a synagogue, which were all sent back to Yale as complete as possible. Reconstructions of the whole Mithraic temple and Christian chapel’s baptistry were built in the 1980s and housed at the YUAG, but now the entirety of the collection is kept at an off-site storage facility in Hamden.

“We are in the process of evaluating the condition of the objects from the Dura excavation and beginning conservation treatment,” says Brody, who laments that students are not able to see the collection.

She said she hopes to organize a travelling exhibition of the objects starting in February 2011, before the space for the collection to be permanently housed and exhibited (including the reconstruction of the Mithraic temple, but not the baptistery, which will be digitally reconstructed) is completed in 2012.

Until then, interested parties can view the objects on if they can’t charm their way into the off-site facility.
The other seven items are pretty interesting as well. Jack Sasson also flags 1. The Voynich Manuscript, 6. The Comparative Literature Library, and 9. Holy Land U.S.A. on the Agade list
ANOTHER REVIEW of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, this one by Deanna Henderson in The Strand, the student newspaper of the University of Toronto. Excerpt:
Just as the text of the scrolls remains relevant, so does the controversy around them. From geo-historical tensions to questions among scholars to the recent dispute of ownership between Palestine and Israel, debate seems to be synonymous with the scrolls. All of these debates are and will become part of the Dead Sea Scrolls' history. An aspect of history which may perhaps be incorporated in exhibits in the future, adding another layer to our understanding of the scrolls.
BEN HUR LIVE AT O2 opened last night in London. The BBC rounds up reviews. Most reviewers seemed to find it boring. The Aramaic and Latin may not have helped, alas.

Background here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

HAPPY NEW YEAR 5770! Rosh Hashanah begins this evening at sundown.

UPDATE (19 September): Ahoy Vey, Matey! In an important cosmic synchronicity, Rosh HaShanah coincides this year with Talk Like a Pirate Day.
ALEXANDER THE SEXY? I guess he would like that better than Alexander the itsy bitsy.
A DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION is coming to St. Paul, Minnesota, in March. The exhibition website is here.

UPDATE: There's a more detailed Reuters article here. I can't find specifics of which scrolls will be on display apart from "three sets of five."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Genetic Research Indicates Jewish Priesthood Has Multiple Lineages

[University of Arizona] geneticist Michael Hammer and his colleages used a larger number of DNA markers to trace the ancient bloodline to more than one source.

By University Communications
September 16, 2009

Recent research on the Cohen Y chromosome indicates the Jewish priesthood, the Cohanim, was established by several unrelated male lines rather than a single male lineage dating to ancient Hebrew times.

The new research builds on a decade-old study of the Jewish priesthood that traced its patrilineal dynasty and seemed to substantiate the biblical story that Aaron, the first high priest (and brother of Moses), was one of a number of common male ancestors in the Cohanim lineage who lived some 3,200 years ago in the Near East.

Seems to me that there's an awfully big leap between the first paragraph and the second.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

MORE ON THE APHRODITE FIGURINES discovered recently at Hippos (Sussita): At the time of the original annoucement I queried the dating of the figurines to 1500 years ago and asked if there was an Aphrodite cult that recently. This latest release indicates that the date is correct and there were still worshipers of Aphrodite at the time:
Figurines Of Aphrodite From Roman Empire Era Discovered In Hippos

ScienceDaily (Sep. 15, 2009) — An ancient treasure comprising three figurines of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which was buried for over 1,500 years, was uncovered during the tenth season of excavations that are carried out by researchers of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, headed by Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg.

"It is possible that during the fourth century [CE], when Christianity was gradually becoming the governing religion in the Roman Empire, there were still a number of inhabitants in Sussita who remained loyal to the goddess of love and therefore wished to hide and preserve these items," suggests Prof. Segal.

The hidden figurines were discovered when the researchers exposed a shop in the southeastern corner of the forum district of Sussita, which is the central area of the Roman city that was built in the second century BCE, existed through the Roman and Byzantine periods and destroyed in the great earthquake of 749 CE. According to the researchers, it was clear that the followers had wished to hide the figurines, as they were found complete. The clay pieces are 23 cm tall and represent the common model of the goddess of love known to the experts as Venus pudica, "the modest Venus." This name was given to the form due to its upright stature and the figure's covering her private parts with the palm of her hand – perhaps another reason for concealing them from the new religion that presided over the empire.

Also, this Bible and Interpretation article covers the same ground but has additional photos.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

THE MINGANA COLLECTION at Birmingham University has a shiny new home in the refurbished Muirhead Tower, as reported by the Birmingham Post:
The university’s Special Collections will be based in the purpose-built Cadbury Research Library, bringing all the university’s collections under one roof including the famous Mingana collection of middle-eastern manuscripts.

The space has been designed to be fire and moisture protected and temperature controlled to protect the priceless collection, which consists mainly of Arabic and Syriac Middle Eastern manuscripts, a very small number of Hebrew/Jewish works, coins, seals and a few clay tablets.

The Collection was founded in Birmingham between 1925 and 1929 by Edward Cadbury who named it after its collector, Alphonse Mingana.
More on the Mingana Collection here.
THE ONLINE JOURNAL OF HEBREW SCRIPTURES has published a new article:
Oded Lipschits

Persian Period Finds from Jerusalem:
Facts and Interpretations


The Babylonian, Persian and early Hellenistic periods are unique in the history of Judah. They represent a kind of "interlude" between two periods of greatness and political independence. This article discusses the archaeological finds from Jerusalem in the Persian and Early Hellenistic periods. It includes an assessment of the scope of the built-up area of the city, and an estimate of the city's population, on the basis of the archaeological data. This article's emphasis on the importance of the Ophel hill as the main built-up area in the Persian and Early Hellenistic period is unique in present archaeological and historical research of ancient Jerusalem.

