Saturday, May 28, 2011

More reviews of Sacred Trash, plus a video

SACRED TRASH: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, is getting lots of attention.

First, a review in Tablet Magazine:
Pieced Together

The Cairo Geniza did more than cast light on Judaism’s literary heritage; it helped us recognize that history’s raw materials can be anything from illuminated manuscripts to bits of junk

By Jenna Weissman Joselit | May 27, 2011 7:00 AM | Print | Email | tweetShare17

Chance encounters on street corners. Secret trips abroad. Whispered hints of buried treasure. To those of us steeped in the writings of John le Carré and Alan Furst, all this smacks of business as usual within the world of espionage. But, as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s new book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, reveals, such goings-on were once as much the province of scholars as spies. In the telling of how, against all odds, a “pestiferous wrack” of papers, as one Cambridge professor put it, became one of the most important finds of the late 19th- and early 20th century, Sacred Trash transforms life within the dusty, dry, and often desiccated groves of academe into something akin to a giant romp, a thrilling adventure yarn—hijinks among the highbrow.

Nah, that's how it is all the time for philologists.

Second, a review by Anthony Julius in the NYT. Excerpt:
It is perhaps the chief appeal of Hoffman and Cole’s book that it restores to life the mostly obscure and unnoticed scholars whose careers were touched by the geniza or who committed themselves to its study. Chief in interest among them must be the extraordinary Solomon Schechter (circa 1847-1915). Romanian and Hasidic by origin, Yeshiva- and then university-trained, a vigorous critic of what he regarded as the anti-Jewish bias of the German Protestant higher criticism (which questioned the dating of several books in the Hebrew Bible), he was a Cambridge don before leaving for the United States, but throughout his life, a charismatic, brilliant man of wide culture and eccentric manner. He became the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and is best known today as the man after whom the Conservative movement’s network of day schools is named. He immediately grasped the significance of the geniza materials, which had been shown to him in 1896 by Cambridge acquaintances — two elderly widows of scholarly bent, also wonderfully revived by Hoffman and Cole. Schechter alone was responsible for rescuing some 190,000 fragments. The collection came to dominate his life, taking him away from other scholarly projects. One of his colleagues remarked, “It makes me unutterably sad when I see your unique powers not turned to noble account.”
Third, a nice video interview of the two authors, also from Tablet:

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole on Sacred Trash from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

For earlier reviews, go here. Note also, the other, similarly titled, recent popular book on the same subject: Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah, by Mark Glickman.

Those "Syriac-wielding" "elderly widows of scholarly bent," Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, were recently the subject of their own biography, The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice, noted here and follow the links. They were the discoverers of the Gospels manuscript Codex Syriacus at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai.

Friday, May 27, 2011

James McGrath: An Introduction to Biblioblogs

HANDY: James McGrath has posted An Introduction to Biblioblogs in honor of his new digs at Patheos.

Temple Mount Faithful step in

Temple Mount Faithful petitions for excavation report

By RON FRIEDMAN (Jerusalem Post)
05/26/2011 22:40

MKs claim full publication of secret State Comptroller’s Report will harm Israel, ask public to trust decision-makers.

Fearing mass-scale destruction of holy artifacts under the Temple Mount, the Temple Mount Faithful, a group that calls for the Jewish takeover of the site, petitioned the High Court on Thursday to order the full publication of the secret State Comptroller’s Report on excavation works being conducted at one of the holiest places in the world.

Last week, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss submitted his biannual report, which included a special, secret report on state supervision of the works being conducted by the Jerusalem Islamic Wakf at the site.

The majority of the special report was not published, with the reasons cited being harm to Israel’s national security and possible harm to its foreign relations, but the small portion of it that was made public spoke of severe deficiencies in the oversight of the appropriate bodies over the works.

