Friday, December 28, 2007

Good ole New Amsterdam

The New York Times has an interesting op-ed article by Kenneth Jackson concerning religious freedoms, and their limitations (especially with regard to Quakers) in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. It speaks of an old document called the Flushing Remonstrance, which called for the toleration of all regardless of religious leanings, including even the Quakers. Check it out here.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Book Rec

I just read Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander. It reads like a satirical autobiographical rant against his ultra orthodox upbringing, and his biting wit makes for equally very painful and very hilarious reading. I could hardly put it down. I have been reading parts of it aloud to anyone who wants to know why am laughing so hard. I especially recommend it to all the devout, formerly devout, and those caught in between! I am definitely going to check out his other book of short stories, Beware of God. It is definitely a nice break from my usual fare of dry boring academic prose.

Friday, November 9, 2007

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

It has been a long time since I have posted, so I thought I would show another picture from Italy. This is an aqueduct just outside of Rome. It reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian in which one of John Cleese's characters, the one who leads the Judaean People's Front (or is it the People's Front of Judaea?), asks, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" And a guy in the back lifts up his hand and says, "The aqueducts."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Davila's Review of Nadia Abu El-Haj's Facts on the Ground

Jim Davila of St. Andrews has posted a lengthy and thoughtful review of Nadia Abu El-Haj's book, Facts on the Ground, which has of late been causing some controversy (although that has been overshadowed of late by the visit of Ahmadinejad). Check it out here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It Has Begun has happened. I have now successfully defended my dissertation proposal, and so have the green light to move forward on my project. The most interesting or amazing thing about this process is that by the time the proposal is defended and accepted, and, in fact, through the process of dialogue surrounding the proposal defense and its acceptance, the proposal itself becomes instantaneously outdated. I have been tempted to post the proposal itself in the interest of the free exchange of ideas, but, in the process of discussion and research, I fear that the exact words on the page and even some broader issues will turn to dust and ashes, but, at least, out of those ashes a new formulation will arise that bears some resemblance to its former instantiation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bollinger and Ahmadinejad: Ad Hominem

I feel a need to respond to a few of the comments in my last post in addition to some aspects of Lee Bollinger's speech itself. What I dislike most about all sides of the issue is the overuse of ad hominem attacks.

It does not do any good, I think, to call Bollinger ignorant or a pawn of the media or whatever for his remarks yesterday. I think there are much better ways to go about discussing this issue. I do not moderate the comments made on my blog and I hope that I never have to do so, but I do ask that they evaluate the substance (or lack thereof) of what someone says and does rather than take the next step and disparage the person making those remarks (there are other places and times for such disparagements). I prefer open discussion, but resorting to ad hominem attacks usually has the effect of squelching discussion rather than promoting an exchange of ideas or information.

The question, however, is whether or not, in this case, Bollinger opens himself up for ad hominem attacks by doing the very same to Ahmadinejad? Firstly, I should state that the actual questions posed by Bollinger and the students at the forum were entirely fair given the information known from what Ahmadinejad himself has said and done in the past few years and rather recently and by the reports of international agencies. All world leaders should have to answer such difficult questions based upon their past statements and courses of action. On the other hand, the statements Bollinger made (basically to cover himself from the heat he has been receiving for inviting Ahmadinejad to begin with) were out of place in academic discourse (I'm not saying that ad hominem attacks do not occur in academic discussions, but that there is the ideal that they shouldn't). And so calling A. a "petty and cruel dictator," "ridiculous" (as my mom, who is not at all a fan of A. noted, this particular word seemed out of place in an academic setting), and, what I thought was most damning, saying that A. lacked the intellectual courage to answer the questions posed by B., all seemed out of place. By the way, B. was for the most part (although not completely) proven right on this last point, but it is not something people tend to say explicitly and not something you say before it happens (going to Jodi's point about preempting the speech). (The recent post on Kishkushim has a different perspective on this.) B.'s questions, I thought, seemed appropriate for critical engagement with very important international issues and concerns. His personal attacks created an atmosphere in which actual discussion became virtually impossible. On his side, I do not think that A., in his actual speech at least, really substatively engaged any of the current issues. His speech sounded like a sermon with the interwoven themes of light and darkness, science (practiced by those who are pure--I am not sure what that actually means), and God. It, too, seemed out of place, and it gave me the impression that A.'s speech was not really directed to those in the room or on the campus (but I doubt there are many people who thought it was). I do hope to have a full transcript of A.'s speech and the Q & A period afterwards so everyone can evaluate and dissect it themselves.

