Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review of Pullman, The Good Man Jesus ...

THE GOOD MAN JESUS and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is reviewed by Edward Keenan in and gets five stars. Excerpt:
Jesus, may be the good man, but he’s also the troublemaker, a revolutionary with a conflicted conscience motivated by purity and love but prone to tempestuous emotional outbursts. Christ, meanwhile, is well-behaved; a quiet, often invisible scribe who is inspired by his brother but cannot stomach disorder. The scoundrel writes the good man’s story for posterity, shaping it to the needs not of a rebellion but of an institution that will last millennia.

Through the two, we see how revolutions of freedom lead to well-intentioned tyranny, how the aims of goodness are at odds with both popularity and longevity — above all, Pullman shows how stories are made, how narrative is (and, perhaps, must be) imposed to declare meaning, how the competing demands of “the facts” and “the truth” corrupt.
Earlier coverage is here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Guy Stroumsa takes up Chair of Abrahamic Faiths at Oxford

CONGRATULATIONS TO GUY STROUMSA, who has taken up a new Chair in Abrahamic Faiths at Oxford University:
The Israeli who's taken Abraham to Oxford
We talk to Oxford University’s first Professor of Abrahamic Faiths

By Simon Rocker, May 27, 2010 (The Jewish Chronicle)

Oxford may have lost to Cambridge in this year's boat race, but in one pursuit Oxford has pipped its old rival to the post. Oxford's first Professor of Abrahamic Studies has been teaching there almost a year, while Cambridge is still in the process of recruiting one.

The holder of Oxford's new chair is a Parisian-born Jewish Israeli with a special interest in early Christian mysticism. Guy Stroumsa had been Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion at the Jerusalem's Hebrew University until his arrival here last autumn.

A decade ago the concept of "Abraham faiths", the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, would have seemed fairly novel even in academic circles. "I don't think it starts before the late 20th century," said Professor Stroumsa, who cannot think of a similar chair at another institution.

This is an exciting area that is crying out for more research.

Site of Gamla scorched in a wildfire.

THE SITE OF GAMLA has been scorched by a wildfire that was started accidentally in an army exercise.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ezekiel and Enoch in modern sculpture

THE VISIONS OF EZEKIEL AND ENOCH have met sculpture bizarre enough to be worthy of them:
Howard Lerner's Universe

Richard McBee (The Jewish Press)
Posted May 26 2010

Sculpture and the Bible

Walking into Howard Lerner's studio is like falling headfirst into a Tanach made of sculpture. Right near the door is a 10-foot high Tower of Babel. Partially hidden behind this behemoth is a thoroughly idiosyncratic Vision of Ezekiel. Further along into the somewhat cluttered, but not chaotic, studio is a vista of massive sculptures; The Ark of the Covenant looms ahead while Elijah's Ascension is on the left, just past a 10 foot depiction of Enoch. To be totally honest, it's all a bit frightening. Every piece is a diverse assemblage of found objects hammering home a specific passage with a literal determination. It is as if one is inhabiting a Biblical Hall of Mirrors, each holy book or personage examined scrupulously, exaggerated and then lovingly depicted.


Ezekiel's Vision (2006) is a bit sparer, with more emphasis on text. The first chapter of Ezekiel is a natural inspiration for Lerner as he plunges into a multitude of visual metaphors and signs for prominent textual passages. The sculpture is a wobbly jumble atop a skinny-legged base, effectively building to the very top with a pair of hands in Priestly Blessing that support the Tetragrammaton. The blessing initially reflects the fact that Ezekiel is herein named a Cohen. But there is more.

According to the artist the entire vision is meant to elevate the viewer towards seeing the Throne of God and thereby literally ascending to Hashem, The Name, at the very top of the sculpture. Moving downward we encounter a blue cut-glass light fixture that sits atop an inverted lampshade, its panels used as a makeshift parchment scroll for the first dozen verses of the prophet's famous Vision of the Chariot. Further down into the body of the sculpture an old fashioned bellows is aptly labeled "ruach," and is balanced by a box of auto lamps attached to a disk labeled "Hashmal - Electrum." Just above them gerbil cages abound inset with myriad depictions of eyes reflecting the divine creatures Ezekiel saw. Lerner's choice of utilizing extremely mundane objects, preferably old objects, is part of his strategy of asserting the spiritual potential in everything through an ancient vision.


