Saturday, December 13, 2008

ST. ANDREWS DIVINTY NEWS: I've been meaning to post on these for awhile. First, I've mentioned Dr. Nathan MacDonald's prestigious award, but now there's a press release on it:
Prestigious German Research Prize for St Andrews' Academic

Thursday 11 December 2008

A St Andrews' academic has been awarded a prestigious research prize by the German Federal Minister of Education and Research.

Dr Nathan MacDonald, a lecturer in Old Testament at the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, is the only recipient of the award from the United Kingdom.

The Sofja-Kovalevskaja prize is worth £1.3 million over five years and will fund a small research team led by Dr MacDonald based at the University of Göttingen.

He is one of eight scholars from around the world to win the Sofja-Kovalevskaja Award and the only non-scientist from among the eight awardees.

Dr MacDonald and his research team will examine the different forms that monotheism (belief in a single God) took within early Judaism during the period 586-333 BC.

He explained, "Previous scholarship has primarily been interested in the development of monotheism within ancient Israel up to 586 BC and has not examined the mature expressions of monotheistic belief and practice.

"I hope this research will show what unified these religious expressions, whilst also examining the extent of their diversity."

The author of three books, Dr Macdonald's academic work has already been recognized in the award of an Alexander von Humboldt research fellowship and the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

The award ceremony took place in the Deutsche Parlamentarische Gesellschaft in Berlin.
Should you wish to interview Dr. MacDonald, there's more information at the link.

Second, let me congratulate Dr. Bruce Longenecker on his appointment to the W. W. Melton Chair in the Department of Religion at Baylor University as of the Fall of 2009. Mark Goodacre has a long post here on Bruce and the appointment.

Although we are very sorry to see Nathan and Bruce leave (Nathan temporarily), we are happy that these opportunities have come to them and we wish them all the best.
STUDENTS at Liberty University in Virginia are volunteering at the Qumran excavation:
Archaeology course takes students to Dead Sea site

posted on Friday, December 12, 2008 | in General News

Four Liberty University students started working as “archaeologists in training” in Israel on Dec. 5 under the supervision of Dr. Randall Price, Director of Excavations and Executive Director of LU’s new Center for Judaic Studies.

Students Nathan LeMaster, David Sherret, Katelyn Thurston and Emilee Price traveled with Price and his wife, Beverlee, to learn about and perform land excavations at the 2,000-year-old remains of the historic Qumran Plateau, a site situated beside the Dead Sea, as part of an LU Field Archaeology course that continues through Dec. 23.

Liberty’s group is part of a larger team that is now in its sixth season (2002-08) uncovering the ruins of the Qumran Community, believed to have once been inhabited by a Jewish sect that held a strict interpretation of the Scriptures and looked for the coming of the Messiah and the end of the age.


Friday, December 12, 2008

PHOENICIAN HISTORY is the subject of a new play currently running in Lebanon:
A lesson for Lebanon from its ancient Phoenician past
'The Return of the Phoenix' is as much about today's search for a suitable modus vivendi as it is about Yesterday's

By Adam Jewell
Daily Star staff
Friday, December 12, 2008

MAAMELTEIN: "If you don't go back to the past, you can't live now," says Oussama Rahbani, the musical talent behind "The Return of the Phoenix," a play steeped in the history of Lebanon that is making an encore run through December 21 at the Casino du Liban after debuting at the Byblos International Festival this past summer.

The play, written by Mansour Rahbani and directed by Marwan Rahbani, follows last year's historical production by the Rahbani brothers, "Zenobia," an epic centered around the ancient queen of Palmyra. However, while the past often serves as inspiration for the renowned Lebanese dramatists, "The Return of the Phoenix" is the first time that their own country's history formed the basis for a production.

"Like any civilization, the Phoenicians had good points and bad points," Oussama Rahbani told The Daily Star in an interview. "They were dealing in commerce, in trading, they were traveling a lot. However, they didn't build a united culture, they were more individualistic."

"The Phoenicians focused on the city-state. But doing in this, you are alone. Saida alone, Beirut alone, Tripoli alone. Then when Alexander the Great invaded, it was one-on-one," Rahbani noted.

"The Return of the Phoenix" ponders the shortcomings of Lebanon's past inhabitants in order to prod the country's current residents into improving their collective lot. While it takes place in the northern coastal city of Jbeil, or Byblos, some 3,000 years ago, the political dynamics are instantly recognizable to those familiar with today's Lebanon.

