Saturday, May 01, 2010

Lecture and latest news on Persepolis archive lawsuits

THE PERSEPOLIS CUNEIFORM ARCHIVE CONTROVERSY was the subject of a recent lecture at the University of Pennsylvania:
Iran Gambles with its Cultural Heritage in U.S. Lawsuits

Apr 29, 2010 E.E. Mazier (
By remaining passive in U.S. lawsuits that may force the sale of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Iran may lose a major historical artifact.

By failing to take seriously lawsuits against it in the United States, Iran risks losing a major component of its cultural heritage. That was the underlying message of an April 27, 2010 lecture by Matthew W. Stolper at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. The lecture was titled ""Persian Antiquities in Crisis: the Persepolis Tablets at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago." Stolper is professor of Assyriology at the Institute.


The tablets are now the prize in a tug of war between survivors and families of victims of two horrific bombing incidents on one side and museums, universities, and scholars on the other side.
Iran Ignored Underlying Lawsuits by Blast Victims

In one lawsuit in federal court, the plaintiffs sued Iran for funding Hamas, the accused mastermind of a 1997 triple-suicide bombing in a Jerusalem shopping area. In a separate federal action, another set of plaintiffs sued Iran for aiding Hezbollah in the 1987 bombing of U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut. The actions were filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act as amended by the U.S. Congress in 1996 to allow Americans to sue foreign countries that commit or support terrorist acts and that are officially listed as state sponsors of terrorism. Since 1984, the United States has designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.


Iran failed to respond to either lawsuit. Consequently, the plaintiffs in the Jerusalem bombing case won a $412 million default judgment against the country in 2003, while the plaintiffs in the Beirut bombing case were granted a $2.65 billion default judgment in 2007.


In response to audience questions after his lecture, Stolper noted that the entry of the default judgments means that the central issue is whether artifacts of great cultural and historical significance not only to Iran but also the rest of the world can be sold off, most likely in pieces, to the highest bidders.

While sympathetic to the plight of the plaintiffs, several of whom were severely injured in the blasts and have recovered very little compensation, Stolper and other scholars decry the legal attempt to raid the collections of museums and institutions and the precedent this would set if successful. One concern is that countries would no longer want to participate in cultural exchanges out of fear of losing priceless artifacts in similar court actions. As to the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Stolper and others contend that the tablets are most valuable if kept intact because this is the only way to get a big-picture view of daily life in the ancient Persian empire.


Stolper also told the audience that Iran has attorneys in the post-judgment actions, but he described a surprising lack of knowledge about the cases by Iranian officials in the United States. In fact, he is concerned that Iran may walk away from the proceedings.

"If the Iranians do not stay in the case, it becomes a second default judgment after their day in court, which [from a judicial viewpoint] is almost insurmountable,." Stolper said.

That doesn't sound good. I have every sympathy for the terrorism victims and no love for the current Iranian regime, but I think Professor Stolper is right. For much more on this, see here and keep following the links.

Hebraica and Semitica in the Library of Congress

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS has an illustrated guide to its Hebraic Collections online. Other Semitic languages besides Hebrew are represented as well. It includes photos of Bible, Talmud, and Zohar manuscripts (etc.) here and a cuneiform tablet and an Aramaic incantation bowl here. There is also a collection of images of selected cuneiform texts here. And the contents of the Hebraica collection are surveyed here:

Beginning with Jacob H. Schiff's 1912 gift of nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets, the Library has developed and expanded its Hebraic holdings to include all materials of research value in Hebrew and related languages. Today, more than 150,000 items are available. Included are works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, and Amharic. The collection includes an extensive range of monographs; a broad selection of Hebrew periodicals both current and retrospective, popular as well as scholarly; and a variety of Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers reflecting all shades of opinion. A comprehensive collection of Holocaust memorial volumes documents Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, and a large collection of rabbinic bio-bibliographical works in Hebrew is available. Holdings are especially strong in the areas of Bible and rabbinics, liturgy, Hebrew language and literature, responsa, and Jewish history. Access to online sources of Judaica is also available.