For that State Comptroller’s Report, see here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The world's oldest museum

THE WORLD'S OLDEST MUSEUM, founded by the daughter of the Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus in the city of Ur and excavated by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, is profiled in io9. No particular connection to ancient Judaism, but too cool not to link to.
What were we to think? Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken brick pavement of the sixth century BC, yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older than the pavement and the earliest perhaps sixteen hundred.
(HT Christopher Rollston.)

ETC: What To Do with SBL Bags?


Targuman: SBL Scholarship and Technology Advisory Board formed

AND I'M ON IT: SBL Scholarship and Technology Advisory Board formed. I'm pleased to be part of such an impressive lineup of Bible and ANE tech geeks.

Ancient Egypt in the news

ANCIENT EGYPT has been getting some attention lately.

Egyptian pyramids found by infra-red satellite images

By Frances Cronin BBC News

Seventeen lost pyramids are among the buildings identified in a new satellite survey of Egypt.

More than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements were also revealed by looking at infra-red images which show up underground buildings.

Initial excavations have already confirmed some of the findings, including two suspected pyramids.

The work has been pioneered at the University of Alabama at Birmingham by US Egyptologist Dr Sarah Parcak.

Keep 'em coming. Cross-file under "technology watch."

UPDATE: "space archaeologists?"

UPDATE (29 May): Zahi Hawass corrects the BBC story.

Second, a BMCR review:
Bojana Mojsov, Alexandria Lost: From the Advent of Christianity to the Arab Conquest. London: Duckworth, 2010. Pp. 155. ISBN 9780715638651. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Haas, Villanova University (

Nearly two decades ago, Peter Fraser observed that classical Alexandria, like Antioch and other cities of the Middle East, did not ultimately die of “a slow cancer, but two massive heart attacks following upon a chronic illness.”1 He identified these coronary catastrophes as the Sassanian capture of the city in 619 and `Amr ibn al-As’s conquest in September of 641. This is the principal theme of Bojana Mojsov’s Alexandria Lost. Mojsov, an Egyptologist with long experience in the field of Pharaonic religion, exhibits from the first page a passion for the city known by the ancients as “most glorious Alexandria.” She sets out to discover “What happened to ancient Alexandria and to the Great Library? Alexander’s city was the shining star of the Mediterranean Sea, the museum the pride of the classical world, the library the greatest collection of antiquity. How could they disappear so thoroughly, without a trace?” (6).

Mojsov's answer is that the Alexandrian cultural heritage was destroyed deliberately by the forces of religious intolerance, and inadvertently by armies contending for possession of the city. Mojsov cites the murder of Hypatia in 415 as the precipitating event that “sparked the drawn-out but violent destruction of the entire legacy of the classical city” (19). She later identifies the episcopate of Cyril as having “all but annihilated its long intellectual tradition,” and goes so far as to assert that after Cyril, “academic life became extinct” (53). Though the city limped along intellectually until the Arab conquest with the meager remnants of the Great Library distributed into private hands, she concludes that after the second and more violent Arab conquest of the city in 646, “the power of ignorance driven by faith ushered in 1,000 years of silence” (116)

The reviewer is skeptical about these conclusions.

Some past posts on the Library of Alexandria are here, here, here, and here.

Third, still on the theme of ancient Alexandria, a review of Agora in
Movie Review: Agora

By Francesca Rudkin
7:00 AM Thursday May 26, 2011

Alexandria in the 4th century is the setting for Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenabar's latest drama. A sweeping historical story taking in the science, politics, philosophy and religion of the time, Agora tells the story of Hypatia (Weisz), a feminist, Ancient Egyptian-style.

It's as ambitious as it sounds and is a fascinating introduction to Alexandria during this turbulent period. Throw in a melodramatic love triangle involving our heroine, her slave Davus (Minghella) and Orestes (Issac), the Prefect of Alexandria, and a generous two hours to give us Alexandria 101, and Agora has all the elements for compelling drama. Yet it fails to excite.

She gives it 3/5 stars. I have not yet seen Agora, but I want to, because of Rachel Weisz my professional interest in ancient religion in modern popular culture.

