Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ships on ancient coins

COIN WEEK: Ships on Ancient Coins (Mike Markowitz). Including Noah's Ark on a late-Roman-era Jewish coin from Phrygia. Also, Phoenician and Punic coins.

Asherah treeworks

JAMES MCGRATH: Mrs. Asherah Yahweh Tree Service. Cross-file under Can't Make It Up.

Burke's course on Gnosticism

APOCRYPHICITY: Tony Burke has concluded the teaching of his semester-course on Gnosticism at York University, for which he has been posting weekly reflections (noted at the inception of the series here). For convenience, here are all the posts in order:

Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 1: Who Will Take the Red Pill?
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 2: Rethinking Nag Hammadi
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 3: Heresy Hunting
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 4: Religious Landscapes
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 5: Valentinianism
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 6: Thomas
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 7: Sethianism
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 8: Rituals and the Divine Feminine
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 9: Apocalypses
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 10: Eastern Gnosis
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week Eleven: Judas and Mary
Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 12: Modern Gnosticism

Counterfeit operation

FORGERY — ITS NOT ONLY FOR ANTIQUITIES: Police bust massive coin forgery operation. Forgers allegedly planned to flood Israeli market with half a million NIS 10 coins a day (Stuart Winer, The Times of Israel).

Just saying.

Friday, April 24, 2015


ARASH ZEINI: A preview of the first issue of DABIR. A new open-access peer-reviewed journal of brief notes and reviews pertaining to pre-modern Iran.

Wright on evil spirits

The Origin of Evil Spirits in Early Jewish Literature

The pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch, in particular the Book of Watchers, chapters 1–36, played a key role in the developing demonology in Early Judaism and eventually the NT. 1 Enoch is described as a Midrash of Genesis 6.1-4 in which the Sons of God have sexual relations with the daughters of humanity and giant offspring are born to them. As a result of the union, the author of 1 Enoch presents an origin of evil spirits which will be taken up with the ensuing literature of the 2TP[Second Temple period] and result in a full-blown demonology by the 1st c. C.E.

See Also: The Origin of Evil Spirits (Fortress Press; Revised edition, 2015).

By Archie T. Wright
Regent University
April, 2015

Dig episode 8

KIMBERLY WINSTON: Sifting through religious debris in ‘Dig,’ what’s fact and what’s fiction? The site of Qumran made an appearance in this episode. But if there were ever Essenes living there, I don't think there are any now - gun-toting or otherwise.

Background here and links.

UPDATE (29 April): A more detailed summary of episode 8 is here.

Conference on Digital Approaches to Hebrew Manuscripts

H-JUDAIC: Conf: On the Same Page: Digital Approaches to Hebrew Manuscripts.
We are delighted to announce the programme for On the Same Page: Digital Approaches to Hebrew Manuscripts at King's College London. This two-day conference will explore the potential for the computer-assisted study of Hebrew manuscripts; discuss the intersection of Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities; and share methodologies. Amongst the topics covered will be Hebrew palaeography and codicology, the encoding and transcription of Hebrew texts, the practical and theoretical consequences of the use of digital surrogates and the visualisation of manuscript evidence and data. For the full programme and our Call for Posters, please see below.
It begins on 18 May and is free, so register before they run out of spaces. They are also still accepting proposals for posters until 30 April.


ELI KAVON: Lost in translation: Why Hebrew matters (Jerusalem Post Blog). The writer starts with Philo, the Septuagint, and the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, then explains why he thinks things have changed and translations no longer suffice.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rollston on the James Ossuary

CHRISTOPHER ROLLSTON: THE JAMES OSSUARY (YA‘AKOV OSSUARY): BULLET POINT SYNOPSIS ABOUT A PROBABLE MODERN FORGERY. Timely in light of this recent story regarding the James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.

Samaritans in the news

SIDE BY SIDE: Samaritans Play it Cool with their Jewish Neighbors. The Samaritan enclave of Kiryat Luza stands as one of the last outposts to the ancient Jewish offshoot, just meters away from Har Bracha (Gedalyah Reback, Arutz Sheva)
Har Bracha is nestled on the southern end of Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, which is more of a mountain range than it is a single peak. The town takes its name from the mount of Biblical fame, where six tribes stood to recite blessings into the ampitheatrical valley between Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, which look down on the ancient city of Shechem.

The town is looking to build its next neighborhood facing Kiryat Luza to the north, including the subtle but scenic Samaritan temple on the mountain's northeastern tip.

The town is also interesting for the fact it is the voting headquarters of that Samaritan community, a sect which broke off from mainstream Judaism as it were in ancient times.

