Saturday, March 15, 2014


HAPPY PURIM to all those celebrating! The festival begins tonight at sundown.

Or perhaps some will be celebrating, or also celebrating, the Ancient Judean Holiday: Yom Nicanor – 13th of Adar? Or even a Jewish holiday for Cyrus?

Here's a good article on Purim in Modern Iran by Shai Secunda in Tablet: Reading Megillah in Tehran: How Iranian Jews Celebrate Purim. As Jews around the world commemorate the rescue of Persian Jewry, how do those who live where the story took place mark the day? It includes lots of historical background on how the celebration of Purim developed. Excerpt:
I recounted some of this history to the Iranian rabbi I spoke to, hoping to cut through some of the banality of Purim, as I saw it, in today’s Islamic Republic. I repeated my questions: “Are you sure that Iranian officials took no real interest in a holiday with violent depictions of Persian-Jewish tensions? Were you never concerned about publicly announcing Megillah-reading times?” Apparently, I was fishing for a story that was not to be found. Without skipping a beat, the rabbi responded to my question by making a point of his own: “I don’t understand. The Purim story is not about a Persian threat against the Jews. It is about what happens when a non-Iranian character like Haman the Aggagite infiltrates a ruling Iranian government and tries to turn everything upside down.” Indeed. Every generation and its seekers. Every generation and its interpreters.
Related: a Talmud Blog post by Prof. Secunda about stableboys, barbers, and Purim: Shave and a Hair Cut.

Tangentially related: a review of his book, The Iranian Talmud by Raphael Magarik in The Forward. Excerpt:
Secunda’s book refuses both polemic and easy answers. It continually disrupts static categories, pushing us to imagine a Jewish mage or a Zoroastrian reader of scripture. In other words, Talmudo-Iranica offers what initially made academic scholarship both exciting and threatening: the ability to make the Talmud strange again.
More on this book here and here.

Some past Purim-related PaleoJudaica posts are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE: Haman the Barber- Some Addenda (Yitz Landes, The Talmud Blog).

Review of Sæbø (ed.), Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, Vol. III/1

MARGINALIA: Angela Roskop Erisman on Magne Sæbø, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, Volume III/1: The Nineteenth Century — a Century of Modernism and Historicism.
The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, edited by Magne Sæbø, is a comprehensive reference series that covers biblical interpretation from antiquity through the twentieth century. Part 1 of volume III focuses on one chapter of that history, providing us with glimpses of the story of how biblical studies emerged as a professional academic discipline in the nineteenth century. It’s a story that reveals why we think the way we do about the Bible in the twenty-first century and the origins of some of the controversies in which we find ourselves mired.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dogs and cats in ancient Judaism

IN TABLET MAGAZINE: Are Jews a Dog People or a Cat People? Yet another difficult internal and ancient debate that modern Jews are unlikely to resolve (Joshua Schwartz). The headline is broader in scope than the article, which deals with dogs and cats in biblical to Talmudic times. It concludes:
What seems clear is that the Jewish attitude toward both dog and cat is ambivalent. A basically negative attitude to dogs in biblical times underwent some rehabilitation after changes in the non-Jewish world helped the dog become popular due to their increased use and functionality, though Jews were not enamored with their dogs and never forgot that there could be both good dogs and bad dogs: The good dog was treated well and respected and perhaps even occasionally loved. The relationship to the cat was almost entirely functional. Few people liked them, even if they liked vermin less.
A very interesting article from which I learned a lot. The most disturbing new fact I learned was that there were people in antiquity who walked their cats on leashes. I had thought that was a modern weird thing.

Aramaic in popular culture

RALPH THE SACRED RIVER: You Won't Believe These Unbelievable Aramaic Expressions!! (Ed Cook). You've heard of eschatological Aramaic? Well here's some scatological Aramaic. Warning: strong language at the link (but only in the service of philology).

In earlier posts I have reviewed Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and Stigmata, and there are numerous posts on the former in the archive. I've also noted reviews of Constantine by others here and here.

More on those new DSS fragments

THE TIMES OF ISRAEL: Uncovered in Jerusalem, 9 tiny unopened Dead Sea Scrolls. Researcher finds tantalizing tefillin parchments from Second Temple era, overlooked for decades and unread for 2,000 years (Ilan Ben Zion).
They’re not much larger than lentils, but size doesn’t minimize the potential significance of nine newfound Dead Sea Scrolls that have lain unopened for the better part of six decades.

