Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review of Hasan-Rokem and Gruenwald (eds.) Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews

BOOK REVIEW IN THE FORWARD: Reconsidering Louis Ginzberg's Legendary 'Legends of the Jews' Enduring Lovability of 6-Volume Paean to Heroes (Benjamin Iwry).
Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish Folk Literature Reconsidered
edited by Galit Hasan-Rokem and Ithamar Gruenwald
Wayne State University Press, 224 pages, $44.99

The legacy of the Talmudist Louis Ginzberg exemplifies the benefits of lovability in Jewish studies. Those familiar with the life of Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), founder of Hadassah and Ihud, the political party in Mandate Palestine, are aware of Szold’s unrequited passion for Ginzberg, which ended sadly for her when he married another woman. Szold cotranslated part of Ginzberg’s “Legends of the Jews,” (1909-1938; in six volumes plus an index by Boaz Cohen). The work was eventually published over three decades and widely reprinted in different editions. If any work of stunning erudition can be called loveable, then surely Legends retains this allure.


So although some contemporary critics, notably Bernhard Heller in “The Jewish Quarterly Review” (July 1933) offered detailed amplifications or suggestions about the “Legends,” the work and its author have attracted ecstatic praise. Which makes “Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish Folk Literature Reconsidered” unusual for offering conceptual criticism of Ginzberg’s methodology. Coedited by Galit Hasan-Rokem, professor of folklore emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ithamar Gruenwald, professor emeritus of Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University, this new book derives in part from a colloquium at the fifteenth Congress of the World Association of Jewish Studies in August 2009.

I have cited Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews occasionally in PaleoJudaica posts (here, here, here, here, and here) and even once or twice in my published work. It is old and out of date now, but it is an unparalleled retelling of Jewish traditions about the Bible for nonspecialists and the notes on primary sources remain useful even for specialists. As noted in the past posts, it is available online.

On the authorship of the Gospels

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: Are the Gospels Anonymous? (James McGrath). Yes, but ...


ARASH ZEINI has some recent posts of interest:

Avestan research 1991–2014. Links to a helpful article (part 1) by Almut Hintze which surveys the field. Much of it is technical, but the first part is quite accessible to nonspecialists (like me!).

Scribal practices in the Turfan Christian community. Recent article by Mark Dickens. Much more on Turfan and its direct and indirect importance for ancient Judaism (notably, the Book of Giants) here and links.

Mani at the court of the Persian kings. New book from Brill by Iain Gardner, Jason BeDuhn and Paul Dilley.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Did Jesus exist?

BIBLE HISTORY DAILY: Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible. Lawrence Mykytiuk’s feature article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes. The answer to the question, of course, is yes, he did. Not that we necessarily know much about him beyond that. This article is a useful discussion, aimed at nonspecialists, of the earliest extra-biblical references to Jesus.

I was a little surprised not to see any reference to the published work of Ken Olson, who argues that Eusebius wrote the longer Testimonium Flavianum (a variant of Mykytiuk’s Alternative 2, which Mykytiuk rejects). More on that here.

Some past PaleoJudaica posts on the did-Jesus-exist question are, here, here, here, here, and here. I have touched on the question of the Historical Jesus occasionally. Some posts are collected in the last post linked-to in the preceding sentence, and see also here and (on the languages Jesus spoke) here and here.

More on Professor Mykytiuk's work is here and links.

Tenth-century BCE bullae found

ARTIFACTS: New Finds Suggest Biblical Kings David and Solomon Actually Existed. Six clay seals found at the archaeological site of Khirbet Summeily in Israel offer evidence that supports the existence of Biblical Kings David and Solomon, says a team of archaeologists led by Dr Jeff Blakely of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (

I don't usually note stories about Iron Age finds unless there are inscriptions involved, but this one merits some comment. The title is a bit exuberant, raising hopes that these clay seals mention something that we can connect to a Davidic or Solomonic royal government. Alas, no. Some have seal markings impressed, but none bear any writing. Nevertheless, they are of considerable interest. The second paragraph of the article sums up their importance:
The official clay seals, or bullae, unearthed by Dr Blakely’s team at Khirbet Summeily – a small Biblical period village (10th-8th century BC) located in the northern part of Israel’s picturesque Negev desert – provide evidence that some type of government activity was conducted there in that period.
The business about David and Solomon comes from the inference that evidence for this level of literacy and social organization in this comparatively remote location implies a stronger central government than archaeologists often allow for in this period. And if a stronger central government, why not one headed by David or Solomon, just as the Bible says? Maybe so, but I'm not getting too excited until someone finds a tenth-century inscription that mentions one of them.

All that said, these are the first bullae from as early as the tenth century BCE and we are very lucky to have them. Let's hope the archaeological luck holds and they find some more, this time with some writing on them. And I wouldn't say no to one that refers to David or Solomon. That would be especially lucky, but it's hardly unthinkable. As I noted just a couple of days ago, there is a ninth-century inscription that mentions "the House of David."

Gold in them there caves?

