Saturday, May 22, 2010

McGill and the DSS again

MCGILL UNIVERSITY'S involvement in the purchase of the Dead Sea Scrolls is told in a Bible and Interpretation essay:
Owning the Scrolls

How a Canadian University Purchased the Biggest Cache of Qumran Cave 4 Fragments Outside Jerusalem

Essay adapted from Canada's Big Biblical Bargain: How Mcgill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls (McGill-Queen's University Press May 2010).

By Jaqueline S. Du Toit

Professor in the Department of Afroasiatic Studies,
Sign Language, and Language Practice,
University of the Free State,
Fellow of the McGill Centre for Research on Religion.


By Jason Kalman
Assistant Professor of Classical Hebrew Text and Interpretation,
Hebrew Union College and University of the Free State,
Fellow of the McGill Centre for Research on Religion.
May 2010

Former McGill and Princeton Professor Robert Balgarnie Young Scott, died on the first of November 1987. His New York Times obituary mentioned that he had “helped recover fragments of the scrolls in 1951. They had found their way into the hands of private dealers in Bethlehem and Dr. Scott bought them on behalf of McGill.”2 This summary of a complicated history was almost entirely devoid of truth. It nevertheless hinted at the heroic actions of one Canadian scholar in the quest to preserve the unity of the invaluable Cave 4 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments for posterity.

HT Carla Sulzbach. I've mentioned this story before here.

Secret Mark handwriting analysis

SECRET MARK has been subjected to handwriting analysis by a Greek expert hired by Biblical Archaeology Review. She concludes that "it is highly probable that Morton Smith could not have simulated the
document of 'Secret Mark.'"

Background here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A pagan altar at the Ashkelon gravesite

A PAGAN ALTAR at the Ashkelon gravesite:
A Magnificent Pagan Altar was Exposed while the Israel Antiquities Authority was Overseeing Development Work at the Barzilai Hospital Compound in Ashkelon

Israel Antiquities Authority: The find further corroborates the assertion that this place is a pagan cemetery

The development work for the construction of a fortified emergency room at Barzilai Hospital, which is being conducted by a contractor carefully supervised by the Israel Antiquities Authority, has unearthed a new and impressive find: a magnificent pagan altar dating to the Roman period (first-second centuries CE) made of granite and adorned with bulls’ heads and a laurel wreaths. The altar stood in the middle of the ancient burial field.

According to Dr. Yigal Israel, Ashkelon District Archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The discovery further corroborates the assertion that we are dealing with a pagan cemetery. It is an impressive find that has survived 2,000 years. The altar is c. 60 centimeters tall and it is decorated with bulls’ heads, from which dangle laurels wreaths. There is a strap in the middle of each floral wreath and bull’s head. The laurel wreaths are decorated with grape clusters and leaves. This kind of altar is known as an “incense altar”. Such altars usually stood in Roman temples and visitors to the temple used to burn incense in them, particularly myrrh and frankincense, while praying to their idols. We can still see the burnt marks on the altar that remain from the fire. The altar was probably donated by one of the families who brought it to the cemetery from the city of Ashkelon”.

Dr. Israel adds that during the archaeological supervision of the development work burial structures were discovered, which served as family tombs, and cist tombs that were used for interring individuals. In addition a large limestone sarcophagus (stone coffin) with a decorated lid was also found. The sarcophagus stands 80 centimeters high is 60 centimeters wide and is 2 meters long. Part of the stone in the sarcophagus was left rather high in the spot where the head of the deceased was placed and resembles a kind of pillow.

Click here to download a high resolution picture of the altar.
Photographic credit: courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The altar can be photographed today in the field, until 19:00, where the work is being done at Barzilai Hospital. Entrance to the compound must be coordinated with Leah Malul, Barzilai Hospital Spokesperson.

For further information and to receive high resolution photographs, kindly contact: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority Spokesperson, 972-52-5991888,
That would seem to clinch the identification of the Roman-era graves as pagan, but I would still like to know more about the Byzantine graves.

(Via Joseph I. Lauer.)

LA Times obituary for Moshe Greenberg

ANOTHER OBITUARY for Moshe Greenberg, this one in the Los Angeles Times.

