Friday, December 23, 2011

St. Nick vs. Santa Claus

An old NYTimes Op-Ed article by one of my old professors, John Anthony McGuckin:


December 25, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

St. Nick in the Big City

ST. NICHOLAS was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?
Well, it’s a New York story.

In all innocence, the morphing began with the Dutch Christians of New Amsterdam, who remembered St. Nicholas from the old country and called him Sinte Klaas. They had kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. While the gifts were important, they were never meant to overshadow the message of Jesus’s humble birth.
But today’s chubby Santa is not about giving to the poor. He has had his saintly garb stripped away. The filling out of the figure, the loss of the vestments, and his transformation into a beery fellow smoking a pipe combined to form a caricature of Dutch peasant culture. Eventually this Magic Santa (a suitable patron saint if there ever was one for the burgeoning capitalist machinery of the city) was of course popularized by the Manhattanite Clement Clarke Moore published in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” in The Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.
The newly created deity Santa soon attracted a school of iconographers: notable among them were Thomas Nast, whose 1863 image of a red-suited giant in Harper’s Weekly set the tone, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew up the archetypal image we know today on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. This Santa was regularly accompanied by the flying reindeer: godlike in his majesty and presiding over the winter darkness like Odin the sky god returned.
The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere. But, some might say, wasn’t it better to lose this racially stereotyped relic? Actually, no, considering the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church’s funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.
And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.
As the tale goes, Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.
This tale was the origin of a whole subsequent series of efforts among the Christians who celebrated Nicholas to make some effort to redeem the lot of the poor — especially children, who always were, and still are, the world’s front-line victims. Such was the origin of Christmas almsgiving: gifts for the poor, not just gifts for our friends.
I like St. Nicholas. You can keep chubby Santa.
John Anthony McGuckin is a professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alan Segal Memorial in JAAR

I just received my copy of the latest JAAR (79:4).  In it is a short appreciation in memoriam of Alan Segal, my late advisor, written by Amir Hussain.  Amir tells of Alan's contributions to research in both ancient Judaism/Christianity and more broadly to the study of religion, his activities in the AAR, his teaching, and some personal remarks.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Codex Sinaiticus Facsimile

For those who missed it, Hendrickson Publishers has released a facsimile edition of Codex Sinaiticus.  Being to scale, it is of course huge, as is the price.

Check it out here for you or your library--it can be yours for only $799.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

New Illustrated Conference of the Birds

I just saw that there is a new version of Attar's Conference of the Birds!  I am excited to check it out, since I teach the Conference of the Birds in my Exploring Mysticism course.

Check it out here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monk as Shaman?

It is always nice when multiple classes start overlapping.  My Religions of the World and my Sexuality and Christianity classes hit upon martyrdom and monasticism at the same time, although we spent much more time on these topics in my Sexuality and Christianity class.

I had a student in one class make a suggestion through a momentary flash of inspiration that the monks--at least many of the earliest eremetical hagiographies--acted much like a shaman.  I would like to sit, think, and see if we can develop this idea a bit and see where it leads us.

Firstly, while Shamanism proper belongs only to Siberia and the northern Caucuses, it is a phenomenon that shows some interesting cross-cultural comparisons with other phenomena of holy men and women, medicine men and women, etc., so long as historical context is properly taken into account.

Some of the qualities often associated with these figures are:
1.  Death imagery is prevalent--the shaman is surrounded by death imagery, often associated with the shaman's initiation.  The initiate undergoes a symbolic death, becoming a spirit in order to mediate the spirit realm.

2.  This mediation between the human community and the spirit realm occurs for multiple reasons, but the primary function is for healing.  Usually this healing occurs through either finding what malevolent spirit is affecting the human, or by finding the human's spirit (or soul, or some other aspect of self) that has become lost in the spirit realm and bring it back.

3.  This is often done through having visions in ecstatic states.

When looking at something like the Life of Antony by Athanasius, there are some interesting similarities.  Antony, when he is out in the desert, he is constantly interacting with the spirit realm--he is usually battling malevolent spirits (demons) as a spiritual warrior.  There is death imagery all over the place.  This is due to the fact that the monk is taking on many of the characteristics and imagery of the martyr, including athlete, warrior, and, with it, the death imagery.  Athanasius has Antony say, "I die daily."  He undergoes, through discipline, a symbolic death.  It is an enduring, repeating, ongoing death.  It is a disciplined death that gives him spiritual power to defeat demons and live an angelic life.  When people come out to see Antony, they want to hear teaching and discourses, but they also seek to be healed by him.  It is less clear that he is going into ecstatic states, but being out in a cave alone in the desert for a long time, he's probably seeing something!  

Was Antony a shaman?  No.  I largely reserve that term for its own historical setting.  Antony, while fighting and engaging with spiritual forces, does not seem to be going on spirit journeys to search for lost souls, etc., like a shaman does, though there are some hagiographies of monks he seem to have the ability to what we might call "astral project" or "appear" to others.  His death imagery belongs to a particular historical moment of the ending of official persecution of Christians in which martyrdom becomes less of a possibility and the Christian faithful are searching for new heroes--the desert monk.  Nonetheless, we can see that the shaman and monk as types of holy people have similar social functions that make them compelling to compare.  They are interstitial figures, who live on the fringes of society, but also at the intersections between the human and the spirit realms.  They are fringe mediators of the holy, and, typically, not central mediators such as priests (though both the shaman and the monk can be a priest, they do not need to be).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Did Christianity Make a Difference?


Christianity has now been with us for two millennia; it clearly has staying power--although as Philip Jenkins book on "The Lost History of Christianity" in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia reminds, religions can die.  But a question I would like to raise is what difference did it make?  This is not a theological question, nor a soteriological one.  It is a historical and social one.  The difference here is not so much concerned with how people have conceived of God or salvation, but how these conceptions have affected daily life and the rhythms of ancient society. 

Did conversion to Christianity affect these things?  Did it affect how a villager or urbanite went about their day, how they engaged with the sacred, or even their religious practices (new or just old rites redirected to new deities)?

This of course is a big question, bigger than perhaps most of us could capably answer in all its facets, and it is likely impossible to answer in all its facets because the type of evidence needed is in short supply.  Nonetheless, it comes from a few sources of research I’ve done or currently underway and may impact the course of research I choose to take to finally reach the ability to answer such a question. 

On the one hand stands Braudel’s famous account of the “longue durée” of Mediterranean society, which presents the daily rhythms of life as having remained largely unchanged for centuries and, in fact, that historians need to pay just attention to the persistence of customs and lifestyles and perspectives, which are largely invisible to us since people tend to comment on change rather than continuity.  If one were to consider Braudel, it seems that the shifting religions of the old polytheistic ones of different localities to Christianity to Islam (at least for the Southern and Eastern basins of the Mediterranean) would not have a significant affect on your average person’s daily life—not nearly so much as terrain, weather patterns, and, with these, food resources would.  One might also throw in, of course, the ways others have critiqued or built upon Braudel, for example in the massive volume edited by Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea

On the other hand I would like to posit perhaps the most famous account of the social impact Christianity made in the late antique Roman Empire:  Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  As the pioneer of modern historiography, his account is both influential and outdated.  Nonetheless, it serves a point.  Here,  Christianity is more of a disease that led to imperial decline.  It is an argument for change with Christianity as an agent, but negative change.  Very few would today accept Gibbon’s argument.  Christianity may have had both positive and negative impacts on different levels and aspects of society, but generally the decline of the western portion of the empire (politically and socially) in late antiquity has multiple complex factors.  Nonetheless, even if rejecting this particular Gibbonite narrative, this should keep us open to ways religious views potentially have social impacts, whether positively or negatively or neutrally.

Whatever one makes of their particular historical claims, both accounts should sharpen our perspective so that we should be ready explain the ways Christianity’s spread both did and did not alter people’s lives in antiquity.  Consider, perhaps, its adaptability to shifting local customs as it spread throughout the Near East and Mediterranean and eventually into Europe.  This adaptability could explain, in fact, ways in which older customs persisted in the new religion and, therefore, ways things ultimately remained unchanged, even as theology shifted.  Yet I suspect the evidence should be more complex. 

