Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review of Sivertsev, "Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity"

Alexei Sivertsev, Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 247. ISBN 9781107009080. $85.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht, The Netherlands (

This fascinating book explores the influence of Roman imperial ideology on the development of messianic themes in Judaism of the fifth through the eighth centuries C.E.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Duane Smith: There must be a word for them

DUANE SMITH: THERE MUST BE A WORD FOR THEM. I'm not sure there is, but I agree there should be. If you have an idea for one, go and leave a comment at Duane's post.

Review of Magness, "Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit"

THE NEW BOOK by Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2011), is reviewed by Shaye Cohen in Biblical Archaeology Review. The BAS staff summarize:
Magness’s book is reviewed in the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review by Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen of Harvard University. Dr. Cohen points out that Magness is an expert in the archaeology of ancient Israel and of Qumran in particular. This leaves her ideally placed to examine the practice of Judaism in ancient Israel as illustrated by the archaeological record.

Cohen asserts, however, that because Magness is not an expert in the interpretation of Jewish classical texts, her arguments predicated on literary interpretation are somewhat weaker than those based on archaeology. Nevertheless, Magness paints a convincing portrait of daily life in ancient Israel and brings to light the practice of Judaism in ancient Israel by not just its rulers, but its general population.
An earlier review is noted here.

Forthcoming book by Geza Vermes

GEZA VERMES'S FORTHCOMING BOOK is now being advertised by Penguin:
Christian Beginnings
From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325

» Geza Vermes

Allen Lane
Hardback : 05 Jul 2012



The creation of the Christian Church is one of the most important stories in the development of the world's history, but also one of the most poorly understood.

With a forensic, brilliant re-examination of all the key surviving texts, Geza Vermes traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from the man he was - a prophet fully recognisable as the successor to other Jewish holy men of the Old Testament - to what he came to represent: a mysterious, otherworldly being at the heart of a major new religion. As his teachings spread across the eastern Mediterranean, hammered into place by Paul, John and their successors, they were transformed in the space of three centuries into a centralised, state-backed creed worlds away from its humble origins. This is the captivating story of how a man came to be hailed as the Son consubstantial with God, and of how a revolutionary, anti-conformist Jewish sub-sect became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

This fascinating book is Vermes's masterpiece, pulling apart the many myths and legends to focus on the true figure of Jesus and the birth of one of the world's major religions.
A related article by Professor Vermes is noted here.

Adam McCollum: Cursing upside down


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Judith and cheese

Frying high: Keeping known, lesser-known culinary traditions

Written by Sybil Kaplan (Jewish Tribune)
Tuesday, 13 December 2011

JERUSALEM – Latkes and sufganiyot, the jelly-filled doughnuts especially popular in Israel, are well-known Chanukah fare made with oil to signify the holiday tale.

Lesser known is the tradition of cheese and the story of Judith.

Like the Chanukah story, which is part of the Apocrypha – books not incorporated in the Bible – the Book of Judith tells of a beautiful widow whose town was under siege by the army of the Assyrians and decided to visit the commander in chief of the army to ask him not to overtake the town. As the story goes, she gives him wine, he gets falling-down drunk and falls into a stupor. Judith beheads the king and saves her people and the town.

Legend has it that Judith fed him cheese to make him thirsty, and since she lived in the same period as the Maccabees, Jews of various communities instituted the custom of eating cheese dishes in honour of her heroism.

Recipes follow.

Cross-file under "Apocrypha Watch" and "Hanukkah." More here on the original story of Hanukkah in the Apocrypha.

A DSS exibition in Utah?

WESTON FIELDS hopes to bring Dead Sea Scrolls to Utah in an exhibition.
PROVO -- Ten years ago, plans to bring an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Utah fell through. With the help of one man who wants to make that happen, talks are underway once again.

Over the years, BYU's museum of art has hosted a number of exciting exhibitions, drawing thousands of visitors. But one involving the Dead Sea Scrolls would be groundbreaking."

"(The Dead Sea Scrolls are) the greatest manuscript discovery of the 20th century," said Dr. Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.

Inscribed seals from Jerusalem going on display in Oklahoma

TWO INSCRIBED SEALS FROM JERUSALEM as well as other artifacts are going on display at the Herbert W. Armstrong College in Oklahoma:
Armstrong International Cultural Foundation Announces Seals of Jeremiah's Captors Discovered!

Ancient Biblical Artifacts Make World Premiere at Armstrong Auditorium

EDMOND, Okla., Dec. 13, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The Armstrong International Cultural Foundation announces the world premiere of two of the most significant artifacts ever discovered in Jerusalem. "Seals of Jeremiah's Captors Discovered!" is an archaeological exhibition of nearly three dozen artifacts from Israel's First Temple period in the Armstrong Auditorium beginning January 16, 2012.