An Israeli scholar turned up the previously unexamined parchments, which had escaped the notice of academics and archaeologists as they focused on their other extraordinary finds in the 1950s. Once opened, the minuscule phylactery parchments from Qumran, while unlikely to yield any shattering historic, linguistic or religious breakthroughs, could shed new light on the religious practices of Second Temple Judaism.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has been tasked with unraveling and preserving the new discoveries — an acutely sensitive process and one which the IAA says it will conduct painstakingly, and only after conducting considerable preparatory research.

A thorough article with lots of new details about the find and its background.

Original story noted here. The Daily Mail also has a briefer article on the find here. Also, an earlier post on the Qumran tefillin (phylacteries) is here.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fast of Esther

TODAY IS THE FAST OF ESTHER (in anticipation of Purim). An easy fast to all those observing. More here.

Good news from Maaloula

FREED: Syria: Abducted Maaloula nuns released in prisoner exchange (Christian Today).
Thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns and their three helpers, who had been held by Syrian rebel forces since December 2013, have been released in exchange for female prisoners held by the Syrian regime.


Mother Superior Pelagia Sayyaf, head of Maaloula convent, told a press conference: “God did not leave us. The (Nusra) Front was good to us...but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them.” The group of mainly Syrian and Lebanese nuns has been held since December 2013, when forces from Jabat Al-Nusra and other jihadi militias overran the ancient Christian town of Maaloula and abducted the women from the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox Convent. Reports indicate the group was subsequently taken to the town of Yabroud, a rebel stronghold that is currently the target of heavy government bombardment.

More on Maaloula (Ma'aloula, Malula) here and links. Cross-file under "Aramaic Watch."

Reymond, Qumran Hebrew

Qumran Hebrew: An Overview of Orthography, Phonology, and Morphology
Eric D. Reymond

ISBN 1589839331
Status Available
Price: $52.95
Binding Hardback
Publication Date February, 2014
Pages 328

A unique study of the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls

In Qumran Hebrew, Reymond examines the orthography, phonology, and morphology of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Short sections treat specific linguistic phenomena and present a synopsis and critique of previous research. Reymond’s approach emphasizes problems posed by scribal errors and argues that guttural letters had not all “weakened” but instead were “weak” in specific linguistic environments, texts, or dialects. Reymond illustrates that certain phonetic shifts (such as the shift of yodh > aleph and the opposite shift of aleph > yodh) occur in discernible linguistic contexts that suggest this was a real phonetic phenomenon.

  • Summary and critique of previous research
  • Discussion of the most recently published scrolls
  • Examination of scribal errors, guttural letters, and phonetic shifts
Eric D. Reymond is Lector in Biblical Hebrew at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Innovations in Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism and the Poems of Sirach and New Idioms within Old: Poetry and Parallelism in the Non-Masoretic Poems of 11Q5 (=11QPsa) (both from Society of Biblical Literature).
Follow the link to order.

Epigraphy survey

SURVEY: Epigraphy - who cares? Take it and show that you care.

ASOR journal issues for free

FOR YOU, SPECIAL DEAL: Free Online Access to Current Issues of ASOR Journals!

Nabatean archaeoastronomy

PAST HORIZONS: Petra monuments orientated according to celestial events.
During the winter solstice, the sun is filtered into the Monastery at Petra, Jordan, illuminating the podium of a deity. Just at this moment, the silhouette of the mountain opposite draws the head of a lion, a sacred animal. These are examples from a study where researchers from Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias and CSIC (Spain) showed how celestial events influenced the orientation of the great constructions of the Nabataeans.

Lots more on Petra here and links.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Oxford Professorship

JOB: Oriel and Laing Professorship of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture
University of Oxford.
Faculty of Theology and Religion in association with Oriel College
Start date: 1 October 2014, or as soon as possible thereafter.

The University of Oxford is seeking a leading scholar of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible to fill the Oriel and Laing Professorship of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. This is one of two full professorships in the Faculty of Theology and Religion devoted to Biblical Studies, the other being held by a scholar of the New Testament. The Oriel and Laing Professor plays a significant role in the promotion of the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible both nationally and internationally. In making this appointment, the faculty seeks to build on its traditional strength in this field, developing the subject in explicit dialogue with cognate studies both of its ancient setting and of its formative role and influence over the centuries.

