Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fragments of Byzantine-era oil jar found in Israel

Remnants of Byzantine-era oil jar discovered along Netanya shore

(Israel HaYom)

Large olive oil jar dating back 1,500 years found along Netanya beach • City resident who found pottery shards in shallow waters passed them on to the Israel Antiquities Authority • Relic pieces attest to bustling ancient trade between Israel and Europe.

Syriac and modern politics

SYRIAC WATCH: Stories on political challenges faced by modern speakers of Syriac.

At Christmas, a Maronite Christian Village in Israel Revives the Language Spoken by Jesus Christ

Turkey’s waning Syriac Christian community to submit report to EU

Alaa votes

EGYPTIAN BLOGGER UPDATE: Jailed Egypt blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah casts vote.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Simon Holloway on Hanukkah

THESE LIGHTS: Over at Davar Akher, Simon Holloway collects and comments on the ancient references to Hanukkah. And for a bonus he links to a humbugging essay on Hanukkah by the late Christopher Hitchens, on whom be peace.

Review of Rizzi (ed.), "Hadrian and the Christians"

Marco Rizzi (ed.), Hadrian and the Christians. Millennium-Studien = Millennium studies Bd. 30. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 2010. Pp. vi, 186. ISBN 9783110224702. $98.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, MacEwan University (

Table of Contents

The papers in this volume have been collected with the laudably sensible, but regrettably rare, purpose of testing an hypothesis. As the editor puts it in his introduction, the “cultural effervescence” of Hadrian’s reign and the contemporaneous diffusion and institutionalization of Christianity are to be examined “in order to figure out whether any specific factor within this broader context eased or accelerated the affirmation of Christianity in the Second century Roman world.” It is suggested that Hadrian’s reconfiguration of the Roman Empire as a polity which tolerated or even encouraged a plethora of distinct ethnic, local, cultural, religious, and philosophical identities in the interest of fostering “direct loyalty to the emperor” (rather than the institutions of Republican government or the apparatus of imperial control) opened up a space in which the Christians could engage in “self-definition and external self- definition.” This thesis is pursued by directing an often narrow spotlight on various aspects of Hadrian’s reign.

Jews figure prominently in some of the essays as well.

Coolest holiday card of the year

COOLEST HOLIDAY CARD OF THE YEAR, from the Yale University Library.

Aramaic as the mother tongue of Jesus

ARAMAIC WATCH: Aramaic would have been the mother tongue of Jesus (John Arnott, King Township Sentinel). A refreshingly accurate sketch of the Aramaic language in a local newspaper.
Although today, tiny, widely-scattered Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East (some in Syria and southern Turkey, but mostly in Iraq) speak dialects of Aramaic as their first language. This ancient tongue, like Latin, is now mainly used in church services by some Syrian Christians and Iraqi Chaldo-Assyrian Christians.

Even though the earthly Jesus never attended service in a Christian church, he would feel almost at home in one of these Oriental Christian churches, where the language at least used would be familiar to him.
That would be something like putting Shakespeare in a modern church service in English. He would understand a fair amount of what was said but he would still be pretty confused.

On the trail of the Maccabees

HANUKKAH AND HISTORY: On the trail of the Maccabees (Lisa Alcalay Klug, Jewish Journal). Alas, the traditional trail peters out and the archaeological trail has some bumps in it.
It’s impossible to conclude the accuracy of the enduring folk legend around the location of the graves. But excavations dating from the 19th century suggest the traditional site misses the mark and that Midya, a nearby Arab village, more closely fits the ancient description instead. Meanwhile, the experts qualified to actually determine the veracity of the myth are archaeologists, who remain unwilling to excavate the graves due to the sensitivity of the religious community. With the popular fervor for strong Jewish heroes so attached to the current site, the mystery of the Maccabee graves is likely to endure.
More on the mystery of the site of the Maccabean tombs here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dura-Europos documents online

AWOL: New at ARTStor: Dura-Europos Documents.
Now available: Images of parchment and papyrus documents from Dura-Europos (Syria) from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
Much more on Dura Europos here and links.

