Friday, December 31, 2004

On New Year's Eve

This morning when I went out to get the paper, I thought at first it was raining, for I heard water pouring out of downspouts and the patter of drops everywhere. But it wasn't raining. Four days and nights in a row of forty-plus temperatures had finally brought about a rapid meltdown of all the ice and snow from last week's mammoth snowstorm. Sodden lawns are now visible and everyone's cars are filthy from salt and mud. But it's good to start the New Year off with ice-free streets.

... The last time I was in a bar, a few years ago, I noticed a sign that said DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE. I said to myself, "How do they think we got here?" Nevertheless I hope everyone follows this sound advice tonight. Me, I'm turning in early in hopes of staving off a cold that has been stalking me all day. If I blog only a little in the next day or so, you'll know I was unsuccessful.

... Best wishes to all for a safe and happy 2005.

How It All Began: Hershel and the Pomegranate

Readers may have been wondering if I was exaggerating yesterday when I pointed the finger at Hershel Shanks as a principal, although unwitting, enabler of the trade in stolen and forged antiquities. It is worth going back 20 years or so and examining the role that Shanks and Biblical Archaeology Review played in the case of the Ivory Pomegranate.

The story begins with Andre Lemaire, who was later to regain the spotlight by being the first to publish information about the James Ossuary. Lemaire is a good scholar, but he has had one bad habit: by his own admission, he haunts the antiquities shops of Israel, always on the look-out for unpublished epigraphic material. On one such jaunt in 1979, a dealer showed him the small engraved ivory pomegranate. He determined, by himself, that the piece was not a fake, that the inscription dated from the 8th century BCE and had adorned the scepter of a priest in the Temple of Solomon. He published an article in 1981 in Revue Biblique about it, and, in 1984, he published an article describing the find in BAR. On the basis of photographs alone, Frank Moore Cross also pronounced the find authentic, calling it "priceless."

In a later issue of BAR, Shanks called on the unknown owner and the unidentified dealer to come forward with the piece:
We can only plead with the owner to identify himself—or at least to allow the Israel Museum to display the inscribed ivory pomegranate anonymously, so that the public can view this beautiful relic, which can now be seen only in BAR’s lifelike color photographs.

The Israeli Attorney General and the Director of the Department of Antiquities should also look into the situation. Is it legal for a private individual to keep to himself a priceless artifact like this, which is part of the heritage of all Israelis and of the millions of visitors who could view it in the Israel Museum? If it is legal, should it be? Perhaps the Israeli law should be changed. In any event, the Israeli authorities should be investigating
Not a word here about the possibility of a fake or an illegal excavation.

Five years later, Shanks and BAR announced that the Israel Museum had purchased the pomegranate for $550,000 from an anonymous collector in Switzerland. Shanks wrote at the time:
The pomegranate first received widespread attention in the pages of BAR. Without this coverage, the object would have commanded a far lower price. Indeed, the owner undoubtedly made the pomegranate available for BAR’s beautiful color pictures precisely for this purpose—to enhance the value of the artifact by giving it public attention and scholarly confirmation....

BAR participated in this process—at least to the extent of substantially increasing the value of the pomegranate on the illegal antiquities market—by publicizing the find. Yet the alternative was to refrain from telling the world about it. Were we right? Or were we wrong?
Shanks obviously felt he was right. Yet BAR did have the gumption to publish a scathing letter from Ricardo Elia, Director of the Office of Public Archaeology at Boston University. The letter read, in part:
... there can be little doubt that BAR contributed to the problem of illicit looting of Israel’s archaeological heritage.

By publishing an object without provenance, one that was still in a dealer’s hands, and almost certainly (if the object is genuine) the product of illegal looting, BAR played into the hands of the dealer/owner of the object by authenticating the piece, publicizing its supposed importance and thereby increasing its sale value. In effect, BAR provided free consulting services (by authenticating the object) and free advertising to the dealer/owner of this probably stolen antiquity. The result was a half-million-dollar sale, which can only encourage looters (and forgers) to step up their activities [emphasis mine--EMC].

But there is more than enough blame to go around, even if we omit the finder/looter and the dealer/owner, from whom we can expect such behavior. The author of the original article, André Lemaire, should consider his role in encouraging looting when he makes his habitual “rounds of the antiquities dealers,” and when he publishes objects held by dealers knowing full well that they come from an undocumented and, very likely, illegal source.

... In addition, we must honestly communicate the very real possibility that any objects of uncertain provenance may be forgeries; unless proven authentic by physical or chemical tests, let the buyer (and scholar) beware. Ultimately, we will only be able to make a dent in the illegal antiquities trade when the value of an object—to dealers, collectors and scholars alike—is inextricably linked to its provenance and archaeological context.
Had Elia's letter been taken to heart, the entire James Ossuary fiasco could have been avoided, since the same script was played out years later, even with some of the same actors. But it was not taken to heart, and BAR always continued to refer to the pomegranate as the "sole surviving relic of the Solomon's Temple." Will Shanks still do so, now that new examination suggests that it has been forged?

Oded Golan was not involved with the Pomegranate, but it is possible that the case of the Pomegranate inspired forgers and thieves to try their luck, with the prospect of free publicity from BAR and a large museum check waiting at the end of the day. It is time for this to stop.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Lemaire, "Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon's Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem," Biblical Archaeology Review 10.1 (1984), pp.24-29; A. Lemaire, “Une inscription paleo-hebraique sur grenade en ivoire,” Revue Biblique 88 (1981), pp. 236–239; H. Shanks, "Was BAR an Accessory to Highway Robbery?" BAR 14.6 (November/December 1988); Elia's letter is found in BAR 15.4 (July/August 1989): "Illegally Excavated Artifacts Should Not Be Published; Lemaire, Cross and Israel Museum Share Blame for Looters." Information on the Ivory Pomegranate can be found here, with the presumption that it is genuine.

UPDATE: My inference about Golan not being involved with the pomegranate is derived from these passages in the New Yorker article by David Samuels.
The pomegranate was purchased on behalf of the museum in 1988 for more than six hundred thousand dollars, by an anonymous collector who was represented by intermediaries for Raffi Brown, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem and a onetime colleague of Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch.

In February, when I spoke with Brown about the pomegranate, he said, "It came from a French collector, bless his soul, who left it with his brother." Brown ... added, "I saw it first fifteen years earlier, in the seventies. His brother sold it. I showed it to Andre Lemaire on his instructions. The brother sent him to me."

... The Antiquities Authority says that it does not suspect Golan of being involved in the sale of the pomegranate.
I'm not sure what the force of "colleague" is in the above quotation. Does it mean that Brown, like the other two, was an antiquities dealer in Israel, or does it imply a closer collaboration? Presumably, all the details will come out eventually.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Samuels, "Written in Stone," New Yorker (April 12, 2004), p. 57.

UPDATE II: A story in the New York times yesterday states that in fact, as I suggested above, Golan and his team have not been charged with forging the pomegranate:
The criminal charges filed Wednesday were the first in the case, and they came just days after the Israel Museum said an independent panel had concluded that the ivory pomegranate, which it bought in 1988 from an unknown seller by depositing half a million dollars in a Swiss bank account, was not authentic.

The pomegranate is believed to date back 3,400 years, but its inscription was added recently, the museum said. The Wednesday indictments cited the pomegranate as an example of a high-profile forgery, but did not charge any of the four suspects with counterfeiting it.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Forgery Indictments

Biblioblogdom is buzzing with the news of the forgery indictments of Oded Golan and four others (I previously blogged on this issue here).

I was surprised to see that Robert Deutsch was indicted as a co-conspirator. I have always considered his work as somewhat professional, although scarcely within the bounds of propriety, since he has made a reputation by gullibly and imprudently publishing many unprovenanced artifacts. Whether he is actually a propagator of fraud or a victimized scholarly pawn will presumably appear in due course. My guess, or hope, is that he is a pawn. But no matter what, it appears that his career in scholarship is irreversibly tainted. Very sad.

This picture shows Robert Deutsch with Frank Moore Cross.

