Saturday, May 08, 2010

Josephus the Zionist?

Josephus the Zionist

The publication of a new translation of 'The War of the Jews' affords an opportunity to look at the motivations underlying the betrayal on the battlefield and the historical writing of a complex Jewish figure.

By Shlomo Avineri (Haaretz)
Tags: Israel news

"Toldot Milhemet Hayehudim Baroma'im" ("The War of the Jews Against the Romans"), by Yosef Ben-Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), Hebrew translation by Lisa Ullmann, Carmel, 751 pages, NIS 159

Like every self-respecting Israeli youth movement, my Hanoar Ha'oved branch in Herzliya also held a mock trial for Josephus Flavius, aka Yosef Ben-Matityahu, under the heading "traitor or hero?" The unique thing about our particular trial was that it had two defendants: not only Josephus - the commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee in the first century C.E., who after the fall of Yodfat went over to the Roman side - but also Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who fled a besieged Jerusalem to the camp of the besieging 10th Legion, and asked that "Yavneh and its sages" be spared; his wish was granted. Having both figures as defendants made our trial more complicated and interesting, especially since it was held in late 1948, during the charged days of Israel's War of Independence.

Both defendants were acquitted. If I recall correctly, the argument made in their favor was that the harm caused by their respective choices to cross the lines was not as great as the good they did the Jewish people - whether in the form of Josephus' historical enterprise, or in the capacity for survival symbolized by Yavneh and its sages, which made it possible to create an alternative normative framework for Jewish identity after the destruction of the Temple (we in Herzliya at the time were, of course, a bit less scholarly in our phrasing).

Further to my comment above, the headline, typically, does not accurately reflect Professor Avineri's view, which is rather more nuanced and which acknowledges my concern:
When interpreting Josephus, one is always in danger of lapsing into anachronism, and yet without a doubt, to him this was the war of the Jews as a nation against the Roman Empire. One cannot, of course, understand this in terms of the modern nationalism of the 19th century, but although Josephus explains that the uprising started out as a trivial land dispute between Jews and Greco-Syrians in Caesarea, as the rebellion spread, it increasingly came to resemble a war of liberation.

The religious element is not the decisive one for Josephus; unlike Antiochus, after all, the Romans did not infringe on Jewish religious ritual and even respected it. It is important to understand how Josephus describes the nature of the war: As modern as the idea of nationalism may be (and this includes Zionism as an expression of Jewish nationalism), modern national movements - as scholar Anthony D. Smith claims - have ancient ethnic-historical roots. If I weren't wary of going too far, I would even say Josephus is the first modern Zionist.
Read the whole very long article (and better yet, read Josephus) and see what you think.

Via David Meadows on Facebook.

"The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind"

ARAMAIC WATCH: A clarinetist in Cleveland will be performing a work in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish based on the Kabbalah of Isaac the Blind.
Clarinetist performs epic Jewish work

Senior Staff Reporter (Cleveland Jewish News)
Published: Friday, May 7, 2010 1:08 AM EDT

Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen will be playing klezmer melodies at Severance Hall, but don’t expect to hear a stirring rendition of “Romania.”

Instead, Cohen, 63, accompanied by The Cleveland Orchestra, will perform klezmer riffs in the second movement of Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” on May 13-15. This selection is part of the Symphonie Fantastique concert at Severance Hall.

The Argentinean-born, religiously observant Golijov composed “The Dreams and Prayers” in 1994 for string quartet and clarinet. He was inspired by the medieval French rabbi, known as Isaac the Blind, a mystic who believed that all things happen as the result of combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Golijov’s work uses music instead of the kabbalah to portray the cosmic mysteries of the Jewish experience. “The movements of this work are written in three different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our 6,000-year history,” the 49-year-old Golijov writes. “The prelude and the first movement are in the most ancient Aramaic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; and the third movement and postlude are in sacred Hebrew.”

Not to be too pedantic, but the "most ancient" Aramaic here would presumably be medieval or Talmudic Aramaic, rather than the actual most ancient version, which would be Iron Age epigraphic.

More on Isaac the Blind here.