So, where to look in how Christianity may affect daily life?  Unfortunately, as is well known, written sources are tilted toward the elite and this may not give much information on daily life with regard to a Christian life versus a pre-Christian life.  Nonetheless, one thing that does affect daily life and rhythms is spatial organization.  One place to start would be how Christianity altered the sacred spaces in the landscape of cities and towns throughout the ancient world.  Were the same places reused, were they destroyed, new places established?  How could one access these places in one’s daily wanderings through the city, town, or village?  Were pilgrimages and festivals major affairs of travel; or could they be celebrated within proximity to one’s home?  Or did it differ based upon class?  Mapping out the shifting or persistent places of sacrality within a particular locality would go a long way—and be within the realm of my current research interests.  There is also a general belief that as one shifts away from antiquity and transitions (ever so slowly) into the early middle ages, there is a general population shift away from urban areas to rural localities.  How was religious change affected by this or generally related?  If at all?

A second place to look at is how Christian upheld, overturned, or affected gender, gender roles, and the lives of people based upon concepts of marriage, celibacy, and the religious life.  This, in fact, is likely the best researched area in terms of what social effect Christianity may have made.  There are some very interesting works on how Christians overturned or rejected basic elements of honor and shame; how women refused the socio-sexual role imposed upon them through an alternative life of celibacy; etc.  There is, however, alternative ways in which Christianity upheld previous forms of the family, patriarchy, etc.

            If you were to ask this question—how did Christianity affect daily life, if at all, in antiquity—where would you look?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ancient Zombies

As everyone begins preparations for the most important religious holiday of the year--Halloween (what else would it be? Yom Kippur? Easter? Diwali? Ramadan?)--I thought I would provide some seasonal cheer for your undead pleasure.

 While the jury is still out on whether or not Jesus was a zombie, who did come from the dead and encourage us to drink blood and eat flesh (although drinking blood lends itself to a more vampiric reading), zombies appear to be as old as civilization itself. The earliest reference I know of occurs in Mesopotamian stories of the Descent of Ishtar and, perhaps a bit more well-known, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In the latter, Ishtar threatens:
"Father, please give me the Bull of Heaven, and let me strike Gilgamesh down!
Let me...Gilgamesh in his dwelling!
If you don't give me the Bull of Heaven,
I shall strike (?) [                                     ]
I shall set my face towards the infernal regions,
I shall raise up the dead,
and they will eat the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living." (trans. Stephanie Dalley)

This is paralleled in the Descent of Ishtar, she makes the same threat to the gatekeeper of the underworld, which is the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal.  So here's to the Queen of the Living Dead!


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taking a Stroll with Paul of Tarsus

I just finished reading The Gospel according to Paul by Robin Griffith-Jones. Although a lengthy book at just over 500 pages, it was an enjoyable read. Griffith-Jones clearly explicates many of the crucial issues in Paul's letters as he slowly strolls through each letter. Many of his conclusions are fairly idiosyncratic, but he elucidates some of the aspects of Paul that can be understood in the context of late antique Jewish traditions of ascent, the merkavah, and the heavenly temple, a topic that interested my own late mentor, Alan Segal in his book Paul the Convert. This is a book for a general reader, but many may encounter its pacing and its style congenial as one takes a guided tour through the unweeded garden of Paul's writings.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Smelling God, Tasting God

As I am revising my dissertation into a book for publication, I was thinking about smells and taste, especially smelling and tasting God. The Epistle to the Hebrews uses "taste" to describe salvific experience: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy..." (Hebrews 5:4-6a; RSV). Tasting and partaking are, in fact, strong indicators of proximity to God throughout ancient Jewish and Christian literature. There is the famous Psalm that says "taste and see that the LORD is good" (Ps. 34:8). But olfactory language is vibrant whether interpreted metaphorically or more literally. Most analyses of Jewish and Christian mysticism focus primarily on vision and audition, and rightfully so since these are the primary senses discussed in the literature. But smells and tastes are also prominent features of theophany and ritual encounters with the sacred. For example, what might the incense on the Day of Atonement have smelled like? How might this incense have affected portrayals of and journeys to the heavenly temple? And so on? Smell and taste, in fact, feature prominently in depictions of the afterlife whether in positive or negative fashions. I know there have been a couple new books on olfactory language in early Christianity, etc., and I wonder if it might be interesting to explore the development of smelling and tasting God in early Christianity and ancient Judaism in the broader Mediterranean context more fully with people of different specialties contributing. I wonder if anyone would be interested in a project in conference form, perhaps as a panel, or as an interactive online discussion?

Andrew George's "Score" of Gilgamesh Online

One can download the pdf version of Andrew George's "score" of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is the reconstruction and transliteration of the Standard Babylonian version of the epic, which is the best known version. Find it here. I know I want to check a couple sections of it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Amarna Project Online

Amarna, other than being a site of Egyptian religion revolution--which was then forgotten, is also an invaluable resource for understanding diplomatic relations and the landscape of the ancient Near East, including the region of Canaan, etc. Now there is an online resource for Amarna's archaeology, artifacts, and archives here. Here is their basic info:
The Official Website of the Amarna Project The ancient Egyptian city of Tell el-Amarna (or simply Amarna) was the short-lived capital built by the ‘heretic’ Pharaoh Akhenaten and abandoned shortly after his death (c. 1332 BCE). It was here that he pursued his vision of a society dedicated to the cult of one god, the power of the sun (the Aten). As well as this historic interest Amarna remains the largest readily accessible living-site from ancient Egypt. It is thus simultaneously the key to a chapter in the history of religious experience and to a fuller understanding of what it was like to be an ancient Egyptian. There is no other site like it. Mission Statement Working with the agreement and co-operation of the Egyptian government, and in particular the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the Amarna Project seeks to: Explore by archaeology the ancient city of Amarna and its historical context Preserve what is left of the ancient city Promote study and recording of the history, archaeology and traditional life and crafts of the surrounding region Increase public knowledge, at all levels, of the city of Amarna and of the surrounding region

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dead Sea Scrolls Online

I just saw that you can now see and search five major Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts: Isaiah Scroll, Temple Scroll, War Scroll, Community Rule (Serek ha-Yahad), and Pesher Habakkuk. Check them out here. Hopefully more manuscripts will be available in the near future.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Senior Position in Judaism at Barnard

It is with mixed feelings I post this. The position of my advisor, Alan Segal, who passed earlier this year, is now open for applicants. I saw this earlier, but thought I would go ahead and pass it along.
Barnard College Ingeborg Rennert Chair of Jewish Studies Barnard College announces a search for a senior scholar to hold the Ingeborg Rennert Chair of Jewish Studies in the Religion Department at the level of advanced Associate Professor or Full Professor. We are seeking a colleague whose teaching and research complement our department’s commitment to the academic study of religion and the College’s commitment to interdisciplinarity. The field of specialization is open, but we are interested in appointing a colleague who can teach broadly about Jewish religion, culture, literature and history as well as offering more specialized courses in her or his area of expertise. The successful candidate must be conversant with the current theoretical discussions and debates in the study of religion. The successful candidate will contribute as appropriate to some other interdisciplinary program, department, and initiative at the College—for example, Comparative Literature, Human Rights, Women’s Studies, among others. All members of the Barnard Religion department hold appointments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. We invite confidential nominations and applications. The initial review of candidates begins October 1, 2011. Applications should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and a list of three references, and should be sent to Elizabeth Castelli, Chair, Religion Department, Barnard College, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027 (or electronically to ecastell@barnard.edu). Barnard College is an Equal Opportunity Employer and encourages applications from women and individuals from underrepresented groups.

Friday, July 29, 2011

(Post-)Modernist Hermeneutics as a Petihta? Or Sort of...

A Petihta is a particular form of an ancient Jewish homily. It consists of a launching verse, usually from the Prophets or Writings, and a target verse from the Torah. According to many commentators, the more distinct and apparently unrelated the two verses are the better. Already knowing the end of the homily (the target verse), the pleasure for the audience/reader is to see how the interpreter, through exegetical virtuosity, will get from one to the other--the more disparate the verses then demonstrates a much higher level of interpretive ability and may make a further point: all scripture contains an underlying unity. Consider then this description of modern practices of interpretation:

What are commonly seen as "schools" of literary criticism or theoretical "approaches" to literature are, from the point of view of hermeneutics, dispositions to give particular kinds of answers to the question of what a work is ultimately "about": "the class struggle" (Marxism), "the possibility of unifying experience" (New Criticism), "Oedipal conflict" (psychoanalysis), "the containments of subversive energies" (new historicism), "the asymmetry of gender relations" (feminism), "the deconstructive nature of the text" (deconstruction), "the occlusion of imperialism" (post-colonial theory), "the heterosexual matrix" (gay and lesbian studies).

