Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book reviews

FOUR BOOKS ARE REVIEWED by Howard Freedman in off the shelf | New books offer fresh perspectives on ancient texts
“A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales” by Ruth Calderon (184 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $21.95)

“The Bible’s Many Voices” by Michael Carasik (384 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $31.95)

“Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture” edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel and Lawrence H. Schiffman (3,302 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $275)

“How the Bible Became Holy” by Michael Satlow (368 pages, Yale University Press, $35)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco.
Outside the Bible has been noted earlier here.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More on the Iranian Kingship Workshop


This was another St. Andrews event. The seminars took place in the Senate Room, just around the corner from St. Mary's College. In the photo I'm the one in the rust-colored jacket. Dr. Shai Secunda is on the far right. Photo courtesy of Arash Zeini.

Professor Shaul Shaked giving the opening keynote address. Workshop organizer Dr. Arash Zeini is on the left. Professor Ali Ansari, workshop organizer and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies in the School of History, is on the right. My photo.

The delegates in front of St. Mary's College. Photo courtesy of Arash Zeini.

Click on any image for a larger view.

Much of the workshop was outside my areas of expertise, but I learned a lot from it and made some important contacts. A very good experience

Origen Symposium

AT ST. MARY'S COLLEGE (the one in St. Andrews): Origen Symposium. This one took place on Wednesday. Alas, I was unable to attend — there are just too many interesting events around here.

Evil Conference reports

TWO BLOG REPORTS on last month's conference on Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity: Cultural, Historical, and Textual Approaches:

Tommy Wasserman: An Evil Conference at St Mary's in Twickenham

Chris Keith: 2014 Evil Conference Wrap-up

Noted earlier here.

From Egypt to Manchester (update) - updated again 23 June

CONFERENCE REMINDER: From Egypt to Manchester: Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection (via ETC). As noted back in January, this one is at the same time and in the same city as the British New Testament Conference. I'm pretty sure I've heard that there is a joint session on the Friday afternoon, but I don't see that announced yet at either site. If an organizer can clarify, please drop me a note.

UPDATE (23 June): Probably everyone who needs to see this has seen it, but Paul Middleton, Secretary to the British New Testament Society, sent out the following information on the Society's list on Friday:
A further reminder that the early bird registration rate ends on the 30th June, so if you plan to take advantage of the cheaper rate, please book now.

Those attending the conference may be interested to learn that a conference on the John Rylands Papyrus Collection will also take place in Manchester. BNTC conference delegates are invited to attend this conference on the free afternoon (Friday 5th, 2-4pm), and the organisers have kindly scheduled sessions that may be of particular interest to us. The full programme is here:

Attendance at the session is free, but the organisers have asked, but because of space restrictions, booking through the link on the webpage is essential.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In honor of the World Cup

SEEN ON FACEBOOK: How Football Sounds To People That Don't Care. This Guy Nails It.
Even when it isn't archaeology season, the media follow noted archaeologists. They drive fast cars, date beautiful women, advertise fragrances, and sometimes they go to nightclubs and act in the worst possible way. Scandals erupt as the tabloids follow these new celebrities when they're not searching the past for answers. It is entirely possible you can recite the names of certain researchers, even if you don't pay attention to archaeology. You don't know what transfer season is, but you know that someone was transferred to a dig in Peru for a sum of money that could fund the London Underground for two whole days.
Yeah, I feel sorry for people who aren't into archaeology.

Review of Pompeii, the movie

Pat’s Picks: ‘Pompeii’ truly a man-made disaster (Great Falls Tribune).
The story of Pompeii and Herculaneum is one of the most infamous and tragic in human history. The people of those communities didn’t have a chance as nearby Mount Vesuvius came alive and buried the two villages and everyone unlucky enough to have been there at the time.

Unfortunately for anyone hoping to get a real glimpse of that story in the recently released “Pompeii,” you’ll be sadly disappointed and maybe a little angry. The actual disaster is such a sidebar that more than an hour through the 1 hour, 45 minute crapfest, the volcano hasn’t even been properly introduced.


If you’re looking for an accurate story of the demise of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there’s absolutely no reason to watch even five minutes of the movie meant to tell that tale.

It’s simply an epic catastrophe in storytelling.
Too bad, although I can't say I was expecting anything much different. It gets a 5.7 at IMDB and even lower ratings at Rotten Tomatoes.