UPDATE: Further on Robert Deutsch: The following quotations come from the article "Magnificent Obsession: The Private World of an Antiquities Collector" in Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1996:
[Deutsch] is devoting his life now to publishing epigraphic finds in private collections, something few field archaeologists would do. Deutsch doesn’t care, however, whether the artifacts he is publishing are looted or not—although he suggests that many if not most were discovered by chance rather than in an illegal excavation. In either case, he is willing to publish them. “To ignore items just because they weren’t found in an excavation run by a university is crazy,” he says. Even if it’s looted? I ask. “I don’t mind. If I found the Bible illegally excavated, I would publish it. The fact is that some important finds do not come from controlled excavations. So what do you want to do with them? Nothing?”
Wandering through Jerusalem’s Old City after the Six-Day War, Deutsch remembers seeing all the Arab antiquities dealers—all very legal. Finally, in 1980, Deutsch decided to open up an antiquities shop of his own in colorful Old Jaffa, in south Tel Aviv. He would buy in Jerusalem and sell in Tel Aviv. Eventually, he decided to become an archaeologist and epigrapher, taking courses at Hebrew University and enrolling as a student in Tel Aviv’s Institute of Archaeology. He has participated in a number of digs and will shortly receive his master’s degree. After that, he intends to pursue a Ph.D. Several of his teachers regard him highly.
Deutsch himself isn’t worried [about publishing items acquired by looting]. “I don’t have this problem. My name is soiled already because I am an antiquities dealer. Even though I am licensed by the Antiquities Authority, it doesn’t matter. My name is soiled. So I cannot soil it more. Everything I am doing now can only add to my name.”
Some of the inscriptions first published by Deutsch include the bulla with the name of King Ahaz on it, the Moussaieff Ostraca, and many bronze Phoenician arrowheads hailed with enthusiasm by scholars as reputable as P. Kyle McCarter. In fact, of all the 50 or so inscribed Phoenician arrowheads so far published, only one has been discovered in a controlled excavation; many of the rest, acquired on the illegal antiquities market, were first published by Deutsch.

The implications of these indictments, especially if followed by convictions, are enormous. It is not an overstatement to say that biblical archaeology may require a generation of disciplined, rigorous re-examination of all unprovenanced epigraphic material in order to be regarded again as a scientific discipline.

UPDATE II: Jim Davila has a good follow-up on the story of the indictments; Jim West also has found an interesting article. Seth Sanders has good observations and quite properly points us to the work of Christopher Rollston. I note that when I point my browser to Robert Deutsch's website, all the content has been erased. Is it just me?

Repent, Hershel!

In the wake of the forgery indictments, it is time for Hershel Shanks and his publishing empire to do a little soul-searching. With the evidence mounting that the James Ossuary is a forgery, that the Jehoash tablet is a forgery, that the Ivory Pomegranate is a forgery, that the Moussaieff Ostraca are forgeries, that many Israelite bullae are forgeries, shouldn't Shanks, who has featured all these items prominently in Biblical Archaeology Review, start to feel a little remorse? Kudos to Jim West for being the first to raise this question.

Shanks will undoubtedly say that he is a journalist, he only reports on what reputable scholars say. And it is true that many reputable scholars have written on these objects in the pages of BAR. But would they have done so without Shanks's encouragement? Although he claims to be neutral concerning the authenticity of the controversial objects, he has a stake in prolonging discussion of them. Controversy sells magazines. And the lure of the BAR spotlight is becoming too tempting for many to turn away from. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have written an article for BAR in the past, although not on any of these artifacts.)

The cycle is becoming all too clear: the forgers depend on the collectors for their livelihood, the collectors depend on scholarship to validate their finds, and all of them depend on media sensation to drive their careers and activities forward. Although I don't believe Shanks has connived at any kind of fraud, he is one major enabler of the whole messy business. He is the P.T. Barnum of ancient epigraphy.

Shanks has also done much good in bringing the discipline of archaeology to many with a gorgeously-produced magazine. In the early '90's, he played an important role in the liberation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and gave a significant platform to those who were the conscience of the discipline. Unfortunately, that whole affair had two ill effects: (1) it gave Shanks and BAR a lot of power within the media and among scholars; and (2) it produced a narrative that Shanks has been busy trying to reproduce ever since: "the Establishment is trying to put the lid on an important discovery, but a few brave souls are willing to be mavericks and risk everything to bring new light to the masses."

It is time for Shanks to realize the damage that he has helped to cause in the discipline of biblical archaeology. Although it is true that significant finds in the past have occasionally come from the antiquities markets, it appears in recent years that the tail has begun to wag the dog. I do not believe this would have been possible without the support of Shanks and BAR.

I call on Shanks to (1) stop accepting ads from antiquities dealers, (2) admit that he has gone too far in his enthusiasm for questionable and illegally-obtained artifacts, and (3) refuse to spotlight unprovenanced artifacts in his magazine until after they have undergone rigorous testing by a wide array of scholars. Only in this way can he begin to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The NYT on Alter's New Translation of the Torah

The New York Times reviews Robert Alter's "The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary." An excerpt:
Religious belief has traditionally treated the Bible as a coherent, divinely inspired historical document. But in the 19th century, German philology began an archaeological excavation of the text, discerning in its varied styles, its different terms for God and its expressions of opposing interests, the hands of four authors who wrote their accounts over the course of centuries - multiple sources out of which redactors created the pastiche we now read.

For a century, philological research laid bare the biblical text, illuminating its crevices, dating its shards, explicating its contradictions. After millennia of religious commentary by Jewish and Christian scholars, this was a form of secular compensation. Philology turned the Bible into a text about its own construction.

But Mr. Alter, beginning with "The Art of Biblical Narrative" (1981), undertook an extraordinarily powerful project of restoration. The redactors, he claimed, were not merely curators: they were creators. Their choice of words, their juxtaposition of passages, their respect for ambiguities - nothing was arbitrary. But the Bible is not just a religious masterwork, Mr. Alter argued; it is also a literary one: pay close attention to the text and it will yield its secrets. Out of perceived patterns, analysis of word usage and attention to rhythm, insights into character and narrative and purpose will emerge.
Registration is required to read the whole thing. (If you're reluctant to register for fear of spam: I haven't been, but I don't know if this is typical.)

This Just In: Blogosphere is Growing

Seth Sanders of the University of Chicago has been assimilated. His new blog is Serving the Word, described as "The Hebrew Bible and related matters ancient and modern, through the lenses of philology, anthropological linguistics and political theology. "

The Tsunamis and Theodicy: Remembering Lisbon, 1755

The news from South Asia continues to be very bad. I will assume you know where to go for the news.

There is a possibility that the tsunami disaster may become the Lisbon earthquake of our time. In 1755, an earthquake of similar magnitude (estimated 9.0) to the Sumatran earthquake struck off the coast of Portugal; the loss of life from the earthquake, fire, and tsunamis exceeded 60,000. Europe was traumatized, and many began to question the goodness of the Providence of God, most notably Voltaire in "Candide."

The bloggers at Mirror of Justice have asked for responses:
It seems to me that if we want a moral anthropology rooted in the Incarnation to be taken seriously, we must try to offer an explanation of a world in which tsunamis rip children from their mothers' arms.
I will leave this task to others, not because theodicy is impossible or offensive, but because I would do it as badly as Job's comforters did. Plus, I just don't feel up to it; I feel considerable sympathy today with those who ask "why?"

I will give this link to an article by Richard Swinburne, in my opinion the greatest living Christian philosopher. It is a demanding article; he's a real philosopher in the analytic tradition. But this final paragraph is clear enough:
A theodicist is in a better position to defend a theodicy such as I have outlined if he is prepared also to make the further additional claim — that God knowing the worthwhileness of the conquest of evil and the perfecting of the universe by men, shared with them this task by subjecting himself as man to the evil in the world. A creator is more justified in creating or permitting evils to be overcome by his creatures if he is prepared to share with them the burden of the suffering and effort.
World Vision is mobilizing relief efforts, as are many others.

UPDATE: Mirror of Justice summarizes responses here. See also a thought-provoking post from Ann Althouse.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

New Tools for Targum Study

New electronic tools are now available for Targum study. Those who use Palm Pilot can now add Targumic texts to their reader at the website of the Newsletter for Targum and Cognate Studies.

Also, the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon website has added a useful new utility to their already indispensable Targum Studies module: this page, which enables the user to match up words in the Hebrew Bible with their equivalents in the Targumim, and vice versa.

Both tools are the work of Hebrew Union College grad student David Everson. Thanks, David!

Monday, December 27, 2004

Another Vote for M. R. James

I want to add my voice to the recommendations of the works of M. R. James from Jim Davila and Mark Goodacre. I have long cherished James's ghost stories, especially Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which is still in print. In fact, attentive readers of my Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls will have observed that I use a quotation from the story "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" to introduce a discussion of the Sadducees.

A new collection has been published by Oxford UP, Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (more info here). The introduction is by Michael Chabon, well known in the USA as the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. (He also wrote Wonder Years and worked on the screenplay for Spider-Man II.) His introduction to the James anthology can be read here.

