Saturday, September 25, 2010

More on the Cyrus Cylinder in Iran

Persian Jews welcome the return of the Cyrus Cylinder home

Friday, 24 September 2010 09:47 | PDF Print E-mail

By Brokhim Davoudian from Tehran for CAIS

LONDON, (CAIS) -- The Cyrus Cylinder loaned by the British Museum to Iran and currently on show at the National Museum in Tehran has attracted attention nationally and internationally and has excited all Iranians including the small community of the Iranian Jews.

The Cyrus Cylinder signifies humanity and kindness and it is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first declaration of human rights issued by the ancient Iranian emperor, Cyrus the Great in 6th century BCE.

Amongst Iranians the most excited for the return of the Cyrus Cylinder being home after forty years, is the small Jewish community. The Iranian Jewish population better known as ‘Persian Jews’, constitute the largest among the Islamic countries.

A Tehran Rabbi excitingly stating: “it is wonderful and I’m much exited to see that the Cylinder is home – in fact I am doubley exited, as an Iranian as well as a Jew.”

He continued: “the Cylinder is a Persian artefact, but its contents concerns the history of Jewish people as much as Iranians, which echoes the past and is the voice of our ancestors – it tells us about the history of my ancestors, the Hebrews who were liberated by the ‘anointed of God’ from Babylonian captivity and their return to the holy land. It is the history of my forefathers who stayed behind and who had chosen Iran as their home.”

The Cyrus Cylinder did not "return home" and it is not "a Persian artifact." It was excavated in the ruins of Babylon, so, if anything, it is an Iraqi artifact. But, as I've said before, I prefer to think of it as part of the cultural heritage of humanity.

Background here and follow the links. For the Spiegel article, the Payvand response to it, and my thoughts on Cyrus and human rights, see here and here.

UPDATE: I don't mean to dismiss the understandable fact that Iranians, and especially Iranian Jews, are interested in the Cyrus Cylinder because of its content. Whether that was sufficient reason for the British Museum to loan it to Iran under current circumstances is another matter. I'm not convinced.

Lecture: Dobroruka on Zoroastrian-Hellenistic Apocalypses

LECTURE at SOAS on 14 October:
Hesiodic reminiscences in Zoroastrian-Hellenistic apocalypses

Professor Vicente Dobroruka (Centre for Jewish-Hellenistic Studies, University of Brasilia)
Follow the link for details.

Kimberly Stratton interviewed about Satan

PROFESSOR KIMBERLY STRATTON is interviewed about Satan:
Getting reacquainted with Satan

By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen September 25, 2010 1:02

Kimberly Stratton teaches a new Carleton University course on the history of Satan, looking at early Biblical references all the way up to Hollywood movies, with an emphasis that man’s ideas of God and goodness, evil and misfortune, are shaped by history.
Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen

The devil is not who we think he is. In fact, for much of ancient history, he wasn’t even a “he,” says Kimberly Stratton, who is teaching a new Carleton University course on the history of Satan.

The earliest Biblical references use “satan” as a verb, meaning to block or prevent something.

In the Book of Numbers, an angel blocks or “satans” Balaam from cursing the Israelites. “In the original Hebrew, the verb is to ‘satan’ him,” says Stratton. “The angel himself was a normal angel of God.”

In the Book of Job, “satan” is a job title, something like a Crown prosecutor who seeks sinners and brings them to justice.

“He is still an angel in God’s court. There is no indication that he is an opponent of God. He just seems to be an angel doing his job. If anything, he has a higher-ranking position in heaven.”

Even in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, the Devil tests Jesus in the desert, but then he disappears, and ministering angels come in. “So it’s not clear there that he isn’t still part of God’s entourage. … acting somehow as the Crown attorney.”

Stratton outlines in her course how man’s ideas of God and goodness, evil and misfortune, are shaped by history.

Sounds like a good course.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Did wind part the "Red Sea?"

Computers show how wind could have parted Red Sea


New computer simulations have shown how the parting of the Red Sea, as described in the Bible, could have been a phenomenon caused by strong winds.

The account in the Book of Exodus describes how the waters of the sea parted, allowing the Israelites to flee their Egyptian pursuers.

