Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anxious Gnosticism

PHILIP JENKINS has been putting up a series of informative posts on Gnosticism over at The Anxious Bench. They are still in progress, but this seems like a good time to note what he has published to date and to make some comments of my own.

Those Who Know
Ever since my undergraduate years, I have been interested in early Christian history and Gnosticism. In the next few posts, I will talk about some of the things I have learned about Gnosticism, why it is so important, and some of the areas I am still trying to explore in my present book project. Here, I will just define my terms, and identify my main questions.
More on Kabbalah and Gnosticism here.

The Beginning of Wisdom
I am assembling that package of ideas out of pure imagination, and I can point to no group of texts that prove its existence. What I am suggesting is that a large part of Gnosticism could, hypothetically, have been constructed without wandering too far outside Judaism as it existed, in its very diverse and sectarian forms, during the first century AD.
True, but I still want some texts.

Athens, Jerusalem and Nag Hammadi
Gnosticism thus emerges from a world in which Platonism more generally defined had become a common currency of philosophical language and thought. Of the vast number of ideas and theories that Plato and his successors generated, some are particularly relevant to our subject here, in providing the intellectual vocabulary of Gnosticism.
Gnostics and Platonists
Although the origins of Gnostic thought are controversial, many of the core themes and terms undoubtedly stemmed from Greek philosophical thought, especially Platonism. That did not necessarily mean that early Gnostics were taking these ideas directly from Greek thinkers or schools, rather that they came from a Jewish (and emerging Christian) world that had long sought to integrate Platonic concepts. Any attempt to separate Greek and Jewish elements in this synthesis is doomed to failure.
Asking the Wrong Question
I have been puzzling over the origins of Gnosticism, and we can certainly find some plausible answers to that issue. Jewish, Greek and Christian, (and possibly Persian), the building blocks were all clearly there. Perhaps, though, I have been asking the wrong question all along. Instead of asking why some people came up with that particular set of answers, we should rather inquire why others didn’t.
Philo’s Answer
Greek philosophy made it all but impossible to reconcile the transcendence of God with a deity who created and ruled the world, with a deity like that portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. During the Second Temple era, that clash of visions was deeply troubling for Jews who wished to integrate into the Greek-dominated international culture.

Of the thinkers who tried to reconcile the systems, the best-known was Philo of Alexandria (25 BC – 50 AD), whose life overlapped with figures like Jesus and Paul. ...
Dating the Gnostics
Obviously, arguing from silence is risky. The account I have given here is drawn from Irenaeus, who was widely traveled and well-connected, but who did not necessarily know everything that was in progress in every corner of the Christian world. He knew Asia Minor, Rome and Gaul at first hand, but might not have had such good connections elsewhere. As I have remarked, such early accounts of Gnosticism are curious in their geographical emphasis. They focus on Alexandria and Antioch, with much commuting to and from Rome. Few pay much attention to the quite intense activity that seems to have been in progress in Mesopotamia, where Jewish Christian, baptismal and Gnostic sects were highly active no later than the early second century. Perhaps Irenaeus was simply missing some key events and activists.

Alternatively, perhaps Irenaeus really was depicting historical reality, in which Gnosticism really was an innovation of the late first century, at least a generation or two after Jesus’s time. And at least in its early days, it was strictly confined to Syria, even to Antioch itself.

The question then arises: why then, and why there?
I'm sure Professor Jenkins's answers will continue to be interesting and I look forward to hearing more. Background to the series is here.

For my part, I have not found any arguments for a pre- (or non-) Christian Jewish Gnosticism in antiquity persuasive. The development of Gnosticism seems much easier to me once you add Pauline theology (notably its demotion of Jewish law) into the mix of Judaism and Platonism. And, tellingly, none of the surviving Gnostic texts deal with the halakhic and national/ethnic issues that the demiurgic myth would inevitably have raised. I have discussed the issues in greater detail here and here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Idumeans in the Court of Judea

Full House: Idumaean Preeminence in the Court of Judaea

The power struggles among these Idumaean nobles, which probably originated long before the Hasmonean annexation, were no longer simply local fights between petty elites. Instead, they were transported from a local Idumaean context to the national stage of the Judaean royal court and the Roman Near East.