As noted in the links above, James was in his day a scholar of some importance, and his works are still valuable. I particularly enjoy this essay about manuscript-hunting, and the sentence therein about the sinister Dr. John Dee is priceless:
The main facts of his life that concern us are that he lived at Mortlake, and in 1584 went on a wild journey to Poland. In his absence his house and collections were plundered by a mob, who, not without excuse, thought him a warlock.
A rich site for those interested in M. R. James is Ghosts & Scholars. Enjoy.

The Asian Disaster

The world is in a state of shock at the death toll from the earthquake and its tidal waves in Sumatra, Sri Lanka, South India, and elsewhere. I have nothing to add of value to the news reports available elsewhere. Destructive events of this kind, in addition to raising all the questions of the universe, tend to frustrate even my prayers, and I am reduced to a wordless sursum corda.

Also, I wish that other words could be found than "biblical disaster" for this event, but it seems regrettably to be apt, as in this report from the Washington Post (registration required):
Within minutes, the beach and the area behind it had become an inland sea that rushed over the road and poured into the flimsy houses on the other side. The speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible, a natural phenomenon unlike anything I had experienced.

As the waters rose at an incredible rate, I half expected to catch sight of Noah's Ark.

Instead of the ark, I grabbed a wooden catamaran that the local people used as a fishing boat. My brother jumped on the boat next to me. We bobbed up and down on the catamaran as the water rushed past us into the village beyond the road.
Beyond our words, thoughts, and wordless prayers, we can give concrete help. Suggestions from the Red Cross are found here.

UPDATE: More ways to help are found here and here.

Who Put the Bin in Osama Bin Laden?

My knowledge of Arabic is, regrettably, rudimentary, consisting of one semester of formal study, supplemented by unsystematic factoids acquired along the way in a career devoted mainly to other Semitic languages. However, I do know that the Arabic word for "son," at least in its dictionary form, is "ibn." Therefore why is it "Osama Bin Laden," and not "Osama Ibn Laden"? (Actually you can find via Google a few hundred cases of "Osama Ibn Laden," far outnumbered by the million or so for the "bin" form.)

I thought I had this figured out. Here's what I was thinking: In Arabic the consonant (glottal stop) that carries the sound /i/ in "ibn," is the "hamzatul wasl," which is not etymologically original to the word. It disappears when preceded by a vowel. You can see the hamza disappear in another famous Arabic name, wherein "Abdu al-Jabbar" (Servant of the Almighty) becomes "Abdu-l-Jabbar." In the instance of OBL, the expected "Osama Ibn" becomes "Osama Bn," which by the additional process of anaptyxis (i.e., insertion of a helping vowel; see previous post on The Joys of Anaptyxis) becomes "Osama Bin." Ta-da!

But then I read here:
In colloquial Arabic in the Persian Gulf, the word meaning “son of” is pronounced “bin,” not “ibn,” when it refers to a family name. Hence, the popular Romanization conveys the pronunciation “bin,” and not “ibn.”
All right, that makes sense. The Arabic vernaculars are often pretty different from the Standard Arabic that I was semi-educated in, so I have to accept this. Still, wouldn't the Evil One wish to be known by a Standard or Hocharabisch name, and not by a colloquial form? Or do the colloquial and standard simply merge in this case?

At this point we reach an abrupt end of my Arabic knowledge. If any of my readers can give me an authoritative opinion, I would be very grateful: Who put the Bin in Osama Bin Laden? (My wife told me, "Honey, I can't imagine anyone being interested in this." C'mon, folks, prove her wrong!)

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Joys of Anaptyxis

Lots of people jump on George Bush for pronouncing the word nuclear as "nucular," although I suspect that here political odium lies behind linguistic disdain. In fact, I remember Bill Clinton using this pronunciation too. The politics of pronunciation aside, the utterance of "nucular" provides some interesting material for the linguist.

Let us stipulate that many people say "nucular," even the educated. But why? Can't they see how it's spelled? That won't work, though; lots of words in English are inconsistent with their own spelling.

Another explanation is found here:
One reason, offered in a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary, is that the "ular" ending is extremely common in English, and much more common than "lear." Consider particular, circular, spectacular, and many science-related words like molecular, ocular, muscular.
I don't think that will work, either, because those who say "nucular" for nuclear are also naturally prone to pronounce nucleus as "nuculus," and in this case, I don't think "nuculus" is a back-formation from "nucular."

The real reason, in my humble opinion, lies in the nature of the phonetics of this word. The soound /l/ is a sonorant, as are /m, n, r/; all the other letters are called obstruents. Sonorants are peculiarly prone in English either to elision (such as "libary" for "library") or else they like to have helping vowels around them, especially when they appear in a cluster, as in nuclear. Consider also the pronunciations "athalete" for athlete, "realator" for realtor, "filum" for film, or "libarary" for library. All have helping vowels between the sonorant and the other consonant. I think "nucular" is another example of helping-vowel insertion.

This process is called anaptyxis. And it particularly interests me because it happens a lot in the Semitic languages. In Aramaic, for example, the word מדנחא, madnecha, the East, often is vocalized madincha, with the anaptyctic vowel between the dalet and the sonorant nun. Another example: מזרקין, mizreqin, "bowls," is often vocalized mizirqin. In certain dialects, these pronunciations become the norm -- the "proper" pronunciation.

There are tons more examples from Semitic that I could cite; tomorrow I plan to talk about a particularly interesting one. But for now the point simply is that such pronunciations are a natural part of language change; and it's not worth going ballistic about -- or should I say nucular? In a few years, people could laugh at you for saying "nuclear."

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The First Annual Ralphies

The first Annual Ralphies were announced today.

NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR: Chronicles Volume One, by Bob Dylan. Who else would say of somebody that they had "an illegible smile"?

FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR: Bone, by Jeff Smith. I'm in love with Thorn. Who wouldn't be?

MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Dodgeball. I can hear the comments now. "But Ed," you say, "what about The Passion of the Christ? What about Fahrenheit 9/11?" OK: As for The Passion, I'm sorry. I just didn't care for it that much. I'm an Aramaist, and I didn't think much of the Aramaic in this movie. I know that some will say that the crude grammar and Hebraisms were Just What You Would Expect from first-century Jerusalem. But I still think that maybe the language consultants didn't know Aramaic all that well. As for the issue of anti-Semitism: I don't think this movie set out to be anti-Semitic, but the brutally insensitive stereotypes, especially the high priests, certainly didn't help. An anti-Semite would come out of this movie unchallenged and unchanged, and that ain't good. As for Fahrenheit 9/11: You're kidding, right? I didn't see it. Life is too short to waste it on propaganda.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Blueberry Boat, The Fiery Furnaces.

SONG OF THE YEAR: Yeagh, James Lileks. No one can understand the USA in 2004 without having heard this song. Download it for free here.

All right, all you other bloggers, especially bibli*bloggers! Step up to the plate! Let your hair down, push back the rug, and put the CD player on Random Shuffle. Let's see those best-of lists!

UPDATE: Jim West takes up the challenge here. Excellent! Others?

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre joins the fun here.

UPDATE III (12/25): Helenann Hartley and AKMA pitch in. I am delighted to see that AKMA also is a Fiery Furnaces fan.

Favorite Christmas 2004 Links

These are some of my favorite links to Christmas-season writing for A.D. 2004.

This story about the "Christmas Mitzvah" program in Cincinnati, as Jewish volunteers fill in for Christians at local hospitals, an interfaith story to really grab you.

N.T. Wright cracks the Christmas code, with no apologies to Dan Brown.

Jeremy Lott at GetReligion defends the gospel nativity stories.

Richard Lawrence Cohen's series of posts on a self-confessed "liberal Jew's" reaction to Christmas and the Christmas story. Start with today's (Dec. 25) and scroll down.

Merry Christmas

On The Mystery Of The Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

~ Denise Levertov

Friday, December 24, 2004

On Christmas Eve

from spiralling ecstatically this

proud nowhere of earth's most prodigious night
blossoms a newborn babe: around him, eyes
--gifted with every keener appetite
than mere unmiracle can quite appease--
humbly in their imagined bodies kneel
(over time space doom dream while floats the whole

perhapsless mystery of paradise)

mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings
against the silence of his mother's smile

--whose only secret all creation sings

e.e. cummings

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Potpourri: Merry, Snow, Bubba Ho-Tep

Ann Althouse, who usually gets on base in her blog, hits a rare foul ball today. She doesn't mind "Christmas"; it's "merry" she doesn't like.
"Merry" has little to do with the message of Christianity. It connotes eating, drinking, dancing, joking, laughing, and horsing around. "Merry" turns Christmas into a generic winter festival. To express the spiritual happiness of Christmas, you would do better to say "Joyous Christmas." But the word "joy," standing alone, contains the meaning of Christmas.
I don't know about you, but in my house we express spiritual happiness by "eating, drinking, dancing, joking, laughing, and horsing around." Jeez, Ann, the last person I would suspect of taking the Puritan approach!

