Saturday, May 11, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Doctor Jew?

SPECULATION: Doctor Who? Doctor Jew: The iconic sci-fi hero is the greatest Jewish character in the history of television (Liel Leibovitz, Tablet). I think this is a stretch, but read it and see what you think. As for this business about the upcoming revelation of the Doctor's ineffable name, which I confess I have not been following, James McGrath has a suggestion here. I like that possibility better than this one.

Phoenicia fundraising

REMINDER: Phoenicia seeks sponsorship to sail the Atlantic.
The reconstructed sailing ship Phoenicia and her skipper the indomitable Captain Philip Beale, who proved that the historical tale of the circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician sailing boat in 600 BC was possible - by doing it, are now out to rain on Columbus's Parade by crossing the Atlantic in the same sailing ship, and are seeking sponsorship/gifts, donations.

The Phoenicia team are planning the next expedition on the basis that the Phoenicians (as the greatest ancient seafarers) had capabilities and skills to cross the Atlantic two thousand years before Christopher Columbus.
I doubt very much that the Phoenicians ever made it to America. Certainly no convincing evidence of this has been advanced so far. But the project is still kind of cool.

Background here with many links. Cross file under "the Good Ship Phoenicia."

Gnosticism on the radio

RADIO 4: Gnosticism
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Gnosticism, a sect associated with early Christianity. The Gnostics divided the universe into two domains: the visible world and the spiritual one. They believed that a special sort of knowledge, or gnosis, would enable them to escape the evils of the physical world and allow them access to the higher spiritual realm. The Gnostics were regarded as heretics by many of the Church Fathers, but their influence was important in defining the course of early Christianity. A major archaeological discovery in Egypt in the 1940s, when a large cache of Gnostic texts were found buried in an earthenware jar, enabled scholars to learn considerably more about their beliefs.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Second-Temple-era quarry

An Enormous Quarry Dating to the Second Temple Period was Exposed in the Ramat Shlomo Quarter of Jerusalem (May 2013)

Within the framework of an excavation project the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting An Enormous Quarry Dating to the Second Templ Period was Exposed

Within the framework of an excavation project the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting prior to the construction of Highway 21 by the Moriah Company:

An Enormous Quarry Dating to the Second Temple Period was Exposed in the Ramat Shlomo Quarter of Jerusalem

Tools used by the quarrymen and a 2,000 year old key were also uncovered at the site. The huge stones that were quarried there were presumably used in the construction of the city’s magnificent public buildings

An enormous quarry from the time of the Second Temple (first century CE) was exposed in recent weeks in excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out prior to the paving of Highway 21 by the Moriah Company. A 2,000 year old key, pick axes, severance wedges etc are also among the artifacts uncovered during the course of the excavation.

According to Irina Zilberbod, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The quarrying phenomenon created a spectacular sight of bedrock columns and steps and craters of sorts that were the result of the rock-cuttings. What remained are rock masses in various stages of quarrying, and there were those that were found in a preliminary stage of rock-cutting prior to detachment. Some of the stones that were quarried are more than 2 meters long. The giant stones were probably hewn for the sake of the construction of the city’s magnificent public buildings”.

Zilberbod explains, “The pick axes were used to cut the severance channels around the stone block in the bedrock surface and the arrowhead-shaped detachment wedge, which is solid iron, was designed to detach the base of the stone from the bedrock by means of striking it with a hammer. The key that was found, and which was probably used to open a door some 2,000 years ago, is curved and has teeth. What was it doing there? We can only surmise that it might have fallen from the pocket of one of the quarrymen”.

The enormous quarries that were exposed – totaling a 1,000 square meters in area – join other quarries that were previously documented and studied by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Research has shown that the northern neighborhoods of modern Jerusalem are situated on Jerusalem’s “city of quarries” from the Second Temple period.

The question arises: why did the quarrymen select this specific region. Researchers speculate that the answer to this lies in the Meleke rock formation found there, which is a type of rock that is easily quarried and hardens immediately after it is hewn.
In addition to this, since the northern area is topographically higher than the city of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, it was presumably easy to transport the huge stones, some which weighed tens if not hundreds of tons, down hill along the slope to the construction sites. An ancient road dating to the Second Temple period was exposed next to the quarry and it was probably used to move the large stones.
Another puzzle regarding the transportation of such large stones is how were they actually moved? Presumably this was accomplished by means of oxen and wooden rollers, but the contemporary historical sources also mention giant wooden lifting devices.

