Saturday, January 16, 2010

A hoard of ancient coins from Gaza

A HOARD OF ANCIENT COINS has been found in Gaza near Egypt. The AFP reports that there are 1300 silver coins. No information on what kind of coins they are, but there is reference to fourth-century-BCE architecture in the article as well.

Other ancient coin hoards recently in the news are noted here and here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

U.C. Davis makes Talmud appointment

U.C. Davis snags dynamic, young Talmud scholar

by dan pine, staff writer (

As a Tel Aviv University undergrad, Moulie Vidas had no trouble befriending the other students in the Talmud department.

There was only one.

Apparently, not many secular Israelis chose to study the Talmud there, and eventually the department was closed, and folded into a larger one.

But Vidas’ passion for the great compendium of Jewish law never waned, and today, at just 26, he is a young lion in the realm of academic Talmud scholarship.

With his doctorate from Princeton fresh in hand, Vidas is also the latest addition to the Jewish studies faculty at U.C. Davis. His title: assistant professor in religious studies.

“Getting Moulie was quite a coup,” said Diane Wolf, director of the U.C. Davis Jewish studies program. “He had many interviews all over the country last year and several job offers. That he chose U.C. Davis speaks to the quality of our religious studies faculty and burgeoning Jewish studies program. He brings a new perspective that enriches us all.”

The Jewish studies interdisciplinary program at U.C. Davis is a offered as a minor, and includes courses on everything from the Holocaust to the Bible on film.

This quarter, Vidas teaches a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls, with one on rabbinic literature next quarter. Soon, he hopes to add classes in his specialty: how the sages redacted and edited the Babylonian Talmud, as well as the surprisingly vibrant interaction among Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians in late ancient Mesopotamia.

Congratulations to Professor Vidas - and to U.C. Davis.

Ezekiel's Tomb update

EZEKIEL'S TOMB (traditional) in Al-Kifl, Iraq is going down the Islamist memory hole. Further confirmation from the Jerusalem Post:
Recently "Ur," a local Iraqi news agency, reported that a huge mosque will be built on top of the grave by Iraq's Antiquities and Heritage Authority, while Hebrew inscriptions and ornaments are being removed from the site, all as part of renovations.

Prof. Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, winner of the 1999 Israel Prize in Middle Eastern studies and chairman of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, confirmed the report.

"I first heard the news of tomb desecration from a friend of mine who is a German scholar. After visiting the site he called me and said that some Hebrewinscriptions on the grave were covered by plaster and that a mosque is planned to be built on top of the tomb. He told me that he found the changes at the tomb disturbing and warned me that I'd better act quickly, before any irreversible damage will be inflicted," Moreh said.

"I had contacted Mr. Shelomo Alfassa, US director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and told him about this situation. Then I saw the report from the Ur news agency, mentioning the decision of the Antiquities and Heritage Authority to build a mosque and to erase the Hebrewinscriptions and ornaments," Moreh said.

He asked friends to check out the developments at the site. The most recent to visit the shrine said that some of the inscriptions are now hidden by a layer of plaster.

Iraqi press reports claim that the building must be destroyed because of its poor condition. However, Alfassa believes that Iraq's Antiquities and Heritage Authority "has been pressured by Islamists to historically cleanse all evidence of a Jewish connection to Iraq - a land where Jews had lived for over a thousand years before the advent of Islam."
Again, this "renovation" is a travesty. As the article says, someone needs to act, and fast.

Background here.

Israel rejects Jordan's UN petition to claim the DSS

ISRAEL REJECTS Jordan's UN petition to claim the Dead Sea Scrolls (Arutz Sheva):
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Jordan's claims were "ridiculous. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an intrinsic part of Jewish heritage and religion. The scrolls have no relation to Jordan or the Jordanian people," said Palmor, adding that "Jordan's occupation of the West Bank was never recognized by the international community and the kingdom relinquished all claims on the territories. On what grounds are they trying to lay claims to the scrolls, which are a cornerstone of Jewish cultural history?"
Background here.

NT Wrong on stunning new epigraphic find

SPEAKING OF STUNNING NEW EPIGRAPHIC FINDS, NT Wrong is back and reporting on one: Archaeological Find of the Century: Letter written by King David. Most amusing.