Genesis and Christian Theology
14-18 July 2009

The University of St Andrews is pleased to announce its third conference on Scripture and Christian Theology. Since the first conference on the Gospel of John in 2003, the St Andrews conferences have been recognized as one of the most important occasions when biblical scholars and systematic theologians are brought together in conversation about a biblical text. The conferences aim to cut through the megaphone diplomacy or the sheer incomprehension that so often marks attempts to communicate across our disciplines. We invite you then to join us and some of the best theological and biblical minds in careful and often lively interaction about one of the most theologically generative of biblical books: the book of Genesis.

We are now calling for papers that integrate close readings of Genesis with Christian theology. While we are particularly interested in explorations of the dynamic relationship between Genesis and Christian doctrine, we also welcome proposals that combine careful reading of the text of Genesis with theological attention to art, creativity, ecology, ethics, the history of interpretation, or Jewish and Christian dialogue.

The call for paper proposals closes on 15 March 2009. Please visit our website for further details or to submit a proposal:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Perfume vials from Christ's era unearthed in Israel
Wed Dec 10, 2008 7:57pm GMT

ROME (Reuters) - A team of Franciscan archaeologists digging in the biblical town of Magdala in what is now Israel say they have unearthed vials of perfume similar to those that may have been used by the woman said to have washed Jesus' feet.

The perfumed ointments were found intact at the bottom of a mud-filled swimming pool, alongside hair and make-up objects, the director of the dig conducted by the group Studium Biblicum Franciscanum told the religious website.

"If chemical analyses confirm it, these could be perfumes and creams similar to those that Mary Magdalene or the sinner cited in the Gospel used to anoint Christ's feet," Father Stefano de Luca, the lead archaeologist, told the website.

Mary Magdalene is cited in the New Testament as a steadfast disciple of Christ from whom seven demons were cast out. She is often considered the sinner who anointed Jesus' feet.

Why, oh why, did it have to be found in Magdala? The Mary Magdalene connection probably would have been dragged in anyhow, but this makes it irresistable. In fact, there is nothing in the Gospels that connects Mary Magdalene to the penitent sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50. The connection comes much later, I would imagine at the time when Mary began to be regarded as a reformed prostitute. (More on Mary Magdalene here.) What looks like a variant version of the same tradition appears in the other three canonical Gospels (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13, and John 11:2; 12:1-3). In that version there is nothing about the woman being sinful, and John identifies her as Mary the sister of Lazarus.

The find is interesting and important, but it doesn't have even a tenuous historical connection with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps it does with the perfume-on-the-feet episode(s) in the Gospels, but it's very hard to say.

UPDATE (14 December): Useful comments from Todd Bolen here and Mark Goodacre here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quest for the Historical Jesus Begins Anew

Amherst, New York (December 08, 2008)--Scholars gathered this past weekend, December 5-7, in Amherst, New York, for the inaugural meeting of The Jesus Project in a renewed quest for the historical Jesus. The project, sponsored by the secular think tank Center for Inquiry and its Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), is an effort by historians, biblical scholars, and theologians to determine what can be reliably recovered about the historical figure of Jesus, his life, his teachings, and his activities, utilizing the highest standards of scientific and scholarly objectivity.


The project has drawn together a diverse and rich group of scholars, including, among others Gerd Lüdemann, Paul Kurtz, Robert Price, James Tabor, Robert Eisenman, David Trobisch, Bruce Chilton, Dennis MacDonald, and R. Joseph Hoffmann.

At the session this past weekend, participants agreed that a rigorous scientific inquiry was needed, and that the Project would be committed to a position of neutrality towards the sources used as "evidence" for the Jesus tradition. Participants represent a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from Tabor's argument that there is substantial evidence that the tomb of the family of Jesus has been located, to the view that the evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical figure is not persuasive. "Jesus remains after 2,000 years the most fascinating figure of Western civilization," said James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. "Scholars now at the beginning of the twenty-first century are able to take advantage of a plethora of new texts, sources, and methods, including the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various lost Gospels that are not in our New Testament, and a rich archeological record." Tabor says that scholars today find themselves uniquely positioned to examine the issue of who Jesus was in new and challenging ways. During the closing conference round-table, Tabor was quick to emphasize that "the Jesus Project repudiates any theological agendas, special pleading, or dogmatic presuppositions." All members of the project share a common commitment to the importance of applying scientific methodologies to the sources used to construct the Jesus tradition.