The theoretical discourses named in parentheses are not primarily modes of interpretation: they are accounts of what they take to be particularly important to culture and society. Many of these theories include accounts of the functioning of literature or discourse more generally, and so partake of the project of poetics; but as versions of hermeneutics they give rise to particular types of interpretation in which texts are mapped into a target language. What is important in the game of interpretation is not the answer you come up with--as my parodies show, some versions of the answer become, by definition, predictable. What's important is how you get there, what you do with the details of the text in relating them to your answer. (Culler, Literary Theory, 88-89)


Just exchange text/literature for launching verse and exchange "target language"/theoretical discourse for target verse; in both it is how you get there, but the end is known or "predictable." Even for those who do not ascribe to a particular theoretical discourse, if you read some of their work their conclusions become similarly predictable.

True Simplicities

A friend of mine from Columbia University, James Hare, has started a new blog, "True Simplicities." He is a specialist in South Asian religions, but this blog seeks a wider audience, as he writes in his inaugural post:

Welcome to True Simplicities. I intend this site to be a space in which to explore the relationship between religious traditions and voluntary simplicity. I'll say more in upcoming posts about what I mean by religion and by voluntary simplicity since both these terms are difficult to define, but I am not especially concerned with definitions. I intend to be inclusive. I am open to discussing anyone who has made a deliberate effort to live their life more simply, from early Christian monastics to today's "technomads," and I plan to consider how a wide range of religious--and not-so-religious--traditions have encouraged or discouraged the simple life.

"Cultural Studies" as the Reinforcer of the Traditional Canon

I have been perusing Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory, and he makes an observation that I have also suspected for a while:

...theory has reinvigorated the traditional literary canon, opening the door to more ways of reading the "great works" of English and American literature. Never has so much been written about Shakespeare; he is studied from every angle conceivable, interpreted in feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, historicist, and deconstructive vocabularies. Wordsworth has been transformed by literary theory from a poet of nature to a key figure of modernity. What have suffered neglect are "minor" works that were regularly studied when literary study was organized to "cover" historical periods and genres. Shakespeare is more widely read and vigorously interpreted than ever, but Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Dekker, Heywood, and Ben Jonson--Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who used to surround him--are little read today. (p. 64; emphasis original)


While on the one hand, "cultural studies" and newer forms of literary theory set texts next to other cultural objects--films, architecture, other art forms, etc.--it often re-privileges the canon even as it "deconstructs" it. Perhaps an exception to some of this is the work of M. M. Bakhtin, who is claimed by people of multiple theoretical bents and is one of my favorite literary critics (or cultural critics if you prefer, or even linguist since his work is in direct opposition to Saussure), who often worked through his theory in reference to more obscure works as well as better known ones, especially for his longer essays.

I often find that biblical and Shakespearean scholarship has a lot of overlaps, not least of which is the intensive attention both receive. Would you agree that this also is occurring in biblical studies, where cultural studies and the blanket-term "theory" have reinforced the canon it deconstructs?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Network Criticism

I have signed onto join April DeConick's "network criticism" project. It sounds like an interesting methodological study. You can read about it here. It slightly reminds me of Mark Taylor's concept of "emergent complex systems" that he articulates in his book After God. I think I was attracted to the project because I am fascinated by the physical contacts that pass along and transform thoughts, stories, etc.--that's why I am reading a book on ancient trade routes at the moment, for example.

I have thought of a few uses for her concept, but will be presenting and writing an essay, "Reproducing the Deformed Former: The Mythic and Medical Networks of the Birth of the Demiurge," for it and see how this will all work out in practice and in dialogue with other methodological and theoretical frameworks with which I am more familiar.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ehrman and Plese: Apocryphal Gospels

I just received a copy of Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese's collection of apocryphal gospels that you can purchase here. I am looking forward to flipping through the book. April DeConick has written a short review here.

Cake Update: Chez Buttercream

Earlier, I had directed people to Stacy's website, Savories and Sweets. Considering that she basically does sweets, she has changed her website to Chez Buttercream to reflect more precisely what she is doing. Check out her awesome cakes!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Goliath's Table: Archaeology of Gath

AP reports about archaeological finds at Gath, Goliath's hometown:
In a square hole, several Philistine jugs nearly 3,000 years old were emerging from the soil. One painted shard just unearthed had a rust-red frame and a black spiral: a decoration common in ancient Greek art and a hint to the Philistines' origins in the Aegean.
The Philistines arrived by sea from the area of modern-day Greece around 1200 B.C. They went on to rule major ports at Ashkelon and Ashdod, now cities in Israel, and at Gaza, now part of the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip.
At Gath, they settled on a site that had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Digs like this one have shown that though they adopted aspects of local culture, they did not forget their roots. Even five centuries after their arrival, for example, they were still worshipping gods with Greek names.
Archaeologists have found that the Philistine diet leaned heavily on grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple. Ancient bones discarded at the site show that they also ate pigs and dogs, unlike the neighboring Israelites, who deemed those animals unclean — restrictions that still exist in Jewish dietary law.
....
One intriguing find at Gath is the remains of a large structure, possibly a temple, with two pillars. Maeir has suggested that this might have been a known design element in Philistine temple architecture when it was written into the Samson story.
Diggers at Gath have also found shards preserving names similar to Goliath — an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one of the kind that would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites. These finds show the Philistines indeed used such names and suggest that this detail, too, might be drawn from an accurate picture of their society.
The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

Mmm....Lentils.....

One thing omitted in the article is that Goliath of Gath in biblical narrative was not just killed by David (1 Samuel 17), but also in 2 Samuel 21:19, where Goliath is slain by the much lesser known Elhanan.

For the rest of the article, see here.

For a critique of this and other articles concerning this recent archaeological expedition, see here.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Daily Hekhalot: Hekhalot Zutarti §421b (Defending the Mystic Against Slander)

Last time in our daily Hekhalot we learned a little about adjuring an angel named Anafiel to do one's bidding--and a very interesting part of the adjuration is that the instructions for it are given by Anafiel himself. This leads to a question: why would an angel willingly bind himself to a human's will? Really that is two questions: why would an ANGEL bind himself willingly to a HUMAN's will? Usually angels and humans are rivals in the Hekhalot literature--at least to some extent--although sometimes they are cooperative. And why would an angel WILLINGLY bind himself to a human's will? Why would an angel--or any being--willingly instruct another how to bind them to the other's will?


Today's text, which will be unusually short, continues the trend of cooperation, of the angelic assistance when called.


Text:

וכל מי שהוא מספר עליו לשון הרע מיד אני מכה אותו ומשחיתו חוץ ממלאך שהוא שליח מלך הכבוד


Translation:

And everyone who speaks slander upon him immediately I (will) strike him and destroy him except for the angel who is the messenger of the king of glory.


Variants:

N8128 omits מי.

M22 adds שיאמר after מי.

M22 has אינו rather than אני.

M40 and D346 omit לשון הרע.

N8128 uses מכהו and has ואפי instead of אותו.

N8128 and M22 have חוץ מן מלאך.

M22 is corrupt between שליח and הכבוד.


Notes:

I think this part is fairly straightforward. Once adjured, the angel defends the mystic against slander ("an evil tongue"). (It is odd that two mss. omit "evil tongue," since this loses the entire point of the passage.) This likely indicates that reputation is important for the mystic. Jeff Rubenstein has argued in a couple books (Talmudic Stories, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud) that in the latest levels of redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, the issues of slander and reputation receive heightened attention to the point that slandering someone and being slandered both could lead to death. It was definitely an issue of concern in late antique and early medieval Babylon. This mystic receives angelic assistance against such slander, heightening the stakes. While it seems the angel will defend the mystic--and strike and destroy anyone who slanders him--there is one limitation: the "messenger of the king of glory." Evidently if this figure slanders, Anafiel will not or cannot defend the mystic. I am guessing this angelic messenger is either too powerful or, if one treats a messenger the way one treats the sender of the message, it might be tantamount to an attack on the "king of glory."


I have yet to decide whether I want to work through the rest of §421; much of what is to come appears at first glance to be magical formulae that are likely untranslatable. But we'll see.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Daily Hekhalot: Hekhalot Zutarti §421a (Anafiel Speaks)

Having finished a preliminary textual apparatus, translation, and notes for Hekhalot Zutarti §420, we now turn to an equally preliminary glimpse at the subsequent pericope.


Text:

אמר ענפיאל כל מי שהוא מבקש להתפלל התפילה הזאת ולהתבונן במעשה יוצרו זכור לו אות אחת מן האותיות האילו שוב אינו נפנה לא לימינו ולא לשמאלו עד שאפנה ואעשה לו את חפצו


Translation:

Anafiel said: Everyone who seeks to pray this prayer and to contemplate the works of his Creator should remember one sign/letter among these signs/letters: again we will not turn either to the right or to the left until I turn and I do for him his concern.