Simulations by US scientists show how the movement of wind could have opened up a land bridge at one location.

This would have enabled people to walk across exposed mud flats to safety.

The results are published in the open-access journal Plos One.

Unfortunately, this story is sweeping through the gullible mainstream media like, well, a strong east wind.

The problem with this kind of wild guesswork is that it insists on taking stories as literal history when they give every appearance of being legends. Their historical basis, if any, is irrecoverable using such historical tools as we have, and we need not assume any historical basis for them at all. Such notions ("theories" would be a rather generous term) give a naturalistic explanation for something presented in the text as a miracle, but advance no actual historical evidence that such a natural event happened. The argument is simply that if one insists that the story have a factual, non-miraculous basis, one can reinterpret the story to be about an event that happened in this way, even though it is not the event described in the text.

The prose narrative about this particular biblical episode was written centuries after the supposed event. Even the poetic passage in Exodus 15:1-18, which has been argued by Cross et al. to be linguistically and typologically early, is likely generations to centuries after the event. The poem is also heavily influenced by the Canaanite myth of the warrior storm god defeating the chaotic sea dragon, so any event behind it has been thoroughly processed through a mythic template.

The most sensible historical-critical approach to the story of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is that it is a origins legend based in a creation myth. One need not assume any historical basis for it and any such basis has probably been reworked beyond recognition.

We are being asked to assume, nevertheless, that some historical core lies behind the story and it has been recovered by these scientists, who based it on the widely-held theory that the Israelites took a northern route close to the Mediterranean coast during the flight from Egypt. Is it possible that these scientists are right? Sure, although it would have been an awfully lucky coincidence that this strong, precisely placed wind came along just in time to save the fleeing Israelites and left just in time to thwart the Egyptian pursuers. But the question for the historian is never, "Is this possible?" (pretty much always the answer would be yes), but rather is "What is the evidence and how persuasive is it?" Not very in this case.

One can also believe the story as presented: as a miracle brought about by divine intervention. That's a matter of faith, but I have no quarrel with it as long as it is so labeled.

It is telling, but sadly predictable, that no biblical scholars were even consulted for this BBC story. The Plos One article is here, and it too ignores the scholarly literature on the Exodus traditions apart from a couple of apologetic works. We have encountered the journal Plos One before and I have raised a concern about it here. It makes much of its rigorous peer review process, but it labels itself as a science/medicine journal and I doubt very much that any biblical scholars were involved in the peer review of this piece.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Phoenicia reaches Malta

THE GOOD SHIP PHOENICIA has reached Malta:
History recreated as 'Phoenicia' sails in

(Times of Malta)

The Phoenicia, a replica 600 BC Phoenician merchant ship, sailed gracefully into Marsamxett harbour today on one of the final legs of an expedition covering 17,000 miles around Africa.

The 20m long vessel, built using traditional methods, arrived from Carthage.

She depart in the direction of Syria on Monday.

Background here.

13th annual Bible & Archaeology Fest

Announcing the 13th annual Bible and Archaeology Fest in Atlanta

The Biblical Archaeology Society announces the 13th annual Bible and Archaeology Fest in Atlanta Georgia where 20 scholars will present the latest research on topics such as early Christianity, Gnostic scholarship, the Hebrew Bible, and more.

PRLog (Press Release) – Sep 22, 2010 – Announcing the 13th annual Bible and Archaeology Fest, to be held November 19–21, 2010, in Atlanta, Georgia. Twenty leading scholars will convene from around the world to share their research with the public in a dynamic seminar series designed specifically for the interested lay person. Concurrent sessions over the three-day period will address the latest developments in the fields of early Christianity, Gnostic scholarship, the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Israel and Biblical archaeology. For thirteen years, the Biblical Archaeology Society is proud to be the only organization to bring current Biblical research to the general public straight from the scholars who are at the forefront of their fields.