... My father was a meteorologist. If he were alive, I'd ask him what to call the weather we are currently having in Cincinnati. If I recall accurately, the technical meteorological term for these conditions is "big-ass snowstorm." They're predicting 20 inches before it's all over.

... I finally got to watch Bubba Ho-Tep. It's worth seeing (caution: not for kiddies). On the surface it seems to be a simple tale about Elvis and JFK fighting the undead in an East Texas rest home; but underneath it is a profound parable about aging and death: What will you do when your mojo starts to go? Have you learned enough lessons in your life to help you meet the Last Enemy, when your mental and physical strength is at an end? It's actually really funny, with a serious undercurrent.

Solemn thoughts for Yuletide. However:
Man, love thy Maker, and be MERRY,
And give not for this world a cherry.

UPDATE: The Paragraph Farmer also takes on Althouse, with a different approach.

Happy Birthday, X

This story reflects a common misunderstanding. In the abbreviation "Xmas," the "X" is not a way of censoring out the name of Christ, it is a time-honored shorthand for Χριστός, Christos, Christ. The symbol is a Greek chi, not an English X.

Was this more widely known in earlier years? Many of my class notes from seminary are full of tachygraphical references to "Xt" and "Xianity." I also remember my mother explaining it to me when I was very little, and that's back when the Cooks were all Southern Baptists.

So spread the word: "X" = OK. Happy birthday, X.

UPDATE: To Jim (see comments below) and others who've written: My point was about the origin and etymology of the term, which is non-threatening. I do indeed think many people misunderstand it, which is a good reason for spreading the word that it doesn't originate in hostility to Christ. For further confirmation, see here. The proper pronunciation of "Xmas" is "Christmas" -- not "X-mas" or "Chi-mas."

UPDATE II: Mark Goodacre agrees that we should "put the chi back into Xmas."

December 25: The Ring Goes South

Fans of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings might not remember (or might never have known) that, in the chronology of the story, the Fellowship of the Ring leaves Elrond and Rivendell on December 25, and the fall of Sauron occurs on March 25. A professor of English, Mike Foster, who was studying the Tolkien papers
found a hand-written note by Tolkien at the bottom of one manuscript that said Frodo and the other eight members of the fellowship must set off on their quest from the elvish forest of Rivendell on Dec. 25, Christmas Day. In Tolkien's calendar, the quest ends on March 25, a date that English medieval tradition held was the original Good Friday, and which the Catholic Church celebrates as the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary that she will conceive the savior, Foster said.
Well, Rivendell is not a forest, but a dwelling; but never mind. The point stands.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: See also Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, rev. ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 200-201.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Baker's Baskets (Gen. 40:16)

Genesis 40:16 "I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head."

What kind of baskets does the baker see in his dream? The KJV above has "white baskets," while the New American Standard has "baskets of white bread." The NRSV has "cake baskets," and Robert Alter translates "openwork baskets." The Hebrew phrase is סלי חרי.

The "white" interpretation is venerable, and depends on an etymological connection of the hapax חרי with the Aramaic חור, "white." I suspect this etymology, however, even if it is enshrined in BDB and HALOT; the waw in the Aramaic root is consonantal, not vocalic, and so one would not expect it to disappear in the word חרי. (See the root in person in Isa. 29:22 and Dan. 7:9.)

Other etymologies, I surmise, underlie the other translations. "Cake" for חרי suggests a link with חררה, cake baked on coals, known from Mishnaic Hebrew; and "openwork," I suppose, is based on חר, "hole" (e.g. 2 Ki. 12:10): a "holey" basket. The LXX has κανᾶ χονδριτῶν, "baskets of coarse bread."

Overall I think I favor an etymology from the root חרר, "to bake, burn," as the NRSV implies; not only because it fits the desired meaning "bread" better (what else would a baker see in a dream?), but because the same root underlies the homophone חרי, "wrath." I don't know if this is "peshat" or "derash," literal or allegorical, but I think there may be a wordplay here, as there is in the previous dream of the cupbearer. The poor baker saw baskets of bread, but also, as Joseph perceived, baskets of wrath.

Also interesting is the rendering of Targum Onkelos, which I haven't yet figured out. The translation is סלין דחירו, "baskets of...freedom"? This is so at odds with the context, that there may be a copyist error. Perhaps it originally read סלין דחורי, "baskets of white bread," which brings us full circle. On the other hand, חרי does remind one of yet another word חרים, "free men" (e.g. Neh. 6:17). But if there is another wordplay here, it's too deep for me. If anyone can shed light on the rendering of the Targum, let me know.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: My library is unfortunately poor in commentaries on Genesis. Alter's translation is from his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Norton, 1996).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Nomenclature Revisited

Jim West challenges me to come up with another name for who "we" Biblical literature blogging type folks are. Actually yesterday I did mention another one, but it seems to have gotten lost amid the stand-up comedy: bibloggers, to be pronounced "Bible-oggers." The word "blog" came from "weblog"; why not the "Bible log" > biblog, biblogger?

But...we don't have to pick one right away, do we? Is someone waiting for a decision? Please, please can't we go on discussing it for a few more months?

Or maybe we can't. Indeed, what is in a name? I am reminded of an early issue of the Fantastic Four, wherein Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben encounter an alien from the planet Poppup. When asked his name, the alien said, "Name? We Poppupians have no names. We know who we are."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, "The Impossible Man," Fantastic Four #11 (1963).

UPDATE: Thanks, Carl and Joshua, for the comments below. Someone told me that "biblogger" as I pronounced it sounded like it referred to "bisexual blogger." Oops! So... never mind. You guys pick one and then let me know. I'm sitting it out from here on.

The Implications of Imbrication

I keep running into the word "imbricate." Apparently it has its origin in botany; definitions are available here. It means "overlap." But in a certain academic style it has a vogue, especially in the passive voice. I give below some examples, gleaned via Google.
The history of the Dada movement is imbricated in the lightning-fast intellectual break-through set off, simultaneously and independently, in various parts of the world by several groups of young artists, writers and philosophers.

Rather than reifying the State, we would like to conceptualize it as a set of discourses and practices - as a site of cultural and social production that is imbricated in diffuse power relations and forms of governmentality.

The dissertation also traces the growing power of literature as generated by the bourgeois project of refining and controlling a certain kind of desirable femininity. This was deeply imbricated in the ongoing process of delineating social class.

These journalists reveal how issues in women’s health are deeply imbricated in the lives of Indian women.
Where, I wonder, does "imbricate in" come from? Judging from these and other examples, "to imbricate in" means...uh, what, exactly? Something different from overlap. It seems to have the meaning of "be involved with in a vague way that leaves causes and effects unclear." (The phrase "deeply imbricated" is very popular.) Sometimes it just means "connected with," as in the last example above.

In fact, I have a theory that imbricate used in this vague, passive-voice way is influenced by the sound-alike implicate. Substitute that in the above sentences and see if it doesn't become a bit clearer.

Should we get rid of imbricate, used in this way? I doubt if we'll have to; it doesn't serve any useful purpose, and is rarely found outside of academic writing of a certain mind-numbing dullness. Surely we can expect it to die of its own silly superfluity? On the other hand, I did see it in the New York Times this morning...

Enough of modern usage. In the near future, I promise I will return to ancient philology, where I belong.

Monday, December 20, 2004

My Sanken Heart

I got an anonymous comment today on a previous post (this one) that ran like this:
>Descriptivist that I am, I still think,
> as a man of letters, that the resources of a
> language that lead to clarity of communication
> should be both used and preserved. That's why
> my heart sunk when I entered a store...

Speaking of preserving resources that lead to clarity, what ever happened to the simple past tense "sank"?
When I read that, my heart...did something not good. Descriptivist that I am, I still like to use Good Grammar and it looks like I didn't. And still, dang it, my heart sunk still sounds OK to me! Is it because I spent many formative years in Texas? Or could it possibly be that I am on the cutting edge of language drift, for once? Is sunk replacing sank as the past tense of sink, I hope? Or did I actually (shudder) make a mistake?