MORE LOOTERS: Four arrested for attempting to loot ‘hidden treasure’ from ancient West Bank cave. Two Palestinians and 2 Israelis charged with colluding to dig up buried gold from Roman-Byzantine period (Daniel K. Eisenbud, Jerusalem Post).
Two Palestinians and two Israelis were arrested earlier in the week for allegedly colluding to attempt to loot buried gold from a protected ancient cave near the West Bank, the Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.

According to an Antiquities Authority official, the two Arab suspects, from Tulkarm, were caught “red handed” by inspectors from the organization’s robbery- prevention unit digging a 4.5-meter hole at the 1,800-year-old site, which dates to the Roman-Byzantine period.

The suspects were found with excavation equipment, including a generator, electric drill, lighting, shovels and numerous buckets, the official said in a statement.

Who thinks up these things? If the reports are accurate, it sounds as though some people put a lot of effort and money into a high-risk project with extremely speculative returns. They'd have been better off buying lottery tickets.

Similar recent story here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Harvard Semitic Museum refurbished

THE HARVARD GAZETTE: The old, made new. Refurbished Semitic Museum celebrates the past while reorienting for the future (Corydon Ireland). This article describes the new renovated Semitic Museum, but also gives a capsule history from its opening in 1903. As I've mentioned before, I got my PhD back in the 1980s from the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations ("NELC") program at Harvard. Most of my courses were taught in the Semitic Museum, back when most of the artifacts were locked up in the basement and unavailable. Professor Lawrence Stager was hired during the time I was a student there and he was the one who set about changing all that. I'm surprised he isn't mentioned in the article. Nevertheless, it is a highly informative piece that is hard to excerpt. But here's just one taste:
Central to understanding the museum’s past is its first director, David Gordon Lyon (1852-1935). Born in Alabama, educated in Germany, and the first university chair of Assyriology in the United States, Lyon was an energetic scholar of Semitic languages, whose passion was establishing a museum.

“The beginning of this wonderful story goes back to this gentleman,” said Manuelian, who is Phillip J. King Professor of Egyptology. “He was quite a dynamic lecturer and speaker,” and brought with him from Germany the idea of “the seminar principle,” that a good collection accelerates understanding and scholarship.

The joint lecture discussed the persistent and peripatetic Lyon, the shifting fates of the museum building, and the Harvard collection of more than 40,000 Near Eastern artifacts.

A devout Baptist with an appetite for exactitude but with discipline leavened by Southern charm, Lyon taught Hebrew, Assyrian, Syriac, Aramaic, Akkadian, and other languages first set down in cuneiform. For 40 years he collected artifacts, and recorded trips to the Holy Land with deadpan ethnographic photos of ordinary life. “Lyon was a pioneer,” said Greene, a documentarian of what turned out to be the last two decades of the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire, then in decline.

He also wrote obsessively in diaries. There are 38 volumes — one a year — culled from small notebooks that Lyon would transcribe at night. Today, they provide a rare window into the Harvard of a century and more ago.

Christmas 2014

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating!

Posts of Christmas past are collected here and links. And more recent Christmas-related posts are here and here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hanukkah menorah bracelet excavated

COSMIC SYNCHRONICITY WATCH: Archaeologists uncover 1,600-year-old menorah bracelet on Hanukkah. Last day of Mount Carmel excavation turns up rare turquoise glass shard (Lazar Berman , Times of Israel).
Archaeologist Limor Talmi was minutes away from wrapping up her excavation of an ancient garbage pit last Thursday,when a piece of 1,600-year-old glass was brought to her, bearing imprints of menorahs.

The timing was fortuitous, not only because she was readying to close up shop but because it was also the second day of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday most closely associated with the seven-branched candelabra.

“Like in a good story, on the last day, when we needed to finish the dig, in the last box, in the last half hour, when we said, ‘That’s it, yalla, we need to close up and go,’ the head of the glass department brought this item to show me,” Talmi told the Haaretz daily.

The shard, found in the Mount Carmel national park near Elyakim during an Israel Antiquities Authority dig of refuse pits, features two menorahs. One of the menorahs is shown with its candles lit.

Cool. And for a change the timing of the announcement was determined only by fate. Perhaps that and it being the last day of the excavation, which in itself seems to be a magnet for important discoveries.

Follow the link for a photo. More on ancient depictions of menorahs is here, here (end of post), here (Magdala again!), and here, and links.

The Tel Dan Stele and "the House of David"

THE TEL DAN BEYT DAVID INSCRIPTION is another old discovery that has received some new attention recently. The attention is not because of Christmas this time; rather, it is because the stele is currently on display at a major museum exhibition in New York:
Ancient rock adds evidence of King David’s existence
Stone slab with earliest reference to House of David, on display at Met, said to be ‘one of the most important Biblical artifacts ever found’

By Menachem Wecker December 16, 2014, 2:52 am 54

NEW YORK (JTA) — Dimly lit, the stone slab, or stele, doesn’t look particularly noteworthy, especially when compared to the more lavish sphinxes, jewelry and cauldrons one encounters en route to the room where it is installed.