Enoch - Heaven is clearly a sculpture of a figure standing. His head is one of the most charming depictions in the studio, golden crystal eyes glowing above his bottle cap beard, the very image of an ancient Middle Easterner. His face is framed by two profiles of perhaps his own visage, hinting at his self-consciousness at being favored by the Divine. "And Enoch walked with God, and he was not: for God took him." As Enoch begins his ascent to heaven his skinny legs sprout flames, he holds a golden orb (actually a toilet tank float) that sprouts a miraculous bush. A winged angel, Uriel, floats above and channels Divine secrets to Enoch in the form of two scrolls over the sage's head.

Follow the link for photos. Lerner is clearly aware of the extra-biblical mystical traditions about Enoch, not just the biblical passage.

I especially like the Hashmal as a box of auto lamps.

Non-destructive analysis of Judean coins

NDE Methods for Evaluating Ancient Coins Could be Worth Their Weight in Gold

Demonstrating that chemistry sometimes can inform history, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Colorado College and Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., have shown that sensitive nondestructive evaluation (NDE) techniques can be used to determine the elemental composition of ancient coins, even coins that generally have been considered too corroded for such methods*. Along the way, the researchers’ analysis of coins minted in ancient Judea has raised new questions about who ruled the area while giving insight into trading patterns and industry in the region.


The lead isotope analysis, performed at NIST, showed that the coins that had been attributed to Agrippa I were indeed from that era. More interestingly, however, the group found that the copper from which the coins were made most likely came from mines that scholars thought hadn’t been opened until a century later.

“All the archaeological evidence has thus far suggested that the Romans had moved into Arabia in the 2nd century CE,” says Nathan Bower of Colorado College. “What this analysis shows is that the Romans may have reached the region earlier or found that these mines had already been opened. Either way, our findings suggest that the Romans had a much closer relationship with this particular region than scholars had previously thought.”

As I've said before, any number of times (e.g., here and here, cf. here), non-invasive and non-destructive analysis is the long-term future for archaeology.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hebrew Bible job at University of Wisconsin, Madison

A HEBREW BIBLE JOB at the University of Madison, Wisconsin:
CLASSICAL HEBREW LANGUAGE AND BIBLICAL LITERATURE. The Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison invites applications for a tenure-track position at the assistant professor level, starting August, 2011. Ph.D. required. Area of specialization: classical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic context. Teaching duties include advanced and graduate level courses in Hebrew and Semitic languages, epigraphy, and texts (including biblical literature), undergrad courses in Hebrew Bible (in translation), and supervision of the undergrad Biblical Hebrew program. Evidence of teaching excellence and scholarly production are crucial. Unless confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding the applicants must be released upon request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed confidentiality. Women and minorities are encouraged to apply. UW-Madison is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer. A background check may be required prior to employment. Send two hard copies of a cover letter, a CV, three letters of recommendation, official undergraduate and graduate school transcripts to: Search Committee Chair/1346 Van Hise Hall/ 1220 Linden Dr./ Madison, WI 53706. Candidates may also submit a writing sample of up to 30 pages. Deadline for applications is August 15, 2010. For inquiries, please contact
From the H-Judaic list.

A rotation of scrolls in Minnesota

A ROTATION OF SCROLLS at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition in Minnesota:
New set of Dead Sea Scrolls comes to Science Museum

By Joe Kimball | Published Tue, May 25 2010 3:15 pm (

A new set of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls will be displayed Wednesday at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The exhibit -- which opened in March and runs through Oct. 24 -- will have three different sets of five scrolls rotated in during the run, because of their "fragile nature and sensitivity to light and humidity." The five scrolls that opened the exhibit will be carefully shipped back to Israel.

Two of the five scrolls coming online tomorrow have never before been taken out of Israel.

Irritatingly, the article does not say which five scrolls are coming in.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Gabriel Barkai on Israeli television

GABRIEL BARKAI will be filmed on Israeli television today:
TNL Finale to Feature Renowned Jerusalem Archaeologist

by Derek Cling (Arutz Sheva)

Ari Abramovitz and Jeremy Gimpel's Tuesday Night Live in Jerusalem, the popular live Israeli English language television show, will be filming its season finale on May 25, 2010 /13 Sivan, 5770.

World-renowned archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai will be the featured speaker. Dr. Barkai established the Temple Mount Antiquities Salvage Operation, dedicated to recovering archaeological artifacts from the Temple Mount. Among his discoveries are several ancient silver plaques containing the priestly benediction (birkat kohanim).