One might want to note in passing that the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, with four or five thousand delegates attending, is also happening at the same time and same place.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


SUKKOT (the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles) begins this evening at sundown. Best wishes to all those celebrating.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Job in Ancient Judaism at Indiana Univ, Bloomington

JOB IN ANCIENT JUDAISM at Indiana University, Bloomington:
From J. Albert Harrill

Assistant Professor in Ancient Judaism

The Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Program in Jewish Studies invites applications for a tenure-track assistant professor in Ancient Judaism. Ph.D. or equivalent required. Applicants should demonstrate engagement with the critical study of post-biblical, Second Temple Judaism and/or the classical texts of early rabbinic history and culture. The successful applicant must maintain ongoing research, a record of creative and effective teaching, and an active professional profile. Teaching obligations will extend from introductory and upper-level undergraduate courses to graduate training at the master's and doctoral levels.

Applications received prior to November 1, 2010 will be assured full consideration. Applicants can anticipate the possibility of a preliminary interview at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (November 18-21 in Atlanta) or the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (December 19-21 in Boston).

Applicants must mail a cover letter, C.V., a writing sample, and a dossier with at least three letters of recommendation to:

Ancient Judaism Search Committee
The Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Program in Jewish Studies
1011 E. Third Street, Goodbody Hall 326
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405-2601

Women and minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply. Indiana University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
Via the Agade list. Oddly, I can find no notice of the job on the Indiana University, Bloomington, website.

Golb identity-theft trial update

GOLB IDENTITY-THEFT TRIAL UPDATE: The AP has an article on the latest: "NY man in Dead Sea Scrolls trial: It's revenge."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Samaritan synagogue excavated in Bet She'an

AN ANCIENT SAMARITAN SYNAGOGUE has been excavated in Bet She'an (Bet Shean, Beit Shean):
Archaeologists in Israel Find a 1,500 Year Old Samaritan Synagogue

JERUSALEM.- The remains of a synagogue and farmstead that operated in the Late Byzantine period, which were unknown until now, were exposed in an archaeological excavation conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and underwritten by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, prior to enlarging a residential quarter south of Bet Sheʽan, c. one half kilometer west of the Jordan Valley highway (Route 90).


The building that was exposed consisted of a rectangular hall (5 x 8 meters), the front of which faces southwest, toward Mount Gerizim, which is sacred to Samaritans. Five rectangular recesses were built in the walls of the prayer hall in which wooden benches were probably installed. The floor of the hall was a colorful mosaic, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the center of the mosaic is a Greek inscription, of which a section of its last line was revealed:
meaning “This is the temple”.


Apocalyptic traditions and Middle Eastern politics

APOCALYPTIC FOUNDATIONAL TRADITIONS in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are explored by James Carroll (Boston Globe) in relation to current politics in the Middle East: Turning history into hope: Teetering on the apocalypse. Excerpt:
This series of columns began by pointing to Western anti-Semitism and European colonialism as unindicted co-conspirators in this conflict, and we end by naming two more — the taboo realities of a transcendent weapon and a self-hypnotizing End Time theology. Neither is explicitly on the negotiators’ agenda, but each alone is enough to wreak havoc in the Middle East; together, on the world.

First theology. The humane mainstream of monotheistic religion, and therefore the civilizations that spring from it, has included an inhuman countercurrent that swirls around the idea that God wills violence. Indeed, God uses hyper-violent destruction as a mode of redemption. We call this apocalypse. In apocalyptic texts (I & II Maccabees, Daniel, Enoch are Hebrew examples; Revelation is the supreme Christian example), history is envisioned as climaxing in cosmic warfare between God and Satan. That the battle is imagined as centered in Jerusalem defines its tie to the present conflict: Jerusalem an eternal cockpit of violence.

But apocalyptic struggle, far from local, is for nothing less than cosmic order. In such a battle, no price is too high to pay, which means a destroyed earth is acceptable and individual martyrdom is glorious. The virtue of suffering embraced for the higher cause of good against evil becomes an absolute.

This vision did not come out of thin air. It was a way of coping with the savageries of actual wars, centered in Jerusalem. The bloody apogee was reached in the wars waged by Rome against the Jewish people at the beginning of the Common Era. The Jewish historian Josephus says that more than a million Jews were killed in the first Roman war, around the year 70. The Roman historian Tacitus says that more than 600,000 Jewish men, women, and children defended Jerusalem against the Roman siege. It felt like the end of the world. Jewish resistance embraced martyrdom, as typified by the saga of Masada, where the last Jewish fighters killed themselves rather than surrender.

