Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A brief history of ancient Israel

NEWS YOU CAN USE: Ancient Israel: A Brief History (Owen Jarus, LiveScience). A nice little survey of the history of Israel up to the Bar Kokhba revolt, with attention to relevant inscriptions and archaeology.

The Apocalypse of Zephaniah

READING ACTS: What is the Apocalypse of Zephaniah?.
Since the book refers to both Daniel 3 and the apocryphal Susanna, implying a date no earlier than 100 B.C. The author was a Jew living in a Greek speaking Diaspora community. The book appears to have been used in the Coptic Apocalypse of Paul, found in Upper Egypt. E. A. Budge includes this in his Miscellaneous Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London 1915) but carefully distinguishes this Apocalypse of Paul from the Nag Hammadi text of the same name. There is nothing uniquely Christian in the text, despite the fact Christians preserved the text.
Regarding the provenance: this is a book written in a Christian language, transmitted in a Christian manuscript tradition, used in Christian circles, and showing no distinctively Jewish features. What is the evidence that it is a Jewish text? I'm willing to be convinced, but I'd like to see some arguments. There being "nothing uniquely Christian" is not an argument. The text is written in the name of an Old Testament character and a Christian writer might well have left out obviously Christian ideas to avoid anachronism. Start with the cultural context of the manuscripts you actually have and work backwards to other origins only as required by positive evidence.

I've dealt with these issues at length in my book The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? (Brill, 2005) and more briefly in an article in the Expository Times 117 (2005), pp. 53-57: The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as Background to the New Testament. Or, for free, in my British New Testament Conference paper back in 2002: Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Christian Apocrypha: How Can We Tell Them Apart.

Cross-file under Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Watch.

Your favorite inscription?

THE BIBLE PLACES BLOG: Reader Survey: Favorite Ancient Inscription. Todd Bolen brings us another survey. I have voted. I'll tell you which inscription I picked after he closes the survey and posts on the results.

Hurtado on early Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion

LARRY HURTADO: Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion?. He summarizes the evidence (from lateral readings of New Testament texts), based on his 1999 article with the same title.

Bitner, Paul's Political Strategy in 1 Corinthians 1-4

Bradley J. Bitner, Paul's Political Strategy in 1 Corinthians 1-4: Constitution and Covenant. Society for New Testament Studies monograph series, 163. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. 358. ISBN 9781107088481. $99.99.

Reviewed by Timothy Luckritz Marquis, Moravian Theological Seminary (


Amidst a number of fields pooling their resources to examine early Christianity and the interaction of law and life, Bradley Bitner’s important book shows how Paul evoked the ways laws were constitutively embodied in Corinth’s physical space in order to renovate understandings of community and authority. Bitner argues that 1 Corinthians draws on language of colonial politeiai and juxtaposes with it God’s new constitution or “covenant.” Colonial constitutions not only lay beneath a city’s conceptual understanding and functioning but also physically dominated urban centers as monumental inscriptions. The provisions of a politeia similarly grounded practices of monumental thanksgiving for patronage, practices that functioned as reconstitutions of communal bonds. Against this background, Paul’s language of testimonial in 1 Cor 1:4-9 recycles such language to portray Christ as a patron whose benefits were testified to by Paul’s preaching and are to be confirmed in the eschatological future. Further, Paul’s intricate depiction of the community as a building or “temple” and himself as a “wise architect” (1 Cor 3:5-4:5) reconfigures his audience’s understanding of status and authority, grounded again in constitutional provisions for public building. As such, Paul addresses factionalism by imaginatively constructing a new community using the language of constitution and its monumental expressions. Throughout the book, Bitner judiciously and with agility traverses among literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence to create a space in which to understand anew how Paul’s communities creatively inhabited their civic space.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of Neusner biography

BOOK REVIEW: IS IT TIME TO TAKE THE MOST-PUBLISHED MAN IN HUMAN HISTORY SERIOUSLY? A new biography of Jacob Neusner examines his ‘complicated, colorful, and unappreciated intellectual life’ (Shaul Magid, Tablet).
... Thankfully, Aaron Hughes, the author of an extensive study of Neusner’s scholarly work on religion titled Jacob Neusner on Religion: The Example of Judaism, chose the second option in his Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press), which navigates through the often-turbulent waters of a complicated, colorful, and in many ways unappreciated, intellectual life.