Photo credits:
1. A picture of the quarries. Photographic credit: Skyview Company, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
2 + 3. Pictures of the artifacts (a general photograph and a picture of the key). Photographic credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

(HT Joseph I. Lauer.)

The Golem and the Jinni

A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN? ‘The Golem and the Jinni’ by Helene Wecker, reviewed by Jane Ciabattari in the Boston Globe. Excerpt:
Two supernatural beings — a Golem, a woman of clay, conjured up by a disgraced rabbi who engages in dangerous Kabbalistic arts, and a Jinni, a shape-shifting fire creature born in the Syrian desert in the seventh century, are drawn together on the streets of New York in 1899. It sounds far-fetched. But in her first novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” a blend of historic fiction and fantasy with a dash of sci-fi and a sprinkling of philosophical discourse about faith and free will, Helene Wecker makes it work.

Lots more on golems here and links.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Geza Vermes, 1924-2013

SAD NEWS: I have just received word from Oxford that Professor Emeritus Geza Vermes died this morning after the recurrence of an illness. I had been corresponding with him recently and knew that he was unwell because he had to miss my lecture last week in Oxford, but I was hoping for good news rather than this.

Geza Vermes was a tremendously influential figure in the the field of ancient Judaism, especially, but by no means exclusively, the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also wrote a great deal about Christian origins and the historical Jesus. In addition to being a scholar he was a true gentleman. I will miss him a great deal. May his memory be for a blessing.

Here is the bereavement notice from David Ariel, which was fowarded by Alison Salvesen:
Dear Colleague

I am deeply saddened to inform you that our dear friend, Professor Geza Vermes, passed away this morning after a recent recurrence of cancer. Margaret, Geza's wife, just called with the sad news and asked that I let you know.

Geza was Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a Governor and strong advocate of the Centre, and was recently appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Centre. His scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of Jesus was truly pioneering and transformative. Geza was also a lovely human being and a friend and mentor to many of us. He will be deeply missed.

There are no funeral plans as yet but we will notify you if and when it is appropriate.

May Margaret be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may Geza's memory be for a blessing.

David Ariel, PhD
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Yarnton Manor
Yarnton, Oxford
United Kingdom
UPDATE (9 May): Mark Goodacre has a long post on Professor Vermes at the NT Blog.

Review of Herod exhibition

MENACHEM KAISER has a long, detailed, and well-informed review in Tablet Magazine of the Israel Museum's Herod the Great exhibition: Herod’s Edifice Complex: The great Judean builder and his outsized ego are the subject of a monumental Israel Museum exhibit. (Sorry about the lame pun in the title.) Excerpt:
What’s so interesting and admirable about this exhibit is that it isn’t content to catalog and applaud Herod’s construction projects, it also attempts to convey the man (and the ego) behind them. We can admire all that he built and accomplished, but what do we really think about the guy? Herod the man was morally atrocious, but as a politician, he was something of a phenom. He switched loyalties with astonishing finesse, aligning first with Mark Antony and then with Mark Antony’s usurper, Augustus. He ruled effectively, if forcefully, and oversaw peace and relative prosperity (if at the expense of the occasional violent suppression). The Hasmoneans—whom Herod displaced and is in political competition with—were strife-ridden. But the Hasmonean dynasty has been, rightly or wrongly, appointed as the Zionist predecessors, and Herod the Roman King has often been cast as the anti-Zionist (though in a particularly non-modern sense). The exhibit, in subtle and interesting ways, seeks to challenge this reputation. His political acumen is celebrated; his cruelty isn’t glossed over; and his architectural legacies are laid out like trophies.
More on the exhibition here and links.


HAARETZ: Word of the Day / Abracadabra: It may be technically Aramaic, but this magical word is easily intelligible to Hebrew speakers, as well as being a favorite of followers of the occult.

From Harry Potter to Aleister Crowley to Aramaic. Some variant of the Aramaic etymology is the most plausible explanation of the three. Background here and links.

Cross-file under "Aramaic Watch."