Happy Winter Solstice and Yalda

HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE to those celebrating. And a slightly belated happy Yalda also.

On Hanukkah and Piyyut

THE TALMUD BLOG: Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part I) (Ophir Münz-Manor).

More on the piyyut here.

Jewish themes in an ancient curse tablet

JEWISH THEMES in a recently translated curse tablet:
Deciphered Ancient Tablet Reveals Curse of Greengrocer

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor
Date: 21 December 2011 Time: 11:37 AM ET

A fiery ancient curse inscribed on two sides of a thin lead tablet was meant to afflict, not a king or pharaoh, but a simple greengrocer selling fruits and vegetables some 1,700 years ago in the city of Antioch, researchers find.

Written in Greek, the tablet holding the curse was dropped into a well in Antioch, then one of the Roman Empire's biggest cities in the East, today part of southeast Turkey, near the border with Syria.

The curse calls upon Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, to afflict a man named Babylas who is identified as being a greengrocer. The tablet lists his mother's name as Dionysia, "also known as Hesykhia" it reads. The text was translated by Alexander Hollmann of the University of Washington.

I agree with Professor Hoffman that the text is not necessarily Jewish. Ancient magic in the Near East and Mediterranean was extremely eclectic and often drew on Jewish themes alongside Classical, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Christian ones.

On editions and translations

ADAM MCCOLLUM: Editions, or editions and translations? As a general rule I agree: both are good, but editions first.

Metatron is bored

METATRON IS BORED. Graffito found at a construction site in Dubai. Banksy watch out.

London Times on "The Revelation of the Magi"

THE REVELATION OF THE MAGI has also been covered by the London Times:
Ancient text brings the Three Wise Men to life

by: Simon de Bruxelles, London
From: The Times
December 22, 2011 12:00AM

AN ancient document found in the Vatican archives casts new light on the story of the Nativity and the Three Wise Men who came to offer gifts to the infant Jesus, according to researchers.

The Revelation of the Magi, reputedly a first-hand account of their journey to pay tribute to the son of God, only now has been translated from ancient Syriac.

Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, spent two years deciphering the fragile manuscript.

It is an eighth-century copy of a story first written down nearly half a millennium earlier, less than 100 years after the Gospel of Matthew, the original source of the Bible story.

The newly translated tale differs in major respects from Matthew's very brief account.

The Times is behind a subscription wall, but this article has been reprinted in The Australian.

Background here (immediately preceding post).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Daily Mail on "The Revelation of the Magi"

'TIS THE SEASON: The Daily Mail takes up Brent Landau's translation of The Revelation of the Magi. And for a holiday miracle, the article (despite the headline) makes some effort toward a critical nuancing of the import of the document: Forget the Three Wise Men… DOZENS flocked to see Jesus, ancient document reveals.

HT Nicola Denzey Lewis on FB.

Background on The Revelation of the Magi is here with links.

More on the burning of the Institute d'Egypt


Jason Boog: Egyptian Activists Hurt Defending Library.

And at Transparency Revolution, Phil Bowermaster reflects on this tragedy in the context of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in antiquity: Backing up Civilization.

Background here. Background on the destruction of the Library of Alexandria here and links

Hanukkah and counterfactual history

Imagining a world without Hanukkah

Detour into science fiction helps illuminate what festival celebrates

By: Lawrence M. Pinsker (Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 12/20/2011 1:00 AM

Growing up as an avid science fiction reader, I fell in love with a particular sub-genre of the field called "alternate history," which asks how the world would have changed if some historical event had gone differently.

For example, both Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee and Winston Churchill's If the South Had Won the Civil War -- yes, that Winston Churchill -- ask readers to imagine life after the South won the American Civil War.

And Sarban's The Sound of His Horn, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and Keith Roberts' Weihnachtabend explore the world after Hitler and the Axis won the Second World War.

Hundreds of science fiction novels and short stories ask "What if the outcome had been different?" about other crucial moments in history as well.