Justin Bieber's Jesus tattoo in Hebrew

TATTOO WATCH: Justin Bieber has acquired a "Yeshua" tattoo in Hebrew script (ישוע). It's even spelled correctly.

More ancient-language tattoos here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Eric M. Meyers on the earliest synagogues

ERIC M. MEYERS on the earliest synagogues:
Unearthing the First Shuls

Excavations from Israel over the past 50 years suggest that synagogues may be older than we initially thought.
This is not an area I know a lot about, but on his e-mail list Joseph Lauer comments, "With specific regard to the following article by Prof. Meyers [i.e., the one above - JRD], the dating of synagogue structures is still a matter of some controversy and it is hoped that further excavations, including at Huqoq by Prof. Jodi Magness and the IAA's David Amit beginning this summer, will shed more light on ancient synagogues."

Tear dow the Mughrabi Gate bridge

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: More controversy over the Mughrabi (Mugrabi) Gate bridge.
City: Destroy Mughrabi Gate within two weeks

By MELANIE LIDMAN (Jerusalem Post)
05/24/2011 07:51

Engineer says it was never meant for permanent use; lawyer insists no reason to hurry before court date.

The Jerusalem City Engineer sent a strongly worded letter to the Western Wall Heritage Fund on Sunday, stating that the temporary bridge to the Mughrabi Gate must be destroyed within two weeks, or the city will tear it down.

Since 2004, the covered ramp has been used as the main entry point for non-Muslim tourists to enter the Temple Mount from the Western Wall plaza, as well as for security forces entering the area in times of unrest.

Background here and follow the links.

KJB@400: Exploring The Genesis Of The KJV

Exploring The Genesis Of The KJV
King James Bible

First Posted: 05/23/11 08:04 PM ET Updated: 05/23/11 08:04 PM ET

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune
(re-posted in the Huffington Post)

(RNS) The King James Bible, translated from ancient Greek and Hebrew in 1611, is, by virtually all accounts, the most awe-inspiring work of English prose ever written.

Over the past four centuries, the KJV has sold more than 5 billion copies. Its exquisite English text has circulated the globe in the hands of missionaries and graced the homes of kings, pastors and peasants. Its lofty language has been repeated over pulpits and podiums, in prayers and poetry, by teachers and travelers.

The words are so familiar that some believers may think that's how God actually talks. Here, then, is an overview of how this world-changing work came to be.


Sergila, a late-antique Syriac-speaking village

SERGILA, a late-antique Syriac-speaking village in Syria is profiled by SANA:
Sergila ..A Distinguished Ancient Syrian Village Sample

May 24, 2011

IDLEB, North Syria, (SANA)- Sergila archeological village lies next to al-Bara village on al-Zawia Mountain in Idleb Province, about 330 km from Damascus. It is one of a group of archaeological nearby villages that are preserved in a good state. These villages give a true image of the countryside in the Northern part of Syria between the Byzantine and the Roman periods. Sergila has got various buildings, houses, churches, bathrooms and olive squeezers.


Historian Fayez Qweasrah said the importance of studying Sergila village is that it highlights the status of the Syrian countryside during the Roman and Byzantine periods, as the studies showed that the Syrian countryside was inhabited by active farmers who speak Syriac language and know Greek language.


More reviews of "Footnote"


In The Forward: More Than a 'Footnote' From Cannes. Excerpt:
“Footnote” was well received by critics at Cannes, who acknowledged Cedar’s shift of focus from the tense war terrain of the 2000 South Lebanon conflict in “Beaufort” to the academic skirmishes of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This film does not deal with conflict at the national level, but rather within the context of a personal story,” the director said at Cannes. “It reflects the desire to live peacefully in Israel. In the Talmud, it says that you should not do unto others as you would not like them to do unto you. In a word, compassion.” Talmudic texts were edited and conveyed orally, written down and copied in manuscripts over hundreds of years, and finally printed in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today the study of traditional sacred texts is controversial because the analytical approach questions the reliability of the manuscript. Uriel is a proponent of this “big picture” approach, while traditionalist Eliezer calls himself a philologist.
From the Village Voice:
7. Footnote, Joseph Cedar’s Talmudic tale of Talmud scholars, father and son, competing for the Israel Prize, is another sort of parable—a Kafka story that could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or 1930s Hollywood. If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of Jewish religion, this profoundly ironic, dryly absurdist burlesque is the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen in Cannes. Fittingly, it won the prize for best screenplay.
More reviews here (first part of post) and follow the links.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hackett and Huehnergard in defense of the humanities