Restoration of the site of Babylon

THE SITE OF BABYLON has received generous U.S. funding for its restoration, but the project is hampered by local administrative wrangling over tourism vs. study of the site. This A.P. article has some photos too.

Milwaukee DSS exhibit watch

THE MILWAUKEE DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION gets a good review in the Chicago Tribune:
Dead Sea exhibit worth trip to Milwaukee

You have until June 6 to see "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures" at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

You have until June 6 to see "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures" at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

It seems that some of these 2,000-year-old documents are always on tour somewhere in the world. But Milwaukee is your only shot at this particular collection, which includes everyday objects from the same period as the scrolls. Items curated for this show won't travel to any other institution.

The best among them:
There follows a detailed listing of the goodies in the exhibition, which include the ossuary of Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene, and scrolls of Deuteronomy and Daniel.

Background here and follow the links.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Ashkelon graves controversy continues.

THE ASHKELON GRAVES CONTROVERSY just keeps going and going ...
New plan suggests building Ashkelon hospital ER underground
MK Eitan Gafni proposes plan to avoid uprooting Jewish graves thought to be under current ER, which PM decided won't be relocated.

By Yair Ettinger
Tags: Israel news Ashkelon Benjamin Netanyahu

The director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Eyal Gabai, announced Thursday that he was considering a plan to build a new emergency room at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center underground, instead of rebuilding it in its current location.

Two months ago a graveyard was discovered under the site on which the ER is built. Once the grave site was found at the original construction site, the Antiquities Authority confirmed the graves belonged to Jews, and put the planned project on indefinite hold.

I have certainly seen nothing from the IAA saying that they now think the graves are Jewish rather than pagan. (The last I heard anything about this is noted here.) I want to see some verification before I accept the claim in this article.
The outcry over the planned relocation prompted Netanyahu to retract his original decision to relocate, and the emergency room was set to be rebuilt at its current location.

However, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) has recently promoted a new idea to rebuild the controversial ER underneath the alleged ancient Jewish graves.

According to a rabbi with the Zaka emergency service organization, Gafni's suggestion is "serious." Several Rabbis reviewed Gafni's plan and presented Gabai of the Prime Minister's Office with architectural blueprints for the underground ER, prepared for them by an architect. They said that the plan was beneficial as it would circumvent the uprooting of Jewish graves.

Zaka's rabbi, along with rabbi Arie Dvir, said that the plan to build the emergency room underground would be cheaper than building an above ground emergency room and reinforcing it against rocket attacks – as the original plan dictates.

The Prime Minister's Office said in response that they have reviewed the plan and will announce a decision within the coming days.

So it seems that negotiation about how to deal with the graves continue.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Photos of Samaritans celebrating Passover

HERE ARE PHOTOS of Samaritans celebrating Passover on Mount Gerizim.

Egyptian censorship of a novel on ancient Christianity

EGYPTIAN CENSORSHIP focuses this time on a novel about ancient Christianity:
Egypt Christians want action on "insulting" novel
Yasmine Saleh
Wed May 5, 2010 12:59pm EDT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian Christians have called for government action against the author of a widely read novel they say insults Christianity, in an unusual case that puts freedom of expression in Muslim-majority Egypt under fresh scrutiny.

Government investigators are looking into the complaint filed by a group of Egyptian and some foreign Copts against Youssef Ziedan, a Muslim who wrote the 2008 award-winning novel Azazeel (Beelzebub).

Egyptian law prohibits insults against Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and Ziedan could be sent to jail for up to five years if prosecuted and found guilty.

"They accuse me of insulting Christianity ... It's a serious crime and this is a big shock to people, especially since the novel has been so successful," Ziedan said.

Azazeel, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, backed by the Booker Prize Foundation, tells the story of a 5th-century Egyptian monk who witnesses debates over doctrine between early Christians.

What next, an arrest warrant for Rachel Weisz?

I have every sympathy for the plight of Coptic Christians and the persecution they suffer in Egypt, but they are really damaging their own cause here. They should not be calling for government persecution of someone else, just because he writes a novel that offends them. To do so is to accept the twisted moral world of their own persecutors. The idea that no one should ever say anything that offends anyone else is one of the most pernicious notions circulating today. It plays into the hands of totalitarian governments of any stripe and it increasingly cripples free speech in democracies as well.