The successful candidate will have an international reputation and a record of high-level critical scholarship in an aspect of the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, including its impact on later history; there are no prescriptions relating to the religious or confessional position of the holder. She or he will be expected to provide leadership in research in this field, developing existing interdisciplinary connections within Oxford and beyond to enhance the faculty’s research momentum and global profile. The professor will take a central role in graduate teaching (for both taught and research degrees) and will continue existing efforts to increase the strength of the cohort of graduates working on aspects of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Within a multi-disciplinary framework, the successful candidate will make a major contribution to the teaching of all mainstream and compulsory elements of the undergraduate syllabus. The faculty welcomes applications from candidates who enjoy working in an interdisciplinary way and who value reflection on the place of their work within the larger field of Theology and Religion.

Deadline for applications: Monday 14 April 2014. For more details about the post and full application instructions, see

Applications are particularly welcome from women and black and minority ethnic candidates, who are under-represented in academic posts in Oxford.

Hugoye 17.1

HUGOYE: JOURNAL OF SYRIAC STUDIES has published a new issue: Volume 17.1 (Winter 2014). Follow the link for the TOC and for links to the articles, reviews, etc., all online for free. Drafts of some of the articles were published in advance in Hugoye previews.

The Talmud and the external culture

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Jewish Culture Was Not Always a Response to Non-Jewish Culture. Why read the Talmud as a secular Jew? In part, for its expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality.
The Talmud, on the other hand, is not reactive, not a negotiation. It is an expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality—informed by surrounding cultures, as everything human must be (just look at all the loanwords from Persian and Greek), but not primarily addressed to those neighbors. It is remarkable, for instance, how little the Talmud has to say about Christianity, which was starting to dominate the world of the rabbis just at the time the text was being compiled. Reading the Talmud is a reminder that Judaism is not historically a mere guest or victim of other religions, the way we tend to learn about it in school and in history books, but an autonomous tradition, with its own values and achievements. You don’t have to “believe” in the Talmud, in a religious sense, to draw strength from the sense that Judaism rests on its solid foundation.
Plus why eclipses were a bad omen and when theft was property.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

50 biblical persons mentioned in inscriptions

BAR: 50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically: A web-exclusive supplement to Lawrence Mykytiuk's “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible” feature in the March/April 2014 issue of BAR.
In “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible,” in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk lists 50 figures from the Hebrew Bible that have been confirmed archaeologically. The 50-person chart in BAR includes Israelite kings and Mesopotamian monarchs as well as lesser-known figures.
There's more on Professor Mykytiuk's work here and links.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Female scribes in Syriac and Hebrew manuscript traditions

LIV INGEBORG LIED: Women scribes and copyists: a note on Syriac manuscripts on the occasion of the International Women's Day (8 March).

I have posted occasionally on the question of female Jewish scribes. Go here and follow the links. The earliest soferet I know of is Hannah bat Menahem Zion in the thirteenth century, noted by Hebrew-manuscript expert Collette Sirat. (Via Aviel Barclay-Rothschild, modern soferet-blogger.) Barclay-Rothschild also quotes a note by an anonymous female scribe who seeks indulgence for any errors in her work, because she was distracted during it by having a baby. Sirat refers to "fewer than ten" named medieval female scribes, while Manuscript Boy comes up with more than twenty "pre-modern" ones at Hagahot. These posts were back in 2004-5, and I imagine the question has advanced since then.

I am especially curious about evidence for female scribes in antiquity (say, before 600 C.E.) in any manuscript tradition in the Middle East or Europe. I don't know of any, but I haven't made any serious effort to look. If you have information, please drop me a note so I can share it.

UPDATE: Reader Michael Lyons refers me to Kim Haines-Eitzen, "Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing": Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity." Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1998, pp. 629-646. The full text of the article is available at the link through Project Muse, but it's behind a subscription wall. The article's launching point is Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 6.23.1-2, but it touches on ancient Near Eastern evidence and surveys evidence from Greco-Roman and Christian monastic literature. The passage by Eusebius reads:
1. At that time Origen began his commentaries on the Divine Scriptures, being urged thereto by Ambrose, who employed innumerable incentives, not only exhorting him by word, but also furnishing abundant means.

2. For he dictated to more than seven amanuenses, who relieved each other at appointed times. And he employed no fewer copyists, besides girls who were skilled in elegant writing. For all these Ambrose furnished the necessary expense in abundance, manifesting himself an inexpressible earnestness in diligence and zeal for the divine oracles, by which he especially pressed him on to the preparation of his commentaries.
(Translation by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1.)