Indeed, in a Twitter post this fall, art journalist Lee Rosenbaum described the nearly 13-by-16 inch c. 830 BCE rock, as “homely.”

What’s significant about this stone — on view at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” exhibit running through January 4 — is its inscription: the earliest extra-biblical reference to the House of David.

“There is no doubt that the inscription is one of the most important artifacts ever found in relation to the Bible,” Eran Arie, curator of Israelite and Persian periods at the Israel Museum, wrote in the exhibit catalog.

Some background to the whole question of the historicity of David and Solomon is here and links.

Did Jesus preach at Magdala?

THE DAILY MAIL: Did Jesus preach at this synagogue? Archaeologists excavate 2,000-year-old ruins in ancient town of Magdala where Christ is thought to have taught disciples
  • Synagogue is thought to have been focal point when Jesus visited Magdala
  • Ruins discovered during preparation to build a hotel beside Sea of Galilee
  • Ancient town of Magdala lies under what is now Migdal in northern Israel
  • Jewish artefacts date back to the time of Jesus and the rise of Christianity
  • Discovery has led to thousands of Christian pilgrims visiting the site
  • Site now owned by Catholic organisation Legion of Christ who claim Jesus preached at the synagogue during his time in what is now northern Israel
  • (Richard Grey).
This story is not new, but is being widely disseminated in the media for Christmas. Its real interest is the discovery of a first-century synagogue at this site, whatever the site may have been called in the first century. Did Jesus preach there? Maybe, but the identification of the site with a supposed Magdala ("The Tower") from which Mary came is based on a chain of inferences that is not entirely secure. It's not even clear that Mary's nickname referred to her home town. Maybe she was just tall. Joan Taylor (who seems to be coming up a lot here lately) gave her professorial inaugural lecture at KCL on this question and I heard it when she presented it at a plenary session of the 2014 British New Testament Conference.

Much background on the excavation of Magdala is here and links.

UPDATE (27 December): The Mail article seems to have vanished, at least for now, but here is an earlier one from the Mail that covers some of the same ground with a heavy emphasis on Mary Magdalene: The clues found near Mary Magdalene's home that suggest Jews and early Christians once worshipped together (Victoria Woollaston). And here's a more recent one from Israel Today: Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Uncovered (David Lazarus).

The history of the Hasmoneans

HAARETZ: Meet the Hasmoneans: A brief history of a violent epoch. Judas Maccabeus' death would mark the end of the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks – and the start of the extremely unstable Hasmonean dynasty.. Elon Gilad provides a pocket history of the Hasmoneans from the death of Judah to the time of Herod the Great.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Taylor responds to review and discusses priestly garments

MARGINALIA: The Essenes and the Qumran Settlement – By Jodi Magness. Jodi Magness on Joan E. Taylor’s The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea.
Taylor provides a valuable analysis of ancient authors on the Essenes, but her interpretation of the settlement at Qumran is idiosyncratic and unfounded.
I already noted this review here, but now Taylor has a response: MRBlog: Joan Taylor responds to Jodi Magness.

For many past posts on the archaeology of Qumran, see here, here, and links

Bonus: What did Jewish Priests Wear? (Joan E. Taylor, the ASOR Blog). Excerpt:
The trouble is that in general Jews (Judaeans) just looked like everyone else. As Shaye Cohen has noted, there is not a single comment in the whole of Graeco-Roman literature that describes any specifics of Jewish appearance (apart from male circumcision, which could not, as a rule, be seen). Jews were not even identifiable in terms of male beardedness.Cohen points to certain rulers who wanted Jews to wear distinctive clothing to mark them out as different when they were otherwise indistinguishable. Textiles found in Masada and the Judaean desert caves indeed indicate that Jews wore exactly the same garments as elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. And there is not a single example of Parthian-like pants.

In my view,the coin image defines the kneeling figure by the one distinctive type of dress Judaeans had: their ‘Parthian-like’ priestly dress. ...
Free registration is required to read the full text of the latter essay.

Divorce, infertility, and green goo in the Talmud

LAST WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Only the Wife Knows If the Husband’s ‘Semen Shoots Like an Arrow’ And other problems of divorce, infertility, and urination, in this week’s Talmud study.
Last week, we read that it is a mitzvah to produce children, in accordance with God’s instruction to Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply.” The rabbis debated how many children a Jew had to produce to fulfill the commandment, with some saying a boy and a girl was enough, while others said two boys were needed. (Notably, no one was content with two girls, presumably because a daughter did not continue a family’s line and property.) But is it only men who .are commanded to have children, or are women equally obligated? This was a subject of disagreement in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. In Yevamot 65b, the mishna reads: “A man is commanded with regard to the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply, but not a woman. Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says that a woman is also commanded.”

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Blogging update

SORRY FOR THE DEARTH OF BLOGGING. I've been down with a cold and such energy as I have has gone to holiday matters. I hope to be back soon.