Variants:

N8128 includes השר after ענפיאל, and omits מי after כל.

M22 adds את before התפילה.

N8128 uses זו instead of זאת.

N8128 and M22 use יזכור rather than זכור.

M22 has לנו rather than לו.

O1531 has אחד rather than אחת.

O1531 has האותות rather than האותיות.

N8128 has הללו instead of האילו.

M40 and N8128 have איני.

O1531 has לו instead of לא after נפנה.

M40 and D436 both have לא לימין ולא לשמאל; N8128 has לא לימיני ולא לשמאלי.

N8128 has לא אשה לי and omits את; M40 has כל instead of את.


Notes:

As we ease into §421, we quickly switch gears. Here is another angel--or yet another name for the angelic keeper of the divine crown? Yet Anafiel is known from other sources in the Hekhalot texts. He shows up on Hekhalot Rabbati §§241-248 as well as Sefer Hekhalot / 3 Enoch §26. On Anafiel in general, see Rebecca Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, 359-362.


There is another major shift. Instead of a mystic, such as R. Ishmael or R. Akiva speaking and giving advice to the would-be descender to the chariot or adjurer of the Prince, here it is the angel himself who speaks and gives directions--something more reminiscent of 3 Enoch / Sefer Hekhalot, where Metatron speaks at great length to R. Ishmael.


Anafiel's directions regard some proper behavior for the mystic. In general, he is quite vague so far: it regards a prayer and reflecting upon creation. The prayer is probably particular and powerful--since there are further instructions on how to carry it out--but it is not (yet) stated or indicated in the passage. Reflecting upon the works of creation is a little clearer. It may reflect the issues of forbidden topics of explication. The "work of Creation" (note the slight difference with singular vs. plural)--along with the work of the Chariot (Ezekiel 1)--is one of the forbidden topics of interpretation, and, indeed, considered quite a dangerous business (see b.Hag. 11b-16b for copious examples). The difficulty of this prayer and this reflection on creation is noted in what one needs to do in order to carry out these prayers and inquiries. I read turning neither to one's right nor left as a moral exhortation: one does not stray. One keeps this moral purity until Anafiel does the mystic's concern. Or, if not a moral exhortation, it may relate more to a single-mindedness: not resting or doing anything else until accomplishing this goal. In this reading, to meditate on creation requires angelic assistance.


Reflection upon divine things requires the permission or acquiescence of the divine (or at least angelic)--or even forcing the hand of the angel. If my reading of "we" is correct, this is acquired through the joint effort of both Anafiel and the mystic. Both must stay on a straight path--one that is direct, or morally straight, or both.


By way of contrast, one might compare Rebecca Lesses's reading: "again, I will not turn to the right or the left, until I turn and I do his will" (Ritual Practices 361). Her reading makes a good deal of sense in the overall context of adjuration: the angel is stating how to adjure him so that the mystic can make Anafiel do his--the mystic's--will. In her reading, however, Anafiel is basically using the "royal we"; therefore, the point is that Anafiel comes directly to the mystic's aid when adjured.


N.B.: if you read this post earlier, you may notice I have changed my mind on a few of the readings and interpretations. Since no one commented on the earlier version I did not feel compelled to retain it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Daily Hekhalot: §420 Synthesized and Revised

Before proceeding to Hekhalot Zutarti §421, I want to take stock of pericope 420. Having discussed it in three parts--part a, part b, and part c--I want to synthesize it into one continuous post. And, due to secondary considerations prompted by the conversations in the comments, I also want to alter the translations and consider the implications of the alterations. As usual, I will place the Hebrew script first and then proceed to the new translation. For the variants and additional interpretations, see the previous posts.

Text:

אמר רבי ישמאל על מי שתק השר
שהוא קורא אותו מגיהשה
שאין בריה בכל משרתים שיקרא אותו בשם הזה
ואת קורא אותו מגיהשה
מפני שהוא שני להדרירון הדר תוב הדר טהור הדר זיו
אוריה יה יה אלהי ישראל

והוא עומד בפתח ראשון
ומשמש בשער הגדול
וכשראיתיו נשרפו ידי
והייתי עומד בלא ידים ובלא רגלים
עד שנראה לי פני יון השר ממשרתי עליונים

והוא עומד לפני כסא הכבוד נוכח דיבר שרפים
ששמו כשמו ושם אחד הוא‪.
והוא עומד מכסא הכבוד
ומתקן את הכסא
ומלביש את החלוק
ומהדר את החשמל
ופותח שערי ישועה להראן חן וחסד ורחמים בעיני כל רואיו וכל הרואים אותו
בין בחור בין בתולה בין נער בין זקן בין איש בין אשה בין גוי בין אמה בין אשראל
ירוצו לקראתו ויאהבוהו לשלמו וירוצו בטובתו וישמחו בפרנסתו בין בטובתו בין שלא בטובתו‪.

Translation:
Rabbi Ishmael said: Concerning whom is the prince silent?
The one who calls him MGYHShH--there is no creature among all the ministers who will call him by this name and you call him MGYHShH--because he is distinguished to crown (or adorn) a good crown, a pure crown, a splendorous crown of the light of Yah Yah Yah God of Israel.

And he stands at the first entrance and ministers at the great gate;
and when I saw him my hands were burned
and I was standing without hands and without feet until he appeared to me--
PNI YVN, the prince among the ministers of the uppermost (or uppermost ministers).

And he stands before the throne of glory, facing (or in the presence of) the speech of the seraphim, for his name is as His name; it is the same name.

And he stands from the throne of glory
and he prepares the throne
and dresses the garment
and crowns the hashmal
and opens the gates of redemption to show favor and grace and compassion in the eyes of each who sees him.
And all who see him--both young man and virgin girl, young and old, man and woman, foreigner and handmaid and Israel--will desire to call to him and will love him to pacify/appease him and they will desire his goodness and will rejoice in his provision whether willingly or unwillingly.

Notes:
Thanks to the comments, this, I think, is a clearer translation. You can also see that I am playing around with the formatting a bit to see if that helps visually to clarify what might be happening--for example, using the repetition of "he stands" as a guide.

The first line has been changed. As I noted before, it was possible to place the "concerning" as part of the direct or the indirect speech. Before I had it as indirect, but thought that was wrong almost immediately after I posted it. Here it is part of the direct. I am still not sure about the verb "to crown." There is clearly more going on with that word that has not been worked out. That's why I offer as a possible alternative--"adorn." I am sticking with "PNI YVN" as a name for now. It seems to be an alternate name for MGYHShH. PNI YVN may be a more exoteric name, and MGYHShH esoteric--since very few call him by it. With this alternative translation, however, it changes the "silent" from the mystic to the angel. Why is the angel, therefore, silent concerning this figure who can speak his name--this figure who turns out to be the mystic? The mystic calls, but the angel is silent.

In the comments, Nir pointed out what turned out to be some obvious mistakes with my first line of part c. So I have mostly followed the suggestions there and shifted to a much more interesting line: "facing the speech of the seraphim, for his name is as His name; it is the same name." I had misread the simple preposition נוכח as the niphal of יכח, which accounts for most of the mistakes of the line. And the emphasis on the "name" is more appropriate than "there." But let's take a look at the implications of the change. While the angel still seems to be in control of some sense of judgment (due to the later part of controlling the gates of redemption and people coming under his provision), it is not as evident in the first line as my original translation made it. On the other hand, it indicates that when before the throne he is also before the seraphic speech. I have deliberately not translated נוכח simply as "before"--there is a variation in terminology (using both לפני and נוכח) and so I thought I should preserve that in translation. Given the context, "facing" also denotes a spatial relationship to the "speech."

This makes this a fascinating line indeed. We normally do not associate speech with space, but it does make some sense--sounds come from places--"where is that noise coming from?" It indicates that, as in Isaiah 6, the seraphim are highly related to the throne itself. I have also suggested as an alternative "in the presence of." This might be relevant because sound is more ambient; it can surround you without clear directionality. Next, why not just say "before (or facing) the Seraphim" rather than the "speech of the Seraphim." Does that mean that the seraphim themselves are not seen or sensed--only their speech? I am not sure (and I kind of doubt it), but I think it does something else. This entire pericope has been very interested in different sensory experiences--and their absences. We begin with silence, and then calling. Then we turn to burning (touch) and perhaps numbness. Again with seraphic speech we have auditory emphasis. Oddly, although we presume an overall visual space--especially with the description of the crown, the garment, the hashmal, etc.--the pericope is conspicuously lacking in seeing terms.