To be clear — and the opening of the article isn't very — Har Bracha is an Israeli settlement and Kiryat Luza is a Samaritan village.

Grounds for divorce in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, They Go Together Like … If the point of marriage is not happiness but religion, what constitutes grounds for divorce? Plus: tips for grooming pubic hair.
In America today, we are used to the concept of “no-fault divorce,” whereby either spouse can end a marriage for any reason or none. But this practice only makes sense in a society that regards marriage as a voluntary union of equals for the purpose of companionship. If the purpose of marriage is happiness, then by definition a marriage that makes people unhappy should end. As we have seen over the last several months of Daf Yomi reading, however, the Talmud—like almost all legal systems in the world until very recently, and many still today—has a different idea of what marriage means. If a marriage is not a voluntary union but part financial transaction, part family alliance, and part sacred ritual, then what circumstances justify ending it?

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

St. George's Day 2015

TODAY: Saint George’s Day: England’s patron saint celebrated across the country. David Cameron says St George’s day has been overlooked ‘for too long’ and the country should celebrate what it is to be English (Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph). Be that as it may, St. George lived in late-antique Palestine and (according to legend) slew a dragon, so we give him a mention every year at PaleoJudaica.

Background here and links.

Dig episode 7

KIMBERLY WINSTON: Secret orders and supposed traitors — TV’s ‘Dig’ and religious history.
(RNS) The pieces of the religious puzzle that make up the USA Network’s biblical conspiracy action series “Dig” are beginning to fall into place, and the picture they are revealing is one of history — highlighted by a colorful streak of fiction.

Here be spoilers! Read on only if you are up-to-date with the 10-part series, or want to ruin it for yourself and others.

She has some information on the Crusades and the Knights Templar, then moves on to Josephus:
Enter “Dig,” whose evil archaeologist, Ian Margove (Richard E. Grant), is after the “treasure” the Order of Moriah is supposed to have buried somewhere in Jerusalem.

Flavius Josephus

Archaeologist Margrove says that “according to Flavius Josephus,” the breastplate will pinpoint the location of the treasure.


Whatever the truth, the characters of “Dig” are right to turn to Josephus for information about early Jewish rituals and practices. His book “Antiquities of the Jews” describes first-century Jewish religious garments and ritual items, including a priest’s breastplate that is critical to the “Dig” plotline.

But using such a breastplate as a treasure map is fictional — not historical — at all.
Josephus certainly had a flexible system of ethics, but he did manage to survive and leave us accounts of the history of Second Temple Judaism which are unique and irreplaceable, if often mendacious and self-serving. His "luck" in surviving the mass suicide of his friends to escape Roman capture has been analyzed mathematically as The Josephus Problem. If you find the maths confusing, the point is that if you know where to place yourself at the beginning of the count, you can survive to the end. Also, Josephus had a tradition that the twelve stones of the High Priest's breastplace (breastpiece) and the two sardonyx stones that held it together gave light sometimes as oracular revelations (Ant. 3.214-18). There is perhaps some relation to the tradition of the twelve shining stones in The Treatise of the Vessels XII, which figure in the storyline of Dig.

Additional background on the series is here and links. A more detailed summary of episode 7 is here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

New technology for reading old ostraca

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: A high-tech quest to unlock the secrets of ancient Israelite letters. How upstart mathematicians and archaeologists are revealing the secrets of letters penned more than 2,500 years ago – and finding clues about when the Bible was written. (Ariel David, Haaretz).
What do 2,600-year-old administrative documents written on potsherds have to do with computer algorithms? And what can routine supply requisitions and urgent requests for reinforcements from a long-gone army tell us about the origins of the Bible?

A maverick team of mathematicians, physicists and archaeologists at Tel Aviv University is on a high-tech quest to answer those questions by unlocking the secrets of the few written documents from the First Temple period that have survived to this day.

The new techniques the researchers developed may not only revolutionize the way scholars study ancient inscriptions, but also paint a better picture of the level of sophistication and literacy in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ultimately, their work could help shed light on the tantalizing question of when biblical texts were first put in writing.

The texts under analysis are the Iron Age II ostraca from Samaria, Lachish, and Arad. It mentions a fourth group of Judahite texts, but I'm not sure what is in mind, unless it be the single, but very important, ostracon from Yavneh Yam (Mesad Hashavyahu). And there are other individual ostraca. One of the most exciting things noted in the article is that the new technology has accidentally detected and recovered several new lines of text (still being deciphered) on the back of one of these well-known ostraca.

Joseph Lauer has noted an article that may be related: abstract here; pdf file of the whole article here.

Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.

No, Muslim authorities have not just carpeted over the Lost Ark

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Have Muslim authorities just carpeted over the Lost Ark? Israeli scholars furious after new flooring is fitted 'behind their backs' at the Dome of the Rock where ancient artefact is rumoured to be buried
  • Row erupted after mysterious geometric designs discovered under carpet
  • Some hope they may lead to chamber where Ark of the Covenant is hidden
  • But new flooring laid before Israeli scholars were able to document pattern
  • But Waqf, the authority in charge of Dome of the Rock, reject accusations
(An AP article, but the summary points are from the Daily Mail.)

There are two issues here. First, the Waqf authorities have covered over some floor designs in the Dome of the Rock with carpeting before all of them were properly documented. Apparently these floor designs are old, although nothing is said about how old. The Waqf should not have done that, and there is some concern that the carpeting will damage the floor. The IAA, however, is phlegmatic about the situation, reasoning that the stone floor is likely to last longer than the carpeting and that other opportunities to document it are likely to arise.

The second issue is whether the floor designs contain clues that will lead to the lost Ark of the Covenant. They are described as "cryptic geometric patterns" and the article says that unnamed "researchers" have the notion that the designs have something to do with the Ark. That is not impossible; legends about the Ark of the Covenent have been around since the Second Temple period and my own fifteen minutes of fame in 2014 came about from my translating one of these legendary texts into English. But that doesn't mean anything the floor designs say about the Ark have anything really to do with where the Ark now is. Probably, if the Ark existed in the form described in the Bible, it was melted down for the gold by the Babylonians. Quite a few people think they know where the Ark is. All of them seemed to want to tell me about it in 2014, including one who revealed to me where in St. Andrews it is buried. And, no, I'm not going to tell you that location.

So let's keep things in perspective. The Waqf is handling ancient architecture carelessly, which is nothing new, and they should be held to account for it. But this flooring is not the gateway to the Ark. At best it may allude in some way to Ark legends, which are always entertaining, but I doubt even that.

More on the Temple Mount Sifting Project (mentioned in the article) is here with many links. More on the Ark of the Covenant here with many links.

The Shmita and Palestinian produce

THE SABBATICAL YEAR: How a Biblical Edict Became a Boon for Palestinian Farmers (Naomi Zeveloff, The Forward).
The reason for this transaction, which continues throughout the Jewish calendar year, is the religious mandate known as shmita. As dictated in Exodus 23:10-11, among other places, Jews who farm within the biblical borders of the Land of Israel must let their fields lie fallow every seventh year. Right now in Israel, it’s 5775 on the Jewish religious calendar, a shmita year.

Most other Jews in Israel accept a workaround devised by Zionist rabbis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that allows them to eat food grown on Jewish-owned farms. But to comply with Jewish law as they see it, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10% of the country’s population, are forgoing produce from Jewish farms in Israel and the occupied territories this year. Instead, they look to their Palestinian neighbors — as well as to Turks, Jordanians and Israeli-Arabs — to fill their salad bowls.

To Palestinians, therefore, shmita is boom time. Shmita is the “year of the Palestinian farmers,” said Nasri Haj Mohammad, a partner in one of Froush Beit Dajan’s largest farms. On a short break in the workday, he sat next to a fishpond surrounded by citrus groves and greenhouses. A white crane alighted on the water. What is shmita? he contemplated. “The simple answer is, it’s a good season to sell the products at a premium price.”
But the process is not uncontroversial or without its complexities. More on this year's Shmita in Israel (and the abovementioned workaround, a.k.a. "George") is here and here.

Jewish burial through the ages

HAARETZ: The history of Jewish burial rites. Jews have been dying ever since there were Jews, but how they are buried has vastly changed through the millennia. (Elon Gilad). Excerpt:
Ancient burial caves

From the archaeological record, we know that the burial practices of the earliest Jews, the Israelites and the Judahites (who would unite into the people called yehudim, or the Jews), usually interred their dead in "family caves" located outside the settlement.

These "family caves" were usually created by expanding naturally-occurring tunnels in the chalky foothills of the region.

The burial rite consisted of two parts. First the body would be brought into an outer room and laid on the floor, or in special slots in the wall. Then later, perhaps a year later, the family would return to the burial cave, collect the bare bones and add them to a pile of bones left by previous generations in an inner sanctum.