I decided to ask the only source that knows a lot and will still give you a really quick answer: Google. I googled on heart sunk and got "about 13,700" hits. That was encouraging. At least I'm not alone. But then I googled on heart sank and got "about 137,000" hits. Uh-oh. I'm not alone, but I'm definitely in the minority.

I tried it with some other phrases: his ship sank: 1730, his ship sunk: 434. A better percentage but still a minority. Finally, I tried this sentence: I sank to my knees rounded up 3370, while I sunk to my knees got 864. Even descriptively I would have to admit, then, that my English was non-standard. (By the way, Google asked me on the last-named search if I meant "I link to my knees." No, but that's a really cool sentence.)

So, Anonymous, I'm sorry, man. You nailed me on that one. But check back in 30-40 years, OK? I'll bet you that sunk will be winning by then.

Potpourri: Nomenclature; A Joke

Who are we and who wants to know?: The discussion continues on what "we" (bloggers who discuss the Bible and related literature) should call ourselves. I have (yet another) suggestion: bibloggers. Hey, it saves syllables.

I made this joke up:
Q: What do you get when you cross an Episcopalian with a Ku Klux Klansman?
A: Someone who serves wine and cheese at the cross-burning.
I am an Episcopalian, though not a Klansman. I was inspired by a similar joke I read (I think) on the Internet:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Ku Klux Klansman?
A: Someone who burns a question mark on your lawn.

"Sixty Minutes" and the James Ossuary

CBS News program "Sixty Minutes" had a feature on the James ossuary Sunday night; see the story here. There is little in the story that is not already familiar to scholars who have been following the tale of the ossuary.

This remark of Oded Golan's is not reassuring:
"The police are talking to us also about earth and charcoal samples from a specific period that they say you would have used to make something appear to be much older than it is," says Simon.

"This is just a wrong allegation. It's a false allegation, that's all what I can tell you," says Golan. "Because all the materials that I had, which are some soils, different color soils. It's in order to give when you restore an ancient piece you would like to give a feeling to the viewer that it looks old."

He admits that he has restored some of the artifacts that he has found.
When I wrote this essay a year ago, I was uncertain about the authenticity of the ossuary. I stand by the analysis of the language; but it seems to me that the evidence now points to forgery.

UPDATE: Jim Davila discusses the online article here; for those who were unable to see the show I can report that the online article is virtually a transcript of the broadcast.

Further on Oded Golan: I haven't seen any reference in Biblioblogdom to the article by David Samuels called "Written in Stone" in the April 12, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. I don't think it's available online, but it's worth digging up. Samuels discusses archaeological fakes, Oded Golan, the ossuary and the Jehoash tablet. In the article, Oded Golan is quoted as knowing altogether too much about how to fake a patina:
"Of course, it's much easier to fake patina in a small item than in a big one. The field in which you have to create patina -- if you can -- is very small. It's millimetres. You have complete control over it. You can work under -- I don't know what -- a microscope or something, which you cannot do with any other item." He explained, "Normally, there is either a picture or a very simple inscription that you can just copy from another place. ... And if somebody's experienced for years to work on it -- in say, Lebanon -- he might do it, you know. It's not so complicated..."
Samuels also refers to a documentary on Golan aired on Israeli television:
On the program, viewers heard a tape recording in which an Egyptian artist purportedly discussed a method for creating bullae with Golan.... [Amir] Ganor showed me a series of what he called skitzot -- blueprints -- for making bullae, which he said had belonged to Golan.
It's not looking good for the James Ossuary; and in fact, any seals, ostraca, or bullae which can be traced back to Golan are now under a big, black cloud.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Samuels, "Written in Stone," The New Yorker, April 12, 2004, pp. 48-59.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Potpourri: Art, Movies, Blogs

Every now and again I like to surf the Web and see how my old friends are doing. Artist Jim Janknegt, whom I went to college with (University of Texas) is doing pretty well. You can read an interview with him here and look at (and buy) his art here. Here is his Adoration of the Kings:
Yesterday turned out to be movie day, although it was not planned to be. I went with Amy and Lizzy to see Finding Neverland and later watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with The Lad on DVD. Both were pretty good; in the latter Jim Carrey was able to make it through the entire movie without hamming it up at all. The movies had something in common (besides Kate Winslet): they both proposed, in their own ways, the power of the human mind as the source of human comfort and salvation (in a secular sense). Since this is not an authentic possibility, both movies had a profoundly pessimistic subtext (each of them fully aware of it) that worked against their surface optimism. Thoughtful holiday viewing.

A blog that readers of this blog might enjoy is Old Testament for the Church. The blogger is yet another old friend, this time from Fuller Seminary days. Also I'm checking out Richard Cohen's blog (gimme that old-time Eastern religion) and The Buck Stops Here.

Vermes, the Targum, and the Nativity

Geza Vermes has published an analysis of the nativity story as a "Jewish myth" (thanks to Paleojudaica and Biblical Theology for the link). I am not going to engage in a full-scale critique of this piece, although I think it is highly vulnerable to one. I am going to provide a little detail on one point that will have to symbolize the host of other problems and begged questions in Vermes's article.

Vermes says:
Pharaoh - like Joseph in St Matthew's Gospel - had a dream. In it, he saw two scales, with the whole of Egypt lying in one of them, and a lamb in the other. But the lamb turned out to be weightier than Egypt. The court magicians were summoned and explained to the king that the lamb symbolised a Jewish boy who would become a lethal threat to Egypt. In Aramaic, the word talya, like "kid" in English, can mean both a young animal and a child.
Now I happen to know quite a lot about the story he is referring to; it is contained in Exodus 1:15 in the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum, a work on which I wrote my dissertation. Here is my translation:
And Pharaoh was sleeping, and saw in his dream, and behold, all the land of Egypt was standing in one pan of the scales and a lamb, son of a ewe, was in the other pan; and the pan with the lamb weighed more. And immediately he sent and called all the magicians of Egypt and told them his dream. And Jannes and Jambres, the chief magicians, immediately opened their mouths and said to Pharaoh: A son is going to be born in the congregation of Israel; by his hand all the land of Egypt will be destroyed.
All right; this sounds enough like Josephus's story in Ant. II.205 (one of the scribes told Pharaoh that "about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites"). The only difference is that Josephus speaks of a child, and the Targum of a lamb. But, no problem, right? As Vermes says, the word talya means both "young animal" and "child" in Aramaic.

However, in Aramaic, talya does not really mean lamb; it means only child, boy, or servant. The Aramaic word for lamb is immer; taleh or talya is a borrowing from Hebrew. The only places in all the Targumim where talya means lamb, as in Hebrew, are in this verse and in Pseudo-J. Gen. 30:40 (and possibly Targum Psalms 118:27). And in this particular case the Targum is a thinly Aramaized version of a story told in the very late midrash Divrei ha-Yamim shel Moshe Rabbeinu (Chronicles of Moses), which uses Hebrew ha-taleh, which means only lamb. This cuts the connection between the Targumic story and the Josephus story. The Targum is using the Hebrew word because it is derived from the Hebrew story, which itself is late. (This is typical of the method of this targum.) The wordplay Vermes wants to see here does not exist.

Could a Jewish story still be behind the nativity story? Maybe. But the story will not be found in its pure form in either the Targum or the Midrash. Vermes scoffs at the idea that the Jewish story could itself be influenced by the Christian story, but I am not so sure. It does happen. Every day this month I have noticed how Hanukkah has been turned into a kind of Christmas for Jews. And isn't there a midrash somewhere that refers to Abraham as the petros on which Israel is built? If you think that isn't influenced by Matthew 16:18 -- well, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

The question of what Christian texts have been influenced by Judaism is important, but the question of influence in the other direction is also important. Perhaps I'll write more about this at a later time.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Why Does Rachel Want the Mandrakes?

Genesis 30:14 "And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes."

Why does Rachel want Leah's mandrakes? In Hebrew the word is dudaim, whose etymology might suggest a connection with dodim, "sexual love." Therefore, it has been speculated, eating mandrakes was thought to aid desire or fertility, and Rachel, barren till then, wanted them so she could conceive.

But this is not altogether clear from the text. "Mandrakes" appear in the Bible only one other time, in the Song of Solomon: "The mandrakes give off scent" (7:13). Perhaps Rachel wanted them just for their pleasant smell. That, at any rate, was the accepted idea in Christian commentary, which saw the sweet scent of the mandrakes as a symbol of a good reputation or good deeds: "the wholesome odor of a good example" (St. Gregory the Great).