There is a joke that in 200 years when scholars study Neusner they will think Neusner was a “school” and not a person. No one would imagine one individual could have produced that much work in such disparate areas, from late antique Judaism to the Holocaust, Zionism, Jewish-Christian relations, higher education, the humanities, and American politics (just to name a few). Hughes notes in his conclusion that Neusner may be “the most important American-born Jewish thinker this country has produced.” It is a huge claim, for sure, and therefore contestable, but upon reflection, it is actually quite reasonable.
Neuser isn't the most-published author in human history (see this list), but his output has been massive and, in many areas of Jewish studies, massively influential. This longish article surveys his intellectual background and influence.

More on the Galilean stone workshop

THE RECENTLY-DISCOVERED ANCIENT GALILEAN STONE WORKSHOP has been covered in two articles that include photos and more information:

Excavations in Galilee reveal 2,000 year-old stone factory. An ancient Jewish “Stone Age”? Ariel University unearths a 2,000 year-old stone vessel production center in the Galilee (Arutz Sheva).

Jewish ‘Stone Age’ factory from time of Jesus surfaces in Galilee. Near site where biblical figure is said to have turned water to wine, 2,000-year-old workshop for stone vessels comes to light (Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel).

Thanks to Joseph Lauer for noting these.

Background here.

On ancient magic

NEWS YOU CAN USE: A Guide to Ancient Magic. In antiquity, love or revenge was just a spell away (Erin Blakemore, SMITHSONIAN.COM).
Call it a happy accident: When a group of Serbian archaeologists recently uncovered a cache of 2,000-year-old skeletons, they unearthed a set of mysterious scrolls covered with Aramaic curses, too. As Reuters reports, the tiny scrolls were contained in what are thought to be ancient amulets and are covered with spells used in “binding magic” rituals of yore.
No, the curses were not in Aramaic, unless you count the word Abracadabra as Aramaic as well.
While the archaeologists work to decipher the scrolls (a process that could never be complete), why not take a moment to catch up on what historians already know about ancient magical rituals?
What follows is not a bad overview of ancient Hellenistic- and Roman-era magic, although it focuses on epigraphic texts and neglects more substantial manuscript discoveries, most notably the Greco-Egyptian Greek Magical Papyri.

There's more on the Serbian amulets here and links.

Ben-Hur bombs

CINEMA: ‘Ben-Hur’ Is Latest Flop for Paramount (BROOKS BARNES, NYT).
” Credit Philippe Antonello/Paramount Pictures
LOS ANGELES — During new pressure on Viacom to turn around Paramount Pictures, the studio misfired again over the weekend: “Ben-Hur,” which cost Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about $100 million to make, not including marketing expenses, arrived to a disastrous $11.4 million in domestic ticket sales.

Ouch. And an article from late yesterday updates the chariot wreck: 'Ben-Hur' box office took an even worse turn Monday (Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY , KHOU).
On Sunday, Paramount reported already-bleak estimates that had the remake of the 1959 classic opening at No. 5 with a paltry $11.35 million.

But revised official numbers found the saga actually made $11.2 million, knocking it out of the psychologically important top-five position.
It never looked like a particularly promising film, but I was expecting it to do better than that. Another Hollywood remake fail.

Background here and links.

