Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Literary Bible (NYT book review)

In the Beginning

Published: December 31, 2009

“A Literary Bible,” by ­David Rosenberg, is a large book though not, of course, a complete translation of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis is fairly full, though one looks in vain for the passage “In the beginning . . . ,” from which Genesis takes its title in both Hebrew and Greek. The Prophets, from Samuel to Jonah, get about 160 pages, and an anthology drawn from the Writings — notably the Psalms and Job — occupies the remaining half of the book. Each selection has a preface providing scholarly information and justification for the assumptions and procedures of the present translator. An epilogue, “How the Bible Came About,” makes these points in a more expansive way.


In the work of Bloom and Rosenberg, the character of J was now exultantly developed: she was a sublime writer, an “uncanny” writer, among the greatest of all writers. She was a “strong” poet — not a religious writer, any more than Shakespeare was. Indeed, she was a comic writer whose powerful and eccentric character, more Kafka than Moses, has been obscured by clerical interpreters in the 3,000 years since she wrote. Part of Rosenberg’s task was to produce a style of translation that might fairly represent the rocky magnificence of J’s language.

It was a difficult program, and one may say, with some reservations, that on his own terms Rosenberg makes it work. ...

Friday, January 01, 2010

Jordan enters the DSS fray

Jordan asks Canada to seize Dead Sea scrolls

2,000-year-old Hebrew artifacts, which Jordan claims were illegally taken by Israel in 1967, are on display in Toronto

Patrick Martin

From Friday's Globe and Mail Published on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009 9:38PM EST Last updated on Friday, Jan. 01, 2010 1:18AM EST

Jordan has asked Canada to seize the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea scrolls, on display until Sunday at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, invoking international law in a bid to keep the artifacts out of the hands of Israel until their disputed ownership is settled.

Even if Canada ignores the request, it will make other countries think twice before accepting the controversial exhibit.

Summoning the Canadian chargé d'affaires in Amman two weeks ago, Jordan cited the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Jordan and Canada are signatories, in asking Canada to take custody of the scrolls.


While confirming that Canada has received a message from Jordan, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said yesterday that “differences regarding ownership of the Dead Sea scrolls should be addressed by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It would not be appropriate for Canada to intervene as a third party.”

This is a new twist, one that may complicate matters, since now it is an actual state that existed at the time of the discovery disputing ownership of the Scrolls. Read it all.

For background to the exhibition and the ownership controversy raised initially by Palestinians, see here and follow the links back.

(Note: I have been asked by readers to start using post titles to make this blog easier to read in news feeds etc. I obey.)

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

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.