A funeral procession for the Ashkelon bones

A FUNERAL PROCESSION for the bones from the Ashkelon graves:
Barzilai bones get Eda Haredit funeral

By JONAH MANDEL (Jerusalem Post)
21/05/2010 03:56

Children hold anti-Zionist signs.

Hundreds of members of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit communal organization congregated in the capital on Thursday afternoon, to “beg the forgiveness of the holy bones” recently excavated to make way for an emergency room in Ashkelon, protest the “continued desecration of graves around Israel” and conduct a funeral procession, but not a burial ceremony, for the remains.

A simple white van with black drapes hiding its content, sent by the Ministry of Religious Services, was one of the centerpieces of the event that was held at Kikar Zupnick in the Geula neighborhood, as it contained the ancient bones that the Antiquities Authority deemed to be those of pagans and transferred to the ministry.

Unfortunately, the procession turned violent at the end.

Lattke, The Odes of Solomon

Michael Lattke, The Odes of Solomon: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009)
Review copy for the JSNT Booklist.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Museum of Tolerance - the latest

Following Haaretz report: Arabs to resume Museum of Tolerance battle
Arab groups vow to step up opposition to construction on site of 1,000-year-old Muslim cemetery.

By Jack Khoury Tags: Israel news Museum of Tolerance

A battle against the construction of the Museum of Tolerance on the site of a Muslim cemetery will be reignited soon, according to sources in the Arab community.
Muslim graves at the site of the planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

The decision to resume opposition to the project follows a Haaretz investigation into excavation at the site, located in the Mamilla area of Jerusalem, and the damage it has caused to hundreds of graves there. The museum is being built by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Background here.

Bruce Chilton on the Gnostics

BRUCE CHILTON ON THE GNOSTICS (Bible and Interpretation):
Gnostic Breakthrough

By Bruce Chilton

Author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000). His most recent book, The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), has just been published.
May 2010

Gnosticism emerged as an important and influential stream of thought in the West, but its depth and diversity have been obscured by clichés. Present discussion, even while claiming to be fresh and original, often perpetuates the reduction of Gnostic insights to banal truisms of fashion. Fortunately, the wealth of text available today offers the prospect that Gnosticism might break through the prejudgments that have consigned it to marginal status.


Perhaps inevitably, scholarly interest sometimes tipped into uncritical enthusiasm. It is frequently said, for example, that scholars never had direct access to such sources before the discovery [of the Nag Hammadi Library], but only to what the Gnostics’ opponents (Irenaeus, and Clement and Tertullian above all) had to say. In fact, the Pistis Sophis [should read Pisis Sophia) (which means “Faith-Wisdom”) has been known since the eighteenth century and the Gospel of Mary since the nineteenth century.

This enthusiasm has fed the rise of neo-Gnosticism, a modern revival greatly encouraged by the discovery at Nag Hammadi. In co-opting these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, while Gnostics often shunned the earth; they don’t wish to be elitist, although many Gnostics claimed to be a class apart from humanity at large. Above all, neo-Gnostics want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. Those are aims I happen to agree with, but you need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources and ignore a great deal of what they say to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library.

Gnosticism has yet to be evaluated in the light of its own sources because two prejudgments have stood in the way of fair reading. One prejudgment dismisses Gnostics as heretics, in the tradition of Cyril of Alexandria. The other imagines that, because Gnostics were repressed by the Orthodox, it must be that the Gnostics themselves embraced diversity. Neither of these pictures is plausible.

Indeed. This is a good essay on a slippery subject: some scholars do not want to use the term "Gnostic" as an etic category at all. I'm surprised that in his typology of Gnosticism Chilton doesn't have an explicit discussion of the centrality of the demiurgic myth for some branches. This seems quite important to me.

NYT obituary for Moshe Greenberg

AN OBITUARY for Moshe Greenberg in the New York Times:
Moshe Greenberg, Biblical Scholar, Is Dead at 81
Published: May 19, 2010

Moshe Greenberg, one of the most influential Jewish biblical scholars of the 20th century, died Saturday at his home in Jerusalem. He was 81.


Professor Greenberg brought to the field a willingness to take what is known as the historical-critical approach to Bible study, which assumes that more than one author had a hand in writing the first five and many other books of the Bible.

“Jews were studying it in a traditional pious way,” said Jeffrey H. Tigay, the Ellis professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. The new approach, he said, “undermined the Jewish dogma of the whole Torah being given to Moses at one time.”