For the Temple Mount sifting project go here and for the Ketef Hinnom silver amulets go here and for both follow the links.

A manuscript exhibition at the Jewish Museum London

A MANUSCRIPT EXHIBITION at the Jewish Museum London:
Rare manuscripts at Jewish Museum chart centuries of interfaith dialogue

Posted: Monday, May 24, 2010 10:12 pm (Independent Catholic News)

The Jewish Museum London is launching its first major temporary exhibition since its reopening in March with an exhibition of Hebrew treasures from the Vatican and major British collections.

The exhibition will bring together a collection of 27 rare manuscripts, many exquisitely illuminated, including three from the Vatican Library, eight from the British Library, three from Lambeth Palace Library and eleven from the Bodleian Library which reveal a story of cultural exchange, practical cooperation and religious tolerance between Jews and non-Jews in the Muslim and Christian worlds during the Middle Ages and beyond.


The manuscripts and printed books in this exhibition date from the 9th to the 17th century and many are beautifully illuminated and decorated. The Jews who commissioned manuscripts frequently turned to highly skilled Christian artists for the illustration of the text, and the decorative styles of the works exhibited reflect local cultures and design, whether in the Moorish style of medieval Spain, the Italianate style, or the Gothic style of Northern Europe. The works attest to a shared culture and display coexistence and social interaction between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours, as well as enhancing our understanding of the intellectual exchange and transmission of knowledge between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

From the early end of that spectrum:
- A 9th century midrash (commentary) on the book of Leviticus, thought to be the earliest Hebrew document in codex (book) form (also from the Vatican Library)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Iraqi Jewish archive being returned to Iraq

THE IRAQI JEWISH ARCHIVE is being returned to Iraq. Dorothy Lobel King is not happy. No word on a timetable.

For my part, as always, I regard these artifacts first and foremost as part of the heritage of humanity and my main concern is that they be preserved under the best possible conditions. I have no objections to their being returned to Iraq, although given that nearly all Jews have left Iraq, often under the most horrible duress, the case for return there does not strike me as compelling. I would be just as happy with Dorothy's suggestion that they go to Israel. But the chief point is that these documents should go or remain where they can best be cared for so that future generations have them too. Does Iraq have the very specialized facilities necessary to deal with texts that have been severely water (and mold) damaged and then frozen and freeze-dried? If they do, how high a priority would the conservation be? Iraq's recent record on caring for Jewish antiquities has been encouraging, if somewhat ambiguous, and the message does seem to be getting across that the world is watching and holding them to the highest standards. We can only hope for the best.

For background on the Iraqi Jewish archive go here (where I see I've already made the same point more briefly) and follow the links all the way back to 2003.

Hermann Gunkel's birthday

HERMANN GUNKEL'S BIRTHDAY was yesterday (d.o.b. 23 May 1862) and Tyler Williams is celebrating with A Form-Critical Classification of the Psalms according to Hermann Gunkel.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Philologos on Pentecost

PHILOLOGOS discusses Pentecost (the Christian festival introduced in Acts chapter 2) in The Forward and discovers an ancient midrash that illuminates the story:
Shavuot is associated in Jewish tradition with the giving of the Torah, and, as I once observed long ago in this column, the New Testament’s story of the “holy spirit” — the ru’aḥ ha-kodesh, as it is called in Hebrew — coming to rest on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost, is an account of a second revelation, paralleling the first at Mount Sinai. Yet even while pointing this out, I failed to notice that the parallel is far closer than just that.

The midrash, parts of which were already in oral circulation in the time of Jesus, has many interpretive stories about what happened at Mount Sinai and about the “thunderings and lightnings,” the kolot u’vrakim, that the Bible tells us were heard and seen by the Israelites assembled at the foot of the mountain. One of these stories has to do with the fact that the biblical word for “thunderings,” kolot, also means “voices” in Hebrew. The midrash states:
And all the people perceived the thunderings.” Since there was only one voice, why ‘thunderings’ in the plural? Because God’s voice mutated into seven voices, and the seven voices into seventy languages, so that all the nations might hear it.
Similarly, we read elsewhere:
Just as a hammer that strikes a rock causes sparks to fly off in all directions, so each and every word that issued from the mouth of the Holy One Blessed Be He divided itself into seventy languages.
This is a profound commentary, one that, taken metaphorically, has sometimes been read as a statement that the Torah speaks to every individual differently and that each of us has the right to interpret it by his or her own standards. Generally, however, it has been taken more literally by rabbinic tradition to mean that although the Torah was revealed in Hebrew, it was translated aloud at Mount Sinai into all the languages of the world, believed to be 70 in number, and thus made available to the entire human race.
The parallels with the story in Acts 2 are obvious. Philologos suggests that the story in Acts is based on an incident of glossolalia ("speaking in tongues"), which is possible. But it's also possible that the story is entirely made up on the basis of that midrash (combined with the well-documented early Christian penchant for glossolalia - see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 14). I suppose that would make it would be a midrash on a midrash (a meta-midrash?).