This world as a wedding and Talmudic varia

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: You Only Live Once:The Talmudic rabbis saw the world as a wedding—a place of charity and pleasures to be enjoyed while it lasts. And this week's Talmud passage covers a lot more than this. For example:
This passage says something important about the way the Talmud regards the transmission of knowledge. One of the key assumptions of modernity is that we are constantly progressing in our knowledge. Every generation knows more about how the world works than the one before, so that a high-school student today knows more about physics than Isaac Newton did in his time. The Talmudists have exactly the opposite view. The time of full knowledge is in the distant past, when great scholars like the Tannaim were alive. The task of the present is to try to preserve what we can of that heritage, even though we will inevitably let most of it slip through our fingers. This way of looking at time helps to explain why Judaism became, to such a large extent, a religion based on commentary. All new thoughts and discoveries had to be presented as retrieving the original meaning of canonical texts.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and here and links.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ancient tourist souvenirs

THE FORWARD: Ancient Tchotchkes Deepen Our Understanding of Jewish Pilgrims: Holy Land Artisans Did a Brisk Business in Pilgrimage Jars (Menachem Wecker).
One such keepsake, an ochre-colored, glass “Pilgrimage Jar With Jewish Symbols” dated 578–636 Jerusalem, is on view through August 25 at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibit “Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures From the British Museum.

“They were more or less mass produced, although it’s a bit of an anachronistic term,” said Christina Nielsen, the Art Institute’s assistant curator for late antique, early Christian and Byzantine art, of vessels like the Institute’s jar, which has menorahs depicted on two of its sides.

The jars, which are about three inches tall, can be traced to a “very savvy” workshop just outside Jerusalem that made souvenirs for both Jewish and Christian patrons, as well as jugs with nonaffiliated decorations. “They just decided, well we’ve got this thing that everybody wants, and if we tweak the imagery to different groups, we will have more customers,”
And there are more in other museums. Read on.

"Rav Hisda's Daughter again

Jewish novelist writes about real magic and sorcerers of ancient Babylon

Greg Garrison | By Greg Garrison |
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on May 06, 2013 at 2:32 PM, updated May 06, 2013 at 3:23 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Jewish novelist Maggie Anton has found herself dealing with some of the same subject matter as fellow female novelist J.K. Rowling of "Harry Potter" fame, but Anton's magic stories are based on real history.

Anton, author of the novel "Rav Hisda's Daughter," (Plume, 452 pp., $16) will speak Tuesday at noon at Temple Beth-El's Sisterhood luncheon.

The ancient Aramaic Jewish incantation bowls come up in the discussion. I only wish that the new bowls flooding the market had been excavated by archaeologists as she says. Most of them are unprovenanced and therefore of debatable authenticity.

Background on Anton's work is here and links.

Undergraduates and ancient Judaism


OCU Hebrew students to study Dead Sea Scrolls (AP). Background here.

IU Bloomington junior David Bloom receives 2013 Palmer-Brandon Prize in the Humanities (Indiana University press release).
Majoring in French, Jewish studies and religious studies with a minor in Hebrew, [IU junior David] Bloom's research areas include the conception of self in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. A native of Louisville, Ky., he intends to become a rabbi.

Monday, May 06, 2013

BBC pulls documentary for taking ancient Jewish history too seriously or not seriously enough.

BBC pulls documentary claiming story of Jewish exodus from Jerusalem is a 'myth’
Israeli-born filmmaker accuses BBC of bowing to 'political naivete’ and 'subconscious political pressure’.

By JTA | May.02, 2013 | 2:01 PM | 58

An Israeli-born filmmaker is slamming the British Broadcasting Corp. for pulling his documentary on the Jewish exodus from Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Ilan Ziv said in a blog post on April 27 that the BBC exhibited "a mixture of incompetence, political naivete, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates."

At issue is the documentary “Exile: A Myth Unearthed,” which theorizes that many Jews did not leave Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, and that many modern-day Palestinians may be in part descended from those Jews. The BBC had been scheduled to show the documentary, cut and renamed "Jerusalem: an Archaeological Mystery Story," late last week before it was taken off the schedule at the last minute.

The blog post by Mr. Ziv is here.