See Also: The Many Faces of Herod the Great (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015)

By Adam Kolman Marshak
Gann Academy
Waltham, MA
February 2015

Review of Morlet et al. (eds.), Les dialogues Adversus Iudaeos

Sébastien Morlet, Olivier Munnich, Bernard Pouderon (ed.), Les dialogues Adversus Iudaeos: Permanences et mutations d'une tradition polémique. Actes du colloque international organisé les 7 et 8 décembre 2011 à l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne. Collection des Études Augustiniennes. Série Antiquité, 196. Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 2013. Pp. 428. ISBN 9782851212634. €46.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Barbara Crostini, Stockholm University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is an extremely wide-ranging, informative, and balanced collection of essays on a body of literature that is as important as it is sensitive in the current scholarly investigations of intercultural and interfaith relationships across the centuries. The individual contributions are of the highest level, displaying remarkable scholarship but also subtlety in reviewing the materials. While the weight of the evidence lies in the late antique period, which receives the greatest number of contributions in the volume (pp. 49–268), the perusal of this genre into the medieval period (pp. 269–384) and beyond (pp. 385–402) affords a better perspective by which to evaluate the earlier dialogues, whose context is necessarily constrained by our limited knowledge about the period.


Looting of archaeological sites in Israel

TREASURE HUNTERS: Israel struggles to stop archaeological site raids (Yuval Avivi, Al Monitor).
The staff of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) gets very nervous whenever news breaks that a large archaeological treasure has been found. That is what happened Feb. 17, when amateur divers discovered a treasure trove of rare, ancient coins near the ancient port town of Caesarea. “We know that the discovery of a treasure of this size, and the publicity that such a find receives in the media causes people to think that they can find treasures just about anywhere,” Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Unit to Prevent Antiquities Theft at the IAA, told Al-Monitor.

Klein said, “People take the law into their own hands and set out to find antiquities themselves, even though this means breaking the law and causing destruction to important archaeological sites. For the most part, they don’t even find anything. What was discovered last week is the kind of thing that happens just once every 50 years.”

I have not commented on the discovery of this trove of Fatimid-era gold coins near Caesarea, because it falls outside the chronological horizon of PaleoJudaica, but the story has been all over the news and you can read more about it, for example, here. Otherwise, background here and links and, more generally, here and links.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The CSM on the Assyrian Christians

THE CHRISTIAN SCIENTIST MONITOR: Who are the Assyrian Christians under attack from Islamic State? (+video). With roots in ancient Mesopotamia and a tenuous footing within modern Middle East nation-states, Assyrians have been displaced by conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and exile communities have grown up in Turkey, Iran, and Europe. (Michael Holtz). Excerpt:
So who are the Assyrians? Alternatively known as Syriac, Nestorian, or Chaldean Christians, they trace their roots back more than 6,500 years to ancient Mesopotamia, predating the Abrahamic religions. For 1,800 years the Assyrian empire dominated the region, establishing one of most advanced civilizations in the ancient world. (An example of this is the city of Arbel, one of the earliest permanent agricultural settlements.)

The Assyrian empire collapsed in 612 B.C. during the rise of the Persians. Then, 600 years later, they became among the earliest converts to Christianity. They still speak an endangered form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, and consider themselves the last indigenous people of Syria and Iraq.

Following the birth of Christianity, Assyrian missionaries spread across Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, and built a new empire that lasted until Arab Muslims swept through the Middle East in 630.
Cross file under Syriac Watch and Modern Aramaic Watch.

Also in the Monitor, Husna Haq reports on a recent ISIS depredation: ISIS burns Mosul library: Why terrorists target books. UNESCO has called the destruction of libraries and books in Mosul 'one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.' The older (apparently Arabic and Syriac) manuscripts from the Dominican friary in Mosul were spirited out before ISIS fully took over the city.

More on the recent horrors visited on Mosul and elsewhere in the Middle East is here and links.

UPDATE: ISIS continues to destroy antiquities in Mosul: ISIS thugs take a hammer to civilisation: Priceless 3,000-year-old artworks smashed to pieces in minutes as militants destroy Mosul museum (Julian Robinson, The Daily Mail). And, as Joseph Lauer reminds on his e-mail list, they also continue relentlessly to kill people.