In fact, the narrative in Gen. 30 is ripe for deconstruction. If Rachel wants the mandrakes to help her conceive, why does she then give away Jacob for a time? After the mandrake episode, it is Leah who conceives, not Rachel. In fact, Leah has three more children until Rachel finally gets pregnant. Gale Yee says "the mandrakes worked for Rachel" (ABD s.v. "Leah"); but did they? Rachel conceives in 30:22, after the mandrake episode is over and Leah has conceived again and again. My take is this: in a narrative that is driven from verse to verse by wordplay, there is another wordplay -- nothing more -- implicit in this pericope. Rachel may get the dudaim, but Leah gets the dodim.

There is yet one other possibility. Syrup made from mandrake root (the plant is related to the poppy) has some narcotic properties, as Shakespeare knew:
Not poppy, nor mandragora [mandrake],
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
(Othello 3.3.331-3)
Give me to drink mandragora. . . .
That I might sleep out this great gap of time
My Antony is away.
(Antony & Cleopatra 3.5.4)
Maybe Rachel just wanted the mandrakes to help her sleep.

And Leah said unto her sister Rachel:
Hey, sis, I don't mean to be crude,
But you've had all this time to be lewd.
You want the blossoms?
Here! Take 'em or toss 'em!
But tonight, honey, I get the dude.

More on Reading a Scholarly Paper

Mark Goodacre has more to say on the topic of reading a scholarly paper, all of it good; Torrey Seland also takes note of the discussion with valuable observations. Among other things, Mark says:
If we are comfortable lecturing ex tempore on a day-by-day basis, over a much longer time period (hour long lectures), on topics that are not always intimately related to our research (we all lecture on stuff we have never written on), to people less patient than scholars (undergraduate students), then surely it is a more straightforward thing to talk for 20-25 minutes to friendly faces on material we know intimately?

Good question. However, part of the problem is (and I don't want to get too political here) the reversal of the power relations at a scholarly gathering. One's students are in a very real way in one's power; if they are lucky, you are a benign, charming, personable, just, and funny dictator. But at a scholarly presentation one is at best among equals, and at worst in front of those who may have something to say about how one's work or reputation may either grow or wither. In either case, the audience has to be won over. If they already know and like you, this will be easy; if not, the work will be harder.

Therefore I wish to question the assumption of "friendly faces." In general, I think one can and should assume basic good will in the audience; however, many of us have seen, during the question period, the spectacle of self-important senior scholars skewering hapless grad students or young scholars just (as it seems) for the fun of it, or because one of their own pet ideas has been questioned. I think that first-time presenters are often intimidated by the presence in the audience of revered or venerable names previously known only from books or journals; and this fear can lead to nervously presented and feebly defended presentations, or to a dogged (and dull) effort to cover all the bases.

Two things are necessary to solve this problem; one is the growth of courtesy on the part of long-time practitioners of scholarship to those entering the guild. Perhaps we have already seen the last of the ritual disembowelings! I fervently hope so. The other thing is the growth in awareness of what we have been talking about: how to make a paper clear, interesting, and compelling.

Does the SBL offer any kind of advice to first-time presenters? It seems to me that this is something its Career Services department could fruitfully address. (Perhaps it already has; I'm coming late to the discussion.)

UPDATE: In reference to Justin's comment below: Dang it, now I've gone and scared somebody. I would just say (a) Don't speak at SBL just to toss out ideas; have something that's a real contribution. Your professors should tell you if you're on to something that's significant. (b) Be aware yourself, as much as possible, of what questions still need to be answered. If someone calls you on it, just say: "You're right; I'm still ironing out the details. Thank you." (c) If someone is mean to you, don't respond in kind. Thank them for their comments, address whatever is substantive in their response, and then leave them to stew in their own bile. Learning to do this is part of becoming a scholar. Finally, let Biblioblogdom know when you're presenting and we'll come and cheer you on.

UPDATE II: Thanks to Jim West, Tim, and Justin for their comments below. Jim Davila adds his thoughts here. And here's a picture of me giving my latest paper.


Friday, December 17, 2004

"The Dead Sea Scrolls": The last shall be first

I have been reading this morning the tribute "Geza and the Dead Sea Scrolls" by Phillip Alexander, part of a birthday series of lectures now on-line (link courtesy of Paleojudaica).

The lecture is a worthy tribute to a great scholar; in my own two fields of specialty, Qumran and Targum, he is a giant. I was amused, though, and -- why not admit it? -- delighted at the following remark, referring to Vermes's translation of the Qumran texts:
It has held its own against all its competitors, indeed seen them off (Gaster, Cook et al., Garcia Martinez and others), and is still, I would guess, the most commonly cited version.

"Cook et al."! God bless you, Phil Alexander. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, when not credited to all three of us, is usually referred to as "Wise et al." or sometimes (as here) just "Wise." The last shall be first, indeed!

By the way, it is not quite true that Vermes's excellent translation has "seen off" our work. Wise-Abegg-Cook has been incorporated into many of the translations provided with the new multivolume Dead Sea Scrolls Reader (see here). Also, I can tell you that the three of us are currently at work on a new, enlarged and updated edition of the book. Look for it next year or in 2006.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Losing the Battle Every (space) Day

I'm happy to say that today I finished, more or less, my Christmas shopping. Everyone seems to be in a good mood out there, even with jammed parking lots and traffic snarls near the shopping malls.

But one thing that (slightly) dimmed my Christmas cheer was the realization that I am losing the battle against adverbial "everyday." Now as a linguist, I am not a prescriptivist; language has to be allowed to grow and change, because it will anyway, whether you allow it or not. Linguists describe what happens; they don't dictate what should happen.

HOWEVER. Descriptivist that I am, I still think think, as a man of letters, that the resources of a language that lead to clarity of communication should be both used and preserved. That's why my heart sunk when I entered a store that advertised LOW PRICES EVERYDAY.

Now you and I both know that it should have read LOW PRICES EVERY DAY. The single word everyday is an adjective, to be used attributivally: "everyday prices." The phrase "every day" is an adverb. This useful distinction is disappearing.

In a previous chapter of my life, I was an editor/proofreader at an ad agency here in Cincinnati. I fought the "everyday" battle... well, every day. It got people pretty riled up sometimes.
AD EXEC: Why won't you sign off on this job? The client is complaining.
ME: It's got a mistake in it, see? It says everyday here, one word, but it should be two. Everyday, one word, is an adjective, but you want the adverb here, there should be a space ...
AD EXEC (shrilly): Nouns! Verbs! Adjectives! Adverbs! Am I supposed to diagram every ***ing sentence in the ad?
ME: Couldn't hurt.

Now it feels like no one is on the watch. Maybe it's time for the proofreader to hand over the job permanently to the linguist.

Two Who Will Be Missed

I was surprised and saddened to learn this morning from the NT Gateway weblog of the death of C. P. Thiede, a well-known papyrologist and Scripture scholar. He is perhaps best known to Qumranologists as a proponent of the view that the fragment 7Q5 is part of the Gospel of Mark, but his work covered a wide range of subjects, and was always thought-provoking and well-argued.

A few years ago he wrote to me, taking me sharply to task for something I had written about 7Q5; but, by the time our correspondence ended, the tone was warmer, and he agreed that the subjects in which we were united were of far greater import than those in which we differed. He will be missed.

Monday was the Yahrzeit of Marianne Luijken Gevirtz, rabbi, Aramaist, and widow of scholar Stanley Gevirtz. Stanley was my very first teacher in grad school at UCLA -- filling in for Stanislav Segert, who was on sabbatical -- and still, in memory, one of the very best classroom lecturers I have ever heard. At that time I made the acquaintance of Marianne. Later, after Stanley's death, I was always pleased to see her and stop for a chat on the campus of Hebrew Union College here in Cincinnati as she pursued her rabbinical studies. For a memorial of Marianne, I can do no better than direct you to Bruce Zuckerman's remembrance in Maarav 10 (2003).

I was both pleased and saddened this year when, after receiving a book ordered from the Internet, I found her name written in the flyleaf. I like to think she would be glad another Aramaist, and a friend, wound up with it.

"We give thee hearty thanks for the good examples of these thy servants, who, having finished their course in faith, do now rest from their labours." (From the Book of Common Prayer, Service for the Dead)

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls

In an email last week, Stephen Goranson encouraged me to defend more rigorously my comment that the Dead Sea Scrolls were largely confined to the first century BCE (see here). I referred him to pp. 26-32 of the book I co-authored with Mike Wise and Marty Abegg, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (1996), which sets forth some of these reasons. But I will take this opportunity to review the evidence more publicly.