Professor Greenberg’s idea, which he called a holistic method, Professor Tigay said, was: “Let’s build on the idea of multiple authorship, but let’s not stop with unraveling the original components. Let’s figure out why the compilers put them together the way they did.” That method was central to Professor Greenberg’s extensive commentaries on the books of Exodus and Ezekiel, which analyzed how the multiple writers had woven their ideas into unified themes.

We worked a good bit with his Anchor Bible Ezekiel commentary this semester in our Master's seminar on Temple and Presence, which covered material from the Priestly traditions all the way up to the Merkavah mystics. The book of Ezekiel was a key element in the seminar.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tel Fahkariaya Aramaic-Akkadian biligual inscription

ARAMAIC WATCH: The Syrian site of Tel Fakhariya is profiled briefly by the Global Arab Network, with mention of the Aramaic-Akkadian bilingual inscription discovered there a little over thirty years ago:
North-eastern Syria: An ancient landmark with valuable archaeological discoveries

By H. Said/Ghossoun
Friday, 14 May 2010 15:04

Archaeological landmarks of the Middle and Neo Assyrian, Aramaic, Roman, Byzantine and the Islamic periods in Tell al-Fakhariya (North-eastern Syria) make it a alive witness to ancient civilizations which succeeded each other in the site.


Rich archaeological discoveries have been found in the site.

Director of al-Hasakah Antiquities Department Abdul Masih Baghdo said a 2-meter basalt statue of the Assyrian king Adad-it'i/ Hadd-yi'thi, king of Guzana and Sikan who ruled between the 9th century and the 8th BC was unearthed in 1979 during land leveling activities.

The bilingual inscription in the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian and Aramaic carved on the statue refers to the city of Sikan and relates that the statue was erected in front of the Temple of Weather God in Guzana (now Tell Halaf), not very far from Tell al-Fakhariya.

Other interesting discoveries from the Byzantine period are mentioned as well. There are articles on the Aramaic part of the inscription by Jonas Greenfield in JSTOR (here) and by Victor Sasson in de Gruyter Reference Global (here). I can access them from my University computer, but I think they are both behind subscription walls.

The Samaritans profiled in Tablet Magazine

THE SAMARITANS are profiled in Tablet Magazine, with a dash of counterfactual history thrown in:
Good Samaritans
Israel's smallest religious minority offers Jews a glimpse of what might have been

By Benjamin Balint | 7:00 am May 18, 2010 | Print | Email / Share

What would the Jews look like had they not been exiled to the four corners of the earth, had they gone untainted—but also unenriched—by the cultures in which they tarried? Imagine Jews who retained their fierce attachment to the Torah and the faith of their fathers, but without the rabbinic response to displacement. No Talmud, no golden flourishing diasporas in Spain or Germany or America, no great movement out of the ghetto and into the Haskala, none of the upheavals of modernity, no Reform movement, no Holocaust, no Zionism, no state of their own, no Nobel laureates to kvell over, only the steady drip of obscurity, anachronism, and numerical decline. What would those Jews be like today?

The answer revealed itself to me the other day atop Mt. Gerizim overlooking the city of Shechem, otherwise known as Nablus, where the High Priest Aharon Ben-Av Hisda, 83, 132nd holder of the post since Aharon, the brother of Moses, was presiding over the Passover sacrifice. He wore a white beard, a loose green silk robe tied at the waist with a wide cloth, and a blue-striped tallit draped over his head. Rising above the jostling assembly of his entire people, which numbered fewer than 750 souls, he clutched a chest-high wooden staff, worn smooth with age, in his left hand. He stood on a small platform facing priests bedecked in white turbans and elders outfitted in red tarbooshes wrapped with a gold and white sash. As the sun set to unveil a full moon, Hisda’s chants (ancient Hebrew and Aramaic comingling in his throat) crescendoed, and with an ecstatic cry the sacrifice rites commenced.


More on the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance

MUSEUM OF TOLERANCE WATCH: Parts 2 and 3 of the Haaretz special reports have been published:
Museum of Tolerance Special Report / Part II: Secrets from the grave
Round-the-clock work, long shifts and unprecedented security characterized the five-month excavation of the cemetery on the museum site, where sources say more than 1,000 skeletons were unearthed.