Rollston on the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon

THE KHIRBET QEIYAFA OSTRACON HYPE is taken down a notch or three by epigrapher Christopher Rollston in his blog post Reflections on the Qeiyafa Ostracon. It could be earlier than the tenth century; it's in Early Alphabetic/Proto-Phoenician script, not Old Hebrew; the only-attested-in-Hebrew words aren't; the scribe was not terribly sophisticated; Rollston isn't ready to say what he thinks it says but he doesn't think it will turn out to be startling; and he's not even sure in which direction the script runs.

Background here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sanhedrin tombs in a sad state

THE SANHEDRIN TOMBS in Jerusalem are in a sad state:
As state slumbers, volunteers step in to rescue neglected Sanhedrin Tombs
By Nir Hasson (Haaretz)

If ever you want to find the Sanhedrin Tombs in northern Jerusalem, don't use the half-lira bill from the 1950s as your guide.

That banknote depicted an impressive burial site from the Second Temple period, which the Israel Antiquities Authority calls "one of the most important antiquities sites in Jerusalem and in the country as a whole." But today it is neglected, unmarked, and covered with graffiti and soot - and the bureaucratic bickering about who's responsible indicates that isn't likely to change any time soon.

The ultra-Orthodox residents of Sanhedria, the neighborhood where the tombs are located, have expressed little interest in maintaining the ancient burial caves, though they were recently cleaned up by a group of Russian-speaking immigrants who have little connection to Judaism. However, the dirt quickly accumulated once more and the signposts they put up have been removed.

Rafi Kasimov, who coordinates the Land of Israel program for Russian speakers at the Conservative movement's Schechter Institutes, called on the ultra-Orthodox to join his students' attempt to restore the site.

Hats off to those Russian-speaking immigrants. I hope the Ultra-Orthodox local residents do take an interest, but it sounds as though the authorities need to step in if the job is to be done properly. I hope the municipality and/or the IAA take notice.

Why Read the Zohar (book review)

Why Read The Zohar?
Demystifying Kabbalah For English Readers
By Alan Brill
Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010. (The Forward)

The Pritzker translation of the Zohar into English by Daniel Matt — the fifth volume of which has just appeared — should be greeted as a major cultural event. Yet, the publication of each volume has typically produced tiresome book reviews on the ownership of the word Kabbalah, comparing the academic approach of Gershom Scholem to Madonna’s New Age approach. The reviews do not answer the basic question: Why read parts of Kabbalah like the Zohar? Nor do they explain why the Zohar speaks to our age more than the myriad other kabbalistic works.

The Zohar corpus as published in the 16th century contains many reworked texts of ancient and medieval materials; a large chunk of the Zohar portrays the epic story of Rabbi Shimon and his companions, but there are many segments that do not.

Melila Hellner-Eshed, in her book, “A River Flows From Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar,” provides an indispensible work that, finally, explains why the Zohar is an important and alluring work for our time. Susan Sontag taught readers to ask not what the art means, but rather “how it is what it is.” Hellner-Eshed follows Sontag and seeks to offer an experiential aesthetic of the Zohar.

Hellner-Eshed’s book is comparatively easy to read, despite being a scholarly work that assumes the reader has already read the terse prose of Scholem. Her work nevertheless does offer the nonacademic a chance to see the current state of Kabbalah study at Hebrew University among the students of Yehuda Liebes and Moshe Idel.


Armed with these books, one can now begin to appreciate a cultural and religious treasure of Judaism. No journalist or book reviewer should write about Kabbalah again without first reading Hellner-Eshed. Her work steers the English reader between the Scylla of Kabbalah as technical knowledge of sefirot and the Charybdis of Kabbalah as personalized New Age spirituality. Hellner-Eshed’s work treats the Zohar as a mystical fantasy in which the Knights of the Round Table are rabbis living in an eroticized Middle Earth and spurred to great deeds by their love of the damsel Shechinah. Then, the beautifully edited Pritzker translation allows the interested reader to travel on these mystical journeys, yet still return home safely.
A nice long book review (giving plenty of reasons in addition to mine). Worth reading in full. For background on the Zohar and Daniel Matt's translation, go here and follow the links.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jacob Neusner has private Papal udience

JACOB NEUSNER has a private udience with the Pope scheduled for Monday 18 January. Thought you might like to know.

Can't make it up: LOLCat Bible Translation Project

CAN'T MAKE IT UP: The LOLCat Bible Translation Project.

Did the Kingdom of Judah Invent "Separation of Church and State?"