For more on the novel Azazeel/Beelzebub, see here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Hebrew Manuscripts of Complutense University, Madrid

THE HEBREW MANUSCRIPTS of Complutense University, Madrid, have their own website: Los manuscritos hebreos de la Biblioteca Histórica en la web. The site is in Spanish, but the pdf document Los manuscritos hebreos de la Biblioteca Histórica "Marqués de Valdecilla" UCM: Guía de recursos. has a brief English summary as follows:
2. Hebrew manuscripts in Complutense University Library

The collection Hebrew Manuscripts of the Madrid Complutensian University Library is formed by 21 codex of Spanish origin, principally from Toledo and contains mainly biblical codices. All the manuscripts were brought together in Alcalá at the beginning of the 16th century by Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros for the compilation of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. BH MSS 617 is from Jesuits College of Madrid (Colegio Imperial). Villa-Amil nº 3 was destroyed or missig in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

The majority of the collection is formed by biblical codex (BH MSS 1, BH MSS 2, BH MSS 4, BH MSS 5, BH MSS 6, BH MSS 7, BH MSS 11, BH MSS 12, BH MSS 13 y BH MSS 617). There are, however, three commentaries by Abraham Ibn Hezra (BH MSS 8) and David Quimhi (BH MSS 9 y BH MSS 10)

There is an etymological dictionary with proper names of both the old and new testaments by Alfonso de Zamora (BH MSS 14). By David Quimhi there are five codex: two hebrew dictionaries, Sefer ha-Sorasim, (BH MSS 17 y BH MSS 21) and three hebrew grammars Sefer ha-Miclol, (BH MSS 18, BH MSS 19 y BH MSS 20).

Finally, there are two liturgical manuscripts: Mahzor o sefardic prayer book (Selihot and other liturgical poetry) (BH MSS 15) and a play by Hayyim bar R. Semuel Meir de Tudela, Seror hayyim (BH MSS 16)
(I was alerted to the site by an e-mail from Marta Torres Santo Domingo, Directora de la Biblioteca Histórica.)

More on the Jewish Magic exhibition

MORE ON THE JEWISH MAGIC EXHIBITION at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem:

The Times of Malta has a brief notice of the exhibition, but it includes a nice photo of what looks like a page from a magical handbook.

Meanwhile, Times Live avails itself of an eye-catching, if somewhat meretricious, headline:
Sex and the Jewish mystic

May 4, 2010 3:29 PM | By Sapa-dpa

In the beginning there was sex - and it was complicated.

The first conversation of the first man and the first woman on this earth was apparently to argue about ... sexual positions - if you believe medieval Jewish texts, that is.

According to Jewish legend, the argument between Adam and the woman named Lilith - over who would be on top - became so heated that Lilith flew off in a huff, turned into a demon who harms newborns, and forced God to create a substitute for her, namely Eve.

Lilith's chained image appears on many amulets used throughout the ages to protect infants and their mothers.

Examples will be among the items on display in an exhibition on Jewish magic opening in Jerusalem on Wednesday.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Stephen Hawking on time travel

Let's imagine I'm throwing a party, a welcome reception for future time travellers. But there's a twist. I'm not letting anyone know about it until after the party has happened. I've drawn up an invitation giving the exact coordinates in time and space. I am hoping copies of it, in one form or another, will be around for many thousands of years. Maybe one day someone living in the future will find the information on the invitation and use a wormhole time machine to come back to my party, proving that time travel will, one day, be possible.

In the meantime, my time traveller guests should be arriving any moment now. Five, four, three, two, one. But as I say this, no one has arrived. What a shame. I was hoping at least a future Miss Universe was going to step through the door. So why didn't the experiment work? One of the reasons might be because of a well-known problem with time travel to the past, the problem of what we call paradoxes.
It's already been done! And, indeed, apparently no time travelers showed up. Follow the link for reflections on why.

SBL paper on blogging (etc.)

