Friday, January 11, 2013

Review of Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs

Matthew V. Novenson. Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 256 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-984457-9.

Reviewed by Joshua Garroway (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

Paul’s Jewish Messiah

Rarely can the thesis of a monograph be stated in a mere five words. Yet Matthew V. Novenson does not oversimplify by distilling his argument down to the bald claim that “Christos in Paul means ‘messiah’” (p. 3). This simple thesis is nevertheless bold and controversial because it challenges the commonly held view that Paul uses Christos as a (meaningless) name, not as a (meaningful) title. According to Novenson, Paul does not use Christos as a name or as a title but as a Hellenistic honorific, comparable to Augustus, Epiphanes, Soter, or Maccabee. As such, Christos means “messiah.”


Review of Shoshan, Stories of the Law

Moshe Simon-Shoshan. Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xv + 287 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-977373-2.

Reviewed by Jordan Rosenblum (University of Wisconsin, Madison)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

Telling Tales and Making Law

In recent years, scholars have begun to question the traditional binary between halakhah and aggadah, that is, between texts that investigate legal matters (halakhah) and everything else, especially stories (aggadah). This reassessment has done more than just remove aggadah from the bookshelf, where it traditionally sat due to the relative importance of halakhah in traditional Judaism (one is reminded of the many yeshivot where rabbis would instruct their students to skip a Talmud page since it is “just” aggadah). Beyond raising the status of the academic study of aggadah, this trend has also resulted in the blurring of the lines between these categories. For example, though the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai (b. Bava Metzi‘ah 59a-b) begins with a matter of halakhah regarding the purity of an oven, it quickly transitions to a fascinating and complex story of rabbinic authority and proper decorum.


Review of Tawil, Lexical Studies

BOOK REVIEW in the Jewish Press:
By: David B. Levy
January 10th, 2013

Title: Lexical Studies in the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions: The Collected Essays of Hayim Tawil
Editors: Abraham Jacob Berkovitz, Stuart W. Halpern, and Alec Goldstein
Publisher: Ktav

This excellent, delightful and lucid collection represents some of the best in academic research. Philological, lexicographical, linguistic, epigraphical, cultural, mythological, ritualistic, and historical knowledge are informed by virtuosity in comparative ancient Semitic languages. These erudite studies by the high-powered academic scholarship of Hayim Tawil – a professor of Hebrew languages and literature at Yeshiva University – shed light on Biblical Hebrew, the whole field of Ancient Near Eastern studies, medieval exegetical traditions, and the reception history of the Biblical text from antiquity to the present day.

One rarely encounters such a great breadth, depth, multi-variegated, and diverse interdisciplinary knowledge applied to analysis of the Biblical text – especially from an Orthodox source. The collected essays exhibit precise close readings of the texts’ details, and is fully visionary to reveal the forest for the trees.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hekhalot Literature in Translation

GOOD NEWS: I am pleased to report that my translation of an eclectic critical text of the bulk of the pre-Kabbalistic Jewish mystical literature know as the Hekhalot literature (current title: Hekhalot Literature in Translation: Major Texts of Merkavah Mysticism) has been accepted for publication by Brill. The table of contents:
1. Introduction

2. Hekhalot Rabbati: The Greater (Book of the Heavenly) Palaces

3. Sar Torah: The Prince of Torah

4. Hekhalot Zutarti: The Lesser (Book of the Heavenly) Palaces

5. Ma Ľaseh Merkavah: The Working of the Chariot

6. Merkavah Rabba: The Great (Book of the) Chariot

7. Some Shorter Macroforms

8. Geniza Fragments
I spent the 2011-12 academic year on research leave finishing the project (which I started in 1991!) and have mentioned it here, here, here, here, here, and here. The volume translates most of the Hekhalot texts (which are in Hebrew and Aramaic) and I have explained in the introduction why a few have been omitted. Notably, you can already find an excellent eclectic English translation of 3 Enoch by Philip Alexander in Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

Look for Hekhalot Literature in Translation: Major Texts of Merkavah Mysticism later this year. I will keep you posted!

New book on tekhelet

Jewish Journal Book Award announced

By Jonathan Kirsch (

The making of a memorable book requires the skills of an alchemist. Every author starts with the raw material of his or her own experience and expertise, but it can take a certain secret ingredient — passion, vision, inspiration — to transform the dross into gold. That is a fair description of what Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman have accomplished in “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered,” published last year by Lyons Press and reviewed in these pages on Dec. 21, 2012.

Because the Stermans possess precisely that alchemical genius, the Jewish Journal Book Prize for 2013 is awarded to “The Rarest Blue,” the second-annual prize given in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance. This award is presented each January to an author or authors for a book published during the previous calendar year, and it includes a $1,000 honorarium.