Discovered by archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, the artifacts include two clay seals, called bullae, which were unearthed only a few yards apart. According to their inscriptions, the seals belong to two princes mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1, a chapter that describes the princes' attempt to kill the prophet Jeremiah.

"It's not often that such discoveries happen in which real figures of the past shake off the dust of history and so vividly revive the stories of the Bible," Mazar said.

Edmond's Herbert W. Armstrong College provided support for Mazar's excavations in the City of David and at Solomon's wall.

Dr. Mazar was interviewed recently in The Trumpet, the online publication of Armstrong College. More on the two seals here, here, and here and links. Both seals were excavated by archaeologists rather than appearing unprovenanced on the antiquities market, so they are quite important.

Mughrabi Bridge opened

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Guess what's open again?
Mugrabi Bridge opens after temporary closure

By MELANIE LIDMAN (Jerusalem Post)
12/14/2011 08:30

The Mugrabi Bridge connecting the Western Wall Plaza and the Temple Mount complex was opened Wednesday morning. It was reopened with the stationing of a fire truck next to the bridge due to the fear of the wooden bridge going up in flames.

In order to put pressure on the government to replace the bridge rather than to use the temporary fix, MKs Uri Ariel and Arye Eldad (National Union) went up to the Temple Mount Wednesday morning through the Mugrabi Bridge.

Background on the Mugrabi (Mughrabi, Moghrabi) Gate Bridge is here and links.

Some charges against Alaa dropped

Egypt Drops Some Charges Against Blogger


A civilian court in Cairo dropped two charges against a prominent blogger and activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported on Tuesday.

According to Mr. Fattah’s sister, Mona Seif, the authorities later sentenced the blogger to a further 15 days in custody as their investigation continues into the deaths of 27 people, mainly Coptic Christians, at a demonstration in Cairo on Oct. 9.

Some progress.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Translating ancient Aramaic texts into Modern Aramaic

ARAMAIC WATCH: A project to translate ancient Aramaic texts into modern Aramaic.
From the Old Written to the New Spoken

Posted GMT 12-12-2011 19:41:12 (AINA)

Sacramento -- In a small apartment in Sacramento California, there lives a Seventy-two year old Assyrian Deacon named Elisha Simon who spends many of his hours typing away on his computer; translating hand-written Aramaic texts into Assyrian Neo-Aramaic.

"For over Forty years, I have been doing this," he told me as we drank tea at his kitchen table, "Each day I spend about six hours, on average."

Through the reflection in the window across from me, I could see his wife Ramziya standing in the kitchen, nodding her head in agreement. "Should I pour you another tea broonee? [my son]" She asked as soon as we made eye contact through the reflection.

Before I could answer, my tea cup was already filled, and there she was sitting next to us at the table.

"So what exactly are these documents that you're translating?" I asked Elisha.

"Well, the biggest of my work has been the seven volumes containing the stories of Martyrs and Saints, Sharbe d'Sahde; I have translated various documents written by Assyrian bishops and priests--The Book of the Bee or Ktawa d'Dabasha being the most popular one; I have translated and digitized the hand-written constitution of the Assyrian Church of the East; and one of my recent projects was an Aramaic/Assyrian Neo-Aramaic/Arabic/English dictionary containing around five thousand words--I finished that too. Whatever Aramaic texts we've written, I want to get my hands on to translate into the dialect that we are speaking today, Assyrian."

The ancient Assyrian language is classified as Akkadian, which was written in cuneiform and spoken by ancient Assyrians and Babylonians as early as 2800 B.C. Aramaic, a similar language from the region, became the next official language in 752 B.C. Because Aramaic was similar to Akkadian and more systematic containing only 22 letters compared to the roughly 600 characters of the cuneiform system, it rapidly integrated and became the lingua franca of the region. As a result, modern day Assyrian people speak a language that is mainly comprised of Akkadian and Aramaic, and with a modicum of invading Arabic, Farsi, Greek, and Turkish. Linguists have classified this language as Assyrian Neo-Aramaic.

The last paragraph is a little garbled. Modern "Assyrian" is Aramaic, but with some Akkadian vocabulary absorbed in antiquity (the Aramaic of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra already has quite a few Akkadian words in it), plus vocabulary from the other, more recent languages mentioned.

The Book of the Bee is one of the books to be translated in Tony Burke's More Christian Apocrypha project.

DSS symposium in Florida

A DEAD SEA SCROLLS SYMPOSIUM in Miami Beach, Florida: Dead Sea scrolls come to life at symposium.
Temple Emanu-El and the Institute for Judaism and Christian Origins will present a two-day symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls on Sunday and Monday at the temple, 1701 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach.
Among others, James Charlesworth and Lawrence Schiffman will be there.