Review of Jobes, Discovering the Septuagint

READING ACTS: Book Review: Karen H. Jobes, Discovering the Septuagint.
Jobes, Karen H., ed. Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2016. 351 pp. Hb; $20.00.
I noted the book here when it came out earlier this year. And see also here.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Apocryphon of Ezekiel, frags. 2-5

READING ACTS: The Apocryphon of Ezekiel, Fragments 2-5. William Brown also has a post from last year on the Apocryphon of Ezekiel at the Biblical Review Blog: Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Apocryphon of Ezekiel. An earlier post on the subject at Reading Acts is noted here, with additional information from me which not noted in either of the other blogs.

Cross-file under Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Watch.

Sabar to be at Unbelievable Past conference

LIV INGEBORG LIED: Fragments of an Unbelievable Past program update. Ariel Sabar will be there. There's more on the conference here and links.

The Ancient Susiya Synagogue

PHOTO OF THE DAY: The Ancient Susiya Synagogue (Jewish Press). Past posts involving the Susiya Synagogue are here and here.

Ancient stone workshop found in Galilee

ARCHAEOLOGY: Ancient Stone Workshop Found in Galil (Harmodia).
YERUSHALAYIM - Archaeological excavations conducted in the Galil have uncovered an ancient subterranean quarry and industrial workshop for the production of stone vessels, Arutz Sheva reported on Sunday.

Dr. Yonatan Adler of Ariel University said the finds, believed to be some 2,000 years old, were discovered at a site called Einot Amitai, near Nazareth.

“Stone vessels played an integral role in the daily religious lives of Jews during this period,” explains Adler, who specializes in ancient Jewish ritual law.

As the article goes on to observe, stone vessels were important in ancient Judaism because they were immune to ritual impurity and did not transmit it.

Talmud set to music

TALMUD WATCH: Composer sets Talmud study to music (norman lebrecht, Slipped Disc).
The marvellous Israeli composer Andre Hajdu, who died at the beginning of this month, was a devout and learned man who saw no contradiction between his religious immersion and his advanced musical ideas.

In this clip from a TV documentary, he takes a familiar passages from the Talmud and works it through with his music students.
Video at the link or here.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Litwa on self-deification

Self-deification in Biblical Texts

Since the Enlightenment, many scholars have tried to extract the “real” history from mythicized characters in Jewish and Christian literature. They have aimed to reconstruct the true (or most historically plausible) Jesus, Simon of Samaria, and so on. I too wish to distinguish history (roughly: an account of what happened) from mythic themes permeating historiographical discourse. But I do not treat these themes as somehow secondary or unimportant. To the contrary, they are all-important, because myth, if truly myth, becomes our reality and shapes our sense of who we are.

See Also: Desiring Divinity: Self-deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

Becoming Divine: An Introduction to Deification in Western Culture (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).

By M. David Litwa
Department of Religion and Culture
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA 24061
August 2016
I noted a review of Iesus Deus here.

Edelman, Fitzpatrick-McKinley, and Guillaume (eds.), Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire

BIBLIOGRAPHIA IRANICA: Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Notice of a new book: Edelman, Diana, Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley & Philippe Guillaume (eds.). 2016. Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire (Orientalische Religionen in der Antike 17). Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen. Part 1 is devoted to "Trends in Emerging Judaisms."

Down with Gothic letters

MANIFESTO: It’s Time to Stop Using Gothic Letters in Textual Criticism (Peter Gurry, ETC Blog).

Review of Fletcher-Louis, Jesus Monotheism

LARRY HURTADO: “Jesus Monotheism”: My Review.
My review of Jesus Monotheism, by Crispin Fletcher-Louis just appeared in Review of Biblical Literature here. This book is volume 1 of a multi-volume project in which Fletcher-Louis aims to lay out a broad-ranging and programmatic analysis of the emergence of devotion to Jesus in earliest circles of what became Christianity.


A critique of "identity"

ANCIENT JEW REVIEW: Identity, a Way Forward (Perhaps) (Todd Berzon). "Identity" is certainly a concept relevant to the study of ancient Judaism, although the theoretical critique of the concept here does not apply itself specifically to that area of study or, really, to any specific tradition.

