Saturday, January 22, 2011

Zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues

ZODIAC MOSAICS IN ANCIENT SYNAGOGUES in the land of Israel are collected and analyzed in an excellent BAR article by Walter Zanger. It has good photographs of the mosaics and takes the reader systematically through the sites. His conclusions are also, for the most part, spot-on. Excerpt:
What have we found? We have found seven places in Israel where Jews put zodiac wheels, Helios, the four seasons, a panel of synagogue objects, and sometimes remembrance of righteous ancestors in mosaic on the floor of their synagogues. For the record, we have never found a zodiac in a Jewish context outside of Israel, and every zodiac found in Israel was in a synagogue.

That fact tells us what we already knew: that these zodiacs were certainly not just decorations or pretty pictures. Nor were they attempts at astrology (predicting the future) or astronomy. The Ark, candelabrum, shofar, etc. were put in synagogues (and on tombstones, lintels, doorposts and catacombs), the most serious of places for the Jewish community. And the inscriptions on the zodiacs themselves were invariably in Hebrew, even if the common languages of the day, Aramaic or Greek were added. That is, the zodiacs were important and meant something to the people who made them. The question is: What? It is time to suggest some conclusions.

The evidence indicates that we are in the presence of a mystical Hellenistic-Byzantine Jewish tradition, a tradition that Talmudic Judaism either ignored or suppressed,29 a tradition we would not know anything about (for it left no literature) were it not for the discovery of this artwork, these symbols.30 The mosaics are in fact the literature of the movement. We need to learn how to read them.
I do disagree with the last point ("it left no literature"). Anyone who has worked with the Talmudic-era Hebrew magical treatise Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of the Mysteries) will not be surprised at all by the zodiac symbolism or use of pagan gods in these synagogue mosaics. The Talmudic tradition is hostile to such magical and mystical traditions (although perhaps not quite as hostile as one might expect). But the hostility is consistently couched in a way that indicates that such traditions existed in Judaism were popular enough to require refutation. Sefer ha-Razim (on which more here and here) includes a fair amount of astrological symbolism, and some of the rites involve the making of images and even the invocation of the pagan god Helios. Yet the practitioners of these rites are clearly – in their way – religious Jews. It's hard to tell how they justified the pagan influences in their own minds. I suspect they thought along the lines of the pagan gods being angels under the control of the one true God, astrology just being one set of natural laws created by that God in his universe, and magic being a perfectly appropriate technology as long as it did not involve actually worshiping anyone but the true God. In this context, the synagogue mosaics preserve fairly mild uses of the same traditions.

You can read Sefer ha-Razim in English translation by Michael A. Morgan in Sepher Ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries (SBLTT 25/SBLPS 11; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983). I am currently working on a translation based on much better manuscript evidence for volume two of the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Did Jehoshaphat Really Jump?


IDF on Epiphany celebrations at traditional site of Jesus' baptism

THE IDF reports on the successful and safe Epiphany celebrations at the traditional site of Jesus' baptism:
Holy Water Runs Deep

20 January 2011 , 12:38

Ten thousand Christian pilgrims dipped into the Jordan River near Jericho, at a site holy for both Jews and Christians. The event is part of the celebration of the Epiphany, which takes place every winter with the coordination of the Civil Administration and the help of the IDF and Israeli Police. The venue is subsidized by the Israeli government.
Background here.

8 Famous Fictional Archaeologists Who Suck At Their Job

CRACKED: 8 Famous Fictional Archaeologists Who Suck At Their Job.

Robert Eisenman on the James Ossuary inscription

ROBERT EISENMAN has an essay on the James Ossuary inscription in the Huffington Post:
'The James Ossuary' and Its Authenticity

Now that the extended 'trial' over "the James Ossuary" or "James Bone Box" in Israel is nearing its conclusion and all that remains to be announced is the verdict -- which in the present writer's mind is a foregone conclusion, no evaluation of data having had to take this long without basically a verdict of "unproven" as regards forgery being the outcome -- it is time to take stock of where we stand with regard to this "Box"; so that such a 'verdict' will not come as too much of a shock to those convinced of some suspiciousness connected with it and its sudden seemingly almost miraculous appearance or willy-nilly 'surfacing,' just when one might have expected it to.