“The Rarest Blue” starts with a 2,000-year-old mystery: How did the Israelites make thread a blue color known as tekhelet that they were required by the Torah to wear on their fringed garments? The formula for making the blue dye was lost in the early centuries of the Diaspora, and generation after generation of observant Jews have been unable to comply with the biblical commandment. “And now we have only white,” the compiler of the Midrash complained in the eighth century, “for tekhelet has been hidden.” Ironically, it was only during the era of the scientific and industrial revolution that the biblical secrets began to emerge. And now the Stermans have revealed how to make what they called “the sacred, rarest blue.”

The book sounds potentially interesting, but I would like to see reviews by archaeologists and biblical scholars. For recent scholarly and nonspecialist efforts to recover tekhelet, see here and links

Celebrating Church Slavonic

FEBRUARY 14TH IS COMING — and you know what that means: Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day!

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2013 (Catholic News Agency)

On Feb. 14, the universal Church honors two brothers, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who are called the “Apostles of the Slavs” for their tireless work in spreading the Gospel throughout Eastern Europe in the ninth century.

Such was their influence in Church history, through their evangelization efforts, that the late Pope John Paul II named the two brothers the patron saints of Europe along with fifth century monastic leader St. Benedict.


In order to fulfill this mission, Cyril and Methodius took the step of adapting the Greek alphabet into a script for the Slavonic language. The result was the “Cyrillic” alphabet, which was first used to translate the Bible and liturgical books. It also became the primary means of written communication for large portions of the world, including modern day Russia.

Quite a few interesting Old Testament pseudepigrapha are preserved only or primarily in Church Slavonic. Some relevant posts are here, here, and here, with many links.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Sins coming in fractions

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN by Adam Kirsch in Tablet: Intention Versus Action: This week, the rabbis ask if two half-sins equal a whole one. In what part of a sin is sinfulness located?
... We are not even given the satisfaction of a resolution to Rava’s problems! This is frustrating and casts further doubt on the practical application of everything that’s gone before: If the rabbis are willing to leave these questions unanswered, they couldn’t be very relevant to actual Jewish practice.

However, the Talmud is also sending a powerful implicit message. The act of thinking about law, of reasoning out its most distant ramifications, is itself sacred and pleasurable to the rabbis, regardless of its practical application. To read the Talmud at all, I’m finding, it’s necessary to be able to share at least their pleasure, if not their sense of sanctity.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are collected here and links.

Samaritan Ukrainian brides

SAMARITAN GENETICS: 'Good Samaritans' seek Ukrainian wives: In the West Bank, the world's few remaining Samaritans are starting to marry women from outside to expand the gene pool (Jane Ferguson, Al Jazeera).
The tiny population, however, is something of a double-edged sword. While the community is naturally close-knit, the next generation runs the risk of birth defects from such a small gene pool. There is a particular shortage of women, they told Al Jazeera.

That's where Tanya comes in. The community's religious elders got together a few years ago and decided they had no choice but to let some of the men marry foreign women, provided they convert. The marriage agency Tanya was working for would help make those crucial matches.

"When they came, we would show them the pictures of the women, tell them some information about them and if they want, they could have a date," Tanya explained. Eleven Ukrainian women, including Tanya, have moved into the community in recent years.
More on Samaritan genetic issues and Ukrainian brides is here and links.

Political implications of Afghan manuscripts?

I DOUBT IT: Expert: New Ancient Hebrew Manuscripts Could Have Major Impact on Taliban (The Algemeiner).
[Journalist and author Jere] Van Dyk says that if it could ever be proven that the papers date back to before the founding of the Muslim religion, or if it became evident that there was a Jewish community there at that time, then it could change the region.

“The Taliban, who are deracinated – cut off from their culture – are deeply politicized and have been for decades by Pakistan, which has its own agenda in Afghanistan. They are deeply religious – ‘We are Muslim; We want to rid our land of the infidels; We want a pure Islamic government,’ not unlike the one Mohamed is said to have created in Medina – now if it becomes clear, if there’s an increasing amount of information, and the Taliban begin to hear that, wait a minute, ‘We are descended from those who are at war with the Arabs, and our allies here Al-Qaeda’ – then it could possibly change how they look at everything.”
I just don't see this happening; I can't see the Taliban taking that much interest in what secular historians are saying. But I'll be very happy if I'm wrong.

Background on the Afghan "geniza" is here and links.