As usual with these things, it is hard to know exactly what is going on from the sketchy media reports. If JTA is representing the content of the film accurately, it sounds pretty wacky. Ziv himself says the following in his blog post:
An “unnamed” BBC insider who I was told “liked the film,” claimed that the film props up the myth of Exile “ which we all know did not happen, in order to support his political analysis”. I learned that the cut I was given was now irrelevant, since some internal review deemed one scène with the Palestinians to be “too emotive” and they were asked to cut it down. Realizing that a mini political storm was brewing around the film and attacks lodged against its integrity, I asked and was promised that I would be given at least a summary of the essential charges so I could answer them in length. I am obviously very familiar with some of them and could easily and in detail refute them. I told the programming executive that my reply would help them to defend the film in the Channel. After all, they professed to love the film and seemed genuinely interested to show it. I told them it was very easy for me to prepare a detailed rebuttal with citation of sources for every word of the narration, the overall analysis and for every scene. I told them that some of the academic participants in the program who saw the cut and are reputable scholars in their field did not find any factual errors or misrepresentations of facts or of the historical narrative. In other words, I argued that such a detailed and substantial defense would convince any objective reader and observer of the editorial integrity of the film. I repeated the request several times yet I never got a reply. Instead, I received an email telling me that they decided to pull it out of the schedule, citing the “ short timetable and my work load “( !) A few days later I saw the “official” version that went to the public:
This makes it sound as though the problem was Palestinian objections to the film taking "the myth of Exile" too seriously as history, but the JTA article says the following:
According to the watchdog group HonestReporting, critics of the decision to drop the film have accused the BBC of succumbing to “unnamed pressure groups,” which HonestReporting says is a reference to “Jews” or “Zionists.”

Simon Plosker of HonestReporting wrote in his blog on the group's website that the BBC may have been "more concerned at upsetting anti-Israel elements by showing a film with such a heavy concentration on Jewish history in the Land of Israel."
At this point all I can say is that I would like to know what the film actually claims. If it is what JTA says, then I would like to see the case argued in peer-review publications before anyone airs a documentary about it. Television documentaries are not serious enough venues to make any kind of scholarly case about historical matters.

UPDATE: Dorothy Lobel King e-mails that the documentary can be rented here (UK) or here (Canada). Enjoy.

Lost Hanging Gardens found?

I BLAME GOOGLE MAPS: Stephanie Dalley: The Hanging Gardens of "Babylon" were actually in Nineveh.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are documented by ancient Greek and Roman writers, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Quintus Curtius Rufus.
And none of them stopped at a gas station for directions.

Jewish-Christian Gospels

PHILIP JENKINS continues his series on biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha: JEWISH-CHRISTIAN GOSPELS. Excerpt:
Just what these “Jewish-Christian” readings were raises serious questions about the transmission of the gospel text. Orthodox church scholars cite them as the products of a heretical school of belief, labeled by a sectarian name like “Ebionites.” But looking at the readings in detail, it is an open question whether a sect added these words themselves for their own purposes. Or, more intriguing, were they preserving the oldest textual reading, which later dropped out of the canonical gospels?

Repeatedly, we find that readings commonly dismissed as belonging to that marginal Jewish-Christian school reflect the gospel text as it would have been known to such venerated Fathers as Ignatius (c.110), Justin Martyr (c.160) or Tertullian (c.200). Often, scholars assume that the writers in question were confused in their memory of the exact wording of the text, but some readings occur so frequently that they seem to have been standard at this very early time. Besides the Jewish-Christian texts, some also appear in such early gospels as Peter and Thomas.
Earlier posts in the series are noted here and links.

Jewish Centurions

TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY: Jewish Centurions Take on Rome: Street performers who pose for tourist photos by the Colosseum battle city authorities (Lauren Davidson and Marie Telling, Tablet).

Sunday, May 05, 2013

More on that "priceless" Turkish manuscript

THE SYRIAC MANUSCRIPT recently seized by an anti-smuggling police unit in Turkey has received some attention on the Hugoye list. George Kiraz posted the original article, then Hidemi Takahashi posted links to better photos. With a good look at some of the text now available, Steven Ring has posted a provisional identification: "It looks like an East Syrian liturgical Ms. Perhaps liturgical prayers extracted from the East Syrian Shhima for the period between the Nativity and the Epiphany (December - January)." Such things are always interesting, of course, but the Turkish authorities are getting a little carried away to call it priceless.

Maybe next time they should ask some specialists (there are plenty at the Hugoye list) for an evaluation before they make the announcement. I know, I know, that's crazy talk.