By Nir Hasson Tags: Israel news Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance

The earthworks

The first one to excavate the site and come upon human remains was archaeologist Gideon Sulimani. Sulimani, a senior archaeologist with the Antiquities Authority, would come to play a key role in the affair. In December 2005 he began a “rescue excavation” financed, as mandated by Israeli law, by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, intended to remove antiquities, or in this case, human bones, before the area was cleared for construction.

The act of excavation thrills Sulimani, from a scientific point of view. A serious excavation, says Sulimani, could open a window into the lives of Jerusalem’s Muslim residents over the past millennium. In this case, however, he says that there was pressure on him to hurry up and remove the graves without adhering carefully to professional standards.
“They constantly wanted to lengthen the work days and I was always fighting to shorten them. They told me: Switch teams, work in shifts. But I can’t bring someone into someone else’s excavation. That’s something that is not done,” he says.

The pressures Sulimani faced during the excavation were also typical, apparently, of the next part of the works. After the High Court ultimately rejected the Islamic Movement’s petition, in October 2008, and thus permitted work at the site to continue, the digging was resumed with greater urgency. Testimony obtained by Haaretz indicates that the guiding principle of the work was not a careful and scientific archaeological excavation, one that was respectful of the remains found at the site, but rather an excavation that proceeded as quickly as possible so as to leave the whole skeleton affair behind, so that full attention could be turned to building the Museum of Tolerance.

Museum of Tolerance Special Report / Part III:Unearthing a legal morass
The High Court approved continued digging at the site based on a disputed report submitted by the Antiquities Authority, which ignored warnings of a senior archaeologist that a ‘rescue’ excavation carried out there had been unsatisfactory.

By Nir Hasson
Dueling reports

The most important − and contentious − document submitted to the High Court was the opinion drawn up by the Israel Antiquities Authority concerning the condition of the site.
This document raises many questions about the the IAA’s conduct in the affair. After archaeologist Gideon Sulimani left the first stage of excavations, in 2005, he wrote a report in which he noted that the work at the site was far from complete. “The excavation was not completed in most of the excavation area, other than in parts of areas A1 and A2, and the area cannot be reconstructed without the completion of the excavations,” Sulimani wrote in the conclusion to his report, adding: “All told, about 250 remains of bodies were dug up from approximately 200 graves .... Another 200 graves were uncovered which were not excavated. Based on our understanding of the layers of burial, our assessment is that there are all told almost 1,000 graves in the area of the project.”

Instead of Sulimani’s report, the IAA submitted a “supplementary notice” that diverges greatly from the report, to put it mildly. The IAA notice played down the number of human remains at the site and of its overall archaeological importance, paving the way for the release of most of the area to the project’s developers, even though it had not been fully excavated.

The IAA − which by law can require a professional archaeological “rescue” excavation, at the developers’ expense, of a site where there are signs of antiquities − divided the area into a number of sections. The first section, according to the notice submitted to the High Court, was completely cleared; in the second section “only a few dozen graves remained,” the IAA report stated; and in the third section, known as the “purple area,” graves remained, “but the required scientific data were extracted and the area is released for construction on condition that there be no subterranean penetration.”

Sulimani maintains that the IAA submitted a false report to the court. The IAA says that the excavation was ultimately carried out in accordance with Sulimani’s original approach. According to Sulimani, many graves remained even in the areas that the IAA marked as having been completely excavated.

No one informed Sulimani about the change in the IAA’s position; he discovered it while reading the judgment on the Internet. “I was shocked to read it,” Sulimani said in a newspaper interview. “I feel that the IAA betrayed me, betrayed the profession. My feeling is that they threw out all the professional work that I and the excavators did in Mamilla.”
The Museum of Tolerance episode was only the first in a series of disputes between Sulimani and his superiors in the IAA, which ultimately led to his resignation. He is not currently working as an archaeologist.
These reports are hard to excerpt or summarize, but they are very detailed and the accusations are damning. This story is now being picked up by the rest of the media (e.g., the AP here, the Telegraph here, the Ottawa Citizen here). If the IAA wants to avoid serious damage to its reputation it needs to provide a much fuller response than the brief one published in Haaretz yesterday. This does not strike me as an issue that is likely to go away if it is ignored.