As for the protesters outside the campus and on the campus itself, I think that is a different issue and follows a different genealogy of discourse in which ad hominem attacks are not only allowed, but are actually the norm (although, again, I do not think I have ever seen two sides of a protest rally actually convince the other side or even desire open discussion at least in that particular setting--but, again, that is not really the point of a protest, is it?). Although the vehemence of some of the groups seemed, ultimately, counterproductive. It was a carnivalesque atmosphere (there were even bagpipes!).

Some may object to this post, saying that A. is a political figure with the reins of power in his hands, and so, as with all public political figures, he is fair game for such personal attacks (just as someone like Bush is), but, once again, I think that such language is out of place in the World Leaders Forum, in an academic environment, and, I hope, on this blog.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lee Bollinger and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Today, I sat out on Columbia's quad and watched as the speeches by Lee Bollinger and then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were piped outside onto a megatron screen. The invitation to have the president of Iran speak as part of Columbia's World Leaders Forum, was and remains a highly controversial topic upon which everyone seems to disagree. I think that most (but as I found out today, not all) strongly oppose much of what Ahmadinejad has said and done, but the debate of whether or not Bollinger should have invited A. as a part of this larger forum revolves around the issue of free speech or to what degree we can maintaing free speech. And, in case you have not watched the news at all today, Bollinger made some very strong remarks about the Iranian President. But, instead of telling you about it, I will just show you. And, so here, for your ability to read and dissect, is the full transcript of Bollinger's opening remarks (pulled off of Columbia's website):

President Lee C. Bollinger's Introductory Remarks at SIPA-World Leaders Forum with President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Sept. 24, 2007

I would like to begin by thanking Dean John Coatsworth and Professor Richard Bulliet for their work in organizing this event and for their commitment to the role of the School of International and Public Affairs and its role in training future leaders in world affairs. If today proves anything it will be that there is an enormous amount of work ahead for all of us. This is just one of many events on Iran that will run throughout this academic year, all to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics.

Before speaking directly to the current President of Iran, I have a few critically important points to emphasize.

First, since 2003, the World Leaders Forum has advanced Columbia’s longstanding tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

Second, to those who believe that this event never should have happened, that it is inappropriate for the University to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech and academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can, that this is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself.

Third, to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it.

Fourth, to be clear on another matter - this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.
We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self- restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.

Lastly, in universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth. We do not have access to the levers of power. We cannot make war or peace. We can only make minds. And to do this we must have the most full freedom of inquiry.

Let me now turn to Mr. Ahmadinejad.


Over the last two weeks, your government has released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Axima; and just two days ago Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia with a PhD in urban planning. While our community is relieved to learn of his release on bail, Dr. Tajbakhsh remains in Teheran, under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country. Let me say this for the record, I call on the President today to ensure that Kian Tajbaksh will be free to travel out of Iran as he wishes. Let me also report today that we are extending an offer to Dr. Tajbaksh to join our faculty as a visiting professor in urban planning here at his Alma Mater, in our Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And we hope he will be able to join us next semester.

The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow today’s speaker to even appear on this campus.

But at least they are alive.

According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year – 21 of them on the morning of September 5th alone. This annual total includes at least two children – further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.

There is more.

Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more open, democratic society in Iran. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called “soft revolution”. This has included jailing and forced retirements of scholars. As Dr. Esfandiari said in a broadcast interview since her release, she was held in solitary confinement for 105 days because the government “believes that the United States . . . is planning a Velvet Revolution” in Iran.