Some past posts on the eruption of Vesuvius and on Pompeii are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and links. And there's lots more on Herculaneum here and follow the links.

Looted coins

SITE RAIDERS: ‘Smoking Gun’ Ancient Coins Are Being Looted from Excavations — and Too Few Coin Scholars Are Firing Back, Baylor Expert Says.
Newswise — Millions of ancient looted coins from archaeological excavations enter the black market yearly, and a Baylor University researcher who has seen plundered sites likens the thefts to stealing “smoking guns” from crime scenes. But those who collect and study coins have been far too reluctant to condemn the unregulated trade, he says.

“Archaeologists are detectives. When something has been taken away from a historical site, the object is divorced from its relationship with other objects, and its utility for the writing of history — much like solving a criminal case — is diminished,” said Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., assistant art professor in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Elkins is the staff numismatist at the excavations of an ancient synagogue from the Roman/Byzantine period in Huqoq, Israel. He has written an article, “Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins,” that appears in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Possibly related: New Evidence Ties Illegal Antiquities Trade to Terrorism, Violent Crime. In Cambodia and beyond, archaeologists and criminologists are fighting the underground trade in cultural treasures (Heather Pringle, National Geographic). The "and beyond" includes Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but the proposed connections with terrorism in the latter two sound speculative to me, although not implausible.

More on the current issue of BAR here, final paragraph.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On the Virgin Mary

HAARETZ: Was the Virgin Mary a virgin? This ancient question boils down to the origin of the word 'virgin' in biblical texts, and the evolution of belief. Elon Gilad wrote this one as well, and researched it rather more carefully than his survey of Hebrew literature. Aside from the odd little glitch, such as the annoying use of "prophesy" as a noun, it looks accurate. Excerpt:
It bears noting that the gospel of Matthew was actually penned many decades after the death of Matthew the Apostle by an unknown writer, who wrote in Greek. He evidently never read the original Hebrew text of Isaiah, but settled for reading the Greek translation, the Septuagint.

So, the author of Matthew may have wanted to show that Jesus’ birth also fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy. He quotes from the Book of Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matthew 2:23).

The Isaiahic text is apparently not discussing any prophesy of a future Messiah: he seems to be talking of an actual child born at the time. But that is beside the point. More important is the fact that the original Hebrew text does not actually say "virgin."

The word in Isaiah (7:14) translated as "virgin" is alma, which just means young woman, irrespective of her sexual history. The Hebrew word for virgin is betula.

What misled the anonymous Greek-speaking writer of Matthew is that the Septuagint rendered alma into the word parthenos, which could be used to mean young woman but more usually meant virgin.
Nothing new here to anyone familiar with basic New Testament scholarship, but it might be interesting information to the article's target audience.

A short history of Hebrew literature

VERY SHORT: A short history of Hebrew literature, from Genesis to Etgar Keret. It's Hebrew Book Week, and the perfect time to glance back at Hebrew writing from biblical times to the post-modernist escapists (Elon Gilad, Haaretz). And not without omission or error. Excerpt:
Apocalypse soon

The Book of Daniel is an early version of the apocalyptic literature that became popular in the last two centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. and the first C.E. This end-of-days theme generally has God destroying the planet, eliminating the wicked and elevating the righteous. The fate of animals in this scenario is generally neglected.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 135 C.E., fond expectations of imminent messianic salvation were tempered by serial false messiahs. Apocalyptic literature gave way to legal writing, codified in the Mishnah by Judah HaNasi in about 220 C.E., and its accompanying Tosafot (addendums). This literature concerns how a Jewish life is to be lived in the here and now: it is practical, not poetic, philosophical or literary.

In addition to these legal halakhic texts, the late classical-early medieval period saw the birth of Midrash, a fanciful interpretation of the Bible, supposedly revealing the texts true hidden meanings. Another form of Hebrew writing to flower in this period is piyut, religious poetry, written in incredibly obscure Hebrew.