For example, in Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna, the author asks how the world would have changed if the Hebrew exodus from Egypt had ended not in liberation from bondage but in the deaths of Moses and the other Hebrew leaders.

In Silverberg's alternate history, the Hebrews continue as a sparse slave population in Egypt. They never reach the Promised Land, so there is no ancient Judaea with a capital in Jerusalem whose citizens wage war against Roman authority and whose descendants are scattered throughout the empire as punishment for their rebellion.

The term "Jew" never even arises, because there is never a geopolitical entity called Judaea. Instead, the Hebrews quietly cultivate their particular ethical and theological genius only within their tiny ghetto in Egypt.

Without the dispersal of a captive Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire, Rome's political and cultural philosophies are neither challenged nor changed in an encounter with the fruits of independent Jewish thought concerning human ethics and morals.

I've read some of these, but I don't recall seeing Silverberg's book. He's an excellent writer and I'll have to look it up.
Which brings us to another such pivotal moment in history, one celebrated by the Hanukkah festival observed in Jewish homes beginning this year tonight, Dec. 20, and continuing for eight days. The Hanukkah candles are lit to commemorate the victory of Judah Maccabeus and his siblings over the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV.

We may miss the connection between this war and the history of later western religion. What would the world have been like if those small bands of shepherds and townspeople in ancient Judea had not heard the pleas to defend religious freedom spoken by a family of priests from the village of Modin?

What if they had not rebelled against a totalitarian empire, and instead accepted the systematic destruction of their rights to worship as their religion required, to teach about the universe as they understood it, and even to follow dietary commands as instructed by God?

We forget that there once was a time when the ancient kingdom of Judea was a unique spiritual oasis in the midst of the corrupt, warring remnants of Greek culture left by the death of Alexander the Great.

This is an idealized perspective on ancient Hellenism and the Maccabean revolt, but the reflections that follow are interesting nonetheless. For a more harshly critical perspective, along with some of my own reflections, see here. My own work on counterfactual history favors the microhistorical approach rather than one that tackles the broad sweep of history. See here and links.

Visit the tombs of the Maccabees?

This Hanukkah, take a tour to the real graves of the Maccabees There is no dispute today that the 'official' location of the Maccabean graves, near Modi'in, is not the real site; come and see for yourself where these heroes were actually buried. By Moshe Gilad (Haaretz)

Saul Lieberman apocryphon?

SAUL LIEBERMAN APOCRYPHON? The book under review in this article sounds interesting, but what caught my eye was the anecdote about the renowned scholar of ancient Judaism, Saul Lieberman:
100 great Jewish books presented in one volume

By Rabbi Jack Riemer
Florida Jewish Journal
2:33 p.m. EST, December 20, 2011

ONE HUNDRED GREAT JEWISH BOOKS, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Blue Bridge, 352 pages, paperback, $16.95.

There is a story — perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not — that is told about Professor Saul Lieberman that came to my mind as I read this book.

The story is that a reporter came to interview him after he won some academic prize. The reporter noticed a book on his desk and asked him what it was. The professor answered: "That's a copy of the Bible." Then the reporter saw another book and asked what it was. Lieberman said: "That's a Mishnah." The reporter asked what a Mishnah was and Lieberman explained that it was a commentary on the Bible." Then the reporter noticed another book and asked what it was. "That's the Talmud," said Lieberman. "What's a Talmud?" asked the reporter and the professor explained that the Talmud is a commentary on the Mishnah. The reporter then asked what the writing on one side of the Talmud was and Lieberman explained that that was the commentary on the Talmud by Rashi. The reporter then asked what the writing on the other side of the Talmud was and Lieberman said that that was the Tosafot. The reporter asked what the Tosefot was and Lieberman explained that the Tosafot were a commentary on Rashi. This went on for a while longer, until the reporter exclaimed: "Now I get it. Judaism is a conversation between the generations."

Lieberman said afterwards that this was the shortest, simplest definition of Judaism that he had ever heard, and that he learned it from a non-Jew.