Naming is clearly important. It was important in the first part of the pericope to know and call the angel's name; it only makes sense that this emphasis would continue. We, therefore, learn that the angel is able to stand before the throne because he shares his name with the one upon it--he is, perhaps, to be identified with the "angel of the LORD" and all the other angelic figures in apocalyptic literature that have the same name (e.g., Iaoel in Apocalypse of Abraham). Overall, as we knew before, this is a very highly placed angel--he is in charge of the crown, the divine garment, the hashmal; he controls the gates of redemption and so on--but now we know more: he has the divine name.

One question that remains: what are the implications of people rejoicing unwillingly? Is it that my reading of "universalism" is to be qualified now? That is, there is a more eschatological vision for all people, but people will not have a choice? If they look upon the angel (or perhaps seen by him), they have no choice but to desire the angel's provision? It is an automatic response.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friday, June 24, 2011

Daily Hekhalot: Hekhalot Zutarti §420c (A Universal Vision of the Angelic Throne Keeper)

Having discussed the first two parts of Hekhalot Zutarti §420 here and here, today we complete this particular pericope. I want to thank those who have commented on these previous posts to suggest emendations and alternative interpretations--they have been quite helpful.

This portion of the pericope designated in Schäfer's Synopse zur Hekhalot as §420 reaches a climactic moment of disclosure of this particular angel's heavenly position and heavenly duties. In the post on §420a, we already learned that he is in charge of crowning(?) or perhaps adorning(?) the divine crown. The in the second post on §420b, we discovered that he dwells at the entrance to the heavenly courtroom and even burns the hands (and feet) of the mystic seeking entrance, although we do not know why. Now we finally see this angel in his fully heavenly duties before the throne itself, and a much more general human response to the sight of him:

Text:
והוא עומד לפני כסא הכבוד נוכח דיבר שרפים ששמו כשמו ושם אחד הוא
 והוא עומד מכסא הכבוד ומתקן את הכסא ומלביש את החלוק ומהדר את החשמל ופותח שערי ישועה להראן חן וחסד ורחמים בעיני כל רואיו וכל הרואים אותו בין בחור בין בתולה בין נער בין זקן בין איש בין אשה בין גוי בין אמה בין אשראל ירוצו לקראתו ויאהבוהו לשלמו וירוצו בטובתו וישמחו בפרנסתו בין בטובתו בין שלא בטובתו‪.‬

Translation
And he stands before the throne of glory arguing, speaking; seraphim set him in his place and there he is alone. And he stands from the throne of glory and he prepares the throne and dresses the garment and crowns the hashmal and opens the gates of redemption to show favor and grace and compassion in the eyes of each who sees him. And all who see him--both young man and virgin girl, young and old, man and woman, foreigner and handmaid and Israel--will desire to call to him and will love him to complete/stop/appease(?) him and they will desire his goodness and will rejoice in his provision both with his goodness and without his goodness.

Variants:
N8128 omits והוא עומד.
N8128, M40, and D436 read הכבוד; M22 and O1531 read כבוד.
O1531 and N8128 read דיבר and דבר respectively; M40 and D436 read דבר דיבר; and M22 reads טומח דירדטופוס.
N8128 adds שריפיתיש before שרפים.
O1531 has בשמו rather than כשמו.
M22 has בכסא rather than מכסא.
M22 omits the consecutive ו before מתקן. N8128 omits את after מתקן.
Schäfer emends O1531, adding the י to מלביש.
M40, M22, and D436 omit the את before החשמל.
N8128, O1531, M22 read פתח rather than פותח
N8128 and D436 read להראן; O1531, להראןתן; M40, להדראן חן; M22, להראו חן. M40 seems the least likely; all others could work.
N8128 omits ורחמים; M22 has ולרחמים.
Instead of בעיני כל רואיו וכל הרואים אותו N8128 reads לכל העולין למרכבה; O1531 reads הרואין אתו.
In general, D436 uses כן instead of בין; N8128 omits בין זקן.
Only N8128 and M22 have בין אשה; O1531 has איש ישראל and moves straight to בין דוי.
N8128 has בין עבד after בין ישראל.
M40 and D436 have ויאהבוהו; M22, ויאהב; O1531, ויהבו; and N8128, ויהיו לי שלום.
M40 has ולרוצו; M22, וירצו.
N8128 has לפרנסתו.
M22 has בטובתם.

Notes:
While this is a longer post than usual, this completes §420. Here we finally see this highly placed angelic figure in all of his activities. He not only is in charge of the divine crown, but, as we suspected, ministers directly before the divine throne of glory. He has some interesting activities there. As one might expect in the heavenly throne room, there are seraphim there. They seem to set this princely angel in his place--a singular place of distinction before the throne. He speaks and/or argues before the throne--on behalf of someone, such as Israel?

In addition to the crown, he prepares the throne itself. It turns out he is also the divine seamster; that is, he takes care of the divine haluq--something like an undershirt usually, but here seeming to be the divine cloak or garment (cf. Hekhalot Rabbati §102). He adorns the hashmal--that usually untranslatable word from Ezek. 1 (although today is used for "electricity"). Perhaps the role of arguing relates to this final part, since he also opens the gates of redemption.

This part, however, is curious: it is for all who see him. This seeing is mentioned twice, so is probably an important element. So he grants favor and compassion and redemption to those who see him. And then we get the whole list of potential seers, and, surprisingly, they include nearly anyone: young or old, male or female, foreigner or Israelite, and between "handmaid" and some of the variants, potentially slave or free (see N8128). (n.b., there are quite a few variants in this list.) This is quite startling, in fact, since typically those doing the seeing in the Hekhalot texts are Jewish males, usually rabbis of the tannaitic period. Does this open up visions to others--notably to women, foreigners, and those who lack elite status? I wonder. If so, we should ask how they see and, perhaps more importantly, when they see. Indeed, the verb tense shifts to the future. They WILL see him. Is this, therefore, an eschatological vision? An eschatological redemption? The sight of him will be a future disclosure. And it is a redeeming sight that leads to a desire for him. If that is the case, the mystical proleptic journey and vision may remain an elite Jewish male privilege in the hekhalot texts, while vouchsafing a more general vision in the future for people of all walks of life. If that is the case, this passage envisions a greater universality in the eschatological scene, which is not exclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, or status. This gracious vision that crisscrosses social distinctions almost sounds like the early Christian baptismal formula cited by Paul in Gal. 3:28: "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female." Although the difference is that Galatians appears to negate social distinctions, whereas in Hekhalot Zutarti the divine vision is available to all regardless of social distinctions--although this may be a distinction without a difference. I wonder...is seeing this angel--recall the vision is what is important--and desiring of this angel that includes potentially anyone the mystical answer to the Christian formula? There is still a hint of division in such a scene, however: while all may rejoice, they do not all rejoice with his goodness; it seems some rejoice without his goodness…. Nonetheless, the implications are very unique in Hekhalot literature--to my knowledge--and therefore require some pause.

As usual, all comments, emendations, alternative views of this passage are welcome. Next we will continue with Hekhalot Zutarti §421, which is a slightly shorter pericope.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More on Circumcision in San Francisco

Several individuals and the anti-defamation league have filed lawsuits against the current ballot initiative that would criminalize circumcision for boys under 18 years old. From CNN.com:
"Existing California law is clear," said Nancy Appel, Anti-Defamation League associate director in San Francisco, in a statement. "Only the state can make rules about medical procedures and this initiative violates that law. Not only does this initiative waste time, energy and expense, but it also offends the notions of parental rights and freedom of religion. It is unconstitutional and, as we allege in this lawsuit, contrary to California law."

See the rest here.

Daily Hekhalot: Hekhalot Zutarti §420b (Burning the Hands)

For our daily Hekhalot, we are continuing to work through §§420-421 in Hekhalot Zutarti. Today we are on §420b. For §420a see here. Last time we discovered that the descender to the chariot encounters an important angelic figure, whose name is a privileged disclosure. This angel's importance--so far--relates to being in charge of the divine crown. There was much difficulty in the previous passage in terms of pronoun usage--who's doing what to whom?--the translation of a couple key words, and so forth. Today is a little more straightforward in some respects. We are still in the middle of the speech by R. Ishmael about the same angel. The pronouns are a little clearer--instead of a proliferation of he's and him's, we now get a nice differentiation between I and he. We also get a reaction from the descender to the chariot--his hands (and likely feet) are curiously burned!