This ancient custom continued even after the invasion of their kingdoms in the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, persisted during and after the exile, throughout during the Second Temple period – lasting, in fact, until the Middle Ages. During those millennia, though, some innovations did develop.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: Why is Israel called Israel? A brief history of the tribe and of the word 'Israel,' and how the modern state almost came to be called something completely different. Hint: Who is Isaac Pernhoff? (Elon Gilad, Haaretz).
This week the State of Israel celebrates its 67th Independence Day, which is an apposite time to ask: How did Israel get its name?

This is actually three separate questions. What did the name Israel originally mean? How did the ancient Jewish people and their homeland come to be known as "Israel"? And how and why was this particular name chosen for the modern state?

The Israel Stele

“Israel” has been the name of an ethnic group in the Levant going back at least 3200 years, based on the first known mention of the name in the written record, which was in ancient Egypt.

That is a hieroglyphic inscription on the Merneptah Stele (also known as the "Israel Stele"). Dating from the late 13th century BCE, the inscription says that "Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more".

In any case, for all Pharaoh Merneptah's claim to have crushed the people called Israel, they did survive the Egyptian incursion into Canaan in the late 13th century BCE and would evolve into a consolidated Kingdom of Israel centered around the capital city, Samaria, during the first centuries of the first millennium BCE. But evidently the name Israel goes back more than 3200 years: how did this tribe get that name?

Interesting article. It might have benefitted from also mentioning the ninth-century B.C.E. Mesha Stele, in which the King of Moab made a similar and similarly erroneous claim to have annihilated Israel. The Meneptah Stele and the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) contain the two earliest surviving dateable mentions of Israel.

The Cairo Geniza and JTS library renovations

STORAGE: Say Goodbye to This Treasure Trove of Rare Texts — Until 2018 (Josh Nathan-Kazis, The Forward).
The greatest collection of rare Jewish historical documents in the United States will be boxed up later this year and put into storage until at least 2018, the Forward has learned.

The library at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary — Conservative Judaism’s largest rabbinic seminary — holds the most impressive compilation of Jewish historical materials outside of Jerusalem: hundreds of ancient Jewish marriage contracts, thousands of unique manuscripts, and tens of thousands of fragments recovered in Egypt from the famed Cairo Genizah.

Now, the future of this collection is a matter of heated debate in Jewish scholarly circles as JTS sells off real estate assets to help ease a years-long financial crunch. Over the next few years, JTS plans to sell two buildings now serving as residence halls to developers, along with air rights to its main campus. The school will also replace its current library building with a new library and conference center.

In addition to the temporary closing of the rare books collection, other, longer-term changes are coming, too. The library’s circulating collection and its archives will largely be stored off-site once the new library is constructed. Meanwhile, the school’s beit midrash, or religious study hall, will be built into the new library.

This is not an uncommon situation, perhaps because the corpus of scholarly books has reached a critical mass and libraries are finding it impossible to continue to display it all in the traditional open stacks. The Library of the University of St. Andrews recently made similar changes, sending the bulk of the collection to outside storage and setting up a dedicated reading room (the building of a former local church) to consult the (extensive and important) special collections. If you need a book in storage, it will be brought in, usually within a day. So far the system seems to be working well enough.

More on the Cairo Geniza collection at JTS is here and here.

To buy or not to buy

DILEMMA: History dies in ISIL’s hands, but curators worry buying artifacts would fund terrorism (Joseph Brean, The National Post).
As ISIL terrorists use power drills, bulldozers and explosives to destroy the cultural and architectural heritage of ancient Mesopotamia — Christian, Muslim and pre-Abrahamic from the ancient Assyrian capital Nimrud to the tomb of the Biblical Jonah in Mosul — western curators hoping to preserve what is left are caught in a dilemma.

Some want to buy artifacts to protect and preserve them, such as James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s wealthiest art institution, who has described the vandalism as “an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place.”

But others are loudly calling for an effective ban on trade in Assyrian antiquities and other relics from the war zone. They say the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is not simply eradicating the idolatry it denounces as heretical, but in fact is hypocritically selling what it can on a black market, and destroying everything else. In this view, buying artifacts to preserve them in Western galleries is tantamount to funding terrorism.

This is a very difficult, no-win situation and I do not have a solution.

Background on ISIS's assault on the past is here with many links.

From Mao to Gnosticism

Q. and A.: Willis Barnstone on Translating Mao and Touring Beijing With Allen Ginsberg (Ian Johnson, NYT Blog).
Willis Barnstone is a polymath author of more than 70 books — a poet, translator and scholar of Gnosticism and the New Testament. But the 87-year-old also has had a long and colorful relationship with China, translating Mao Zedong’s poetry and befriending numerous Chinese artists and political leaders in the 1980s.