First, I need to say that that section of our introduction is almost wholly the work of Wise and myself. Marty Abegg is no doubt weary of telling people informally that his own views are closer to the "Standard Model" that Wise and I criticized! Let this be a lesson to all of you: if you co-author with two other guys, you might be out-voted on occasion.

Second, even between Wise and me, there are differences. Mike has a well-thought-out theory about the Teacher of Righteousness, captured in his later book The First Messiah, that I happen to disagree with. But one should not retroject this theory of Wise's back into the introduction to Wise-Abegg-Cook. Goranson wrote in a post to the Megillot e-list that "they [Wise-Abegg-Cook] write that the teacher was active in the late second century ... Judah the Essene." The complex of ideas surrounding "Judah the Essene" is Wise's, from his later book. And what we wrote was "the Teacher of Righteousness began his ministry late in the 2nd or early in the 1st century BCE, perhaps during the reign of Alexander." And this is, in any case, very different from conceding that the DSS date from the second century.

That having been said, let me now lay out, schematically, what a defense of a first-century BCE theory looks like. A full defense would take a book; maybe someday there will be one.

1. Archaeology. If you grant that the Kh. Qumran site is connected to the DSS (as I believe), then there is little evidence for occupation before the 1st cent. BCE. Jodi Magness says, "I do not believe that de Vaux's Period Ia existed, or that the sectarian settlement at Qumran was established before the first century BCE" (In The DSS After 50 Years, Vol. 1, p. 65).

2. Paleography/Carbon 14. The majority of the DSS are dated paleographically to the first cent. BCE. It is questionable whether the dating of some to the first century CE can be sustained, even paleographically. On Greg Doudna's interpretation of the Carbon 14 data, "the first century CE disappears from Qumran's textual horizon" (In The DSS After 50 Years, Vol. 1, p. 464). In any case, are there any sectarian texts that date paleographically after the 1st century BCE?

Therefore, there is evidence (I do not say demonstrative or probative evidence, but evidence) outside the wording of the texts themselves to suggest a 1st cent. BCE date for the DSS. When you look at the world within the texts, the evidence mounts.

3. Most named historical figures (Demetrius, Jannaeus, Aemilius, etc.) come from the 1st cent. BCE. Those from the 2nd century appear alongside figures dated to the 1st century BCE (e.g. Antiochus Epiphanes appears in 4QpNahum with Demetrius [III] of the first century; in 4Q331, Yohanan [Hyrcanus, if this identification is correct] is mentioned with Shelamzion [Salome Alexandra].)

4. In the pesharim that speak of the Romans, their appearance is imminent, but still future. The Romans entered Palestine to stay in 63 BCE.

5. The Nahum commentary speaks of the "dominion of the Flattery-Seekers" (the Pharisees) as a present reality. The Pharisees were dominant after the rule of Jannaeus.

6. 4Q448 speaks favorably of Jannaeus; this disqualifies any theory that places the origin of the sect in a dispute over the legitimacy of the Hasmonean high-priesthood. All criticism of the temple administration in the scrolls focuses on purity, not lineage.

7. In Judea of the 1st century BCE, after Jannaeus, politics and religion were dominated by the conflict between Pharisees and Sadducees. One either took sides in this conflict or else condemned oneself to irrelevancy and powerlessness. It seems clear that the DSS sect took the side of the Sadducees (they were pro-Jannaeus, anti-Pharisee, and, according to some, 4QMMT has links to Sadducean halakha); that meant, I assume, that they opposed Hyrcanus II. This Hyrcanus, we believe, best fulfills the role of Wicked Priest.

There's plenty of room for discussion. But these are the principal reasons, in outline, that led Wise and me to favor a 1st cent. BCE Sitz im Leben for the DSS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A more thorough recent defense of the first century BCE theory can be found in Wise's article "Dating the Teacher of Righteousness and the Floruit of His Movement," in Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 53-87.

UPDATE: Kind words from The Coding Humanist; thank you!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Did Tolkien Know Hebrew?

Did J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of Lord of the Rings, know Hebrew?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: My love for Tolkien's writings long predated my interest in Hebrew. But when I became a Hebraist, I naturally wondered whether Tolkien, the great philologist of the Germanic languages, might also have known Hebrew or other Semitic languages. My curiosity was also piqued by this fact: the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 lists J.R.R. Tolkien as one of the "principal collaborators in translation and literary revision."

Finally, when I read Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, I found in the list of Tolkien's writings that he had contributed some work to the translation of the book of Jonah. (Why Jonah? I don't know.) This certainly seemed to point to some knowledge of Hebrew; but perhaps he had been working only as a reviser of an already existing translation.

A couple of years ago, my curiosity about this grew finally strong enough for me to write to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, keeper of Tolkien's manuscripts. The curator of the literary MSS at the Bodley wrote back to say that there were 45 folios of material relating to Tolkien's translation of Jonah among Tolkien's surviving papers -- including a draft translation of Jonah with pencil notes of several Hebrew words in the margin, in Tolkien's handwriting. That settled it; Tolkien knew Hebrew.

(I thought about writing an article on this material, but they won't make copies; you have to come see it yourself. Since I am not going to be in the Oxford area any time soon, I had to give up any plans in this direction. If any readers in the UK are interested in Tolkien and are Hebraists, you are welcome to take over this project. Email me and I'll send you the contact info I have. Note: to publish any of the material you need permission from Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien estate.)

All right, Tolkien knew Hebrew; did it have any affect at all on his imaginative writings, especially his made-up languages of Middle-Earth? I'm no expert on Elvish, but as far as I can tell, the two main dialects of Elvish, Sindarin and Quenya, owe nothing to Hebrew or the other Semitic languages. However (and I owe this knowledge to the website of Helge Kåre Fauskanger, an expert in Tolkienian linguistics), two of the lesser languages of Middle Earth, namely Adunaic (the language of Numenor) and Khuzdul (the language of the dwarves) are based on the Semitic model of triconsonantal roots and are intended to have a "faintly Semitic flavour" (Tolkien's words). The words themselves are not derived from the Semitic languages; but in Adunaic the word for "she" is hi, "ear" is huzun, and "to, towards" is ad, ada. Sounds like Hebrew to me. So if you're ever in Numenor...

Sunday, December 12, 2004


On Biblio-Blogging: Jim Davila suggests replacing the misleading "biblioblogger" with "Bible Blogger," while Jim West suggests instead "Bible Scholar Blogger." I confess myself dissatisfied with both. "Bible Blogger" has overtones to me of "Bible Thumper," "Bible Believer," and "Bible Christian" -- all worthy entities, no doubt, but with more of the odor of the Sunday School than most would wish to admit to. "Bible Scholar Blogger" is more accurate, no doubt, but cumbersome.

I would suggest instead a simple one-letter change to biblioblogger and make it bibliablogger: τὰ βιβλία, with which we are all concerned.

How To Blog: I've been reading over at Blograrama the article "Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Blogging." So far so good -- I think. I haven't (yet) posted any libelous material, haven't been involved in blogging spam (as far as I know), haven't (knowingly) ignored comments, and so on. But No. 1, "No Theme to Your Blog," is more difficult. There are thematic blogs I like, such as Paleojudaica and the NTGateway Weblog. But there are others with no theme at all to them that I read regularly; I just like the voice I hear in them, like Ann Althouse or Jenell Paris. And even the theme blogs are not impersonal; the ones I named, and others I regularly read, have a voice behind them; more subdued, but still discernible and real.

"Ralph" is not a theme blog, but it's not my diary, either. There are things that interest me that I have a strong itch to write about, and I find that a blog is a good way to scratch that itch. I promise you, though, that I will never blog about either politics or sports. I'm interested in both at times, but I have nothing to say about them that I think might be of general interest.

Another mistake, "Writing Way Too Much," is more difficult. They say most people like a quick read. That's probably true, but if I come across a long post on a subject that interests me, I'll read it all; plus, sometimes, a really good writer will make me care about whatever they want to say, however long it takes to say it. But there is such a thing as writing too much (what I call blogorrhea). Personally, I like a mixture of short and long. There are blogs, like Instapundit, that are just all links with a minimum of Voice. I want the Voice, even if quiet, understated, and shy.

(What's the opposite of blogorrhea? Blogstipation? Writer's Blog-k?)

I'll shut up now, speaking of writing too much.

UPDATE: I did think up blogorrhea, but I wasn't the first. I got 6000+ hits when I googled the word. This heads the list.