I'VE BEEN INVITED to present a paper at the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Atlanta in November in the Blogger and Online Publication Section. Here's the abstract of my paper:
What Just Happened: The rise of "biblioblogging" in the first decade of the twenty-first century

This paper recalls the rise of "biblioblogging" early in this decade, surveys its expansion and development since that time, and explores the ways in which it has affected the field of academic biblical studies. Biblioblogging has made possible rapid dissemination of information on new discoveries and other matters of interest – as well as dissemination of accessible specialist commentary on such matters – to a vastly enlarged audience, an effect increasingly amplified by the new "new media" such as podcasts, Facebook, and Twitter. It has helped to put a personal face on biblical scholarship by allowing scholars to speak with an informal public voice different from the voice of academic publication; it has encouraged biblical scholars to interact publicly with popular culture, including not only dubious television documentaries, but also the cinema and television series such as Lost; it has helped scholars to mobilize in support of their colleagues in an era of job cuts and financially threatened departments; and it has contributed at least a little to the accelerating erosion of the authority of the mainstream media. Blogging is likely to be with us for a long time to come and to be increasingly incorporated into our field as a fruitful contribution to biblical scholarship.
I will also be presenting in a review session on Peter Schäfer's new book, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism, this for the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Group.

UPDATE (5 May): James McGrath and Michael Barber have also posted the abstracts for their papers in the Blogger and Online Publication Section.

Jerusalem exhibition on Jewish Magic

Exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Looks at Jewish Magic through the Ages

(Art Daily)

JERUSALEM.- Magic permeates our daily (Jewish) lives to such a degree that life without magic is close to impossible. An interesting fact is that most individuals are unaware that many items in their daily life and many daily actions and beliefs are magical in nature. Examples of this are endless: knocking on wood, tfu tfu tfu, Evil Eye (בלי עין הרע), not naming a child before birth, the amuletic power of the mezuzah, red ribbon bracelet, khamsas, jinxes… These and many more practices have ancient sources. Some have lost their meaning even though they are still used, for example, the magical formula ABRACADABRA, has its roots in the 3rd century CE, and is continuously used even today.

In this exhibition visitors examine the origins and development of magic in Judaism from the First Temple period to the present day by focusing on beliefs, customs and, particularly, the practical use of magic objects in daily Jewish life.

The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow. Its web page is here.

The Pope on the Shroud of Turin

POPE BENEDICT'S RECENT COMMENTS on the Shroud of Turin seem to go a long way toward accepting it as genuine and are being snapped up by the press. The Christian Science Monitor, which is usually more temperate, has the following exaggerated headline:
Pope Benedict says Shroud of Turin authentic burial robe of Jesus

Dismissing skeptics on Sunday when he visited the Shroud of Turin, Pope Benedict XVI said the burial cloth was none other than the same robe that once 'wrapped the remains' of Jesus Christ.
The article then goes on to tell what he actually said, which doesn't go quite that far:
By Nick Squires, Correspondent / May 3, 2010

In the centuries-old debate over the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday diverged from his predecessor and weighed in favor of those who believe that the burial robe once cloaked Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict described the shroud, which allegedly bears blood stains and the facial imprint of a long-haired, bearded man, as an icon that once “wrapped the remains of a crucified man in full correspondence with what the Gospels tell us of Jesus.”

While Pope Benedict joins the ranks of those who believe the sepia-colored shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, skeptics dismiss it as an ingenious medieval forgery that radiocarbon testing has dated about 800 years old.

The Vatican, which owns the linen cloth, has in the past tiptoed around the issue, describing it as a potent symbol of Jesus Christ’s suffering but never asserting outright its authenticity. Pope John Paul II visited the Shroud when it last went on public display in 1998, but he said the Catholic Church had "no specific competence” to pronounce on its authenticity and urged further scientific analysis.

Benedict was much less equivocal on Sunday when he prayed in front of the cloth at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Turin, Italy, saying afterwards in a “meditation” that it was "an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side."

Although Pope Benedict doesn't come out and say that it was the shroud of Jesus, he does seem to say (if he is being quoted correctly and in context - and the quote does appear in many other articles, e.g., here) that it actually does bear the imprint of a crucified man - by implication rejecting the prevailing theory that it is a medieval forgery. I remain very skeptical of its being an ancient artifact and I suspect that the Pope's comment may prove to be a nuisance to him and the Church. It wouldn't surprise me to see a backtracking "clarification" coming from the Vatican soon.