In this very room last year we learned something about Velvet Revolutions from Vaclav Havel. And we will likely hear the same from our World Leaders Forum speaker this evening – President Michelle Bachelet Jeria of Chile. Both of their extraordinary stories remind us that there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.

We at this university have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government to live by these values; and we won’t be shy in criticizing yours.

Let’s, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

And so I ask you:

Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

Why in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN did Akbar Gangi, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions your regime has created within Iran? In particular, the use of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system.

Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

In our country, you are interviewed by our press and asked that you to speak here today. And while my colleague at the Law School Michael Dorf spoke to Radio Free Europe [sic, Voice of America] viewers in Iran a short while ago on the tenets of freedom of speech in this country, I propose going further than that. Let me lead a delegation of students and faculty from Columbia to address your university about free speech, with the same freedom we afford you today? Will you do that?


In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.
For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

You should know that Columbia is a world center of Jewish studies and now, in partnership with the YIVO Institute, of Holocaust studies. Since the 1930s, we’ve provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the “debate” over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue’s first line of defense.

Will you cease this outrage?


Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel “cannot continue its life.” This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I personally have spoken out in the most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question, then, is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?


According to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, it’s well documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent group as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, the Palestinian Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
While your predecessor government was instrumental in providing the US with intelligence and base support in its 2001 campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.

There are a number of reports that also link your government with Syria’s efforts to destabalize the fledgling Lebanese government through violence and political assassination.

My question is this: Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?


In a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month, General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to “a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.”

A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy.

Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shi’a militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?


This week the United Nations Security Council is contemplating expanding sanctions for a third time because of your government’s refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. You continue to defy this world body by claiming a right to develop peaceful nuclear power, but this hardly withstands scrutiny when you continue to issue military threats to neighbors. Last week, French President Sarkozy made clear his lost patience with your stall tactics; and even Russia and China have shown concern.

Why does your country continue to refuse to adhere to international standards for nuclear weapons verification in defiance of agreements that you have made with the UN nuclear agency? And why have you chosen to make the people of your country vulnerable to the effects of international economic sanctions and threaten to engulf the world with nuclear annihilation?
Let me close with this comment. Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country, that this only further undermines your position in Iran with all the many good-hearted, intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country (as in your meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations) so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party’s defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more.
I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

God Responds to Nebraska Legislator's Lawsuit

The AP has an article about a Nebraska legislator who placed a lawsuit against God for inciting terrorism, causing death and destruction upon the earth's inhabitants, etc. Evidently, God has responded to the suit, saying the Nebraska legislature does not have jurisdiction to file such a claim. And no, I am not kidding!! See the press article here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Barnard Tenure Controversy Continues

On Monday, I was told to read the Times (that would be the New York Times for all you Londoners), because one of my professors was in it, contributing to (or commenting on) the Tenure controversy surrounding Barnard Anthropology Professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj's book, The Facts on the Ground. You can read an AP report here.

It is coming down to a debate between academic freedom (for those on Abu El-Haj's side) versus shoddy scholarship (for those against).

I have been avoiding reading the book for some time now so that I can plead ignorance, but it appears this tactic will no longer work.

For those of you in the NYC area, Alan Segal will be giving a lecture on what we can know from biblical archaeology on Monday, Sept 17 at 7 p.m. in 304 Barnard Hall. It will, to be sure, be an extremely turbulent event.

UPDATE: The event was hardly eventful. Some very prominent Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) professors were there, such as Gil Anidjar. On the whole, it was an under-attended lecture and a rather respectful and collegial interchange.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sabbatical Year!!!

In case any of you did not know, part of my research includes Sabbath traditions, and starting Wednesday evening at sundown is the sabbatical year. That's right--beginning with Rosh Hashanah, for an entire year, according the the biblical and rabbinic mitzvah (commandment), one should leave one's field fallow for an entire year. According to a newspaper article from the Alton Telegraph (that's Alton, Illinois, for you bi-coastal people) sent to me by my mother, this is causing some concern among Israelis about bankruptcy. Since, for most farmers, a profit margin is rather minimal, an entire year without any crops could put many, especially farmers and kibbutzes with small amounts of land, too far in the red to recover.