I am highly skeptical of most of Professor Eisenman's theories, but I share his reservations about the authenticity of the "brother of Jesus" part of the James Ossuary inscription. And I like his hermeneutic of suspicion toward discoveries that are "too perfect":
My main objection to the ossuary, however as I said, is the nature of the inscription itself. I say this as someone who would be happy if an artifact of this type were true -- someone willing to be convinced, as I would like the burial place of James to be found. Afterall, being the author of a book on this 'James,' I would stand more to gain by its authenticity than many others. But this "Bone Box" is just too pat -- too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is usually a clear warning sign.


Then there is 'the brother of Jesus' part, which was seemingly added and written in another, different hand. Almost no ancient source calls 'James' this. This is what we moderns have come to know him as or call him. Even Paul, our primary New Testament witness and source, refers to him 'James the brother of the Lord.' If the ossuary had said something like 'James the Zaddik' or 'James the Just One,' which is how all ancient sources referred to him -- including Hegesippus from the Second Century CE, Eusebius from the Fourth, and Jerome and Epiphanius in the Fifth -- then I would have more willingly credited it.

But to call him, not only by his paternal but also his fraternal name -- and this in an obvious addition -- this, I am unfamiliar with on any ossuary and, again, it appears to me to be directly pointed at us a later audience primarily composed of believers. This is what I mean by the formulation being 'too Perfect.' It is too pointed and just doesn't ring true -- to the modern ear, particularly that of the believer's, perhaps; but to the ancient? Perhaps a later pilgrim from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE might have described 'James' in this manner, but probably no one would have done so in his lifetime. Moreover, this is not what our paleographers are saying. As we saw above, they are dating it in 63 CE (sic)!
Larry Schiffman once articulated the "too perfect" principle as "The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged."

The James Ossuary has been discussed endlessly on PaleoJudaica. My most recent update on the Israel forgery trial is here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Biblical Hebrew taught online by HU

BIBLICAL HEBREW TAUGHT ONLINE: Hebrew University and eTeacher Group Bring Ancient Language to Students around the World.

Bart Ehrman lecturing at UT

BART EHRMAN is lecturing at the University of Tennessee:
New Testament scholar to speak at UT

Renowned New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill will kick off the newly created David L. Dungan Memorial Lecture at 5 p.m. Thursday in the UC auditorium at UT.

Ehrman's lecture is titled "Does The New Testament Contain Forgeries? The Surprising Claims of Modern Scholars" and is presented by UT's Department of Religious Studies.

Ehrman's books on the New Testament and early Christianity include "Misquoting Jesus," "God's Problem," "Jesus, Interrupted," and "The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot." He is an expert on the New Testament manuscript tradition, the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha and the apostolic fathers.

Following the presentation, Ehrman will participate in a Q-and-A session, and a reception will be held in the University Center Crest Room.

Minefields around Jesus' (traditional) baptism site

Thousands march past minefield to reach Jesus' traditional baptism site

By Aron Heller (CP) – 1 day ago

Just months before the official opening of one of Christianity's holiest sites to visitors, the area where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus remains surrounded by thousands of landmines.

Israel says the sites visited by pilgrims and tourists in an area known as Qasr el-Yahud will be safe, but advocacy groups warn that crowds could be in danger.

On Tuesday, some 15,000 Christian pilgrims marched between two fenced-in minefields to reach the Epiphany ceremony led by the Greek Orthodox patriarch on the Jordan River, eight kilometres east of the oasis town of Jericho at the edge of the West Bank.

That said, this at least hasn't put off the President of Russia:
Medvedev visits baptism site of Jesus

Amman, January 20, Interfax - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has visited the site of the baptism of Christ on the Jordan River.

The tour around the holy place was conducted for the Russian head of state by Dia Madani, Director of the national park of the site of the baptism of Christ.

Medvedev visited the fountain of St. John the Baptist. Having carefully listened to the scholar's story, the president went down to the fountain to take several pictures.

Having taken a few pictures, he headed toward the baptism site of Christ.

After visiting the National Park, the president shared his impressions with journalists and then headed to the site where a house is being built for Russian pilgrims.

UPDATE (21 January): More here.