Latest on circumcision controversy in NYC

THE CONTROVERSY over metzizah b’peh is back in the news, with New York City recently lifting the requirement for the signing of parental consent forms before the procedure, which is mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud, can be undertaken. The practice is rare today and is controversial because it can transmit disease, notably herpes.The Forward reprints an Haaretz article by Elon Gilad which summarizes the history of the practice and the current situation: How Ancient Circumcision Rite Sparked Modern Schism. Excerpt:
We first encounter the practice in the Mishnah, the first compendium of laws of rabbinic Judaism (c. 200 CE): “We perform all the requirements of circumcision on the Sabbath: We circumcise, uncover, suck, and place a compress with cumin on it” (Sabbath 19b).

The critical word here is the Hebrew word for suck: metzitzah.

In the Talmudic commentary on this passage in the Mishnah (Shabbat 133b), the 4th century rabbi Papa of Babylon writes that failure to perform this suction is dangerous for the baby, and any mohel who neglects to perform the ritual should be fired.

In other words, the rabbis viewed metzitzah as a health measure. Their thesis of medicine and disease was informed by the prevailing theory of the time - Hippocrates’ theory of the four humors, authoritatively expanded upon by the prominent Greek physician Galen in the 2nd century.
Background here and links.

AAR 2015: Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity sessions

JAMES MCGRATH: Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity AAR Call for Papers 2015.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review of Regev, The Hasmoneans

Eyal Regev, The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity. Journal of Ancient Judaism. Supplements, 10. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. Pp. 340. ISBN 9783525550434. €99.99.

Reviewed by Friedrich T. Schipper, University of Vienna (


Although the Second Temple period is an intensively researched period of Jewish history and although the Hasmonean rulers were key players for one and a half centuries within this period, only a few comprehensive portraits of the Hasmoneans and their time have been published in the past 10 years. Eyal Regev, professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University, provides a very solid overview of various aspects of the Hasmonean rule and legacy, concentrating on ideology and identity and thereby filling a thematic gap in research on the Hasmoneans. Regev strives for a twofold interdisciplinary approach – historical and archaeological as well as text-oriented historical-critical and comparative socio-anthropological – “in order to see more clearly WHO the Hasmoneans actually were” and “HOW they ruled the Jewish people”.


Oxford Commentary on the DSS

ANNOUNCEMENT: Oxford Commentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The General Editor is Timothy H. Lim (University of Edinburgh).
The series is intended for a broad readership of scholars and students who work in the fields of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament Studies, or in other areas of Early Judaism. Published by Oxford University Press, each volume will expound on the religious ideas and themes of the scrolls.
This is a very welcome development. Follow the link for a list of volumes in progress.

Gzella on the cultural history of Aramaic

Aramaic, the English of the Levant in Antiquity

A holistic approach to Aramaic can uncover a shared backdrop of distinct cultural and religious traditions, help to trace their origins in the absence of other historical or archeological information, and enable one to appreciate the rich texture of certain words and expressions in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

See Also: A Cultural History of Aramaic (Brill, 2015).

By Holger Gzella
Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic
Leiden University
January 2015
Even a bird’s-eye (or rather a satellite’s-eye) view of the history of Aramaic like this one shows that each attempt at renewing and enriching Aramaic philology feeds into many academic debates, such as theology, history, sociolinguistics, language contact and change, or multiculturalism. It is firmly connected to the patrimony of the entire Near East and thus has a potentially high profile at an interdepartmental level. This is the principal justification for maintaining in-depth expertise in one or two of the major periods of Aramaic in present-day Faculties of Humanities. But whoever views complexity as such as meaningful and valuable, may well study Aramaic as an end in itself, independent of its possible applications – and will be amply rewarded.

BAR on archaeological looting

BIBLE HISTORY DAILY: Archaeological Looting and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage. Can we prevent archaeological looting? Robin Ngo summarized a BAR editorial by Hershel Shanks. The editorial itself is behind the subscription wall.

On a related note, the ASOR Blog has posted A Statement on Mesopotamian Antiquities Issues by Benjamin R. Foster, Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. A free registration is required to read the whole (brief) statement.

Some potentially relevant recent PaleoJudaica posts are here and here.

Review of Yadin-Israel, Scripture and Tradition

THE TALMUD BLOG: A. Gvaryahu on A. Yadin-Israel ‘Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash.’