Pentecost Sunday is today. More on Pentecost and the recently concluded Jewish festival of Shavuot here. It would have been helpful if Philologos had given the exact references for the rabbinic midrashim. Does anyone know what they are?

(For some reason the current issue of The Forward is not yet showing up on Google, so thanks to Joseph I. Lauer for noting it.)

UPDATE (24 May): Reader Jim Darlack e-mails to say that the first reference is Exodus Rabbah V.9 (commenting on Exodus 4:27) and the second is t. Shabb 88b.

Review of new book on the Aleppo Codex

A NEW BOOK ON THE ALEPPO CODEX is reviewed in The Forward:
Wonder of Wonders
An Ancient Book’s Tale
By Tamar Yellin
Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.

There is something profoundly alluring about the manuscripts of great literary works. Whether the handwritten fair copy of “Ode to a Nightingale” or a stray page of Shakespeare, Kafka’s diary or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, we are drawn to manuscripts as talismanic objects, revealers of secrets, at once precious and terribly fragile. They bear both a human and a miraculous imprint. In a secular age, such items can bring one closer to an understanding of the term “holy.”

How much more so when the work in question is a holy book. The idea of discovering the original manuscript of the Bible — even supposing such a thing ever existed — is an impossible fantasy, but the aura surrounding the Aleppo Codex has something of the same power. Completed around 930 C.E., the codex was, until the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest-known handwritten copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in existence. In their succinct exposition of the book’s history, “Crown of Aleppo,” Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider also make the case for its being the most authoritative.

There's also a nice photo of one of the leaves of the codex.

More on the Aleppo Codex here.

Review of Jewish magic exhibition

THE JEWISH MAGIC EXHIBITION at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem is reviewed in The Forward:
Jews Have Been Magic for Thousands of Years

A Brief Survey From The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem Whets the Appetite for More

By Dan Friedman
Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.

We all believe in magic. Despite 300 years of industrial and social revolution, as well as unparalleled explanation of the natural world through the scientific method, we still throw salt over our shoulders, put up hamsas in our homes, wear lucky shirts to job interviews and run through tested game-day rituals, whether we are playing or watching. The new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, “Angels & Demons: Jewish Magic Through the Ages,” (open for a year from May 5) shows us how deep-rooted and complex those beliefs are.

The majority of the exhibition, which displays artifacts from North Africa, Byzantium and other locales more geographically appropriate for a museum based on the Bible lands, is of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” order of magic. Items and procedures that the rabbis might not condone, but would probably not go out of their way to condemn; spells to cure disease, charms to protect new mothers or newborn children and amulets to ward off evil or infestation were not religiously countenanced, but did little harm. In fact, the most recent amulet on display (placed next to the most ancient item, from the 8th century BCE at the exhibition’s entrance) is a text with specific instructions for use. This text, written in 1992, cured the owner who every day for a week drank water in which the parchment had been steeped and then wore it in a silver holder until the problem was resolved.

There's only one significant criticism:
In the end, the main drawback of “Angels & Demons” is its logistical limitations of space and scope. It’s a shame that such a suggestive exhibition couldn’t be spread out more. The surface of the prevalence, pattern and practice of Jewish magic and its context in the larger world of Mediterranean mythology is barely scratched by this worthy introduction. Samangalof and friends come from an entirely alternative mythical system that would surely enrich our understanding of midrashic traditions. The museum is running a series of events that allows collectors, users and current practitioners of the magical arts to shed light on this marginal but very Jewish narrative. Perhaps, with intervention from either side of the black curtain, such a show might become possible in the future!
The article also has lots of good photographs of exhibit items.

Previous reviews here. It is striking how many of the texts come from the last century or two. Magic practices have never died out and continue today in very many religious traditions.