Economist reviews NYC DSS exhibition

THE NYC DEAD SEA SCROLLS EXHIBITION at Discovery Times Square is reviewed in The Economist. It is a positive, if boilerplate review: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A biblical blockbuster.

More reviews here and here and links.

Ranting about closure of Mughrabi Gate Bridge

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Hamas is ranting predictably about the closure of the Mughrabi (Mugrabi, Moghrabi) Gate Bridge for safety reasons. And the PA and the Waqf get in on the act.
'Mugrabi Bridge closure is religious war'

12/12/2011 14:09

Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum: Bridge's closure shows the "Zionist scheme of aggression against al-Aksa mosque."
Talkbacks (100)

Hamas warned Monday that the Israeli closure of the Mugrabi Bridge is tantamount to a “declaration of war” on Muslim holy sites.

“This is a serious step that shows the Zionist scheme of aggression against al-Aksa mosque,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum in an interview with AFP. “This is a violent act that amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.”

The Palestinian Authority also condemned the closure of the Mugrabi Bridge and said that Israel does not have any jurisdiction over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said that the decision to close the bridge was designed to scuttle international efforts to revive the peace process. He was referring to renewed attempts by representatives of the Quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – to launch direct talks between Israel and the PA.

“The closure of the Mugrabi Bridge is is in the context of [Israel’s] religious war against our holy sites,” Hamas said in a statement.

The decision is also part of Israel's effort to completely Judaize Jerusalem by deporting residents and revoking their ID cards, demolishing their houses and confiscating their lands, Hamas charged.

Sheikh Abdel Azim Salhab, chairman of the Islamic Wakf Department in Jerusalem, rejected the Israeli move and warned against an “explosion” if the bridge is demolished.

“Demolishing the bridge would be seen as an assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” he cautioned. “Israel had already assaulted the rights of the Muslims by confiscating the keys to the Mugrabi Gate, which is one of the main gates to the mosque.”

Background on the Mughrabi Bridge is here.

Egyptian blogger update

Case for Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah transferred

Sarah Sheffer | 13 December 2011 | 0 Comments (

CAIRO: Egyptian authorities transferred the case of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah from a state security court to a panel of two investigative judges, as investigations into the controversial case continue.

The prosecution has accused Abdel-Fattah of having the “intent of committing crimes, assaulting security personnel and using force against them,” on the night of the October 9 Maspero Coptic Christian march, where 27 demonstrators were killed in clashes with the army. Abdel-Fattah denies the allegations.

The blogger has been detained for three 15-day periods, pending investigations into his case. The two judges will review the case again on Tuesday.

According to his lawyer, the transfer of the case could allow for the blogger to be tried in a civilian court with the right to appeal.

That would seem like a prudent move, given that the world is watching.

Background here.

Evil angels, the Nephilim, and the Book of Enoch

EVIL ANGELS, THE NEPHILIM, AND THE BOOK OF ENOCH are discussed by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis website:
Evil, from the backs of fallen angels

BY TIM TOWNSEND • > 314-340-8221 | Posted: Saturday, December 10, 2011 12:10 am | (9) Comments

Among what scholars have traditionally thought of as the strangest passages in the Hebrew Bible are four verses toward the beginning of Genesis about evil angels.

It's a short story, written 2,500 years ago, with roots that go back even further to Hurrian and Canaanite mythology. In these verses, angels that the author calls 'sons of God" came to earth and mated with human women, producing a race of demi-god giants called the Nephilim who roamed the earth until they were wiped out with the rest of humanity in The Flood.

A pretty good popular discussion, but I do have one comment:
The author of The Book of Enoch, written in the third century B.C., amplified the Nephilim story, and the angels not only mate with human women, but share with them secrets about warfare and other "knowledge they would have been better off not knowing," said Susan Garrett, professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and author of "No Ordinary Angel." In the Book of Jubilees, written in about 150 B.C., evil spirits rise from the bodies of the dead Nephilim and invade the earth.
I would say that the Nephilim story in Genesis reluctantly summarizes the story of the fall of the Watchers (the angels), a version of which story is also found in the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch. Some specialists would disagree with me on this, but I can't see any other way to read the development of the legend. 1 Enoch is not amplifying (or not much); Genesis is summarizing and bowdlerizing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Haaretz on the piyyut

Orthodox, secular Jews keep ancient poems alive in singing groups across Israel

If the piyyutim are so ancient, and are shared by Jews from many cultures, how come the piyyut is now a species in danger of extinction?

By Noam Ben-Zeev Tags: Jewish World

There is a musical genre that exists in the twilight zone between the sacred and the secular, sung by both religious people and total atheists, by men as well as women. Its words are similar to prayer but are not prayer. It is not sung by professional singers, because it does not belong to the popular and commercial world, nor is it sung by cantors, because it is not limited to the world of the synagogue. Its text is poetic and uses high Hebrew, but this text has no right to exist without the melody. And the opposite is also true - its music, with its complex melodic and scalar structure and, frequently, exalted beauty, is meaningless without the words.