Philologos on "The Elephants of Khartoum"

PHILOLOGOS discusses a reader's question about The Elephants of Khartoum. Excerpt:
The city of Khartoum began as an army outpost established in 1821 by the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha, who chose for it the strategic point at which the White Nile, flowing northward from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, flowing westward from the highlands of Ethiopia, join in one river. At their confluence is an island that, surveyed from the heights on the river’s banks, lacks only an eye to look exactly like the trunk of an elephant attached to the lower jaw and forehead. Called el-khartum, “the elephant’s trunk,” this gave Khartoum its name.

In Hebrew, the original meaning of ḥartom is a bird’s beak, and the word’s earliest textual appearance is in a discussion in the mishnaic tractate of Teharot. Yet since birds’ beaks and elephants’ trunks are anatomically analogous, khartum and ḥartom are clearly related, as they also are to Hebrew ḥotem and Arabic khatm, both meaning “nose.” And since the prow of a ship is, so to speak, its beak or nose, ḥartom in modern Hebrew came to mean a prow, from which its further extension to the nose cone of a rocket was but a small step.

This leaves us with Pharaoh’s “magicians,” as the King James Version of the Bible calls them. Lately, their antics in vying with Moses and Aaron at such tricks as turning staffs into snakes, described in the weekly Torah portions from the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, have been entertaining the synagogue-goers among us. In the Hebrew Bible, the term for them is ḥartumim, a word that always appears in the plural but whose form in the singular would indeed be, as Mr. Rabbie observes, ḥartom. Is this connected to elephant trunks, bird beaks and rocket cones?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t. The ḥartom of Exodus is a word, unrelated to any other in Hebrew, that comes from ancient Egyptian. ...

Tu B'shevat

TU B'SHEVAT, the New Year for Trees, began last night at sundown.

The Semitic Inscriptions Website

This website is a database of ancient texts written in Semitic languages and inscribed on various media: tablets, potteries, manuscripts, etc. It grants direct access to all kinds of information about these inscriptions: their origin, their age, their script... And of course, most importantly, the text itself, analyzed, translated, and annotated.

John Hobbins on the new Ben Sira fragment

JOHN HOBBINS comments on the new Ben Sira Geniza fragment at the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog.

Background here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

SBL guidelines on giving a better meeting presentation

SOME GUIDELINES on Giving a Better Meeting Presentation from the Society of Biblical Literature are available at the link. This has some good advice, but I would say to go ahead and be brave and use "is."

I posted some advice on the same subject some years ago here.

WSJ reviews Lod Mosaic exhibit at the Met

THE LOD MOSAIC EXHIBITION at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is reviewed in the WSJ:
A Dining Room's Feast for the Eyes


New York

In 1996 a highway was being constructed in Lod, a town 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, when, as so often happens in those parts, the workers came upon an ancient and heretofore unknown archaeological site. Naturally all work stopped at once, a bevy of specialists, led by Dr. Miriam Avissar, was called in and, a few months later, a wonder was announced to the world.

The most conspicuous component of the excavations was a merchant's house from about A.D. 300. Discovered therein was the nearly intact mosaic floor of a dining room. Of several mosaics unearthed at the site, this is the one that now stands unveiled to the general public, for the first time anywhere, in the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court in the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman Galleries. The Met is the first of four American venues to which the mosaic will travel before returning to Israel, where it will be the star of the not-yet-completed Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. At the Met, regrettably, it is accompanied by a video loop whose soundtrack, although informative, is likely to distract viewers who would prefer to contemplate the mosaics in silence.

Background here.

Syriac taught at living languages center in Turkey

ARAMAIC WATCH: Syriac as a living language:
Living languages center founded in Diyarbakır

19 January 2011, Wednesday / TODAY’S ZAMAN WITH WIRES, İSTANBUL

A living languages center has been established at the Diyarbakır-based Dicle University, where Kurdish, Zaza, Syriac, Armenian and Arabic language courses will be offered.

After the establishment of a living languages institute at Mardin Artuklu University in late 2009, the second such institute has been opened at Dicle University. The center, which will begin operations after final approval by the Higher Education Board (YÖK), will provide elective Kurdish, Syriac, Zaza and Arabic courses. The center will also open language courses to local residents.