I noted Dr. Berzon's review of Johnson, Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre (which is relevant to this new essay) here.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Apocryphon of Ezekiel, frag. 1

READING ACTS: The Apocryphon of Ezekiel, Fragment 1. Benjamin G. Wright III re-published the Apocryphon of Ezekiel and added a couple of possible unattributed fragments in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures vol. 1 (ed. Bauckham, Davila, and Panayotov; Eerdmans, 2013) pp. 380-92.

Cross-file under Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Watch.

Review of Halpern-Amaru, The Perspective from Mt. Sinai

THE BIBLICAL REVIEW: “The Perspective from Mt. Sinai: The Book of Jubilees and Exodus” by Betsy Halpern-Amaru.
Betsy Halpern-Amaru. The Perspective from Mt. Sinai: The Book of Jubilees and Exodus. Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplement 21. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015, 192 pp., 80,00 €.
A small criticism: please let's all stop using the word "incredibly" as a synonym for "very."

Report on the Barcelona papyrology conference, part 2

THE OTTC BLOG: 28th International Congress of Papyrology - Part 1 (Drew Longacre).

Part 1 was noted here. Roberta Mazza's paper, which is available to read online, was noted here.

The Madaba map again

JAMES MCGRATH: Madaba. Lots of nice photos of the Madaba map etc., on which more here and links (cf. here). But they would be easier to access if they were all on one page.

Interview with Cécile Dogniez

WILLIAM A. ROSS: LXX SCHOLAR INTERVIEW: DR. CÉCILE DOGNIEZ. Some of his earlier interviews with Septuagint scholars are noted here and links.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Updates on the Serbian amulets

YESTERDAY'S POST ON THE SERBIAN "ARAMAIC" AMULETS has had a couple of updates added concerning those mysterious magical names. If you are interested in that story, go and have a look.

Review of Gardner, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism

Gregg E. Gardner, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 235. ISBN 9781107095434. $99.99.

Reviewed by Danielle Steen Fatkin, Knox College (


The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism by Gregg Gardner focuses on the intersection of several fields of study—early rabbinic law, the sociology of power, and late antique history. Gardner’s central arguments—that organized charity in Judaism began after the destruction of the Second Temple and that, unlike later rabbis, the tannaim created charitable organizations in order to maintain the dignity of the poor—are the product of extensive study and the innovative use of sociological and economic theory.

I noted the book here when it was published in 2015.

Favorite Geographical Story in the Bible: Results

THE BIBLE PLACES BLOG: Favorite Geographical Story in the Bible Results (Todd Bolen). The survey was noted here. By the way, I ended up not participating, so if you were tempted to think that I submitted the following, I didn't. But if I had thought of it, I probably would have.
Perhaps the most curious vote was for “Enoch’s journey throughout the world,” with a helpful explanation for those of us who might be mystified: “Might not be in most Bibles, but it is in mine.” He or she is right: it’s not in most Bibles!
The passage in question is in the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36), which is only in the Ethiopic Bible. But the Book of the Watchers is quoted by Jude (traditionally the brother of Jesus!) in his New Testament book in 1:14-15 as a prophecy, so its not being in the Bible perhaps requires some nuancing.

In any case it was a fun survey and I look forward to more such surveys from the Bible Places Blog.

The Treatise of Shem

READING ACTS: . Philip J. Long continues his series on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha with a new text. For the past series on the Sibylline Oracles and the ancient books of Enoch, follow the links.

William Brown also has a post on The Treatise of Shem in his Pseudepigrapha Saturday series. There are also fragments of the Treatise of Shem from the Cairo Geniza in Judeo-Arabic and Byzantine-era Jewish Aramaic. I remain to be convinced that the book is as old as the first century.