Text:
והוא עומד בפתח ראשון ומשמש בשער הגדול וכשראיתיו נשרפו ידי והייתי עומד בלא ידים ובלא רגלים עד שנראה לי פני יון השר ממשרתי עליונים

Translation:
And he stands at the first entrance and ministers at the great gate; and when I saw him my hands were burned and I was standing without hands and without feet until he appeared to me, PNI YVN, the prince among the ministers of the uppermost (or uppermost ministers).

Variants:
M22 transposes הוא and עומד
M40 and D436 has על פתח rather than בפתח.
M40 and D436 read ראשים rather than ראשון.
M22 has משתמש rather than משמש.
M22 has בשפר rather than בשער.
N8128 omits the ו before כשראיתיו.
D436 reads כשרפו rather than נשרפו
D436, M40, and N8128 all read ידי, but O1531 and M22 read ידיי, which makes more sense. Of all the mss., O1531 has given the least trouble, which makes me tend to trust its reading. For now, I will place the majority reading in the text, but I will translate as the form "my hands."
M22 adds ורגליי after ידיי, which makes sense of the next clause.
M22 and N8128 use עומר rather than עומד, which appears to be an orthographic mistake; M22 also spells הייתי as היתי.
M40 and D436 omit the second בלא; M22 spells רגלים as רגליים, which would aid in the pronunciation as a dual form.
M40 and D436 read פני יון, M22 reads פניון, O1531 reads פנייון, and N8128 reads פני יוון.
M22 adds a clarifying שהוא after השר; N8128 adds אחד in the same place.

Notes:
There is still more to come in §420, but this is a good place to stop so that we do not get overwhelmed by the variants and so the post does not get too long (n.b., an important aspect will be coming in the next post--the very throne of glory).

Concerning the textual variants, which I haven't discussed much in my notes, there are a few patterns that emerge in this brief section. M40 and D436 often agree against the rest of the mss. M22 shows a great deal of visual errors, due to letters that look similar. M22, however, also has a tendency to clarify the text. For example, if the mystic "stands" without hands and feet, it makes sense that not just the hands but the feet were also burned.

The text, except for a couple points, is more straightforward than before. We learn more about the angel. He is at the entrance of the great gate. The great gate indicates that we are probably close to the goal of the divine throne room. We also get the mystic's response to the angel. The mystic sees the angel and, presumably the angel burns the mystic's hands (and feet?). The burning of the hands (and feet?) is curious. Although different passages in the Hekhalot often indicate the dangers of traveling through the heavenly realms, usually the mystic overcomes them and comes off unharmed. Perhaps this reaches back to an old tradition--such as found in an off-hand comment in 1 Enoch 14--that the mystic feels heat (and/or cold) when approaching the heavenly throne room. Instead of a generic feeling, however, the heat--the burning--is located specifically in the extremities of the hands and feet. I do not know offhand, but perhaps someone knows a tradition where the mystic is (ritually?) burned before entering the most holy, most heavenly court? Then there is the paradoxical remark about "standing" without (feeling one's?) hands or feet. Some of the texts change this to "speaking," but I think standing makes more sense given the setting that focuses on the hands and feet. The statement of standing without hands and feet might indicate that after the burning, these extremities go numb--they aren't felt. Overall, it seems to disable and disarm the mystic at the threshold of the divine throne room. I have chosen to read פני יון as the prince's name, but I have strong doubts about this. It is translatable, but it didn't make sense to me. It could be the "face of Greece," the "Face of Yavan (the progenitor of the Greeks)," the "face of thickness." But I have read "prince" in apposition to this, making פני יון either a name or title. This figure, however, is in quite a high position, being among--and prince among--the angelic ministers in the most high (the highest of the high--which corresponds to the holiest of the holy or holy of holies).

Next we will see even further up and further into the most holy and heavenly place to the throne of glory itself.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writing in the City of the Dead

I just saw this in NPR: archaeologists are studying the graffiti in the ancient Beit Shearim necropolis:

Aramaic is the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, the linguistic root of modern day Hebrew and Arabic.

"Once you understand Aramaic," says Karen Stern, "you can read anything. You can read Hebrew, you can read Phoenician. I always call it the little black dress of Semitic languages."

Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been "published, but sort of disregarded," she says. "Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record."

....

"They were grapho-maniacal," Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says of the ancient Jews who were entombed here in the first and second centuries.

Over the next decade, Price and a group of scholars plan to publish many volumes of inscriptions from walls, pots, glass — everything but books — dating from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Prophet Muhammad.

They will include many languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic dialects like Syriac, Nabatean and Samaritan.

Price describes the graffiti as "a spontaneous verbal outburst" that adds intimacy to the historical record of the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia.

"These cultures wrote everything," he says. "They recorded their personal lives, their public lives; empires recorded themselves. They were hyperlinguistic."

There is also an interesting theory of the pictures of "nets" at each of the entrances--that they are not just to keep evil spirits out, but also to keep the dead in...perhaps in fear of zombies????

And as I just saw that Jim Davila pointed out, Aramaic is a branch on the same tree as Hebrew, Arabic, etc., not the root.

Read all of it here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Daily Hekhalot: Hekhalot Zutarti §420a

For today's--and for days' to come--reading Rebecca Lesses of Mystical Politics has suggested a difficult passage in Hekhalot Zutarti (the "lesser palaces") §§420-421 because it is baffling. And so, while I started off with a passage that was relatively straightforward, we are delving into one that has left many baffled. It has a great deal of textual difficulties, so we will spread this over several posts.

Hekhalot Zutarti is perhaps even more literarily disorganized than Hekhalot Rabbati. Its disparate materials, however, are indispensable because much of it is highly unique in the Hekhalot texts. For example, it has the lone reference in the Hekhalot literature to the so-called "posture of Elijah," which after Gershom Scholem's reading of Hai Gaon that placed it at the center of merkavah mystical practice received a great deal of attention. I think most now find Scholem's emphasis rather extreme since it does only occur in this one passage with many other practices discussed throughout the different "macroforms."

Lesses's selection, as we will see, also is fairly interesting. Peter Schäfer has, in fact, called it unique not only for Hekhalot Zutarti, but for all of the Hekhalot (Origins of Jewish Mysticism, 301). It appears in all the major mss. and in the Geniza fragments (the text of which I do not have in front of me).

Text and (Preliminary) Translation:

אמר רבי ישמאל על מי שתק השר שהוא קורא אותו מגיהשה שאין בריה בכל משרתים שיקרא אותו בשם הזה ואת קורא אותו מגיהשה מפני שהוא שני להדרירון הדר תוב הדר טהור הדר זיו אוריה יה יה אלהי ישראל

Rabbi Ishmael said concerning one who is silent: The prince who is called MGYHShH--there is no creature among all the ministers who will call him by this name and you call him MGYHShH--because he is distinguished (?) to crown (?) a good crown, a pure crown, a splendorous crown of the light of Yah Yah Yah God of Israel.

Textual variants:
M22 adds אמרו עליו after ישמאל. N8128 uses קוראו instead of קורא אותו. M40 has כשר rather than השר.
A couple mss. have מניהשה (D436) or מניחשה (N8128). M22 has בדוק rather than בריה; O1531 has ביריא; and N8128 has בירייה editorially inserted.
Both O1531 and N8128 add כל after שאין.
M22 and O1531 have משרתיו; N8128 has המשרתים
D436 has שיקראנו rather than שיקרש אותו; M40 has שיקראנו בזה השם; M22 omits הזה.
N8128 uses ואת קוראו rather than ואת קורא אותו.
Same variations as before with angel's name.
O1531 and D436 has שיני; N8128 omits שני.
N8128 has להדריון, which looks smoother, but all of the other readings agree on להדרירון.
M40 and D436 read טוהר; O1531 doubles הדר תוב and omits טהור.
There is a great deal of variation on the divine name. Some add another "Yah," some include YY, an abbreviation of the tetragrammaton. M40 misspells the word "God" as אלדי. N8128 adds גיהוי פנהודי.

Notes:
This is quite a difficult passage, indeed. The rest of §420 improves, but I thought I should stop before I was overwhelmed by textual variations. For translation and interpretation, the abundance of pronouns can be quite dizzying and I make no claim to have sorted it out quite yet. The use of punctuation is solely my own--and provisional--to help clarify the passage. It may obscure the meaning as well. I welcome any and all amendments to translation and punctuation. For example, is "concerning one who is silent" to be part of what R. Ishmael says or not? I have started to opt for not, but I probably can be easily convinced otherwise. Should it be better rendered as "still"? I have chosen to render "the prince who is called" rather than the more literal "the prince who he calls him." There are other problems as well--am I right with "distinguished" and I find what I have rendered as "to crown" quite baffling. I am pretty sure I have not captured all that is going on in that word. And if I am missing something--whether it should be obvious or obscure--please let me know.