QUESTION FOR THE DAY: "Did the Kingdom of Judah Invent 'Separation of Church and State?'" This in a Bible and Interpretation essay by Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg. Excerpt:
King Jehoash (Joash) came to the throne of Judah in the year 835 BCE. His reign should have started six years earlier, but he was then only a baby, and the throne was usurped by his grandmother, Athaliah. With the untimely murder of her son, King Ahaziah, she took the precaution, normal for the period, of wiping out all possible rivals, but she missed Jehoash, Ahaziah's infant son, who was hidden in the Temple by his aunt, Jehosheba, wife of the priest, Jehoyada.

Athaliah, the daughter of notorious Jezebel, imposed Baal worship on Judah and appointed Mattan to be High Priest. It became the state religion, imposed on an unwilling population. We say unwilling, because six years later, when Jehoyada thought the young Jehoash was old enough to be presented as the rightful heir, he was brought out of hiding and proclaimed king, to the cheers of the people and the army, who then slaughtered Athaliah and Mattan. This palace revolution led to a remarkable pair of national agreements.

“And Jehoyada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people, and between the king and the people” (2 Kings 11:17, my emphasis). The intention of these two agreements is clear: the first one is the conventional religious covenant, while the second one is secular and omits the Lord.
Well, maybe. The essay seems to me to take the account of the Deuteronomistic History more on the level of literal fact than I would be inclined to do. And I doubt that Baal worship was "imposed" on the people any more than Yahwism was. The Deuteronomists certainly did no believe in religious freedom: see, for example, Deuteronomy 17:2-7.

Oh, and antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest (non-coined and non-technical) word in the English language.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jordan ups the ante

JORDAN UPS THE ANTE and asks the United Nations for the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Jordan wants Israel to give back 'Dead Sea' scrolls

12 January 2010 (World Jewish Congress)

The Jordanian government has said that the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were seized illegally by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and has asked the United Nations for them to be restored to Jordan. "The government has legal documents that prove Jordan owns the scrolls," a government official in Amman said, adding that a complaint had been filed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Antiquities Authority of Israel rejected the claim, saying Israel was the rightful custodian of the scrolls.

Background here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Taliban descendants of Israelites?

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: DNA analysis may provide answers to some surprising questions:
Are Taliban descendants of Israelites?

By AMIR MIZROCH (Jerusalem Post)

Are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan descendants of an Israelite tribe that migrated across Asia after it was exiled over 2,700 years ago?

This intriguing question has been asked by a variety of scholars, theologians, anthropologists and pundits over the years, but has remained somewhere between the realms of amateur speculation and serious academic research.

But now, for the first time, the government has shown official interest, with the Foreign Ministry providing a scholarship to an Indian scientist to come to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and determine whether or not the tribe that provides the hard core of today's Taliban has a blood link to any of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and specifically to the tribe of Efraim.

Shahnaz Ali, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Immunohaematology, Mumbai, has joined the Technion to study the blood samples that she collected from Afridi Pathans in Malihabad, in the Lucknow district, Uttar Pradesh state, India, to check their putativeIsraelite origin.

Shahnaz, an expert in DNA profiling and population genetics, will be supervised by Prof. Karl Skorecki, director of Nephrology and Molecular Medicine at the Technion Faculty of Medicine. Skorecki is famous for his breakthrough work on Jewish genetic research.

Count me as very skeptical about this whole idea, but it will be interesting to see what she comes up with.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When was a synagogue a synagogue?

WHEN WAS A SYNAGOGUE A SYNAGOGUE? From Bible and Intepretation:
‘Synagogues’ in the New Testament Period

It is no accident that in the last ten years a number of new potential synagogue buildings have been proposed, as the wider role of the ‘synagogue’ and the lack of identifying features in this period have been recognised. The problem then becomes, by what criteria do we identify these as synagogue buildings?

See, Reconstructing the First-Century Synagogue (T & T Clark International, 2008)

By Stephen Catto
Lecturer in Biblical and Theological Studies,
Morelands College, UK
January 2009

The study of the ancient synagogue has recently been the focus of a great deal of scholarly literature.1 While a previous generation of scholars had a very clear idea of what was meant by a reference to a first-century synagogue–it was an architecturally defined public building which was used for religious purposes, especially on the Sabbath–many of these assumptions have now been questioned. Two periods have especially interested scholars: the origin of the synagogue, and the first-century period, which is of particular interest to those working in New Testament studies. It is into this second category that my work, Reconstructing the First-century Synagogue,2 fits, and it is this period that this essay will address.