I thought of this story because of what this book sets out to do. Rabbi Hoffman has chosen the hundred books that have formed Judaism and then he has responded to each of them with a thoughtful two or three page review. You can quibble if you wish over which books were included or about which ones were left out, but if you read these hundred essays you will have a pretty good idea of what Judaism is all about. I have some reservations. There could have been more of the Bible included. There could have been less of some modern Jewish writers who do not have lasting significance. There are some — particularly in the modern fiction section — that I don't think deserved to make the cut. But all the basic books that have formed us are here and Rabbi Hoffman talks to them and about them with great respect.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

HAPPY HANUKKAH (Chanukkah/Chanukah) to all those celebrating! The festival begins at sundown.

The key ancient texts relating to Hanukkah are collected here and link. Some past posts on Hanukkah and history are here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE (21 December): More here and here.

UPDATE (24 December): More Hanukkah posts here, here, and here.

UPDATE (1 January 2012): Still more here.

Ancient bathhouse near Moshav Tarum excavated

A BYZANTINE-ERA BATHHOUSE has been discovered in central Israel:
1,600 Year Old Bathhouse Uncovered in Judea

A newly discovered bathhouse may have been used by owners of a wealthy estate or was part of an inn on an ancient road.

By Gil Ronen (Arutz Sheva)
First Publish: 12/20/2011, 11:04 AM

Remains of an ancient bathhouse dating to the Byzantine period were exposed during work being conducted on the modern water infrastructure near Moshav Tarum in the Judean coastal hills. In recent months the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out an archaeological excavation that uncovered impressive finds in the wake of a fifth water supply system to Jerusalem being installed by Mekorot Co.

A number of ancient bathhouses have turned up in Israel in recent years, including one in Tiberias, the well-known one at Masada, the one in the Jerusalem tunnels (also here), one in Zikhron Ya‘aqov, possibly one at Horvat Tarbenet, one near Kibbutz Gevim, another one in Jerusalem, and one of debatable date in Nazareth. I have also posted a photo of the British Roman bathhouse in Vindolanda here.

NYT reviews NYU/ISAW Dura Europos exhibit

A Melting Pot at the Intersection of Empires for Five Centuries

Published: December 19, 2011

In its time and place, the ancient city of Dura-Europos had much in common with today’s most cosmopolitan urban landscapes. Religious, linguistic and cultural diversity characterized much of the city’s life for more than 500 years, starting at the outset of the third century B.C. in what is now Syria.

Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Middle Persian and Hebrew — all of these languages were used concurrently throughout the society, according to inscriptions and graffiti uncovered by archaeologists. A temple altar epitomizes the multiculturalism: The inscription is in Greek, and a man with a Latin name and a Greek-titled office in the Roman army is shown presenting an offering to Iarhibol, a god of the migrants from the old Syrian caravan city of Palmyra.

New Yorkers would have felt at home in the grid pattern of streets, where merchants lived, scribes wrote and Jews worshiped in the same block, not far from a Christian house-church as well as shrines to Greek and Palmyrene deities. Scholars said the different religious groups seemed to maintain their distinct identities.

An exhibition of prized and quotidian artifacts from Dura-Europos, “Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos,” is on view through Jan. 8 at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The objects — notably art from antiquity’s best-preserved synagogue, and evocative photographs of the buried city’s excavations — are on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery.

Background on the exhibition and on Dura Europos is here with links.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New assistant editor of TC

WELCOME TO Ingrid Lilly – New Assistant Editor of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism (ETC blog).

DSS fragments at SWBTS

THE DEAD SEA SCROLL FRAGMENTS owned by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are the subject of an article in the Baptist Press:
Scroll fragments could 'shed light' on O.T. text

Posted on Dec 14, 2011 | by Benjamin Hawkins

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- The potential contribution to Dead Sea Scroll scholarship of nine scroll fragments owned by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was underscored when several SWBTS professors discussed their research to date during the Society of Biblical Literature's 2011 meeting in San Francisco.