Sidnie White Crawford lecturing on DSS at Baylor

Baylor Department of Religion Welcomes Expert on Dead Sea Scrolls

Jan. 18, 2011

Follow us on Twitter: @BaylorUMediaCom

"What the Dead Sea Scrolls Teach Us About the Bible" will be the topic of a lecture by Dr. Sidnie White Crawford, Willa Cather professor and chair of classics and religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lincoln, Neb. at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19 in Miller Chapel at the Tidwell Bible Building, 600 Speight Ave. on the Baylor campus.

The event, hosted by the Baylor department of religion, is free and open to the public.

Crawford received her bachelor's degree in 1981 from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and her doctoral degree in 1988 from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Her areas of expertise include the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism.

She is a member of the international publication team for the Dead Sea Scrolls and is responsible for editing 14 manuscripts from the Qumran collection. She has taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 2001 and is a general editor for the Oxford Hebrew Bible Project, which will result in an eclectic critical edition of every book of the Hebrew Bible. She is the volume editor for the Book of Deuteronomy.

For more information, visit

by Katy McDowall, student newswriter

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Peter Rabbit in ancient Galilean Aramaic

ARAMAIC WATCH: Peter Rabbit is being translated into ancient Galilean Aramaic. Really.

Cambridge exhibition on KJB@400

A masterpiece of biblical proportions

Home to more than seven million books, Cambridge University Library is to celebrate the most influential, most bought, most read and most widely disseminated English language book of them all – the King James Bible.

A five month long exhibition - Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible - will feature a world-class display of biblical treasures when it opens to the public, for free, today (January 18, 2011).

Gathering together much of the source material that the original Cambridge translators used to begin their masterwork in the early seventeenth century, the exhibition includes William Tyndale's first pocket-sized smuggled editions of his own translations, Henry VIII's enormous Great Bible, a first edition of the Geneva or 'Breeches' Bible and also a very rare copy of the notorious 'Wicked Bible' of 1631 - featuring the misprint 'Thou shalt commit adultery'.

One of the University's greatest treasures, the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 - the first printed Bible of all - will also be on display, alongside two fourth-century leaves of St John's Gospel in Coptic, and an 11th-century psalter in Latin and Old English.

The University Library has been able to draw material for the exhibition from the Bible Society's unique library and archives, held in Cambridge since 1985, as well as from its own pre-eminent collections.


New Hebrew fragment of Ben Sira from Cairo Geniza

APOCRYPHA WATCH: A new Hebrew fragment of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) has been discovered in the Cairo Geniza.
With the great progress made in the systematic investigation of the Genizah materials in the latter part of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries, the prospects of finding further Ben Sira fragments in the various collections have dwindled significantly. It is against the background of this fact that we must judge the excitement of the discovery of a new fragment in the Additional Series of the Taylor-Schechter Collection: T-S AS 118.78. Here one is reminded of a judgment offered over a decade ago by Stefan Reif: ‘There may be other Ben Sira items lurking among the smaller and less legible contents of some of the Additional Series binders’ (Reif 1997). It is, furthermore, particularly gratifying that this latest fragment bears the name of Schechter, whose life-work is so intimately connected with the discovery of the Genizah in general and the Hebrew Ben Sira in particular.

The new fragment belongs to ms D, which had been represented up till now by a single leaf from the collection of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris: ID 1 (Lévi 1900). It contains the text of Ben Sira 7:18–8:18, all of which is also attested in ms A (7:20–21, 23–25; 8:7 are also attested in ms C). The overlap is fortunate, as the new fragment is in a very poor state of preservation, so that its numerous lacunae can be filled in from the parallel source. On the other hand, because of the existence of the parallel source, the new fragment does not add significant new text to what had previously been known of the Hebrew Ben Sira, though a few letters missing in ms A can now be filled in. However, its reading in 7:31 may well provide a clue to the solving of an old interpretive problem. (We hope to treat this matter in a later publication.) ...
Photo and transcription and more background at the link.

UPDATE (20 January): More here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Greek edition of Infancy Gospel of Thomas

TONY BURKE'S new edition of the Greek text of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas should be coming out in the spring of this year.