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Shekel

ON THE TEMPLE TAX: For the Month of Adar: What Was the Shekel? Posted a bit after Parashat Shekalim reading, but in time to remember that Adar was when those shekels were brought to the Temple and to recall the custom of giving the equivalent of half a shekel to charity on Purim. (Shuli Mishkin, Arutz Sheva). In 2008 I noted the discovery of a half-shekel coin by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. And more on the peruta is here.

Complimenting the bride in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Can a Blind Bride Be Attractive? If Not, How Do You Pay Her a Compliment? The sages debate the demerits of little white lies, and consider the subtleties of legal claims made by spouses and other property owners
Every bride is beautiful on her wedding day, the saying goes. But is she really? As it turns out, this was a matter of dispute between the two factions we often hear about in the Talmud, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. ...
Besides wedding etiquette, this week's section deals with legal claims and witnessing a contract.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

Monday, February 23, 2015

An Ethiopic manuscript of Jannes and Jambres

TED ERHO, who is pursing a PhD under the supervision of Professor Loren Stuckenbruck at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, has informed me that he has discovered a new manuscript of the Old Testament Pseudepigraphon Jannes and Jambres in an Ethiopic translation in a collection in Ethiopia. Hitherto the text was known only from a couple of very fragmentary manuscripts in the (presumably original) Greek and an excerpt in a Latin translation. In volume 2 of the Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, pp. 427-442, there is an English translation of this material by A. Pietersma and R. T. Lutz.

Jannes and Jambres are legendary Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses during the ten plagues against Egypt. They are mentioned in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 3:8, in the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Damascus Document (CD V.17-19), and in various other places. This new manuscript preserves quite a lot of missing text from the book and it is a very exciting discovery. Ted told me about it last December at the Bible as Notepad Conference, but he asked me to keep it confidential until he could return to Ethiopia and study the manuscript more closely. I am now delighted to have his permission to announce the discovery. He e-mails the following information on the manuscript.
The fragment consists of a bifolium of non-consecutive leaves datable on palaeographic grounds to the beginning of the 14th century, or perhaps slightly earlier. Although in relatively good condition and generally legible, the top inside corner is damaged, resulting in the loss of a few letters from the first two lines of each affected column; mold or some sort of related bacterial contamination on the recto of the initial leaf have additionally caused several characters and one full word to become completely obscured.

Approximately 80% of the text of Jannes & Jambres preserved in this Ethiopic witness is previously unattested. In two places, however, parallels exist with the Greek evidence. The first of these occurs at the very beginning of the fragment and overlaps with both Vienna Frag A and P. Chester Beatty XVI Frame 4↓, while the second, which commences about two-fifths of the way through f. 1v and continues almost until the end of the leaf, aligns with Vienna Frag B and P. Chester Beatty XVI Frame 3→. No precise textual correspondences with the extant Greek material exist for any portion of the second Ethiopic leaf. Its content, however, consists primarily of laments for various elites who have died (probably the nobles of Egypt), which each section introduced by the question "Where is (name)?", traces of which may be attested in the very fragmentary later leaves of P. Chester Beatty XVI. In any case, the substantial quantity of unique material in the Ethiopic fragment suggests that the Greek evidence probably represents a smaller portion of the full text of the apocryphon than has been supposed to date.
Back in 2009 I mentioned the book of Jannes and Jambres as an Old Testament pseudepigraphon that is not entirely lost. Now it is less lost than before.

Let's all say it together: Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.

UPDATE (24 February): Peter M. Head comments.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God

Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God
From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century

Robert J. Wilkinson

The Christian Reception of the Hebrew name of God has not previously been described in such detail and over such an extended period. This work places that varied reception within the context of early Jewish and Christian texts; Patristic Studies; Jewish-Christian relationships; Mediaeval thought; the Renaissance and Reformation; the History of Printing; and the development of Christian Hebraism.
The contribution of notions of the Tetragrammaton to orthodox doctrines and debates is exposed, as is the contribution its study made to non-orthodox imaginative constructs and theologies. Gnostic, Kabbalistic, Hermetic and magical texts are given equally detailed consideration.
There emerge from this sustained and detailed examination several recurring themes concerning the difficulty of naming God, his being and his providence.