Background on the Turin exhibition here. For background on authenticity issues, click on the "recent discussion" links at that post and keep following the links back.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Debunking junk archaeology (e.g., Noah's Ark)

DEBUNKING JUNK ARCHAEOLOGY, including the latest Noah's Ark nonsense:
Scholarly Squad Debunks Biblical 'Discoveries'

Chanan Tigay
AOL News

(May 2) -- When Robert Cargill got word this week that a group of Chinese evangelicals had uncovered Noah's Ark atop a Turkish mountain, the archaeologist's reaction was a familiar one.

"I thought, here we go again -- another fake 'ark-eologist,' " says Cargill, an adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA.

His skepticism may prove well founded: A former member of the joint team from Noah's Ark Ministries International and Media Evangelism Ltd. that announced the find has circulated an e-mail suggesting that the discovery might have been staged. And if that's the case, it would be just the latest in a series of hoaxes surrounding the much-searched-for vessel.

Indeed, it was word of two previous ark expeditions that helped prompt the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading professional organization of American Middle Eastern archaeologists, to take action.

Fed up with the exposure these types of stories were getting in the media, the group last year launched a committee tasked with taking aim at archaeological frauds.

"We really just decided that it was time to take back our field," says Eric Cline, a George Washington University archaeologist. He and Cargill co-chair the committee, whose membership also includes the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society of Biblical Literature.

Worth reading in full. Robert Cargill has been closely following the Noah's Ark story on his blog. See especially the posts here, here, here, and here.

Mom can see the DSS for free on Mother's Day

MOM can see the Dead Sea Scrolls for free this Sunday in St. Paul.
Moms see sea scrolls for free Sunday
Pioneer Press
Updated: 05/02/2010 09:36:17 PM CDT

You can treat Mom to brunch anytime. Why not take her to see some 2,000-year-old sacred texts for Mother's Day? The Science Museum of Minnesota is among a handful of museums offering free admission on Sunday for any mom, accompanied by a paying visitor.

The free admission includes a ticket to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a display of ancient biblical and Hebrew texts on loan from Israel, along with artifacts such as fabrics, inks, pottery and weapons that tell the story of early Jewish culture and life in the Judean desert.

Just what she wanted.

The Mishnah Quiz

THE MISHNAH QUIZ is this week:
And Now – the Mishna Quiz

by Gil Ronen (Arutz Sheva)

The seventh annual Mishna Quiz is set to begin this week. Hundreds of students from Israel's junior high schools will take part in the quiz, which tests knowledge of the Mishna – the compendium of Oral Law that originated at Mount Sinai but was written down about 2,000 years ago by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi to prevent its details from being forgotten. It includes legal pronouncements, moral observations and debates about interpretations of the law between the Jewish sages of his period, known as the Tannaim.


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Islamic origins: "a surprisingly big tent"?

Islam's beginnings
Mohammed's early movement was a surprisingly big tent, says historian Fred M. Donner

By Thanassis Cambanis (The Boston Globe)
May 2, 2010

The first followers of Christ didn’t consider themselves ’’Christians’’; they were Jews who believed that a fellow Jew named Jesus Christ was the long-awaited messiah. It took centuries for Christianity to evolve and solidify as a distinct faith with its own doctrine and institutions.

In ’’Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam,’’ University of Chicago historian Fred M. Donner wants to provide a similar back story for Islam — a religion which, in the popular imagination, sprang wholly formed from the seventh-century sands of Arabia. Mohammed preached at the juncture of the Roman and Sassanian empires, winning support from Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and various deist polytheists. According to Donner, Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was only a century after Mohammed founded his ’’community of believers” and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.

Devout Muslims — who model their lives directly on the mores of the Prophet and his companions — will be surprised to read that Mohammed welcomed Christians and Jews into his monotheistic movement. In fact, Donner suggests, the entire narrative of Islamic conquest misinterprets the ecumenical nature of the early believers. Mohammed, it appears, didn’t require his followers to renounce their religion; early Islam, in this read, was more a revival of existing faiths than a conversion.

Professor Donner is also interviewed in the article. It will be interesting to watch both the academic and the popular responses to his reconstruction.