Part one, response, and additional background here and follow the links.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance Watch

MUSEUM OF TOLERANCE WATCH: Haaretz is publishing a series of reports on the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance controversy:
Museum of Tolerance Special Report / Tolerance takes it toll
Skeletons, High Court rulings, bigwigs embroiled in other scandals, a world-famous architect and some Hollywood panache − all are part of the story of the Museum of Tolerance, slated for one of the most sensitive parts of Jerusalem: on top of a Muslim cemetery. For the first time, Haaretz reveals evidence of a highly dubious, five-month rescue excavation that took place secretly on the site, plus other previously unknown details. A three-part saga.
By Nir Hasson

Holes, Holiness and Hollywood

On the connection between the esteemed California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, run by one of America’s most famous rabbis, an enterprising Jerusalem contractor and the feverish excavation at what was then probably Israel’s most secret civilian building site.

Part I: ‘Removal of nuisances’

Sometimes a lack of sensitivity or even an innocent mistake exposes a major truth. On the Web site of Moriah, a public company for infrastructure work that belongs to the Jerusalem municipality, one can find descriptions of various projects in which the company is involved. Among them is the Museum of Tolerance: “The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the entrepreneur for the construction of the Museum of Tolerance in central Jerusalem, asked Moriah to carry out preparatory and infrastructure work for the project,” says the site. Immediately afterward, under the heading “Objective,” it says: “Carrying out infrastructure work, removal of nuisances in the area of the project ...” What the site calls “nuisances” are in fact skeletons, bones and skulls. Hundreds of skeletons that were buried in Jerusalem’s central Muslim cemetery over a period of some 1,000 years.

A Haaretz investigation indicates that the “nuisances” were cleared away from the site swiftly and clandestinely during five grueling months of nonstop work. Testimonies of participants who worked at the site, which were recently obtained by Haaretz, indicate that the skeletons were removed as quickly as possible to enable the start of construction on the museum. “That wasn’t archaeology, it was contract work,” claimed one of the workers.


The five months of excavation are documented in a series of exclusive pictures that are published here for the first time. In one picture a worn cardboard box takes up most of the photograph. Someone drew a schematic bone on the box as in a child’s drawing and wrote “scattered items,” and afterward erased the words. Other words are also erased. The number 4316L marks the “locus” − a sequential serial number in archaeological jargon. The box is far too small to contain the bones that stick out from both sides; the cover doesn’t close and is torn. At least one bone looks as though it broke in the course of the work, according to the archaeologists, since the fracture line looks fresh and light in color.

Another photograph depicts an ancient skull that was apparently exposed to the light hundreds of years after its owner was buried in the Jerusalem soil. In the area of the crown one can see new fractures, perhaps from an imprecise blow from a hoe. Above it there is still a large rock, and to its right a cardboard box. In the top half of the picture one can sees it is broad daylight and young Israelis, the excavators, are engaged in their work. Anyone who so wishes can perhaps find in the hollow eyes of the skull a look of amazement at what it is seeing.

It's a long article and the position it takes is obvious. I'm not in Jerusalem and I can't comment on most of it. But I will say, in reference to the last two paragraphs quoted, that "fresh breaks" in excavations are unfortunate, and those digging try to be careful to avoid them (people will tease you and possibly scold you if your pot comes out with one), but they do happen. I'm sure with human remains even more care is taken, but two fresh breaks in an operation of this size does not strike me as evidence of unseemly haste or lack of care.

Haaretz also publishes a response to this article in defense of the project:
Museum of Tolerance Special Report / In response to the revelations

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, archaeologist Alon Shavit, the Antiquities Authority and the Moriah company respond to Haaretz investigation on the Museum of Tolerance.

By Nir Hasson
Excerpt from the section by the excavator, Archaeologist Alon Shavit:
As to the weather conditions, Shavit says there is no way to put such work on hold for three or four months. Most of the digging was done under tents, and on very rainy days that “we did have to deal with a lot of mud.”

He adds that on those sections which were not declared to be part of the “purple area,” where no excavation permit was needed, he and his staff sought to unearth the skeletons in the most controlled way and with the best documentation. He believes the security measures at the site did not undermine the transparency of the project.

“The findings were presented to the scientific community throughout the excavation process,” Shavit says, adding that during that process, each skeleton was placed in a separate numbered box, as is standard in archaeological excavations, and each skeleton was clearly labeled in order to identify the precise spot where it was found. However, the bones were in bad shape since the site had been neglected for many years, and because it had been reused for repeated burials, in keeping with Muslim tradition. Many of the skeletons were found in heaps. Those remains were documented as well. All the remains were reburied near where they were excavated, within the Muslim cemetery.
Background here and just keep following the links back.