Moving along, as Schäfer notes, this is a fairly unique passage. I am not quite sure what is going on with the silence/stillness part--perhaps Rebecca Lesses has some insight here?--but so far we are meeting an angelic figure, whose name varies by mss. and who appears to be quite important in the divine throne room. This importance is easy to see already--one of the few easier things to see--because this angel appears to be in charge of taking care of the divine crown, which is good, pure, and splendorous (words that are often bandied about in Hekhalot texts). Indeed, the divine realm is one of intense goodness, purity, and splendor to much a higher degree than any place on earth.

It seems, though, that not everyone does--or can?--call the angel by name or by "this" name, which might suggest that the angel has several names. The angel's name is a privileged disclosure.

"Daily" Hekhalot a Go!

It appears there is some interest in some sporadic posting of Hekhalot pericopae. Rebecca Lesses has expressed some interest and Jim Davila is hoping I proceed--if anything to save us from angelic attacks. Rebecca has suggested a look at Hekhalot Zutarti §§420-421, which I have glanced at and has a great deal of textual difficulties. It might take a while to get through these sections, but I will try in my spare moments. If you want to join in, please connect to these posts with your own readings.

Hebrew Alignment Formatting Question

I have a quick question on formatting. When I write in Hebrew online, everything turns out fine. But when I go into my microsoft word program, it scrambles everything up. It is like it can't handle the right-to-left. For example, when I copy and paste something from my blog to a word document, it reverses everything so that it reads left-to-right rather than right-to-left. When I try to write, sometimes it will sometimes allow right-to-left within a single word, but when I space it makes me go left-to-right. When I worked from a PC, I never had this problem. But with a mac, now I have it. By the way, it is clearly a problem with word itself. If I go to a notepad or rich text editing pad, it has NO PROBLEM moving back and forth between different directional writing types (the problem is, it is much more difficult to type up a full formal paper with footnotes, etc., in that program). Anyone have a solution?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Little Daily Hekhalot?: Hekhalot Rabbati §81a

One of the unfortunate consequences of completing graduate school and beginning to teach full time is that it is difficult to find a reading buddy. One of my memories of my late advisor, Alan Segal, is sitting around a table in his office with him and perhaps one or two other graduate students and working through some passages from the Hekhalot material. Alas, even if one is lucky enough to land in an institution where someone has the requisite language abilities, they may or may not have time, interest in that particular literature, or be willing to delve into some very difficult text with grammatical and literary difficulties and a great deal of disparity from manuscript to manuscript. So, seeking a reading partner, I am putting a reading--a short one--of the first lines of the "macroform," as Peter Schäfer calls it, of Hekhalot Rabbati (the "Greater Palaces"). I will be working from Peter Schäfer's Synopse zur Hekhalot, where he presents seven different manuscript witnesses in synoptic form.

Hekhalot Rabbati, as a "macroform," is a fairly difficult work, evincing a great deal of internal literary disparities and lengthy additions in some mss. (esp. N8128). It contains several different genres of material: ascents or "descents" to the merkavah (chariot throne) of God in the heavenly courtroom, liturgies (to ascend/descend and participate in while in the heavenly courtroom), apocalypses, Sar Torah (adjuration of an angel), and lore concerning mystically oriented Rabbis. While Gershom Scholem considered it one of the latest of the Hekhalot texts (among which also include: Hekhalot Zutarti, Ma'aseh Merkavah, Merkavah Rabbah, and Sefer Hekhalot / 3 Enoch), Peter Schäfer argues it is the earliest. The overall dating, social location, etc., of the Hekhalot texts in general has been debated with little consensus. They likely contain traditions going back to the Tannaitic period, but in their current "macroforms" they are probably para- or post-Talmudic with ongoing revision and editorial activity occurring well into the Middle Ages.

I am starting with a fairly simple pericope to encourage others with access to a copy of the Synopose to join in. I will also keep the pericopes short (so today I am only doing half a pericope). I will, unfortunately, have to do this sporadically due to my schedule restrictions. So, here goes:

אמר רבי ישמאל מה אילו שירות שהיה אומר מי שמבקש להסתכל בצפיית המרכבה לירד בשלום ולעלות בשלום

Rabbi Ishmael said: What are the songs he would recite who seeks to behold a vision of the merkavah, to descend in peace and to ascend in peace?


Some notes on the text: some mss. use נאמר rather than אומר (M40), some omit the definite article before the word מרכבה (N8128, O1531) and some add הן between אילו and מה (M40, D436).

These are supposedly the first lines of Hekhalot Rabbati. They indicate one of the most important aspects of the literature: the incorporation of elaborate and lengthy liturgical pieces that are necessary to ascend/descend to the chariot and that are sung in the divine presence. In fact, it is primarily from the contents of the liturgies that one discovers much of the perspective (or perspectives) concerning the characteristics of God, the angels, and humans (particularly Israel) and the relationships with one another. R. Ishmael's question indicates that these songs--note they are "recited" rather than "sung," per se--are the means to see God. The "descent in peace and ascend in peace" resembles the Rabbinic tradition of the four who entered pardes (see, e.g., B. Hag. 14b); only Rabbi Akiva--a hero in the Hekhalot texts--entered and exited peacefully.

Taking a look at the verbs. Some of the translations I have seen omit translating the participle "seeking/desiring." Yet I think it adds something to the sentence--it denotes that the learning, preparation, and execution of descending to the chariot to have a vision of it is a process; it is a quest.

In terms of "behold," the Hekhalot texts use several different verbs of seeing, beholding, gazing, glimpsing. Although there is a great deal of auditory emphasis in the texts (hearing the divine liturgy) they are also highly visually oriented.

Finally, the order of "descend" and "ascend." The Hekhalot texts have drawn a great deal of commentary on the unexpected language of "descending" to the merkavah rather than the expected "ascending." That is one "descends" to heaven and then "ascends" back to earth. Elliot Wolfson argues that the language refers to only the last leg of the journey: one "ascends" the entire way and then in the seventh heaven "descends" to the merkavah, being enthroned oneself. Alan Segal suggested it might relate to the "posture of Elijah"; that is, one is placing one's head between one's knees to inculcate the altered state of consciousness that would allow one to see a vision--so it has to do with mystical practice. Others just find it paradoxical and leave it at that. Nonetheless, I personally have not found any of the explanations I have read to be convincing.

I would add one more comment on the "in peace." The rest of Hekhalot Rabbati demonstrates the dangers, difficulties, and apparent impossibilities of this quest--with angels throwing metal rods at you, the voice of the cherubim killing you, and the sight of God's Beauty destroying all creatures, angelic or human--yet different Rabbis (R. Ishmael, R. Akiva, and R. Nehuniah b. Ha-Kanah) will discuss how to overcome these difficulties so that one can descend/ascend at will, see the enthroned God, and participate in the heavenly courtly activities (and, most importantly, report back to Israel what is going on up there!).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ancient Excrement!

When Mt. Vesuvius encased the ancient city of Herculaneum, it preserved many things under its volcanic ash and heated pressure, including, as it turns out, ancient human excrement.

Specialists involved in the Herculaneum Conservation Project have excavated the ancient sewers of the city and uncovered the largest deposit of organic material ever found in the Roman world.

Layers of excrement that lay buried by volcanic mud for centuries are giving experts new clues about the diet and health of the city's ancient inhabitants.


See further here and here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Published

In the NYTimes:
Ninety years in the making, the 21-volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects, unspoken for 2,000 years but preserved on clay tablets and in stone inscriptions deciphered over the last two centuries, has finally been completed by scholars at the University of Chicago.
....
And the dictionary is more of an encyclopedia than simply a concise glossary of words and definitions. Many words with multiple meanings and extensive associations with history are followed by page after page of discourse ranging through literature, law, religion, commerce and everyday life. There are, for example, 17 pages devoted to the word “umu,” meaning “day.”

Of course, the primary language covered in the dictionary is Akkadian. See entire article here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Evangelicals Supporting Circumcision

Although since Paul (in Galatians and Romans) denied the necessity of circumcision for salvation for the early movement that became Christianity, the National Association of Evangelicals has come out against the San Francisco ballot measure that would ban circumcision for any male under the age of 17 by citing Abrahamic solidarity with Jews and Muslims.

From CNN's Belief Blog:

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - The nation’s largest evangelical Christian umbrella group has come out against San Francisco’s proposed circumcision ban, evidence that the voter initiative is beginning to galvanize national religious opposition.