JO ANN HACKETT AND JOHN HUEHNERGARD have published an editorial in the American-Statesman in defense of the humanities in the era of the bursting higher education bubble:
Two Texas professors on why academic research matters

By Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard


It was spring break 2009, and we were spending it in Florida, watching our beloved Red Sox play spring training games. We had a glorious week, seeing our baseball heroes a few feet from where we sat in the stands. Our time in Florida was cut short by a couple of days, though, so that we could fly to Austin to give a paper and to meet with members of the University of Texas' Department of Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of Religious Studies, and Deans Randy Diehl and Richard Flores of the College of Liberal Arts. When our two days were over, and we got situated in the plane for Boston, we each asked the other, "What do you think?" And we had the same answer: "We've got to make this work. I really want to come here."

Each of us had taught at Harvard University for more than two decades. But although Harvard had recently selected a historian as its president, a series of deans had made it clear that, as Harvard faced a financial meltdown, the humanities were expendable. If anywhere, Harvard should be the depository of, as well as the cutting edge of research in, what we know about our world and how we know it; instead, attrition was reducing our top-ranked program in ancient languages and cultures to a shadow of its former self. We felt it was time for a change.


Barely a month later we "retired" from Harvard and became members of the UT faculty. By August , we were ensconced in a new home and new offices, the whole process dizzyingly quick. But all for the best possible reason: We are happy here.

We are also now, suddenly, wondering whether we made a mistake.

The ideas we hear floated by some "experts" in higher education — that research and teaching should be separated and that some research isn't useful to the university, isn't cost-effective — are the exact opposite of what led us to move to Texas. They are also ideas that will ensure that UT will no longer be the great university we thought we were coming to.

The "professors who do not bring in as much money as they cost" is often code for the humanities. ...
Read it all. I am sorry to hear about such developments at Harvard. I got my Ph.D. there in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the 1980s (and studied comparative Semitics and historical grammar of Hebrew with John while I was there).

For related thoughts on the importance of the humanities, see here and here.

(HT the Agade list.)

Meanwhile, Semitic philology still has a presence in Texas for now, as shown not only by John's and Jo Ann's work at UT, but also by Jeff Childers's work on an edition of the Syriac version of the writings of John Chrysostom at Abilene Christian University. (Background here.)

Book reviews in Tablet Magazine

TABLET MAGAZINE has brief reviews of numerous books relating to medieval and late-antique Judaism in its current On the Bookshelf column. Most of them look interesting, although the one on Hebrew numerology by Stan Tenen sounds goofy. As the reviewer says, "one hopes that he’s a conceptual artist lampooning new agey Kabbalists, in which case he’s hilarious." But the rest seem worthwhile.

Happy Saints Cyril and Methodius Day!

SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS DAY is being celebrated today by Orthodox Christians in Russia and Bulgaria. It commemorates the invention of the Slavonic alphabet and the translation of biblical and related literature from Greek into Old Church Slavonic. For background on relevance to the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha etc., see here and follow the links.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Popular culture, Metatron, Talmud, science fiction, Gnosticism ...

POPULAR CULTURE IN THE MEDIA is taking an unusual interest in some of PaleoJudaica's favorite themes today.

The new film Footnote continues to get attention after its Cannes screening, for which it has won an award:
Israel's Cedar wins award at Cannes

By Viva Sarah Press (Israel21c)
May 23, 2011

Israeli film director Joseph Cedar clinched the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Footnote.