Thus, exactly as the Passion narratives about the death of Jesus were being written down, tens of thousands of Rome-resisting Jews were crucified. The Book of Revelation, composed in the thick of the violence, portrays the Roman war in ferocious — if mainly symbolic — terms (Rome is Babylon, The emperor Nero is the beast). Yet the apocalyptic violence of God is most clearly dramatized in the Gospel notion that the God-willed death of Jesus is the transcendent destruction that saves the cosmos. Golgotha is the highpoint of martyrdom.

The Book of Revelation, also known, tellingly, as Apocalypse, locates End Time mayhem, yes, in Jerusalem. More than other texts, it planted the idea in the Western mind that the human race is ultimately doomed to a mass suicide-murder from which it can be rescued only after the fact and magically. Such holy destruction defines the rushing current of apocalyptic millennialism.
There seems to be a bit of slippage here between apocalypses, apocalyptic, eschatology, and decisive wars. Daniel, the books collected in 1 Enoch, and the Book of Revelation are apocalypses (revelations of heavenly secrets by divine being to a human being). Apocalypses are usually interested in eschatology: the theology of ultimate issues, especially the cosmic final judgment and the fate of individuals after death. (The Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch is more interested in personal than cosmic eschatology, as are the Gnostic apocalypses.) 1-2 Maccabees deal with the persecution of Judaism by Antiochus Epiphanes and the successful Jewish guerilla war against him (the "Maccabean Revolt, a decisive war). They are historical works, not apocalypses. Presumably Mr. Carroll includes them because the Maccabean Revolt is the setting of the Book of Daniel and the Animal Apocalypse (the latter again in 1 Enoch). Both authors expected this revolt to be successful (it was) and to lead directly into the final judgment (it didn't). "Apocalyptic" is hard to define beyond generally the stuff you find in apocalypses, mainly revealed heavenly secrets, usually involving some form of cosmic or personal eschatology.

As the article goes on to say, there are eschatological and apocalyptic traditions in Islam as well. There's plenty to go around. And I'm sure you can work out for yourself what the "transcendent weapon" is.

Mr Carroll's larger point is that a lot of the ideas in these apocalypses which involve cosmic eschatology are lurking in the background and sometimes the foreground of the current politics of the Middle East, and that should make us more than a little uneasy. He concludes:
The apocalyptic mind is alive and well — armed and dangerous. If the Israelis and Palestinians succeed in defusing their local conflict, they will also have nudged the entire human family back from an impulse that, though long regarded as holy, is profoundly wicked. The earth was not created to end in a cataclysm of violence, and neither were Israel or Palestine. Peace, therefore. Shalom. Salam.
Amen to that.

Apollo signet ring excavated at Tel Dor

A SIGNET RING bearing the image of Apollo has been excavated at Tel Dor:
Archeological digs in North unearth rare signet ring

By BEN HARTMAN (Jerusalem Post)
09/20/2010 05:19

The rare find at the major port bears an intricate impression of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, light, and music.

An ancient bronze signet ring excavated recently in Tel Dor, near Zichron Ya’acov, indicates that well-heeled elites were living in the area during the Hellenistic era, archaeologists from the University of Haifa reported on Sunday.

The rare find at the major port bears an intricate impression of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, light, and music. According to Dr. Ayelet Gilboa, head of the university’s Department of Archeology, “A piece of highquality art such as this, doubtlessly created by a top-of-the-line artist, indicates that local elites developing a taste for fine art and the ability to afford it were also living in provincial towns, and not only in the capital cities of the Hellenistic kingdoms.”

The true nature of the find was only revealed after it was taken to be examined by Dr. Jessica Nitschke, professor of classical archeology at Georgetown University in Washington and Dr. Rebecca Martin, assistant professor of art at Southeast Missouri State University. Upon further examination, both scholars confirmed that the image on the ring is that of Apollo.