"Southwestern's scrolls contain readings of Old Testament passages that are nowhere else attested," Ryan Stokes, assistant professor of Old Testament, noted after the SBL's three-day mid-November meeting. "We are just beginning to comprehend their importance for the field, but we expect them to shed light on how we came to have the Old Testament text that we have today."

Southwestern Seminary currently houses the largest collection of fragments owned by an institution of higher education within the United States. The seminary will host an exclusive exhibit of the scrolls from July 2, 2012, to Jan. 11, 2013. To learn more about Southwestern Seminary's exclusive "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible" exhibit, visit

The article is pretty thin on details about the fragments. And now there appear to be nine of them, although an earlier report said ten. In any case, I look forward to their publication and to any additional information about them which comes out in the meantime.

Background here and links. The earlier reports indicate that some of the fragments come from the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Daniel.

Egyptian bloggers update

Military re-sentences Maikel Nabil to two years in prison

Maikel Nabil has been re-sentenced to two years in military prison and fined LE200 leaving the renowned blogger and activist with no options to appeal

Sherif Tarek, Wednesday 14 Dec 2011 (Al Ahram)

Coptic blogger Maikel Nabil has been sentenced to two years in military prison on Wednesday and fined LE200 (US$30.3).

The verdict was returned by a C28 military court Wednesday after the case was adjourned five times over the past few months.

In addition to the fine, the military court also ruled that Nabil must pay LE300 (US$50) in fees for the military lawyers who represented him during the appeal.

This was a reduction of a three-year sentence on appeal. That's not good enough.

Meanwhile, some Maspero protesters have been released, but not Alaa:
Maspero detainees released except activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah

By Mai Shams El-Din/Daily News Egypt December 15, 2011, 7:24 pm

CAIRO: A Cairo court released on Thursday 27 detainees involved in the Maspero violence case, pending investigations, barring prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

The court had accepted an appeal to revoke last Tuesday’s decision by the prosecution to extend their detention for 15 days.

Lawyers said since Abdel-Fattah had already filed appeals which were all rejected, legally he has no right to file another appeal before 30 days.

That's not good enough either. The world is watching.

Cairo library burned during protests

A CAIRO LIBRARY has been burned down during anti-military protests, and priceless manuscripts have been lost:
Library fire in Egypt clashes destroys 'irreplaceable' 200-year-old documents

From Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, for CNN
December 18, 2011 -- Updated 0459 GMT (1259 HKT)

Cairo (CNN) -- The new wave of bloody clashes between pro-democracy protesters and Egypt's security forces has left at least 10 people dead, including six by live ammunition -- even though the new prime minister denied that live fire was being used by his forces.

Meanwhile, 213-year-old Egyptian maps and historical manuscripts -- described as "irreplaceable" -- were destroyed after a library in Cairo was set ablaze during the clashes, officials said.


Destroyed in the fire were the original manuscript of the "description of Egypt" and "irreplaceable maps and historical manuscripts preserved by many generations since the building of the Scientific Center in August 1798 during the French Campaign," Ganzouri said in a statement.

Egypt lost a piece of "its national treasure" and "its rare history," the prime minister said.

The library was a scene of intense confrontation Saturday.

The Deutsche Press Agentur has more details:
Egypt loses rare text in anti-military violence

Dec 18, 2011, 12:58 GMT

Cairo- A 19th-century book compiled by French scholars was destroyed in a blaze triggered by violent clashes between army forces and anti-military protesters in central Cairo, Egyptian officials said Sunday.

Twenty volumes of Description de l'Egypte (Description of Egypt) were burned out when the fire erupted Saturday in the Egyptian Academy building near Tahrir Square, said the head of the state-run Egyptian National Library, Zein Abdel Hadi.

And Chuck Jones, who has been posting information on Facebook as it comes out, has a roundup post at AWOL: The Fire at the Institut d'Egypte Cairo.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

NYC DSS exhibit: Ten Commandments scroll

DISCOVERY TIMES SQUARE DEAD-SEA-SCROLLS-EXHIBITION UPDATE: Ancient 10 Commandments scroll to be shown in NYC (AP). This version of the article includes a photo of the scroll.

Background here and links.