Among the 2,000 rarities in the collections are cuneiform tablets, manuscripts, incunabula, kettubot, micrographies, miniature books, and amulets. The more than 200 manuscripts include a Hebrew translation of the Koran, a selection of decorated Jewish marriage contracts, an early Ethiopian psalter in Ge'ez, various commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, and the Washington Haggadah, a 15th-century Hebrew illuminated manuscript. Also included are examples from among the first books printed in Portugal, Turkey, and on the African continent. With 24 Hebrew incunables--books printed before the year 1501--and an additional 15 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the Library of Congress ranks as one of the world's most important public collections of Hebrew incunabula. Also unique are more than 1,000 original Yiddish plays, in manuscript or typescript form, written between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries, intended for the American Yiddish theater.
Via this Payvand article on the online LOC Iranian material.

Lecture series at Minnesota DSS exhibit

THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION at the Museum of Science of Minnesota, has a lecture series lined up:
Kicking off in the coming week is a series of lectures by scholars who have studied the scrolls. First up is "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Their Jerusalem Origin" by Norman Golb, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Chicago. He'll speak at 7 p.m. Thursday.

He will be followed by Michael Wise from Northwestern College in Roseville on May 20; Risa Levitt Kohn from San Diego State University on June 10; Alex Jassen from the University of Minnesota on July 15; and Jodi Magness from the University of North Carolina on Aug. 12.
This is an unusually diverse collection of speakers and I'm sure the series will be very interesting.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Celebration of Yahrtzeit of R. Shimon bar Yohai at Lag B'Omer

THE YAHRTZEIT OF RABBI SHIMON BAR YOHAI coincides this year with the festival of Lag B'Omer and this weekend it will once again be enthusiastically celebrated at his gravesite in Meron:
On Lag B’Omer, Kabbalah’s ‘Patron Saint’ Inspires Pilgrimage, Donations

By Nathan Jeffay (The Forward)
Published April 28, 2010.

Tel Aviv — As millions of people worldwide — celebrities like Madonna among them — turn to Kabbalah in hopes of solving their problems, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are going one step further by appealing directly to the man some consider to be the author of mystical Judaism’s most important text.

In early May, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whom some believe wrote the Zohar, is purportedly holding court from beyond the grave. Some 500,000 Israelis will flock to a Galilee hilltop, Mount Meron, to sing, dance, feast and pray at the resting place of the second-century sage. Many more pay a third party to appeal to Bar Yochai on their behalf — a move some say is a gimmick that depersonalizes prayer.

The mass gathering will take place during the minor festival of Lag B’Omer — this year it takes place May 1 and 2 — which coincides with the anniversary of Bar Yochai’s death; Kabbalah adherents believe that Bar Yochai’s powers are strongest around his yartzheit. Each year, more people go, often with high expectations for what the visit will reap. “Rav Shimon promises that everyone who comes will be healthy in body and soul and that all that they want comes,” said Bnei Brak resident Esther Shnitzer, a Haredi woman in her late 50s who works for a credit card company, and who fundraises to provide free refreshments to any pilgrims who want them.

The Zohar was actually written in late thirteenth-century Spain by Moses de León, perhaps in collaboration with others, and published pseudepigraphically in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai. It may contain older material, but I doubt that any of it goes back to actual teachings of R. Shimon. Be that as it may, it has been a profoundly influential mystical tradition.

Background on R. Shimon bar Yohai is here. And there's more on Daniel Matt's superb, in-progress translation of the Zohar here.

Aramaic in New York

ARAMAIC WATCH - The NYT reports that New York's 800 languages include Neo-Aramaic and Mandaic:
In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family ...

A few fading foreign languages have also found niches in New York and the country. In northern New Jersey, Neo-Aramaic, rooted in the language of Jesus and the Talmud, is still spoken by Syrian immigrants and is taught at Syriac Orthodox churches in Paramus and Teaneck.