UPDATE II: Responses to "bibliablogger" from the Coding Humanist, Hypotyposeis, and Paleojudaica.

UPDATE III: More from Jim West here and Tim Bulkeley here. As Mao once said, "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Love, Leviticus, and Abomination

The supplement to U.S. News & World Report that I have blogged on before, "Mysteries of the Bible," has a piece called "Love and Leviticus," by Alex Markels. Although Markels surveys a number of the Biblical passages relevant to the issue of homosexuality, he focuses on Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination") and 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination").

In this article Markels displays a certain confusion about the word toevah, translated "abomination" in those passages.
God gave the Jewish people 613 mitzvot in the Torah ... and within them, there are the directives that are called in Hebrew "toevah".... Translated to mean everything from an "abomination" to something "ritually unclean," this "Holiness Code" identifies more than 120 of these instructions for behavior. ... Toevah includes the rules of kashrut, or kosher dietary regulations, which prohibit eating shellfish or pork or mixing meat and milk.

Well, with this amount of error, it's hard to know where to start. The most important correction to make against Markels is that toevah does not at all refer to ritual uncleanness. Even a cursory reading of the Torah in Hebrew will reveal that the vocabulary of the ritual approach to God is based on the poles of "purity, cleanness" (denoted by the word tohorah, טהרה) and "uncleanness, impurity" (tumah, טמאה). Toevah is just not part of this system. Ritual uncleanness can be got rid of by various means -- washings, sacrifices, etc. Whatever is toevah can only be shunned.

In Leviticus, toevah is not used for 120 rules of behavior; in fact, the word only appears 6 times in the book, and specifically of an act only in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 quoted above. In Deuteronomy, on the other hand, it appears 17 times and is used more loosely. It is all too common, in and out of scholarship (such as here and here), to take the Deuteronomic usage (which does indeed use the word for non-kosher foods, Deut. 14:3) and apply it to Leviticus, as if the two texts were homogeneous.

Deuteronomy, it should be remembered, is a sermonic exhortation to keep all of God's law, a perspective that allowed the author to view even ceremonial infractions as displaying an attitude potentially dishonoring to God and therefore calling for moral censure. Leviticus, on the other hand, is not written in the sermonic mode and is obligated to use more exact language.

A survey of all the 116 usages of toevah in the Hebrew Bible shows, I think, that the term is overwhelmingly used as a term of moral opprobrium. I think that includes Leviticus. I won't go into all the texts. This is a philological issue that has unfortunately gotten tangled with the politics of equal rights. The temptation to defuse an explosive text by any means possible because it does not mesh with certain social or political aspirations (however laudable) is difficult to resist. But the effort should be made.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Baby Steps: Flew Embraces Deism

When I was taking my first steps in theology and philosophy back in the '60's and '70's, Antony Flew's essay "Theology and Falsification" was required reading. It was considered a major challenge to belief in God, questioning not only the validity of theistic truth-claims, but their very coherence. He stated that religious truth-claims were too compatible, in the eyes of those who asserted them, with too wide a range of phenomena, and therefore were meaningless.
A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications....What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?

Now it appears that Flew has found his own answer. According to an AP story by Richard Ostling in today's paper,
NEW YORK (AP) -- A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God - more or less - based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

Flew said he's best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people's lives.

"I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins," he said. "It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose."


There was no one moment of change but a gradual conclusion over recent months for Flew, a spry man who still does not believe in an afterlife.

Yet biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says in the new video, "Has Science Discovered God?"

This is important, because Flew was not just an atheist, but a philosopher who had made atheism the foundation stone of his work. I read the story with astonished delight; if you're on the other side, imagine reading that Billy Graham had announced that he had decided the Bible was "buncha fairy tales fit only for rubes and bigots." It's even more fun reading atheist reactions to this news as they try to spin it into "no big deal."

So my hat is off, at least part way, to Antony Flew, who is worth reading, no matter what his conclusions turn out to be: an analytical philosopher in the grand British tradition that combines honest empiricism with clarity of expression. And now he's taken a step that places at least a small question-mark against much of his previous work. Bravo for his courage.

"He's just a deist now," I said to my wife Amy. "Not an out-and-out theist."

"Hey," she said. "Baby steps."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Theology and Falsification" is still important. It's actually a symposium with R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, first published in New Essays in Philosophical Theology (1955) and reprinted many times. Read all of it.

UPDATE: An excerpt from "Theology and Falsification" (shorn of the eloquent responses from Hare and Mitchell) is found here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: CADRE Comments is on top of this story here,
and provides a link to a fascinating interview with Flew by Gary Habermas. My jaw is still on the floor.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

What About Rabbinic Literature?

I want to add my voice of appreciation to Jim Davila's carefully thought-out post on the proper Jewish sources to use as a background to New Testament study. (The question was first posed by Eric Sowell.) I agree with everything that is said there; but I would hate to see the rabbinic, especially the Tannaitic literature, unduly neglected in favor of Qumran or the pseudepigraphical texts. (Not that I think Jim recommends such neglect.)

I know that the rabbinic material is later, and that the use of them to illuminate conditions in first-century Judaea bristles with problems. Nevertheless, there are parallels in them to NT genres not attested in the other sources, for instance, the parables. The only clear parallel to the parables of Jesus are the parables of the rabbis. Plus Judaism, or the Judaisms, of the first century were thoroughly halakhic. You'll find a lot of halakha in the Scrolls, but the best parallels (IMO) to the kinds of halakhic issues discussed in first-century CE Judaea are found in the Mishnah. If one leaves out all of this, isn't one disenfranchising (again) the Pharisees?

Therefore I would suggest this rule of thumb: using the rabbinic literature as a source for the history of NT times is problematic; the stories about historical figures are too overladen with legend and haggada to be helpful. But when it comes to genre parallels, the rabbinic texts, judiciously chosen, should have an equal place at the table.

This is just a dashed-off bleat from the sidelines; I haven't taught in the area of NT backgrounds. But I'd like to hear what others think.

UPDATE: In response to Justin's comment: The question of balance and proportionality is an important one, but I'm not sure how to answer it. I will note that George Nickelsburg's anthology "Faith and Piety in Early Judaism" (Fortress, 1983) contains about 22 pages of rabbinic material (no parables, no halakha) in a book of 231 pages. That's about 10%, and it strikes me as too little. What percentage would be just right is hard to say.

Potpourri: Comic Books; Homer Simpson = King Saul?

Wednesday is New Comics Day, so the The Lad and I went to the comic store and picked up the issues that caught our eye. Yes, I read comics. I started reading back in Marvel's Silver Age, took a pretty long break, and now the Wednesday trek is a regular part of the week. Sniff if you like – some do – but some of today's comic book writers are among the best in the country in any genre. (IMO.) I bet you can't find a better writer of dialogue than Brian Michael Bendis, or a better action writer than Mark Millar. One of the best books I read this year was the complete story of Bone, by Jeff Smith, which combines the humor of Pogo and the epic sweep of Tolkien (seriously; read a page here). A good comic book gives me almost as much visceral satisfaction as a movie combined with the subtlety and wordplay of a play or short story. They can have movies and TV (which are getting worse); I'll take my pop culture between the covers of comics (which are getting better).

One of the small pleasures of my all too short July trip to Holland was the visit to the Leiden Stripshop. I know what you're thinking; but in Holland a stripshop sells comics. I felt right at home and bought several comics there. When I got to Belgium, to visit my Gallicized cousin Lee and her husband Thierry, I found that French-speaking Europe is even more obsessed with comics. There they are called bandes dessinées, or BDs for short. (This is how good my French is: the whole time I was there I thought she was saying bonnes dessinées [well drawn?] instead of bandes dessinées.)

By the way, those of you interested in the cultural contextualization of Scripture could do worse than to pick up Treehouse of Horror #10, one of the comics based on The Simpsons. The last story, "Scareway to Heaven," has a Simpsonian version of the Witch of Endor story from I Samuel 28:7ff. Homer appears as King Saul, Grandpa Simpson as Samuel:
HOMER: I need to speak with Samuel, recently deceased.
WITCH: He's asked not to be disturbed.
HOMER (handing over bag of shekels): Just make it happen.

After giving the bad news, "Samuel" says:
GRANDPA (as SAMUEL): I'll see you up in Heaven tomorrow! Remember, God likes good posture. So when you see him, don't slouch!
HOMER: Well, that's it. We're dead meat.
LENNY and CARL (leaving): Whaddaya mean "we"?

The story was plotted, by the way, by the great biblical scholar Pat Boone. No kidding.