Metatron game

ARCHANGEL METATRON WATCH: Metatron has his own computer game:
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 action game that is scheduled for Fall release. Following the story of Enoch, the angel of the lord, he must stop a threat that was made by Lucifer.

Moshe Greenberg obituary

AN OBITUARY for Moshe Greenberg has been published by the AP. And there's a brief account of his life and work here as well.

Happy Shavuot!

THE FESTIVAL OF SHAVUOT (Weeks, Pentecost) begins this evening at sundown. Best wishes to all those celebrating. More here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bruce Ferrini, R.I.P

BRUCE FERRINI, the controversial art and antiquities dealer, has died last week.
Bruce Ferrini, Akron rare book dealer, dies at 60

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

POSTED: 06:32 p.m. EDT, May 14, 2010

Akron ancient and medieval manuscripts dealer and internationally known expert on rare books, Bruce Ferrini, died Tuesday at his home in Fairlawn of natural causes.

He was 60.

The last nine years of Mr. Ferrini's life saw an abrupt reversal of the storybook career he had carved out for himself in the rarefied market of ancient and medieval manuscripts.

His decline began with the death of his son in 2001 and culminated in 2004 in a dispute over ownership of artifacts in a traveling exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Mr. Ferrini was involved with a troubled antiquities exhibition that involved some Dead Sea Scrolls fragments from his private antiquities collection. He also was involved with finds associated with the Gospel of Judas and was in possession of some of the manuscripts. He had an exciting career that, as noted above, turned tragic over the last nine years. I have tracked many of these events in PaleoJudaica since 2004. All the posts are collected here.

Requiescat in pace.

Ashkelon graves being removed

ASHKELON GRAVES UPDATE: I was busy on the weekend and didn't try to keep up with this. Clearly a lot has been happening.
Ultra-orthodox fury at removal of ancient remains from hospital

Construction of bombproof emergency unit in Israeli city sparks exhumation protests

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem (The Independent)

Monday, 17 May 2010

At least 30 ultra-orthodox Jewish demonstrators have been arrested in angry protests at the removal of ancient burial remains to make way for construction of a bombproof hospital emergency room in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Protesters tried to climb perimeter fences at the main Barzilai hospital yesterday in the hope of halting the excavation, described by the ultra-orthodox deputy education minister Meir Porush as an "embarrassment and a disgrace". On Saturday night, demonstrators burned rubbish bins and blocked roads in ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods of Jerusalem as the exhumation started.

Ashkelon is within range of rockets from Gaza and the medical authorities had decided that a bomb-proof emergency room within the hospital was essential for the welfare of patients.


But Mr Netanyahu's revised stance was bolstered yesterday by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which said that the preliminary findings from the excavation showed that the remains were not Jewish but Byzantine. The exhumations could be seen in real time on the website of the IAA, which said it was streaming the work as a "neutral entity" and for "transparency".

I can't find a press release at the IAA website, but I'm curious to see exactly what they said. Byzantine Palestine is not my area of specialty, but I wouldn't think that a date in the Byzantine era would rule out Jewish graves, nor confirm a "pagan" origin ("pagan" as per this Reuters article and this Jerusalem Post article, which latter also refers to Roman graves).

UPDATE: YnetNews has this:
The IAA findings revealed that all the graves dug up by Sunday evening belonged to pagans. The ruling was based on the type of burial and burial stones.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Israel, transhumanism, science fiction, the Book of Enoch, and Narnia

ISRAEL, TRANSHUMANISM, SCIENCE FICTION, THE BOOK OF ENOCH, AND NARNIA: An interesting article in H+ Magazine looks at technology development in Israel.
Israel’s Value to Transhumanism
Written By: Hank Hyena
Date Published: May 11, 2010

Imagine this sci-fi scenario: A small tribe with unique literature, customs and myths believes they’ve been “chosen” for a glorious destiny. But they’re driven out of their native land, forced to wander the globe for aeons, persecuted and annihilated, until they’re impelled by a utopian novel to return to their homeland. They name their new city after the inspirational book and their country becomes a technological powerhouse... but still, they’re surrounded by enemies. They wage eternal war, they hover between hope and apocalypse… their contributions to humanity are astounding but they continue to fear total extinction.