Interestingly enough, more moderate Israeli Rabbis have created a loophole: Jewish Israelis can sell their fields and orchards to non-Jews for the duration of the year. According to the article, "Under this arrangement, farmers can keep working the land because it's technically 'owned' by someone who isn't bournd by Jewish law."

Not surprisingly (for reasons I may lay out later), more ortho,dox (or "ultra orthodox") Rabbis oppose this policy, claiming it is a desecration of the Sabbath mitzvah. The alternative solution suggested by them is that the government set up a charity foundation for farmers for the upcoming year. They are also more willing to trade and gain produce from the Palestinian residents in the Gaza strip and the West Bank rather than abrogate the Sabbatical commandment: a rare circumstance of trade with Hamas-controlled territory (and not only that, but that very territory).

Thus, while the Sabbatical year may give many difficulties for Jewish Israeli farmers, it is an economic boon for Muslim farmers in Gaza, except border crossings are a bit more difficult now than seven years ago.

In ancient times, there is only minimal evidence that the Sabbatical year was ever observed (by the rule of prescription is not description), although the lack of observance was thought to have catastrophic effects. Indeed, the Chronicler blames the Babylonian exile on the failure to observe the Sabbatical year, and the 7o years of exile (Jeremiah) were to give the land its long overdue rest (2 Chron. 36:21-22), in turn relying upon Lev. 26:34-35.

Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Conference News: "Rome in Extremis: Outsiders and Incendiaries in the Greco-Roman World"

Justin Dombrowski, a friend of mine in Columbia's history department, is putting on a Conference on Sunday, Sept 30, called, "Rome in Extremis: Outsiders and Incendiaries in the Greco-Roman World." This is a joint venture between ancient history and classics at Columbia, and it includes speakers from the religion department, JTS, and others throughout North America. It looks like a very interesting conference, and I would encourage anyone who happens to be in NYC that weekend to attend. For more information, see Justin's blog, "Ad Fontes."

Here's the schedule:

8:30 a.m.

9-10:20 a.m.
Simon Ford (Oxford): “Quiet Riot, Imperial Responses to the ‘Religious’ Riots following the Council of Chalcedon”
Stephanie Bolz (Michigan): “The Christianization of Magic in the Legal Discourse of the Theodosian Code”


10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Joshua Ezra Burns (Yale): “Jewish Ethnicity, Christian Belief, and the Negotiation of Roman Civic Identity in the Provincial Near East”
Jenny Labendz (JTS): “Aquila and Bible Translation Among Jews and Christians”
Adam Gregerman (Columbia): “The Polemical Construction of the Jews as Outsiders in Early Christian Interpretations of the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple” Lunch 1:30-2:50 p.m.
Gus Grissom (U. Maryland): “Romanitas on the Red Sea: How a Legion ‘Romanized’ Ancient Ayla”
Justin Dombrowski (Columbia): “Were Rabbis Behind the Babatha’s Date-Crop Sale? A Re-examination in Light of Papyrological Data”


3-4:20 p.m.
Elizabeth Greene (UNC): “Between Romans and Barbarians” Representations of Auxiliary Soldiers in Rome”
Loren Spielman (JTS): “Playing Roman: Jewish Identity and Roman Games in Herodian Jerusalem”


4:30-5:30 Susanna Elm (UC Berkeley): Keynote Address

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Dying Gaul

Once again, I have been a bit derelict in posting as of late due to my many projects, the most important of which is my dissertation prospectus (of which some of you may have a copy and are proofreading at this very moment).