UPDATE: Mladen Popovic e-mails to alert us to Haines-Eitzen's more recent book, The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity (OUP, 2011).

More on the Apollo of Gaza

ROGUE CLASSICISM: The “Apollo” of Gaza ~ Part II: Questions of Condition and Authenticity. David Meadows concludes:
Which brings us to the bigger question: is the Gaza “Apollo” genuine or is it a clever fake? It’s interesting, I think, to note that the head from Herculaneum and the Piombino Kouros are considered in the category of ‘ancient fakes’ (I.e. Fakes/replicas made in antiquity to appeal to a contemporary market). Even so, I keep hemming and hawing on this issue and I still can’t come down firmly on one side or the other. The provenance strikes me (and most critical observers, it appears) as obviously manufactured. The weight, the face, and the survival of the base of the statue also combine to lead me to think there’s something very much amiss with this one. I’m still not too sure about the hair treatment either. Why Hamas (or whoever is in possession of it) is not giving scholars access to it to do some basic conservation and examination is puzzling and doesn’t lend any confidence to claims of authenticity. Despite all those considerations, it still seems possible that it is genuine and perhaps an archaizing sort of thing like the head from Herculaneum or possibly simply the product of a crappy artist. The whole situation is clearly being mishandled and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t hear anything more about this one for a year or two, if at all.
His earlier posts on the subject are noted here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Color perception in antiquity

HAARETZ: Word of the Day / Yarok: Ancient Hebrew for green, and yellow and everything in between. How the ancients distinguished between the bright yellow of gold and deep green of frogs is a mystery. (Elon Gilad). Excerpt:
What this variation seems to imply is that in Proto-Semitic the root y-r-k meant both vegetation and the color of vegetation, ranging from dark green to yellow to pale brown. As time progressed each language developed different distinctions, giving specific meanings to the root and to the words derived from it.

In the case of Biblical Hebrew, we can find the yarok only once: “The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing.” (Job 39:8) and though the King James translator translated the word as “green thing” - it is generally believed that the word in this case was a noun meaning vegetable or vegetation.
Related: The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Erin Hoffman, Clarksworld). Excerpt:
This suggests the possibility that not only did Homer lack a word for what we know as “blue”—he might never have perceived the color itself. To him, the sky really was bronze, and the sea really was the same color as wine. And because he lacked the concept “blue”—therefore its perception—to him it was invisible, nonexistent. This notion of concepts and language limiting cognitive perception is called linguistic relativism, and is typically used to describe the ways in which various cultures can have difficulty recalling or retaining information about objects or concepts for which they lack identifying language. Very simply: if we don’t have a word for it, we tend to forget it, or sometimes not perceive it at all.

The prophet Mani

NEWS YOU CAN USE: Hamblin & Peterson: Ancient Persian prophet gained following (Deseret News).
Although Manicheism — the religion founded by the Mesopotamian prophet Mani — is dead, its influence still continues in subtle and indirect ways.
A nice summary of the career and influence of Mani. Mani, incidentally, included a version of the Book of Giants among his scriptures and we have fragments of it in translations into various medieval Manichean (Manichaean) languages.

Some past posts involving Mani and (mostly) Manichaeism are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity

IN THE MAIL (from the publisher):
K. L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion: Second Edition (London: Boomsbury T&T Clark, 2013)

This comprehensive classic textbook represents the most recent approaches to the biblical world by surveying Palestine's social, political, economic, religious and ecological changes from Palaeolithic to Roman eras. Designed for beginners with little knowledge of the ancient world, and with copious illustrations and charts, it explains how and why academic study of the past is undertaken, as well as the differences between historical and theological scholarship and the differences between ancient and modern genres of history writing. Classroom tested chapters emphasize the authenticity of the Bible as a product of an ancient culture, and the many problems with the biblical narrative as a historical source. Neither "maximalist" nor "minimalist" it is sufficiently general to avoid confusion and to allow the assignment of supplementary readings such as biblical narratives and ancient Near Eastern texts. This new edition has been fully revised, incorporating new graphics and English translations of Near Eastern inscriptions. New material on the religiously diverse environment of Ancient Israel taking into account the latest archaeological discussions brings this book right up to date.
To any publishers who are regular readers: I am always happy to mention any book you may send me as long as it is directly relevant to ancient Judaism. Sometimes publishers send me things about, say, the modern Diaspora or modern Jewish ethics or the like. I don't post such things here, because this blog is about ancient Judaism.