Recently he was in Beijing to speak at the Bookworm Literary Festival. In an interview, he discussed his love of classical Chinese poetry, a telegram he sent to Zhou Enlai and taking Allen Ginsberg to a Taoist temple.

Most of the article is about Barnstone's experiences with China and translating the poetry of Mao. That happens to be interesting to me because I am just now finishing the biography of Mao by Pantsov and Levine, Mao: The Real Story. That would be neither here nor there but for the fact that Barnstone has also come up in PaleoJudaica as a translator (with Marvin Meyer) of Gnostic texts and (on his own) of his idiosyncratic canon called The Restored New Testament. This recent interview nicely rounds out the picture of his work.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More on Sanders's Guggenheim

Guggenheim Fellowship Awarded to Trinity College's Seth Sanders (The Hartford Courant). Excerpt:
"Religious people have struggled with the Bible's contradictions since they first read it, and scholars have used them as a window into how it was created. What my project can explain is why those contradictions were put in the text in the first place," Sanders said.

"As a collection of incompatible versions of similar stories, the Torah is unlike any other major work of ancient literature," Sanders said. "Biblical scholarship still cannot agree on how this new paradigm arose. My project draws on ancient Near Eastern evidence to explain what is new about it by placing the Torah in literary history."
Background here and here, and PaleoJudaica has referred often to his work as well.

You can read a lot more about Prof. Sanders's research at his current blog, sethlsanders and his earlier blog Serving the Word.

Ben Hur and the Pope

Pope Francis blesses Ben-Hur's new Jesus at the Vatican (Ben Child, The Guardian)

Brazil’s Rodrigo Santoro, who is playing Christ in a new Ben-Hur movie, was filming in Rome when he met the pope.

The Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, who is cast as Jesus Christ in the forthcoming biblical epic Ben-Hur, has been blessed by Pope Francis at the Vatican.


Santoro and fellow cast member Nazanin Boniadi attended a weekly papal audience event during a break from production, where they met Pope Francis. The pair also took a picture in front of the Vatican.

Background on the new film version of Ben Hur is here and links.

Herodium walkway

Herodium walkway reveals more of Jewish king's grand designs (Reuters/Israel HaYom).

Archaeologists unearth grand arched walkway in one of King Herod's major buildings • They believe he intended it to be used for his burial procession, but changed his mind and covered it over • The discovery is to open to the public in about a year.
Lots more on Herod the Great and Herodium here with many links.

Menahem Haran (1924-2015)

SAD NEWS FROM H-JUDAIC: Obituary: Prof. Menahem Haran.
H-Judaic is deeply saddened to learn of the passing, at age 91, of Professor Menahem Haran (1924-2015), Yehezkel Kaufmann Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University and one of the towering figures of Jewish biblical scholarship. ...
May his memory be for a blessing.

Review of Fine and Koller (eds.), Talmuda de-Eretz Israel

Steven Fine, Aaron Koller (ed.), Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine. Studia Judaica, Bd 73. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. xiii, 352. ISBN 9781614514855. €119.95.

Reviewed by Joseph Geiger, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
The present volume is a welcome collection of papers by a variety of scholars each dealing with a specific problem. None of the contributions, however, faces the crucial larger issue: do the texts indeed reflect the material realities? No well known holders of a negative view on this question contributed to the volume. The general approach is summed up in two contributions included as “Afterwords,” one by an eminent archaeologist, Eric Meyers, the other by an eminent rabbinic scholar, Daniel Sperber. Meyers remains committed to the idea that, in order to understand the world of the rabbis better, “it is imperative to be immersed in the textual material including the visual and epigraphical sources that are chronologically relevant” (305). He goes on to demonstrate this with respect to burial customs, remains of foodstuffs, stone vessels, ritual baths, synagogues and issues of gender – most of which are discussed at length by contributions in the volume. Sperber's article insists on the need for philological examination prior to the evaluation of the material finds. The piece is a bibliographic treasure-trove – though unfortunately needs editing.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

McKendrick et al. (eds.), Codex Sinaiticus

ETC: New Book on Codex Sinaiticus (Peter M. Head). The 2009 conference that produced the papers was noted here.

Review of Hadavas, Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus

C. T. Hadavas, Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus: An Intermediate Ancient Greek Reader. [Beloit, WI]: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. Pp. xxviii, 154. ISBN 9781500303099. $12.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Serena Pirrotta, Berlin (
She concludes:
The compact presentation of all necessary information about Lucian and the Peregrinus in the introductory chapters, the exhaustive footnotes with suggestions for translation, and the reader-friendly layout make Havadas’ book a useful learning tool for students near the beginning of their classics curriculum.
What an interesting text to use for a student reader.