The Project has outlined a set of priorities for its next meetings, including a "consistent" translation of the Gospels, an inquiry into the causes of the canonization of the existing New Testament documents, parallels between Islam and early Christianity in delineating its sacred books, and the need to carve a middle path between what Hoffmann describes as "Da Vinci Code sensationalism and the truly fascinating story that underlies the history of Christianity."

Sounds ambitious. Kol HaKavod.

Background here.
AN OBITUARY FOR JOSEPH BAUMGARTEN has been published by Larry Schiffman at the SBL Forum website. Excerpt:
When I began studying the halakhah of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he was the only person in the field. I knew his name but had not yet met him. Very early in my career, it must have been in the mid-70s, I attended a meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature to present what was then my first paper. As I was talking, I noticed a fellow standing near the door who had entered just before I began. He was holding his proverbial tan lined raincoat and the hound’s-tooth checked hat that he usually wore. I do not even remember what the subject of my presentation was, but I do remember meeting him. Right after the session ended he came up to me. He introduced himself as "Joe" Baumgarten, welcomed me into the small circle of students of Qumran halakhah, and immediately dispelled any fear I might have that he would see me as an unwelcome competitor. Within fifteen minutes I was meeting his beloved wife Naomi who somehow or other was waiting for him in the hall. This was the beginning of years of friendship and collegiality. It was not long before my wife, Marlene, met the Baumgartens and, as our children grew older, she started to join me at various meetings and spent a considerable amount of time with Naomi while Joe and I were busy with our sessions.

Academically, Baumgarten set the example for those of us who apply Talmudic material and methodology to the scrolls, a method and a skill that had virtually gone into disuse in the earlier years of scrolls research. His work exemplified the judiciousness and the depths of Talmudic learning that were necessary for such research to be of true value. His work on the Damascus Document not only brought its manuscripts to publication but provided the basis for understanding it within the framework of the history of Judaism. He lived to participate in conferences in which days of papers were given following the methods he had espoused, and it is to a great extent due to the example of his scholarship that this field has developed as well as it has.
THE TOMB OF ESTHER AND MORDECHAI (traditional) in Iran is in the news:
Jewish shrine in Iran registered as national work

Hamedan, Dec 8, IRNA - Head of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Office in Hamedan province said the old and valuable place of Esther and Mordecai tomb has been registered in country's national works list.

There are some pictures of the tomb, inside and outside, here. They start midway through the fourth column of photos. Note the Hebrew inscriptions. Some critical evaluation of the tradition is here.

UPDATE (14 December): Jan Pieter van de Giessen has posted more photos of the tomb, including close-ups of the Hebrew inscriptions, at his Aantekeningen bij de Bijbel blog.
AND HE THOUGHT their doctrine of Divine grace needed work:
St. Paul lands a look at Dead Sea Scrolls
Their messianism was out of date too.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A HIGH-TECH ARCHAEOLOGY PROJECT run by Brown University in Israel is being funded generously by the National Science Foundation:
Archeology Reborn with Grant for New Systems
Computer-based archiving, imaging and interactive education to aid research

By Dan Talpalariu, Science Editor [Softpedia]

8th of December 2008, 14:20 GMT

The scientific field of archeology will undergo severe make-up sessions and will be fully revitalized through the means of a new grant offered to a team of experts. The new funding received by a group of archaeologists form Brown University and engineers from the National Science Foundation is aimed to change the way archeology is performed and perceived, as well as how its results are accessed and used.

The $2.6 million grant will allow the team of specialists to implement techniques like computer vision and pattern recognition in processes such as conducting archaeological excavation, reconstructing sites and monuments, as well as interpreting results over the next four years. The site that will serve as a testing ground is going to be Apollonia-Arsuf, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, one of the world's 100 most endangered monuments, according to the World Monuments Fund.

The project is set to develop a visual archaeological database (VAD) with the goal of exchanging tediousness for fast access and interactivity. The archaeological site will be surrounded by video cameras and digital scanning stations, ensuring a constant visual track of the excavation. The discovered items can be processed and archived instantly, by providing the VAD with the proper text, video, still images, dense-data 3-D laser scans, and spatial coordinates associated to the finding.