A JOB IN JEWISH HISTORY at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A SECOND-TEMPLE STREET continues to be uncovered in Jerusalem. Here's the (temporary url) IAA press release:
Second Temple Period Stepped Street Discovered in City of David Excavation

2000 Years Ago, Pilgrims Began Their Trek to the Temple Mount From Here

A section of a stepped street paved in stone slabs, going south in the direction of the Shiloach Pool was discovered in excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Shiloach Pool Excavation at the City of David in the Jerusalem Walls National Park. The excavations are conducted in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, funded by the Elad Foundation, under the auspices of Prof. Ronny Reich of Haifa University and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The existence of this road has been known about for over one hundred years, since it was first discovered between 1894 and 1897 by Prof. Frederick J. Bliss and Archibald C. Dickey of the British Palestine Exploration Fund, and then covered and filled in at the end of their excavation. Other sections of this same road, to the north, have been excavated and covered over in the past, including during the excavations of Jones in 1937 and Kathleen Kenyon from 1961-1967.

This section of the stepped street was discovered at a distance of 550 meters south of the Temple Mount. The road represents the central thoroughfare of Jerusalem that ascended from the north-west corner of the Second Temple Shiloach Pool to the north.

According to Prof. Ronny Reich, "In the Second Temple Period, pilgrims would begin the ascent to the Temple from here. This is the southernmost tip of the road, of which a section has already been discovered along the western face of the Temple Mount."

The current excavation has been concentrated in a very narrow strip (1-2 meters in width) in the western sections of the road. Essentially, the excavation work removed the earth that had been filled in by previous excavators over the sections they already discovered. This section of road is built in the Second Temple style, which comprises alternating wide and narrow steps.

Further work must be done to clarify what the relationship was between the current excavated section and the section of the road and the drainage channel that were discovered nearby two years ago.
Follow the link for downloadable photos. This link via Joseph I. Lauer. Also covered by Haaretz etc. (based on this press release). (Arutz Sheva also had an article but for some reason the link has gone dead.)

UPDATE: Joe points me to this Arutz Sheva link, which works.
THE DEAD SEA SCROLL FRAGMENTS acquired by Azusa Pacific University get coverage in the Los Angeles Times:
Southern California universities acquire rare religious texts

Five fragments of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls are in the collection of Azusa Pacific. Loyola Marymount is displaying a leaf from one of the original Gutenberg Bibles from the 1450s.
I will excerpt some of the news on the Scroll fragments:
Azusa Pacific University has acquired five fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest known versions of the Hebrew Bible.

The 2,000-year-old shards, featuring passages from the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, will be exhibited in May at the evangelical Christian university in the San Gabriel Valley.


The five fragments in the Azusa Pacific collection, each about the size of an adult's palm, are stored in a campus safe until they can be readied for the May exhibition that will use artifacts to tell the history of the Bible.

The university bought four of the fragments from a private rare-manuscript dealer in Venice. The fifth came from a Christian ministry in Phoenix that collects biblical artifacts.

University officials would not say how much they paid for the pieces, which include a fragment from the Book of Daniel.

But Robert Duke, an assistant professor of biblical studies, sounded almost giddy as he described the university's new acquisitions. "They are 2,000 years old, and you can still see letters . . . with the naked eye," he said.

The university released a photograph of one fragment that already has been studied by an outside researcher. The brownish-colored section with frayed edges shows part of the 27th chapter of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses delivers a discourse from God, telling the Jewish people to build an altar of stone once they cross the River Jordan into the land of Israel.

The fragment lists the location for the altar as Mount Gerizim. Modern Bibles mentioned another site, Mount Ebal.

James H. Charlesworth, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, said the difference suggests that the fragment may be an original copy of Deuteronomy that was altered at some point by warring factions of Jews.

"We finally found the original text of Deuteronomy," said Charlesworth, who directs the seminary's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "This is sensationally important."

Azusa Pacific said it is only the third U.S. institution of higher education to acquire fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And some scholars say the purchase has elevated the name of the 8,500-student campus virtually overnight. "They are now on the map," Charlesworth said.
Hmmm ... In February there were fragments of Daniel and Exodus (and another unidentified fragment) on the market (noted here and here). I suspect that these are the fragments of those books bought by Azuza Pacific, but I don't know for sure. Also, Charlesworth published a fragment of Deuteronomony 27 in July of 2008 which must be the fragment mentioned here.

Background here.

UPDATE (15 September): Regarding the whole business about an "original copy" (what is an original copy?), I think Charlesworth must have said something to the effect that this copy has an important reading ("Mount Gerizim") which is different from the Masoretic Text and which could be original. See the link on Deuteronomy 27 above for discussion.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

ROBERT R. CARGILL weighs in on the acquisition of five Dead Sea Scroll fragments by Azusa Pacific University. He has a longish blog post, but this is his conclusion:
the acquisition of five dead sea scrolls fragments by azusa pacific university is a momentous occasion. this acquisition removes five fragments of the scrolls from the open market and places azusa pacific firmly on the map as an institution of higher learning committed to the academic study of the bible and the archaeology of the ancient near east. as long as the fragments are cared for, published, and made available to scholars for research and to the public for viewing, i support the acquisition, and would ask my colleagues to do the same.
I agree.

(Via Explorator 12.21.)