With these exceptions, other Jewish writings of this period were written nearly exclusively in Aramaic, which gradually pushed out Hebrew as the language of the Jews. The commentary in the Mishnah, the Talmud and Gemara is almost entirely in Aramaic, not Hebrew.
The Mishnah is mostly in Hebrew, not Aramaic. The addenda to the Mishnah are called the Tosefta, not the Tosafot. The latter are medieval commentaries on the Talmud. Apocalyptic literature continued to be produced and copied by Jews in Hebrew into the Islamic period: for example, the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel, the Apocalypse of Elijah, and the Apocalypse of David. See also on Sefer HaRazim below.

Mystical and magical literature are almost completely ignored in this survey. One would expect more coverage in the section on philosophy:
Philosophy books also began appearing in Hebrew, many in response Maimonides’s "Guide for the Perplexed," which was translated by Samuel ibn Tibbon. The greatest number of Hebrew philosophy books at this time was in the field of ethics, featuring ethical wills written by fathers to sons, explaining how one should live his life. An early example of these is one written by Eliezer of Worms in the 11th century.

This period also gave rise to a great deal of mystical literature, including the famous Zohar, the foundational work of kabbalah, written by Leon of Modena in the 17th century.
The Hebrew magical tractate Sefer HaRazim (the Book of the Mysteries) goes back to the Talmudic period and there are many Hebrew incantation texts recovered from the Cairo Geniza (although many are also in Aramaic or Judeo-Arabic). The pre-Kabbalistic mystical, mostly Hebrew, Hekhalot literature is not mentioned at all. Eliezer of Worms is also well known for his transmission and development of Hebrew (and Aramaic) mystical and magical traditions. And the last paragraph quoted above is quite a howler. The Zohar was published in the thirteenth century by Moses de León in Spain and it is in Aramaic. Leon of Modena debunked the Zohar in the 17th century.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Legends about Yohanan ben Zakkai

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: When the Talmud Replaced the Temple as the Structure at the Heart of Jewish Life Judaism became a religion of laws, haunted and bound by the absence of a home for Jewish sovereignty.
The destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. might easily have meant the death of Judaism. As we have seen again and again in the Talmud, the Temple was the center of Jewish belief and practice in a way that we can hardly imagine today. It was the only place where Jews could sacrifice to God, the only place where God’s spirit dwelled on Earth—not to mention a powerful symbol of Jewish sovereignty. The fact that Judaism managed to survive after the Temple was burned to the ground is the most remarkable of the many acts of renewal and transformation that have preserved Jewish life over thousands of years.

The legend of Yochanan ben Zakkai is a vivid parable of how Judaism managed to endure that trauma. ...
Incidentally, Josephus has a somewhat similar account of his own prophecy that Vespasian would become emperor, an account also told by the Roman historian Suetonius. Also, the departure of the Shekhinah from the Temple described in the final paragraph is modeled after the departure of the divine glory in Ezekiel 10.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

Masada opera etc.

FIFTH ANNUAL ISRAELI OPERA FESTIVAL AT MASASA: Fighting wind with grit, opera group makes Masada into backdrop. Bringing a production of La Traviata to the desert fortress is a massive undertaking, but well worth it, organizers say (Jessica Steinberg, Times of Israel). Excerpt:
The production team began working in early spring, taking two full months to clear a 50,000-square-meter (538,195 square feet) stretch of desert, then building stairs, hauling machinery, creating safety supports, and setting up tents, lighting and toilets.

Once the stage was ready, they trucked in the set designed in Tel Aviv, which this year includes a massive video-screen backdrop and partial reproductions of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, as well as LED-lit chandelier skirts and 12 red couches that flip over and double as planters. After all, this is La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s hugely popular opera about a French courtesan and her lover, and the complications and misunderstandings in their relationship.

“We don’t have animals this year, but we have acrobats,” said Uri Hartman, the opera’s production manager, referring to the horses and camels in 2010′s production of Nabucco. “There’s 700 people on stage when you add up the chorus, the dancers and the orchestra.”

There’s also the entrance to the opera, which mimics a wide, grand Parisian boulevard, complete with stands selling French snacks, leading up to the 7,852 seats set in front of the stage, the backdrop of Masada in the near distance. Beyond the entrance, attendees arrive in shuttles from the nearby parking lot at the local airstrip, as private cars are not allowed at the site.
Past posts on the Masada Opera Festival are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I seemed to have missed 2013. I was pretty busy last June.