HERSHEL SHANKS takes on Nina Burleigh:
Ganging up on biblical archaeology
A[n LA] Times Op-Ed writer stubbornly dismissed evidence that shows an important artifact from the Holy Land may not be a hoax.

By Hershel Shanks
December 9, 2008
Nina Burleigh ("Hoaxes from the Holy Land” Op-Ed article, Nov. 29) is unwilling to consider the possibility that the now-famous bone box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" is authentic. This is despite the fact that the Jerusalem judge in the case, after listening to the state's witnesses for more than three years, is of the view that the government has failed to prove the inscription is a forgery and should consider dropping the case. Burleigh's view after the judge's pronouncement remains the same as in her book, "Unholy Business." Burleigh has only vitriol and nasty innuendo for anyone, including myself, who defends the authenticity of the inscription.

I start from the assumption that it is just as bad to claim an authentic inscription is a forgery as to claim a forgery is authentic. If this inscription is authentic, I want to know about it -- and so does the public.

Background here.

Monday, December 08, 2008

RABBI SHIMON BAR YOHAI'S GRAVE is in need of attention:
State comptroller finds chaos, danger at Bar-Yohai grave
By DAN IZENBERG (Jerusalem Post)

One-and-a-half million people visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai on Mount Meron, near Safed, each year, but the holy site is improperly administered and in disrepair, the state comptroller reported on Sunday.

The state comptroller also found that the celebrations on Lag Ba'Omer draw 250,000 to 400,00 people each year but are illegal because the Merom Hagalil Regional Council does not issue a permit.

They are also dangerous, because there is no supervision of the accommodations and the activities.


More people visit Bar-Yohai's grave than any other holy site in Israel other than the Western Wall. Nevertheless, there is no effective management of the site. Four religious trusts claim rights over the grave and each acts as it sees fit. The regional council has not tried to assert its own authority over the site.

As a result of the administrative chaos, there has been a great deal of illegal construction at or near the grave. For example, "In 1980, an awning was added to the visitors' center supported by iron beams connected to the northern wall of the original building, which conceal part of the upper windows and ruin the unique and ancient look of the northern façade."

All the additional construction was executed without building permits.

The grave itself was built in the 18th century. The Antiquities Authority Law states that any structure built by man from the 18th century that has historical value may be declared an antiquity.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai lived in the second century CE. The Zohar is pseudepigraphically attributed to him.
A BYZANTINE-ERA BATHHOUSE has been uncovered at Zikhron Ya‘aqov. (IAA press release, noted via Joseph I. Lauer.)
TODAY is Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day.

Don't worry, I'll behave myself. But it is sooooo tempting.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

PAULA FREDRIKSEN is defending St. Augustine's view of Jews in her new book, Augustine and the Jews. Time Magazine has an interview with Professor Fredriksen. Excerpt:
What caused you to question the received wisdom?
Back in 1993 I was reading a work of Augustine's attacking a Christian heretic. Usually when ancient orthodox Christians said terrible things about heretics, they found even worse things to say about Jews. Until 395, Augustine had not been much different, but here he was, writing about one of the flashiest heresies of his time, and marshaling as arguments unbelievably positive things about Jews. As I read further, my scalp tingled. I had been working on Augustine for 20 years and I'd never seen anything like this before. Not only could I establish that he had changed his position, but I could locate this shift in his thinking very precisely, to the four-year period when he also wrote his monumental Confessions.
Interesting. Read it all.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH M. BAUMGARTEN has passed away. Just got the sad news from Professor Lawrence Schiffman, who e-mails:
Dear friends,

I regret to have to inform you of the passing on Thursday of our colleague and friend Prof. Joseph Baumgarten. He was memorialized in Baltimore on Friday and he will be buried in Israel on Sunday.

May his righteous memory be for a blessing!

Professor Moshe Bernstein also e-mails with information on the funeral arrangements. The message has personal family information, so I won't post it here. But if you'll be in Jerusalem this evening and wish to attend, drop me a note and I'll forward it.

Here's the notice of (Rabbi Dr.) Professor Baumgarten's passing in the Baltimore Sun. I can't find an online biography or vita, but here's a list of some of his major publications. He did a great deal of important work on the legal traditions in the Dead Sea Scrolls.