Renovations to Kotel HaKatan

Kotel HaKatan renovated by Jerusalem Development Authority

By MELANIE LIDMAN (Jerusalem Post)
01/16/2011 02:58

Minor renovations took place over the past week in the area around Kotel HaKatan, or the Small Western Wall, which is located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Decades-old scaffolding was removed from the plaza, and a new sign was erected. The scaffolding had been built in 1972 to support a house near the wall that was in danger of collapsing. In 1990, an engineer had found that the building had shifted on its own and was no longer touching the scaffolding, making it redundant.

Outside of the Temple Mount, Kotel HaKatan is the second- closest spot to the Holy of Holies after the Kotel Tunnels.

The work is being carried out by the Jerusalem Development Authority.
As Joseph Lauer observes, rather different spins are being put on these renovations:

Arutz Sheva:
Work on "Small Kotel" Begins

For the first time in nearly 40 years, refurbishing work has begun on the Kotel HaKatan, the Small Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Kotel HaKatan is the little sister of the world famous Western Wall (Kotel). Both are exposed faces of the original western wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Herod over 2,000 years ago. However, while the Western Wall has been a pilgrimage and prayer site for Jews for centuries, is easily accessible, and is hundreds of yards long, the Small Wall has long been little-known, is out of the way, and is barely 10 meters long.

Jerusalem opens Muslim Quarter Jewish site to prayer, upsetting status quo
The Waqf - the Muslim religious trust - has specifically warned against opening the 'Little Kotel' to prayer gatherings, threatening a strong response.
UPDATE (19 January): The debate continues, with CAMERA's piece Ha'aretz Gets Little Right on 'Little Kotel'. Excerpt:
So what do we have here? First, an erroneous and misleading headline which reveals a total lack of understanding concerning the subject matter. Second, rather than reporting in an inside page on the improvement of the life of a few Arab families residing in the Muslim Quarter as a result of the removal of unnecessary scaffolding, Ha'aretz irresponsibly tries to ignite the area with a bombastic front-page headline, feeding into anti-Israel claims that "the Zionists want to destroy Al-Aqsa."

It is also impossible to ignore how veteran Ha'aretz reporter Akiva Eldar describes the two NGO's mentioned in his report — Ateret Cohanim and Ir Amin. While he dubs Ateret Cohanim a "right-wing organization," he calls Ir Amin simply "the non-profit organization Ir Amin," as if it were an apolitical non-profit working completely objectively. Ha'aretz is so skewed that editors do not even realize that special treatment is accorded to leftist non-profits even though they have just as much a political agenda as those on the right.

If Ha'aretz journalists are interested in writing about changes in Jerusalem's status quo, they could write about real news, such as the destruction that the Waqf has wrought on the Temple Mount for more than a decade. Since 1990, and especially since 2001, heavy and destructive equipment hauled away thousands of tons of Temple Mount rubble rich in archeological finds from several time periods. All this to build an underground mosque in the area known as Solomon Stables. Beyond the fact that Waqf officials broke the antiquities law and the planning and building law, they destroyed a huge amount of valuable archeological finds in one of the most important places in the world for the three monotheistic religions, out of total disregard for the cultural, historic and religious value of the relics.

These criminal acts, out in the open for all journalists to see, are a clear example of the violation of the status quo. When was the last time Akiva Eldar wrote about the Waqf's destruction of the Temple Mount, and when was the last time it appeared in the leading headline of the newspaper where he works?
To be fair, Haaretz has covered the illicit Waqf excavations on the Temple Mount and the Temple Mount sifting project that is trying to recover as much archaeological data from the excavated rubble as possible. See, for example, here and here. I cannot, however, find any articles on the subject by Akiva Eldar.

Recent posts on the Temple Mount sifting project are here and here, with links to past posts.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Nag Hammadi murder trial update

NAG HAMMADI MURDER TRIAL UPDATE: Verdict expected tomorrow for the case of sectarian violence in Naga Hammadi.

Background here. Related post here.

UPDATE: Man sentenced to death in Egypt over Copt killings (BBC).
Mohamed Ahmed Hussein was found guilty of shooting the group outside a midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas in Naga Hamady, southern Egypt.

The attack was thought to be revenge for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man.


Two other men are also on trial for the shooting. The court said the verdict against them would be announced next month. All three pleaded not guilty.