The signet ring dates to the 4th or 3rd century BCE.Rings of its type were used as seal or as an offering to the god whose image adorns them.

The article also mentions the Alexander the Great gemstone, on which more here. If an important mosaic floor has been excavated at Tel Dor recently, I'm afraid I must have missed it.

UPDATE (21 Spetember): Joseph I. Lauer notes that the full press release from the University of Haifa is here.

Nag Hammadi murders update

Nagaa Hammadi case adjourned to Oct. 17

By Safaa Abdoun/Daily News Egypt September 19, 2010, 4:05 pm

CAIRO: The Emergency State Security Criminal Court in Qena adjourned on Saturday the trial of the Nagaa Hammadi drive-by shooting suspects to October 17.

The trial was postponed so that Bishop Kirollos, who heads the church in the area, and Colonel Abdel Hameed Al-Alaki, chief of Nagaa Hammadi police station, can give their testimonies, reported Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The shooting, which took place after Christmas midnight mass on Jan. 7, left six Copts and a Muslim guard dead.

The repeated delays are not encouraging Coptic Christians to believe that justice will be done.

Background here.

Another DSS court case?

Grateful Dead Sea Scrolls dispute reaches New York court

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Bad Plus: "My Friend Metatron"

ARCHANGEL METATRON WATCH: In the new The Bad Plus album, Don't Stop, "My Friend Metatron":

Translations of Jewish classics into Arabic

TRANSLATIONS OF JEWISH CLASSICS into Arabic so far seems to have a limited audience:
Lost in Translation
A Ramallah man struggles to find a reading public for Maimonides

By Daniella Cheslow | Sep 14, 2010 7:00 AM | (Tablet Magazine)

When Mohammad Husein studied at Hebrew College in Boston, he was delighted to put to use his years learning Hebrew in Ramallah. As a Master’s student (class of 2007), he often went to Saturday morning services and helped his neighbors find their way in Hebrew prayer books. But once he returned to the West Bank, Husein, 54, found far less use for his professional interest in Judaism. A year after translating into Arabic an abridged version of the code of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, written by the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, Husein said he can only find work as a truck driver. His story reflects the difficult position of Arab Muslim scholars who wish to learn about Jews.

The article discusses in detail the difficulties of finding a market for this kind of work. Note also this aside:
Husein’s difficulty doesn’t surprise Mohamed Hawary, a professor of Jewish thought and comparative religions in Cairo’s Ain Shams University. Hawary wrote in an e-mail that an Arabic translation of the six books of the Mishnah were published between 2006 and 2009 but that no one has tackled Maimonides yet.
I didn't know there was an Arabic translation of the Mishnah. That's kind of cool.

But there is hope:
One option may lie with Intellectual Encounters, a virtual academic community of scholars who study the medieval world of Islam. On the steering committee are Hebrew University rector Sarah Stroumsa, Yale Islamic studies professor Frank Griffel, and Sari Nusseibeh, who is president of Al-Quds University but working on this project privately as an Islamic philosophy scholar. Funding is from the Rothschild Family’s Yad Hanadiv Foundation in Jerusalem.

Academic director Raquel Ukeles said the program will include a course on medieval Islam to be taught at Yale, Al-Quds, Bar Ilan University in Israel, and Tübingen University in Germany. Further, the program’s website will publish translations of important works, and scholars who speak Hebrew and Arabic would be useful. Ukeles, who has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar, said, “Everywhere I go people ask me, ‘Can you recommend books about Jewish philosophy?’ ”

“Now that I know about Husein, and if he’s doing good work, I think I can work with him to raise money,” she said.
I wish Mr. Husein every success with his work.

As the article notes, much of the work of Maimonides was written in Judeo-Arabic - Arabic written in the Hebrew alphabet. A lot of Hebrew literature was also translated into Judeo-Arabic in the Middle Ages for Arabic-speaking Jews. I need to gear myself up to work with this brand of Arabic soon, because some of the earliest and best manuscript evidence for the Hebrew document Sefer ha-Razim (Sepher HaRazim) , which I am translating for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project, is found in a Judeo-Arabic translation from the Cairo Geniza.