Instead of posting something substantive or related to recent developments in the study of religion or antiquity, however, I here present one of the most famous sculptures from ancient Rome, which, like many ancient Roman pieces of art, is actually a copy of a Greek original. It is the famous "Dying Gaul." It is an amazing piece of work, in which the vanquished foe is depicted with startling sympathy (one might compare, in stark contrast, the representation of vanquished nations at ancient Aphrodisias). I basically went to this particular museum in Rome just to see this statue.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Archaelogy, Nationalism, and "Origins"

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, current students and alumni from Barnard College as well as Columbia are drafting an online petition to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard. They claim that her research, particularly her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, distorts the evidence and is skewed against Israel. According to the Chronicle, "The petition, which has drawn just over 1,000 signatures, accuses Ms. Abu El-Haj of ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of the archaeological record, of not being able to speak Hebrew, and of treating Israeli archaeologists unfairly in her work." If true, I think not being able to speak Hebrew would be particularly damning if that is the primary language of the work she is examining.

I have not read her book, but I have heard quite a bit about it, always in a very charged context. In any case, I refrain from making direct evaluations about something I have not read. But I would like to make some comments about archaeology and nationalism in general and perhaps a few comments on archaeology in Israel. If you look at the history of modern archaeology, it always seems to be intertwined with the rise of modern nationalism. The Greek Archaeological Association was created with the birth of the modern nation-state of Greece to recover essential "greekness." In fact, if you look at the earliest digs from this group, the most famous being that of the Acropolis, you might notice that they tore away everything until they got to 5th century BCE Periclean Athens (so, they removed everything from the Byzantine and Ottomon periods). By today's archaeological standards, however, the Athenian Acropolis stands as a prime example of bad archaeology. And they are now in the awkward position of trying to reconstruct some of the structures from later periods. This is even true, or perhaps especially true, of more imperialistic nation-states, especially those groups that conduct digs in other countries in order to provide a narrative of their own national origins OR, if not origins, their own national imperial power. Napoleonic archaeological exploits, especially in Egypt, are probably the most famous in this regard. And who can forget the Germans actually removing the absolutely gargantuan Pergamon Altar to Berlin? The British relationship with Greece is particularly famous, especially the fiasco with "Elgin's marbles." So, if Israeli archaeology has been used or been implemented to reconstruct an origins myth, they would be doing exactly what most archaeologists of many countries have done in the past couple of centuries. This is not to say that this is good archaeology (it is not!), but just to say that bad archaeology has been quite common and been implemented if not invented for nationalistic and imperialistic (it is often difficult to distinguish between the two) endeavors.

But current archaeologists do recognize the problematic nature of their field, especially its past, and they are doing something about it. Greek archaeology is much more sophisticated than it used to be, and later layers of rubble are being taken seriously (those of late Roman, Byzantine, and Ottomon periods). And, if you know anything about current Israeli archaeology, you know that Israeli archaeologists do not agree on the interpretation of anything! Most of them are very skeptical about the biblical sources and are more likely to deny that their site supports any textual evidence, or would be quick to point out how the material evidence gives a completely different picture than anything that can be reconstructed critically or uncritically based upon the surviving texts. This is not to deny that there are many still out there who are seeking to affirm biblical evidence, often squeezing the archaeology into the texts, but this is just to note the variety of views of Israeli archaeologists and that the field has significantly changed over the years with much more sophisticated methods and a great deal more of healthy skepticism.

In the end, this is not the first time Columbia University or its affiliates has been at the center of Palestinian-Israeli debates, as most of my readers know or perhaps even know better than I do (see some of the recent posts on Kishkushim). And I have a strong feeling that we will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming months.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mimesis, or the Akedah Lives Again

During World War II, Erich Auerbach wrote his monumentally important study called Mimesis, while he was in exile. It begins its history of mimetic literary representation with a comparison between the revelation of Odysseus's scar in the Odyssey and the Akedah, or "binding," of Isaac in Gen. 22. This story from Genesis has reverberated throughout the centuries. You can find it in the Maccabean literature to describe martyrs, or, more accurately, to encourage martyrdom (ironically, since Isaac never died in the original story), there are hints that early Christians applied the story to Jesus, to medieval massacres of Jews in Europe (see Shalom Spiegel's fanstastic book called The Akedah), and the story has resurfaced in a new guise today.