Thursday’s announcement from the National Association of Evangelicals was noteworthy because Christians are not religiously mandated to practice circumcision, as are Jews and Muslims.

“Jews, Muslims, and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham,” said National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson. “No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake.”

Circumcision is Everywhere!

There come times when similar stories from different places emerge at the same time. Perhaps this phenomenon is real or perhaps it is in the eye of a particularly sensitized beholder--I am currently writing a piece that includes a segment on circumcision and divine visions and reading a collection of essays on circumcision. That seems to be the case with circumcision at the moment. While there are often occasional debates on circumcision's medical merits, as a religious rite, as mutilation, etc., it seems that such a debate has heightened in the past week. Firstly with the potential legal issues in San Francisco and now, as many newspapers have reported (not usually on their front page) that Russell Crowe has joined the fray on twitter, calling it "stupid," "moronic," and comparing it to human sacrifice. While the San Francisco ban, for the most part, is directed toward all circumcision without qualifying for Muslim, Jewish, or medical practices, Crowe refers to it solely in terms of "Jewish circumcision." Two instances, however, are still a coincidence. It takes three to make a pattern. Anyone know a third unrelated to the San Francisco ballot and to Crowe?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Dissertation is Online!

My 2010 Columbia Ph.D. dissertation, "Heavenly Sabbath, Heavenly Sanctuary: The Transformation of Priestly Sacred Space and Sacred Time in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Epistle to the Hebrews," directed by Alan Segal is now available as an open access document through ProQuest. You can download a pdf here.

Here is the abstract:

This dissertation investigates how the Sabbath and the sanctuary interrelate in Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature. Studies of sacred time and sacred space have generally treated them as separate yet complementary categories in the study of religion. This has been equally true of those studying the Sabbath and the sanctuary in Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature. Considerations of their coordination have tended to be rare momentary glimpses rather than extended treatments. This study focuses on the coordination of sacred time of the Sabbath and sacred space of the sanctuary through how they come together in narratives, ritual practices, and shifting historical circumstances.

The body of this dissertation consists of three major parts divided into the Hebrew Bible, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Beginning with and strongly relying upon the Hebrew Bible, these sources align the Sabbath and the sanctuary by making them equivalent in holiness and by embedding this relationship within an ancient Near Easter narrative pattern exemplified by the Babylonian Enuma Elish in which a god creates, is enthroned, receives a temple, and rests. The Songs and Hebrews similarly reflect upon and transform this relationship within this narrative pattern by resituating it on a heavenly plane. Their similarities indicate a likely connection between them. For the Songs the Sabbath becomes the temporal access to the heavenly Tabernacle; for Hebrews, the Sabbath and the sanctuary become equivalent expressions to enter heavenly life. In both, this spatiotemporal coordination allowed one presently to enter the heavenly realm and approach the enthroned God of creation.

These works inaugurated, maintained, and reconfigured this relationship in periods when the sanctuary was inaccessible. The earliest articulations occurred during and after the Babylonian exile, the Dead Sea sectarians used the Songs when separated from the temple, and Hebrews likely was written after the destruction of the second temple. By bringing the Sabbath together with the sanctuary, these works made the Sabbath the temporal access to the sanctuary's spatial holiness and heavenliness when it was otherwise unobtainable. Those within the covenant could experience the sanctuary's holiness every seventh day and, thereby, God's holy and heavenly presence.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Circumcision and Law

From the Washington Post's Blog, "On Faith":

A right to ban circumcision?

A proposal to ban the circumcision of boys will be on San Francisco’s ballot in November, even though the ritual procedure is sacred to Muslims and Jews. Lloyd Schofield, the author of the Male Genital Mutilation bill, claims that male circumcision is akin to female genital mutilation, stipulating, “People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body.” Opponents of the measure say that the ban violates their First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs. Many view the ban especially skeptically after a seemingly anti-Semitic comic book emerged, penned by the ban’s supporters. Should San Francisco have the right to ban circumcision?


Oddly, a lot of my research has, in an unforeseen way, been bumping up against different views of circumcision--particularly issues of being born circumcised as well as circumcision being the primary prerequisite to see God (and live). Of course, the California bill addresses slightly different issues. See all of the different blog posts on the topic here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Failure to Deliver" by Elizabeth Castelli

Barnard College's indefatigable Elizabeth Castelli has written up a thoughtful comparison of Harold Camping's and the John Jay Report's failures in the Revealer:
Last week, two things did not happen. The Rapture did not take place on May 21, 2011, despite the fervent prognostications of a retired engineer-turned-Christian broadcaster and biblical numerologist. Meanwhile, the sex abuse scandal that has mired the Catholic Church in litigation and shame for nearly three decades was not resolved nor even really explained, despite the earnest efforts of the number-crunching social scientists at the John Jay College for Criminal Justice, City University of New York. The coincidence of these two non-happenings was more than a matter of the calendar.

Read the rest of it here.

Susan Jacoby also talks about the John Jay report's failures on the Washington Post online.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Seeing God in (Late) Antique Judaism

I am participating in a conference at Union Theological Seminary this Thursday on "See the God." I am speaking on ancient, with an emphasis on late ancient Judaism. Here is a talk-teaser:

There is an uncritical assumption that often circulates in scholarship and popular belief that Judaism is a religion of hearing to the exclusion or ignoring of seeing. This assumption operates by pointing to Jewish aniconism and reducing Jewish encounters with the divine to the Deuteronomistic emphasis on audition. Did not God say that humans could not see God—or literally God’s face—and live (Exod. 33:20)? Nonetheless, this reductive maneuver ignores the rich ambivalences of the Bible and later Jewish views concerning whether and how one can see God and live. Some follow Exod. 33:20 and categorically claim its impossibility. In this case, numerous intermediary figures fill the ocular gap, allowing appearances of aspects of God—like God’s Memra, Shekhinah, Glory, or even God’s tefillin or phylacteries—or angels. Others, however, think a full and direct vision is possible for the especially righteous and humble. A few would claim that even the unrighteous can glimpse God, but they are those who see God and do not live. Some limit this visual ability to the righteous of the distant past, as a special dispensation for Moses or Enoch; others see these past figures as models to emulate and also achieve such a vision. This paper will illustrate these vistas of optic possibilities by investigating the denial, acceptance, occurrence, and accomplishment of divine visions in biblical narrative, prophecy, and apocalypses; how these biblical visionary stories were retold and interpreted in the Targumim and Midrashim; and the instructions to ascend to and gaze upon God on his chariot throne and participate in the heavenly liturgies and live in the Hekhalot literature.


Hope to see you there if you are in NY!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Afterlife and Beetlejuice

So...in addition to the last post (in which one person's heaven is another's hell), in this the afterlife is very individualized:


It's all very personal!

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice! oh no!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Heaven according to Angels in America

So yesterday we learned that life is a job, and God will pay you 14.50 a day. After this, you have to pay for your sins...in cash. If you have any leftover, you go to heaven; if not, you have to be born again.

Today, we will continue with our afterlife theme and learn what heaven is like...according to Angels in America:



To remind everyone that one person's hell is another person's heaven; and vice versa.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Afterlife according to Father Guido Sarducci

This is how I plan to start off my Life after Death class next year:



You have to pay for your sins...in cash!

Life after Death




Next Spring, I will be teaching a special topics course at Illinois Wesleyan University on "Life after Death." Firstly, I will get to continue next year at Illinois Wesleyan! Secondly, the very fact I am teaching this course is an homage to my late advisor, Alan Segal, whose major book on Life after Death will serve as the basis for the class.


(Painting: William Blake)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When I Went to Hades...

The Journey to Hades.--I, too, have been in the underworld, like Odysseus, and shall be there often yet; and not only rams have I sacrificed to be able to speak with a few of the dead, but I have not spared my own blood. Four pairs it was that did not deny themselves to my sacrifice: Epicurus and Montaigne, Goethe and Spinoza, Plato and Rousseau, Pascal and Schopenhauer. With these I must come to terms when I have long wandered alone; they may call me right and wrong; to them will I listen when in the process they call each other right and wrong. Whatsoever I say, resolve, or think up for myself and others--on these eight I fix my eyes and see their eyes fixed on me.

May the living forgive me that occasionally they appear to me as shades, so pale and somber, so restless and, alas, so lusting for life--while those men then seem so alive to me as if now, after death, they could never again grow weary of life. But eternal aliveness is what counts: what matters is "eternal life" or any life!

(Nietsche, Mixed Opinions and Maxims, #408; trans. Walter Kaufmann)