The Rev. Eli Shabo speaks Neo-Aramaic at home, and his children do, too, but only “because I’m their teacher,” he said.

Will their children carry on the language? “If they marry another person of Syriac background, they may,” Father Shabo said. “If they marry an American, I’d say no.”

And on Long Island, researchers have found several people fluent in Mandaic, a Persian variation of Aramaic spoken by a few hundred people around the world. One of them, Dakhil Shooshtary, 76, a retired jeweler who settled on Long Island from Iran 45 years ago, is compiling a Mandaic dictionary.
I think "Chaldic" should be "Chaldaic," or better, "Chaldean," the dialect of Aramaic used by the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Samaritan Passover sacrifices

Samaritans Perform Passover Sacrifices

by Malkah Fleisher

On Wednesday, a small and ancient community in the Samaria region performed a Passover offering just as it has done for over two thousand years.

Israel's small Samaritan community gathered, as it does annually, to offer sacrifices on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Shechem. Heads of Samaritan households slaughtered 35 sheep that were offered in a way very similar to that prescribed in the Torah, for sacrifices at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Coverage last year is here.

Review of Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed

A BOOK REVIEW of Richard Miles's Carthage Must Be Destroyed has been published by Daniel Metcalfe in the Guardian. Excerpt:
When most people think of Carthage, they picture Hannibal and his elephants or Dido, the suicidal queen, cursing her perfidious lover, Aeneas. But as every schoolboy used to know, Carthage is inextricable from the Punic wars – its very own 100-year conflict with Rome (264-146 BC). Almost all our stories of this once-great north African empire, says Richard Miles, come to us through a biased Roman filter. Carthage never had a chance to tell its own tale – its library was lost to its Numidian neighbours. But drawing on archaeological and written sources, Miles helps to fill in the blanks with this thoughtful and meticulous book. Carthage was rather more sophisticated than history gave it credit for, and its people were certainly no more war-mongering than their regional neighbours.
For more reviews, go here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reflections on the propagation of news of Wright's move

INTERESTING YESTERDAY to watch the news about N. T. Wright's appointment to a New Testament Chair at St. Andrews propagate across the planet in a matter of hours via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. I saw students in the St. Mary's Quad getting the news from one of their phones and saw congratulations and comments online coming from all over the United States and Britain. Technorati, which used to be useful (before its latest "upgrade") has only just started to index a couple of blog posts. Google Blogs does a lot better, currently listing a little over fifty blog posts. The legacy media did get in on the news yesterday a little: there were notices in the London Times religion blog and BBC Radio One. Google News is better than Technorati, but it wasn't showing these articles yesterday at least in the late afternoon when I last checked. Ruth Gledhill has also published a Times article in the Times. A Guardian blog has taken notice in the last hour. The US media have yet to take any notice. [Update: Forgot to mention one Dutch article this morning. As for local media, the Durham Times had an article out early on too.]

As far as I can tell, PaleoJudaica was the first to pick up the news after the initial annoucement, although my colleague, Steve Holmes put up a blog post within minutes of mine. We did, of course, have advance warning.

An interesting case study for the information age ...

Copper Scroll mentioned in the Guardian

THE COPPER SCROLL gets a mention in the Guardian in a reader submission in the Notes and Queries column:
Have treasure maps ever existed?

While not exactly a map, the copper scroll, which was discovered among the dead sea scrolls, does contain details of the location of 63 deposits of buried treasure. Unfortunately, the directions provided are very localised and use names that have passed out of common usage, which means they are of no practical help to a modern treasure hunter.

However, four maps that could reveal the location of buried treasure were discovered in the 1920s, hidden in furniture, which, it was claimed, had belonged to the Scottish pirate captain, William Kidd. The British Museum initially thought them to be genuine, but more recently their authenticity has been called into question.

As with the copper scroll, the details given are too vague to be of much use, although an island shown on one of the maps is thought by some to resemble Oak Island in Nova Scotia, where a treasure hunt has been ongoing since the late 18th century, with little to show for it.