Also related, Bible History Daily: The Masada Siege. The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress (Robin Ngo). This summarizes an article in the current issue of BAR by Gwyn Davies, which article is unfortunately behind the paywall. The full contents of the current issue is summarized in this press release.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Blitz again on Jobar Synagogue

ADAM BLITZ: Jobar synagogue (Jerusalem Post). Excerpt:
For well over a year I had worked to save Jobar, if not from artillery fire but from the stories which had ensued. It had recently survived mortar fire to its façade. It stood firm despite aerial bombardment. It had steered a course through tales of destruction and resurrection and lived long enough to denounce those journalists who were determined to inter it. But last month was very different.

Over two-thirds of the synagogue has been destroyed. Based on the four photographs provided by the Daily Beast, and a floor plan reminiscent of basilica, both the synagogue’s left wing and central aisle (or nave) are consigned to rubble. The bimah, the raised platform where the Torah was once read, and the Ark which housed the sacred scrolls, are no longer. All that exists is part of a wing to the right of center and the antechamber to the Cave of Elijah, ostensibly an Early Christian catacomb in form, way below.

Many sites in the town of the Jobar have been directly affected. The synagogue has not suffered alone. The Great Mosque, 250 meters west of the synagogue, has also come under regime fire. What is different is the news-worthiness and the mechanism by which the Daily Beast’s photographs reached their intended audience. The photographs were provided to the Daily Beast by the US-based Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a conduit. It was this organization that, with its network of rebel activists, declared a eulogy for the synagogue at Jobar.
Background here and links.

Ellen Aitken, R.I.P.

SAD NEWS: Ellen Aitken loses battle with cancer (Doug Sweet, McGill Reporter).
Ellen Aitken, McGill’s Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, died early Saturday morning following a short battle with what turned out to be a very aggressive form of cancer.


Prof. Aitken had been a member of the Faculty since 2004, teaching Early Christian History and Literature. Before coming to McGill, she was at Harvard University, where she served on the faculty of the Divinity School and won an award for teaching. She held degrees from Harvard and the University of the South.

She spoke Ancient Greek and was proficient in Latin, Hebrew, Coptic and German. She also had a reading knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian.

Requiescat in pace.

UNESCO exhibition

BUT THE EXHIBIT IS NOW HAPPENING: UNESCO deletes ‘Israel’ from title of its exhibit on Jewish ties to Israel. Arab pressure nixed original show, which traced history of Jewish connection to ‘Land of Israel’. Revived version, which opened Wednesday, refers only to the ‘Holy Land’ (Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel).
Six months ago, when UNESCO canceled an exhibition about the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel just before its scheduled opening, Professor Robert Wistrich, its author, was livid. The cancellation, which followed Arab pressure, was disgraceful, he fumed, an appalling “betrayal” that proved that the organization is “subjected, entirely, to political considerations,” because “there’s one standard for Jews, and there’s another standard for non-Jews, especially if they’re Arabs.”

The situation has much improved since then, Wistrich and others involved in the project assert, as the exhibition opened on Wednesday afternoon at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. And yet changes have been made to the exhibition since it was nixed in January.

Most strikingly, the word “Israel” has been deleted from the exhibition’s title and replaced by “Holy Land.” An exhibit that was initially called “The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel” is now entitled “The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land.”

Somehow I seem to have missed this story in January. At least I can't find anything about it in the archive.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Schwartz, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad

The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad

Part of Key Themes in Ancient History

Author: Seth Schwartz

Publication planned for: July 2014
availability: Not yet published - available from July 2014
format: Hardback
isbn: 9781107041271

$75.00 (C)

This is an accessible and up-to-date account of the Jews during the millennium following Alexander the Great's conquest of the East. Unusually, it acknowledges the problems involved in constructing a narrative from fragmentary yet complex evidence and is, implicitly, an exploration of how this might be accomplished. Moreover, unlike most other introductions to the subject, it concentrates primarily on the people rather than issues of theology and adopts a resolutely unsentimental approach to the subject. Professor Schwartz particularly demonstrates the importance of studying Jewish history, texts and artefacts to the broader community of ancient historians because of what they can contribute to wider themes such as Roman imperialism. The book serves as an excellent introduction for students and scholars of Jewish history and of ancient history.

Latin Enigma Machine

NEWS YOU CAN USE: Enigma: Unpuzzling difficult Latin readings in medieval manuscripts (AWOL).