Ben Yehuda's birthday

YESTERDAY: Israelis offer a 'Yom Huledet Sameach' to Ben Yehuda, resurrector of Hebrew language: Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who transformed Hebrew from the rusty language of ancient Israel and the Bible into the dynamic, dominant language of modern-day Israel, would be 155 years old today (CSM Global News blog).
Of course, Hebrew was the language of the Torah – the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – as well as other religious writings. So many Jews were familiar with it. But they didn’t use it to talk about things like grocery shopping or even politics.
Not so fast. Those "other religious writings" often had a lot to say about daily life and all the little halakhic details pertaining thereto. Politics certainly featured in them sometimes and I would be very surprised if the Talmud and the Responsa literature didn't discuss grocery shopping from time to time. See also my post on Hebrew as a dead language from five years ago.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Collins, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography

NEW BOOK (Yale News):
The Dead Sea Scrolls:
 A Biography

John J. Collins, the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation

(Princeton University Press)

The Dead Sea Scrolls — discovered in caves at Qumran in 1947 — appear to have been hidden in the Judean desert by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that existed around the time of Jesus. They continue to inspire veneration and conspiracy theories to this day. John Collins tells the story of the bitter conflicts that have swirled around the scrolls since their discovery, and sheds light on their true significance for Jewish and Christian history.

Collins recounts how a Bedouin shepherd went searching for a lost goat and found the scrolls instead. He offers insight into debates over whether the Essenes were an authentic Jewish sect and explains why such questions are critical to our understanding of ancient Judaism and to Jewish identity. Collins explores whether the scrolls were indeed the property of an isolated, quasi-monastic community living at Qumran, or whether they more broadly reflect the Judaism of their time. And he unravels the impassioned disputes surrounding the scrolls and Christianity. Do they anticipate the early church? Do they undermine the credibility of the Christian faith? Collins also looks at attempts to “reclaim” the scrolls for Judaism after the full corpus became available in the 1990s, and at how the decades-long delay in publishing the scrolls gave rise to sensational claims and conspiracy theories.

Gold coins found in Iraq

66 SASSANID-ERA COINS have been discovered in Iraq in a town called Aziziyah: Iraq unearths ancient gold coins (AFP). The same article appears here with another photo of some of the coins after they had been cleaned, giving a much better view of their iconography.

Archaeology in Gaza

THE GAZA STRIP'S ARCHAEOLOGY has fared no better in the recent conflicts than in earlier ones: Gaza's archaeological treasures at risk from war and neglect (BBC). The article notes in passing the recent discovery of a Byzantine-era church and mosaic.

Related posts here and links.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Hurtado on the Son of Man in 1 Enoch

LARRY HURTADO has two new posts up on the figure of the Son of Man in 1 Enoch: Enoch & the “Son of Man” and More on “son of man”: The Nickelsburg/VanderKam Commentary.

Earlier PaleoJudaica posts on the figure of the (one like a) Son of Man in Daniel etc. are collected here.

AWOL is four


Talmud-page "art" in Tel Aviv

Gallery threatened over Talmud artwork

Rabbinate vows to stop exhibition of works created by French artist, using pages of ancient rabbinic writings. Display 'desecrates Holy Scriptures,' says Chief Rabbi Metzger

Kobi Nahshoni
Published: 01.03.13, 15:47 / Israel Jewish Scene (ynetnews)

Israel's Chief Rabbinate has threatened to stop an art gallery in Tel Aviv from exhibiting works using original Talmud pages "sacrilegiously."

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said he hoped someone would purchase the artwork for thousands of shekels – so that they would be removed from the gallery.

I think this "art" project is pretty tacky, but I don't think the artist should be prevented from doing it or persecuted. And despite the lurid headline of this article, the only specific "threat" seems to amount to hoping that someone buys the offending artwork. Oh and there were two (she counted them) protesters outside her gallery once. I bet we don't see this artist doing the same thing with pages from the Qur'an.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

A novel about Aher

AS A DRIVEN LEAF: Studying a classic novel of Judaism. The novel involves the heretic Elisha Ben Avuyah and Rabbi Akiva.

Epiphany and The Revelation of the Magi

HAPPY EPIPHANY to all those celebrating. In related news, Brent Landau was recently interviewed about his work on the The Revelation of the Magi:

Background here and links.

Botta (ed.), In the Shadow of Bezalel

In the Shadow of Bezalel. Aramaic, Biblical, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Bezalel Porten

Edited by Alejandro F. Botta, Boston University

Twenty nine scholars from Israel, Europe and the Americas came together to honor and celebrate Prof. Bezalel Porten's (Emeritus, Dept. of History of the Jewish People, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) academic career. Covering a wide variety of topics within Aramaic, Biblical, and ancient Near Eastern Studies, In the Shadow of Bezalel offers new insights and proposals in the areas of Aramaic language, paleography, onomastica and lexicography; ancient Near Eastern legal traditions, Hebrew Bible, and social history of the Persian period.
UPDATE: Dead link now fixed. Sorry about that.