Geoff Clifton, Solihull, West Mids
It's 64 locations actually. But yes, so far there hasn't been much luck in locating the treasures, although Richard Freund has argued that he has found one. As you see from the link, this is debatable. More on the Copper Scroll and related matters here and here (and follow the links).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

N. T. Wright appointed to Chair in St. Andrews

N. T. WRIGHT (Bishop Tom Wright) has been appointed to a New Testament Chair at the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews:
N. T. Wright appointed to Chair at St Andrews

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The School of Divinity is delighted to announce that Dr N. T. (Tom) Wright, currently Bishop of Durham, has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews. He will take up his duties on 1 September 2010. The Head of School, Professor Ivor Davidson, says: 'Tom Wright ranks among the most distinguished New Testament scholars in the world, and his profile as a churchman, writer and communicator is simply outstanding. I am delighted that he will be joining us at St Andrews, where he will further enhance the long-established reputation of the School of Divinity as a major international centre of biblical and theological scholarship.'

Tom Wright, a native of Northumberland, was educated at Sedbergh School and Exeter College, Oxford, where he took a 'double first' in Classics ('Greats') and Theology and gained his D. Phil. He trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and was ordained as a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College.

Dr Wright worked successively at Cambridge, McGill (Montreal) and Oxford Universities before holding various church appointments, culminating in seven years as Bishop of Durham. He received the Oxford DD in 2000.

N. T. Wright is best known for his writing, both scholarly and popular. He is currently working on the fourth volume (on Paul) of his major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God, on the final two books in his popular New Testament for Everyone, and on the series of contemporary explorations of faith that includes, most recently, Virtue Reborn. He has broadcast frequently on radio and television, and has lectured at universities and colleges around the world, holding visiting Professorships at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Harvard Divinity School, and the Gregorian University in Rome. He has received honorary doctorates from several universities, including St Andrews. He is eagerly looking forward to resuming his work of teaching and writing in the School of Divinity at St Andrews.

Dr Wright is married to Maggie. They have four adult children and three grandchildren, and are looking forward to enjoying the fine scenery of Fife. More details about Dr Wright's work are available at
Press releases are here (quoted above) and here (longer).

Let me add my voice to those of colleagues and students in welcoming Dr. Wright to St. Andrews. Tom is no stranger here: most recently he received an honorary doctorate from the University in June of last year. I am truly delighted that he will be joining us in September.

Bene Menashe migrating to Israel

THE BENE MENASHE are coming to Israel:
After three millennia in exile, Bnei Menashe lost tribe heads home

James Hider in Jerusalem (London Times)

When Tzvi Khaute landed at Tel Aviv for the first time, he wanted to kiss the earth. Alas, the modern airport was all tarmac and stone, so he kissed the first soil he came across, in a flowerpot. Thousands of diaspora Jews from around the world make aliyah — the migration to Israel — every year, but for Tzvi and his fellow Tibeto-Burmese immigrants from the far northeast of India, the journey was particular freighted with symbolism. They believe they are descendants of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, sent into exile by the Assyrians almost 800 years before the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.

About 1,700 members of the Bnei Menashe tribe — the Sons of Manasseh, one of the original 12 biblical tribes of Israel — have migrated to Israel, completing what they believe is an extraordinary, 2,700-year exile that took them from the Middle East seven centuries before the Christian era, through Afghanistan, China, Burma and India, before they heard that a new state of Israel had been created 62 years ago.

I've mentioned the Bene Menashe earlier here, here, and here. As I've noted before, there's no evidence for the claim that they go back to the Assyrian exile in the 700s BCE, although their genetic profile does seem to indicate some connection with the Middle East. This 2005 BBC article sums up the evidence.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Late apocalypses online

PSEUDEPIGRAPHA WATCH: Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic: A Postrabbinic Jewish Apocalypse Reader, by John C. Reeves, is available online at Google Books. Much, but not all of the text is included.