Jonathan Milgram profiled

TALMUD WATCH: Jonathan Milgram’s Mesopotamian Mishnah? Teaneck scholar studies ancient inheritance law (LARRY YUDELSON, Times of Israel).
When Dr. Jonathan Milgram of Teaneck set out to write his first book, he didn’t expect to discover an ancient rabbinic tradition at odds with settled Jewish law – especially not one about inheritance by daughters.

Dr. Milgram, 44, is associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His dissertation at Bar Ilan University had been a detailed textual analysis of the eighth chapter of tractate Bechorot in the Babylonian Talmud. When JTS hired him for a tenure track position in 2007, it was time for him to start thinking about a new research project. After all, it is publishing — more than teaching — that ensures a professor’s professional standing. Rather than revisit his doctorate, he looked for a new topic to investigate.

That research, in a book called “From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah: Tannaitic Inheritance Law in its Legal and Social Contexts,” was published this summer. The word “tannaitic” in its title refers to the rabbis of the time of the Mishnah, from the second and third centuries of the common era. The book analyzes the main areas of inheritance law in the Mishnah and other tannaitic works in light of earlier and contemporaneous legal cultures, from ancient Mesopotamian to Roman. It also compares the Mishnah’s prescribed rules with the actual practices of ancient Jews as recorded in Judean desert papyri that survived the centuries.

I noted his book here when it came out last month. One of its conclusions:
“The tannaitic tradition’s richness cannot be overlooked by anyone who studies the literature seriously,” he said. “The variety of opinions preserved in rabbinic disputes demonstrates the coexistence of competing traditions in tannaitic times. What academic Talmud study adds is another layer: by employing specific critical tools it uncovers more variety and, therefore, a more complex richness to be appreciated.”

In this case, the results of that analysis, he writes, is that in the time of the Mishnah there existed “a tradition promoting the division of equal inheritance for daughters, even in the presence of sons,” albeit, in the final edited Mishnah, a concealed tradition.

That tradition of equal inheritance, Dr. Milgram believes, was “camouflaged” by being joined with a teaching about the bequests of fathers and mothers. In the later Talmuds, similar traditions of equal inheritance for sons and daughters were attributed to gentiles and heretics.

More on the Tel Recheš synagogue

ARCHAEOLOGY AND HISTORY: Do these ancient ruins prove stories in the Bible were true? 2,000-year-old rural synagogue in Galilee may be similar to sites where Jesus taught (RICHARD GRAY, Daily Mail). No, they don't prove any stories are true, but they potentially may give us some important background for some of those stories. Excerpt:
According to the New Testament, Jesus travelled from towns and villages preaching in their synagogues.

But until now no rural synagogues have been found from around the time.

The building, which archaeologists have dated to the First Century AD, appears to have formed part of a Jewish village at a hilltop site known as Tel Recheš, near Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, Israel.

Dr Mordechai Aviam, an archaeologist at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee who has been leading the excavations, told MailOnline that he believes the synagogue was built between 20-40AD and was in use until midway through the second century.
He said: 'This is the first 1st century synagogue in rural Galilee of the first century.

'This find, reflects the life of 1st century Galilee, which was almost totally rural.

'The site is 17 km (10 miles) as crow flies east of Nazareth, and 12 km from Nin (Naim), and although we don't have its name in the New Testament, it is in the area in which Jesus acted.

'Therefore it will give scholars of the New Testament another view of the life in the villages in which Jesus was active.
Background here.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Report on the Barcelona papyrology conference, part 1

THE OTTC BLOG: 28th International Congress of Papyrology - Part 1 (Drew Longacre).
The 28th International Congress of Papyrology took place in Barcelona from 1-6 August, and it was a great success. While there were far too many papers to discuss them in any depth, I would like to highlight a few papers that were more relevant for OTTC.

That said, he summarizes a lot of papers.

Background here.