And another wonder: Here, it is permissible to adapt a new text to the lovely melody, and also various melodies are often adapted to the same text. In this genre there are ancient thousand-year-old works, as well as new ones. In order to sing them well you have to study for many years, and at the same time their validity does not come from expert performers but from the works' acceptance by the audience because, in spite of their complexity, they effectively belong to the audience, whose members learn them from one another, without notes and without recordings. And the experts, who are called paytanim, know how to improvise on the audience's melodies, to adorn them, to trill them freely, but the basic notes are set and precise, and if anyone makes a mistake another singer will immediately correct him.

This highly contradictory genre is the piyyut, or liturgical poem. ...
Some piyyutim are a lot older than a thousand years. The piyyut has been an important poetic genre in Judaism since the end of late antiquity. For more information see the Piyyut article in the Jewish Virtual Library. And more PaleoJudaica posts on piyyutim are here and here.

Mughrabi Bridge closed

Mugrabi Bridge closed due to safety concerns

By MELANIE LIDMAN (Jerusalem Post)
12/12/2011 05:00

J'lem city engineer warns that temporary bridge leading from Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount is unsafe.

Officials closed the Mugrabi Bridge on Sunday, three days before the municipality deadline to close the ramp leading from the Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount.

The Jerusalem city engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, has warned over the past year in a series of letters to the prime minister and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – which oversees the area – that the temporary bridge is unsafe.

The municipality originally set November 28 as the deadline to destroy the bridge, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu intervened to stop the demolition, worried about triggering riots across the Arab world. In the most recent letter, sent last week, the municipality insisted the entrance must be closed to the public until a new bridge is built.

The closure, which came earlier than expected, touched off a stormy reaction in the Knesset and among right-wing activists.

Background on the Mughrabi (Mugrabi, Moghrabi) Bridge story is here and links.

Jailed Egyptian blogger allowed to vote

Jailed Egypt blogger Abdel Fattah allowed to vote

Manar Ammar | 11 December 2011 | 0 Comments (

CAIRO: A Cairo administrative court ruled on Saturday that leading activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has the right to cast his vote in the Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak last February.

Perhaps the Egyptian authorities are beginning to notice that the world is watching?

Background here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Interview with J. Z. Smith

INTERVIEW WITH J. Z. SMITH (Supriya Sinhababu, Chicago Maroon)
A word of advice for anyone hoping to contact Jonathan Zittell Smith before he returns to campus next fall: Use the mail slot. The religious studies professor— better known as J.Z.—doesn't pick up the phone and has never "seen the Internet." In a two-hour interview, Smith weighed in on chain smoking, dead religions, and the Babylonian Talmud.
The interview is a few years old, but this is the first time I've seen it. I caught a glimpse of Jonathan Z. Smith at the San Francisco SBL/AAR meetings last month, so he's still active in the field.

(Via Nicola Denzey Lewis on FB. And yes, I know, Facebook is on a roll this weekend.)

Graduate profiles in Coptic Studies at Claremont

GRADUATE PROFILES IN COPTIC STUDIES at Claremont Graduate University School of Religion. There are some big names on the list.

(Via Alin Suciu on FB.)

Article on Sefer Yetsirah

ARTICLE ON SEFER YETSIRAH by Marla Segol (Skidmore College) in Societas Magica Newsletter, Issue 21 (2009): Magical Letters, Mystical Planets: Magic, Theosophy, and Astrology in the Sefer Yetsirah and two of its Tenth-century Commentaries.
Introduction: In this essay I discuss the treatment of two important themes in the late antique work, the Sefer Yetsirah, and in two of its tenth-Century commentaries, Sa’adya Gaon’s Commentary on the Sefer Yetsirah, and Shabbetai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni. These themes are the effective power of symbols, and of the Hebrew letterform specifically, and theosophy, the belief that the created world can be used to learn about the divine. The Sefer Yetsirah expresses an effective view of symbols and a theosophic view of the universe. This theosophic view is intrinsic to the astrological outlook that informs the work. The commentaries on the Sefer Yetsirah take different positions regarding these themes, relying on non-Jewish sources and cosmological models to reinterpret the magical function of the Hebrew letterform, and the theosophic significance of the created world. In so doing, the commentators reinterpret the Sefer Yetsirah in light of contemporary debate.
The editor of the 2005 critical edition, Peter Hayman, thought that the original version of the Sefer Yetsirah could be as early as the first few centuries CE.

(Via Abu 'l-Rayhan Al-Biruni on FB.)