This from Sigrid Peterson on the PSCO list, in response to an announcement of lecture by Professor Martha Himmelfarb last week (22 April) at the University of Pennsylvania, to which I wish I could have gone. This is the abstract:
“Revelation after the Rabbis: Sefer Zerubbabel and Sefer Eliyyahu”

Abstract: /Sefer Zerubbabel /and /Sefer Eliyyahu/, often described as medieval Hebrew apocalypses, were composed in the first part of the seventh century. They thus faced the challenge of offering their revelations to a world that was not only post-biblical but also post-talmudic. I will discuss the implications of this situation for the content of their revelations and the quite different ways they present them, suggesting that /Sefer Eliyyahu /shows a much greater affinity for rabbinic values and rabbinic literary style than /Sefer Zerubbabel /and considering the implications of /Sefer Zerubbabel/’s distance from rabbinic culture.

Bibliography - Please read the texts if possible. Probably the most convenient place to get the translations of the two works is John Reeves, /Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic: A Postrabbinic Jewish Apocalypse Reader /(2005). I translated /Sefer Zerubbabel /in /Rabbinic Fantasies/, ed. David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky (1990). The originals of both works await real editions. The most convenient source for the Hebrew of both works is probably Yehudah Even-Shmuel, /Midreshei Ge'ulah/, but be warned that these are "improved" version. Reeves refers you to other editions of the two works.

UNESCO drops Syria a hint.

ARAMAIC WATCH: The Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has brought up Aramaic and Maaloula (Ma'aloula, Malula) in the hearing of Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria:
She pointed out that her talks with President al-Assad underlined the role of education in bolstering social cohesion based on the roots of national identity and historical prospects and aspirations for future. "Syria is such a unique place for laying down bridges that connect history, modern life and the future," she said. Ms. Bokova spoke about her visit to Ma'lula which, she added, is given great attention by President al-Assad "not only for its importance in preserving Aramaic language, but also in order to keep it as a living example of the different cultures and religions which have lived together in tolerance over decades." ...
In other words, Mr. President, how about reopening the Aramaic Language Institute in Maaloula?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I can relate.

"THEY EXPECT ME TO ANSWER with the ancient Aramaic or Phoenician name of a fallen angel." Yeah, this happens to me a lot too.

Types of texts in the DSS

TYPES OF TEXTS in the Dead Sea Scrolls are summarized in the Youngstown Vindicator (Ohio). The list is essentially correct, although it should be noted that Pesharim are also sectarian texts and none of the Pseudepigrapha discovered at Qumran are known in the Armenian canon.

Hamas and Gaza antiquities

HAMAS is taking some interest in antiquities in Gaza according to the Christian Science Monitor:
When laborers stumbled on an ancient hoard of 1,300 silver coins and the walls of a 3,300-year-old city in the southern town of Rafah in January, it was a fresh reminder that the tiny territory maintains a rich past.


"Gaza is very small geographically, but in terms of archaeology, it is very large," says the Hamas minister of tourism and antiquities, Mohammed al-Agha. "Gaza was at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and there is a great accumulation of human civilization here. But we don't have our own specialists so we can't manage the sites professionally."


Construction contractors like Jawhdat Khodary, who opened a private museum in a beachfront space in 2008, would pay laborers and local fishermen for any artifacts they found, preserving at least 3,000 pieces.


But Hamas says it is making both the regulation and preservation of historical sites a priority. The tourism and antiquities ministry inaugurated in January an artifacts museum in Gaza City – in an Ottoman-era governor's residence – and took control of the Rafah coin find.

Mr. Agha says the ministry also plans to cooperate with Gaza's Islamic University to expand courses on archaeology. Hamas hired a new guard for the remains of the 3rd-century monastery that Mr. Mubaid says is Gaza's most important site.

But Mr. Khodary charges Hamas with censoring some of his finds. He claims Hamas asked him to put away tiny menorahs – and a small statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, whose gown was deemed too revealing.
The censorship (noted earlier here) is kind of pathetic, but the new museum and the efforts on the Rafah coin hoard are encouraging.

For that coin hoard see here. Mr. Khodary's museum has also been mentioned here and here.