Footnote is a drama-comedy about the rivalry between a father and son who are competing Talmud scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Jason Solomons gives it a brief review in his Guardian Cannes roundup:
Contrasting with Malick's new agey, Romantic reverie was the old age study of the holy word contained in Joseph Cedar's Talmud tragicomedy Footnote, probably my favourite film of the festival. It's about a father and son who are both respected but very different Talmud scholars and the Shkolnik family "broigus" that ensues when father is finally awarded the prestigious recognition of the Israel prize.

The film was partly inspired by Cedar's own experience as an Oscar nominee for his last feature, war film Beaufort, but this is closer to something like the Coen brothers' A Serious Man or a David Lodge campus comedy. The performances from Lior Ashkenazi as the son and Shlomo Bar Aba are outstanding in this very smart, very Jewish film. What's not to like?
More reviews of Footnote here.

[UPDATE (24 May): Praise for the Hebrew University's Talmud Department from Manuscript Boy at Hagahot.]

From Talmud to mysticism: the Archangel Metatron make an appearance as a character (sort of) in a play currently running in Santa Monica. Reviewlet by Steven Leigh Morris in LAWeekly:

Minutes into writer-director R.S. Bailey's "dark Vaudevillian farce," one gets a sinking feeling. The play (which really feels like two discreet works), takes place in a semi-apocalyptic setting in which God's wrath is at hand and religious zealots have taken over the world. In the prologue, we meet a character named The Historian (Jezter Detroit), who rambles on about history, politics, cause and effect, great events, historical relativism, and more. Prompted by the wail of police sirens, he quickly exits, after which the "meat" of the play begins. Bailey assumes the role of Old Testament Patriarch -- with a dash of mad scientist and Sorcerer's Apprentice tossed in -- who is searching for God before the Day of Judgment. Assisting him are his wife Majda (Mary Dryden), and son Jesse (Jonathan Brett), who is working on a contraption called a Metatron where God is located, or as it turns out, the dwelling place of his voice. The inspiration for this is purportedly the story of Abraham and Isaac, but if it is, it doesn't come across as such, notwithstanding the bizarre sacrifice near the play's end. Theatre Z Productions at The Complex, Dorie Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlwd.; Thurs-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; thru June 5. (323) 960-7788. (Lovell Estell III)
All of the other stories today are connected in one way or another with ancient Gnosticism.

On recent and classic films with a Gnostic connection:
Knowing Is Half The Battle: Dark City, The Matrix, And Inception As Gnostic Manuals

Added by Keoni Chavez on May 15, 2011 (Screened)

When hearing the word "religion", it's a safe assumption that most people will think of the more commonly referenced faiths, like Islam, Catholicism, declaring for Ba'al, what have you. However, I'd like to talk about an often-overlooked sect of Christianity (though even that stipulation is arguable) called Gnosticism.

Essentially -- and know that this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this article, it'll do -- the Gnostics believed that the material world was an imperfect reflection of a higher, truer reality. This imperfection was created, not by God, but by a lesser being known as a 'demiurge'. While the purpose for this creation isn't always clear, it was said that only by adherence to esoteric knowledge -- or "gnosis" -- can one transcend the trap of the material world and ascend to the higher plane.

Now, run that notion through Hollywood's lens, and what do you get? At least the three movies mentioned in the title: Alex Proyas' Dark City, The Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix, and Christopher Nolan's Inception.

Exegesis follows. The Truman Show also rightly gets a mention. Earlier thoughts on The Matrix and Gnosticism are here.