Familiar? Of course. I’ve described Israel and the Jews. A four-millennium saga with floods, burning bushes, diasporas, miracles, massacres, temples, pogroms, holocausts, and 180+ brainy Jews receiving Nobel Prizes — 22% of the total awards garnered by only .25% of the population. Today’s Israel — a dynamic nano-nation tinier than New Jersey in size and numbers — is imagination made concrete, the material manifestation of Theodor Herzl’s futuristic, Zion-inspiring 1902 book Altneuland (translated as “The Old New Land” in English, and “Tel Aviv” in the Hebrew translation by Nalum Sokolov.)

Is Israel valuable to Transhumanism? Yes. Even though most Israelis worry about surviving next week and regard contemplation of the year 2025 as impractical because they might be “pushed into the sea” by then. Yes. Even though membership in the Israeli Humanity Plus chapter is only 50-100 with twenty regular attendees. Yes, Israel is a crucial player in H+ and here’s why:
Various points follow, mostly about Israel's contributions to cutting-edge technology, but this one stands out:
Science Fiction: Israel has been described as “the birthplace of science fiction.” For chariots in the sky, eco-cataclysms, invisible voices, and other paranormality, check out the Torah. Want a hero traveling through space, searching for the secrets of creation? Examine the apocryphal books of Enoch, circa 300 B.C. [should be third century BCE and later - JRD] In contemporary Israel, “political science fiction” dominates the genre, with the vast majority of successful books using the homeland as a setting. A utopian-intended society tottering on the edge of annihilation is obviously ideal for SF. A partial list of important authors would include Pesakh Amnuel, David Avidan, Dan Zalka, Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Bloom, Gail Hareven, and Addy Zemach.
I'm surprised that transhumanists haven't taken more notice of Merkavah traditions and ancient biblical pseudepigrapha involving human deification, which seem like a natural source of inspiration. It may be that they just haven't heard of them.

This just-quoted paragraph ties nicely into to the recently raised problem of Why there is no Jewish Narnia by Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition. Let us take two central examples: the magical world and the idea of evil.

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. Nor is this limited to fauns and elves. This anterior world can be dark and frighteningly alien, as Tolkien has Gandalf indicate in The Two Towers. “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves,” the wizard says, “the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not.” Lewis sounds the same note in Perelandra when, far below the surface of the planet Venus, his protagonist catches an unsettling glimpse of alien creatures, and wonders if there might be “some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent and courteous apology for trespass.”


This is of course the plot, in a nutshell, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and much of Lewis’s Space Trilogy too—which, for that matter, concludes with the forces of good being led not by a Christian but by the pre-Christian Merlin. Judaism is far more skittish about acknowledging the existence of powers acting apart from God, even in rebellion—which leaves a lot less room for magic.

To be sure, all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth—can be found sprinkled here and there in biblical and rabbinic literature. Much of it is developed in Jewish folklore, and theoretically developed and dramatized in the kabbalistic literature, especially the Zohar, which may even draw on the medieval literature Lewis lovingly described in his scholarly work The Allegory of Love.

For the last hundred years, various anthologists have attempted, with greater or lesser ideological urgency, to collect these elements and weave them together into a usable Jewish “mythology.” Hagai Dagan’s Ha-mitologiyah ha-yehudit (The Jewish Mythology, 2003) and Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004) are only the most recent compilations that posit and seek to restore a supposedly repressed or marginalized Jewish mythic vitality, a project that runs back through Buber’s Hasidic collections and Berdichevsky’s emphasis on Judaism’s earthy, pagan side. Yet the very necessity of all these attempts to retrieve and weave together these elements suggests their marginality. While Lewis could remain within orthodox, or at least “mere” Christianity in writing his books, the Jewish writer leaves the realm of the normative in order to develop the mythologies that are the fantasy writer’s natural materials. Put another way, Tolkien and Lewis both referred to Christianity as the sole true fairytale. Jewish thinkers are far less likely to consider this praise.
I have some reservations about Weingrad's conclusions. This view of Judaism succumbs to the temptation to think that which is not normative is marginal. The historical situation was much more complex. The piece also polarizes aspects of SF and fantasy which they really share in common. Both involve imaginative creation of worlds, although hard SF insists on these worlds being extrapolated from current scientific knowledge whereas epic fantasy externalizes internal conflicts with imagined worlds and beings. But the overlap is considerable.