More on the Serbian Greco-Aramaic (??) incantation texts

ARAMAIC WATCH? — PROBABLY NOT: Serbian archaeologists unearth mysterious messages in Roman graves (Boris Babic, Gulf Times). This article gives some additional information on the content of the amulets which makes me doubt that any Aramaic is involved.
A large Roman-era necropolis in eastern Serbia has yielded a spectacular find for archaeologists: gold and silver foils asking favours of deities and demons via deceased couriers.
These rare amulets were found in early August in a freshly exposed family tomb at Viminacium, a first-century Roman outpost near a power plant at the small town of Kostolac.
Experts are still trying to understand the messages etched on the small plates, says Miomir Korac, the chief archaeologist.
“Dobrebao. Seneseilam. Sesengemfaranges. We don’t recognise these magic words, written in Aramaic using the Greek alphabet,” he says. “For all we know, they may have tried to turn stone into gold.”
“We’re trying, but we may never decipher it.”

I don't think they are going to decipher those words. They look to me to be variants of magical terms found in the Greek Magical Papyri (notably Semesilam and, with various spellings, Sesenengen Barpharanges). It is possible that one or more of them are inspired by Aramaic or Hebrew terms (cf. Abracadabra), but in practice any putative original Hebrew or Aramaic meanings would be irrelevant. They mean something like "Abracadabra" or "Hocus Pocus" in English, that is, "this is a powerful magical word that makes things happen."

If these words are what is passing for Aramaic in the amulets, there isn't any Aramaic. But watch this space as more information comes out.

The article has a little bit more on the context of the finds and (not quoted) some more information about the site.
A golden amulet with Greek lettering was found alongside a child’s remains in a recently exposed family tomb holding 11 bodies, while another, with a still unexamined silver and gold leaflets, was buried alongside a young woman.
The content of the Viminacium amulets still baffles experts, but previously uncovered tablets carried a wide range of wishes, from the good, to the very evil.
I shall be very interested in learning more about the texts in the opened amulets and also hearing more about the still unexamined ones.

Background here.

UPDATE (19 August): Reader Martin Schwartz has written to draw attention to his article "*Sasm, Sesen, St. Sisinnios, Sesengen Barpharanges, and ...'Semanglof'" in Bulletin of the Asia Institute Volume 10 (1996), which you can read at the link. It is a quite detailed analysis of a number of the magic names found in the Greek magical texts, including one of the ones above. Aramaic appaers to be involved, but, as above, that does not make the Serbian amulets Aramaic texts.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As I look at the word Dobrebao, a possible Hebrew etymology occurs to me. Dobre could be a (bad) transliteration of Dibrê (דברי), "words of," and bao could be a transliteration of bohu (בהו), "chaos."

For the latter, compare the name of the Gnostic demiurge, Yaldabaoth, which arguably consists of the Aramaic word Yalda, "the child of" (ילדא) and an Aramaic word cognate to bohu, i.e., bahut (בהות), to mean something like "the child of chaos" or "child of disgrace."

In this case "Words of chaos" would be a pretty nice magic word of power. This is speculation, but it seems reasonably plausible.

Tu B'Av 2016

THE FESTIVAL OF TU B'AV begins this evening at sundown. Best wishes to all those celebrating. This is a holiday mentioned in the Mishnah and the Talmud, but for centuries not a great deal was made of it, until it was revived in modern Israel as a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day. In The Forward, Josefin Dolsten has an article listing the 8 Quirkiest Facts About Tu B’Av — the ‘Jewish Valentine’s Day’ You Never Heard Of. And two posts on the holiday from last year are here and here.

Sibylline Oracles 11

READING ACTS: A History of the World – Sibylline Oracles, Book 11. Past posts in the series on the Sibylline literature are noted here and links. Cross-file under Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Watch.

Review of "Ben-Hur"

CINEMA: Ben-Hur review – rowdy revamp takes a Roman holiday from reality This retelling of the classic tale, from the director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is unafraid to make wholesale changes, and all the better for it (Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian). Three of five stars. Includes SPOILERS.