Also at Screened, more Matrix-as-Platonism/Gnosticism exegesis by Andrew Godoski in Under The Influence: The Matrix:
Moving on, the philosophy at play in The Matrix is simply mind-boggling. They actually devoted an entire disc to it in The Ultimate Matrix Collection box set. I’m not even going to try to delve too deep into any of it, because if I did this article would quickly turn into a 300 page thesis. But, I’ll touch on one idea really quickly. The premise of The Matrix can be tied into Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Keeping this extremely basic, Plato likened people who were uneducated in his Theory of Forms (which is in very, very simplistic terms, the idea that the true essence or definition of an object isn’t what we perceive with our eyes, but rather the quality that makes it that object, i.e. what makes a table a table... that is its true form) to being chained in a cave. A fire glows behind them and they see the shadows of objects passing along the wall, but not the actual objects themselves. These people perceive the shadows as reality and thus do not know the true form of the objects. They are prisoners to this false perception of reality. Sound strikingly familiar? Again, this barely scratches the surface, but it goes to show just how complex the storytelling in The Matrix really is.

I’ll finish by making a quick stop on religion to tie it all back to this week's theme. Just naming a few, this film touches on the ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Christianity. And like philosophy, religion is so tightly woven into the script that discussing all of what you see here would take hours and hours. Obviously, I can’t go through all of it, but I will touch on perhaps the most blatantly apparent idea in the series... Neo as a Christ figure. To start, Neo has a “virgin” birth of sorts since he’s created by the machines and brought into the real world after spending his entire life in an incubator pod, which, of course, is symbolic of a womb. You also can’t ignore the prophecies of his coming and the fact that he is the one chosen to free humanity from their bondage. Then, there's his name, Thomas Anderson. Thomas refers to Doubting Thomas, as Neo never believed he was The One at first. Anderson can literally mean “son of man” when broken up into its roots. Anyone familiar with the teachings of Christianity knows Jesus is often referred to by that name. And if you couple that name with Neo meaning new, you get “new son of man.” You also can’t ignore the Judas/Cypher and Morpheus/John the Baptist metaphors and the fact that Neo gets a very Christ-like death at the end of the series.
Plus you can watch a video excerpt of the lobby scene.

Regular PaleoJudaica readers will be reminded of earlier discussions of Gnosticism and the Simulation Argument here, here, and here. I'll take the red pill.

Then we have Lady Gaga and the Gospel of Judas, offered by Rev. Patrick S. Cheng at the Huffington Post:
Lady Gaga -- the queer icon and pop sensation -- is setting off the Christian right again. In her new song and video, "Judas," Lady Gaga sings over and over, "I'm in love with Judas," referring to the reviled disciple who betrays Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Is there anything redemptive, theologically speaking, about this song and video?

For me, the answer is a definite "yes." As a queer theologian and professor of early church history, this song and video brings to mind the little-known second century gnostic Christian text The Gospel of Judas. In that text, Judas is actually the disciple who is the most loyal to Jesus and does the will of Jesus by setting into motion the events that ultimately lead to human salvation.

Unfortunately, this interpretation of the Gospel of Judas is widely disputed.

[UPDATE: Rock diva Helen Ingram does Judas in her church organ series. Why no video, Helen? We expect the highest production standards.]

Then there's Coptic, Platonism, Gnosticism, Satanism, and black metal: Ipsissimus Discusses "The Way of Descent" (by Disc0rdant at metal
Haimatokharmes: With the Coptic bridge in the middle of the song, I simply wanted to express black piety with the brutal and pithy character of Coptic. I arranged the riffs and the lyrics in a chiastic structure (a-b-c-b-a) to lend the section a particularly liturgical cohesion.
Finally, the Gnostic gospels Off-Broadway:
Musical Based on Gnostic Gospels, The Magdalene, to Bow Off-Broadway

By Adam Hetrick (
20 May 2011

The new musical The Magdalene, inspired by the Gnostic gospels that portray Mary Magdalene in a new light, will begin previews Off-Broadway June 14 at the Theatre at St. Clement's. The production will officially open June 27 for a run through Sept. 4.


According to producers, "In this musical, Mary and Yeshua are destined to become husband and wife, and face together the dangerous and corrupt powers of the time—the Roman Empire and the church—not only battling the new religious ideas, but also the resistance to empowering women."

[UPDATE: on a related note, James McGrath has a post up on The LOST Series Finale: One Year Later. I liked the ending and could never quite figure out why some people were so unhappy with it.]