The ancient apocalypses, the magical literature, the Merkavah and Kabbalistic mystical literature, and even (perhaps to a lesser degree) traditional rabbinic aggada are all obsessed with the imaginative creation of worlds inhabited by supernatural creatures. (And the Jewish visionaries actually, you know, go there.) Can we really class, say, the ascent traditions of Enoch in the book of 1 Enoch as SF rather than fantasy? The texts certainly use astronomical knowledge and the like as part of the imagined world of Enoch. And, as just noted, über-techno-geeks like transhumanists can find inspiration in the Enochic literature even today. But in these texts we find angels, magic, giants, damned spirits, and scenes from God's throne room, themes normally much more associated with fantasy (e.g., all of them appear in Tolkien's work).

It is true that Judaism brooks no rivals with God and so tends to lack satanic figures of any stature (although Sammael can at times take on a near-satanic role). But the problem of evil remains and the mystical literature often grappled with it by finding evil buried in the nature of God, which is even scarier than the more dualistic solutions.

In short, Judaism, like Christianity, has historically had ample interest in myth, magic, and the problem of evil, and any view to the contrary is both anachronistically normative and, even aside from that, selective. Naturally, Judaism and Christianity start from different assumptions and explore such themes differently in their imaginative literature, but I don't think there is any simple explanation for why there is no Jewish Narnia (yet).

UPDATE (21 July): More here.

Review of Vermes, The Story of the Scrolls

THE STORY OF THE SCROLLS, by Geza Vermes, is reviewed in the Jerusalem Post:
Captivated by the Scrolls
15/05/2010 14:26

A testimonial to a great scholar’s enduring love affair with the ancient documents.

One Sunday morning in 1948, a Jewish-born Hungarian student at the Fathers of Notre Dame de Sion Catholic order’s seminary in Louvain watched as his professor in class held up a photograph of Chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah. The young seminarian’s curiosity was instantly piqued: the photograph was of a 2,000-year-old manuscript fragment from a cache discovered a year before by Bedouin shepherds in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea.

“Staring at it, I became captivated,” Geza Vermes told The Jerusalem Report by phone from his home in Oxford, England, where he is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Wolfson College. “With youthful zeal I vowed to solve the greatest Hebrew manuscript discovery of all time. Ever since, the scrolls and my life have been intertwined.”

Six decades on, Vermes clearly remains captivated by the ancient documents unearthed in the Judean desert. At the slightest prodding he declaims at length on them with undiminished enthusiasm. And while the world’s leading authority on the historic manuscripts may not wear his love of the scrolls on his sleeve, he does often wear it on his tie. Emblazoned on a custom-made necktie that Vermes, an owlish man with old-world charm, wears for his public lectures are fragments of the Community Rule, a sectarian document recovered from Cave 4 at Qumran, which the Oxford professor personally worked on deciphering.

In a summing-up of his career-long involvement with the scrolls from shortly after their discovery, the 86-year-old scholar, who is still a prolific author, has just published “The Story of the Scrolls,” a lucid, comprehensive look at the ancient texts’ history and importance and the insular, enigmatic Dead Sea community that produced them.

Overall this is a good survey of Vermes's work and is worth reading in full, but this annoys me:
In a 1990 interview with the Haaretz newspaper, John Strugnell, a mercurial alcoholic who had taken over from de Vaux as editor, would label Judaism “a horrible religion,” lamenting its continued existence.
Strugnell also suffered from bipolar disorder and was in the midst of a manic episode when he gave this interview. This does not excuse what he said, but in fairness to him it should be noted.

For other recent reviews of Vermes's books, go here. More on the Strugnell episode here.

(Again, via Joseph I. Lauer's list.)

Moshe Greenberg z"l

SAD NEWS: Joseph I. Lauer posts on his list:
Dr. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz asked me to forward the sad news that Professor Moshe Greenberg of the Hebrew University Bible Department passed away on Shabbat morning and that his funeral will take place today, Sunday, May 16, at 5:00 PM at Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot Cemetery, the funeral leaving from the Qehillat Yerushalayim funeral hall.
May we only hear good news!
May his memory be for a blessing.