Non Sequitur here. I have recently began to watch a new show on TNT called "Saving Grace." Grace is a cop who drinks, sleeps with married men, etc., and is basically on God's "last chance list." An angel named Earl, who eats tacos and chews tobacco, is her guide (and she does not completely believe he exists). In the last episode, a very religious father and son duo enter the story. They are conservative Christians, and the father claims that God talks to him. This actually is not, in the parameters of the show, very difficult to believe, since Earl the angel keeps coming on the scene to talk to Grace. But, even here, things start to appear a bit cooky or scary. The father tells the police to guard his son closely (he was being guarded already because he was a witness to a high profile case), because God had told him that he would not live to see his 18th birthday, and, lo and behold, the son was to turn 18 that very night at midnight (or 12:01, for you picky people out there). Indeed, just before midnight, someone knocked out the guard protecting the child and kidnapped him. BUT it was the boy's own father. In the next scene, the father holds a knife to his son's throat while he is being surrounded by police. He claims that, in fact, God told him that he would have to carry out the prophecy (that his son would have to die that night).

This story has Abraham and Isaac written all over it, down to the use of a knife for the sacrifice and the divine command. The biblical story has been interpreted many ways, of course, as all multivalent texts are. It has been understood to represent the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice in Israelite society (this is a scholarly interpretation, of course). Since antiquity, however, the story has been interpreted to highlight Abraham's righteousness, obedience, and faith as well as Isaac's obedience and faith. Perhaps obedience more than anything. But, in the modern environment, when seeing a new iteration, it appears more like fanatacism or mental instability.

This raises the question: can someone have too much faith? be too obedient? I have often considered it my calling and, in fact, my duty in the classroom to bring doubt and to encourage questioning when and where certainty have long held sway. Can you really have faith without some doubt, anyway? At what point can obedience slip into blindness?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Long Time No Hear: What to do about it?

Dear faithful readers of my blog. I apologize for the lack of posts as of late. I have been extraordinarily busy with my dissertation prospectus and another monumentous project. So, to satisfy you, I shall give you some eye candy of a picture or two I took in Italy this summer whenever my substantive posts become sparse. Enjoy!
This picture is from the Duomo of Siena, which, by the way, is probably one of the most touristy places I have ever been (Siena as a whole, not the Duomo in particular). The Duomo is a medieval structure, and the interior, as you can see, is characterized by black and white striped stone pillars (it actually reminded me of the costume of Beetlejuice at the very end of that eponymous film starring Michael Keaton in one of my favorite movies of his). It is an absolutely beautiful building. The church also claims to have the very arm of John the Baptist with which he baptized Jesus. Although the city is extremely touristy, I was somewhat sick when I was there, and I misled my family regarding the bus routes there (not intentionally of course), this church is worth seeing if you are ever in the area.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Note: Jonathan Klawans, "Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple"

Jonathan Klawans’s Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism responds to evolutionary and supersessionist scholarship that has read sacrifice and the temple as things that were replaced by something better that came along later (Jesus for Christians and prayer for Jews), reading polemics that derive from Hebrews (for Christians) and Maimonides (for Jews) anachronistically back into sources, such as the prophets, the Dead Sea Sectarians, aspects of the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature.

This book builds upon his earlier work, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Israel, and relies heavily upon the insights of Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger and her more recent analysis in Leviticus as Literature, depicting purity laws, sacrifice, and, with it, the temple as a “symbolic system.” Purity, sacrifice, and the temple are all interrelated: you must have ritual purity to approach the sanctuary to offer a sacrifice. After a fantastic literary review of scholarship on sacrifice, Klawans argues that the system of symbols, as opposed to identifying the single referent for each individual symbolic aspect of a ritual, sacrifice, or part of the temple, point to two things: sacrifice and temple/tabernacle-building as imitatio dei and sacrifice as attracting and maintaining the divine presence in the community. Klawans discusses the former as an “organizing principle” of sacrifice and the latter as the “function” of sacrifice. Building the tabernacle or the temple is itself imitatio dei, due to the cosmic significance of those structures. Imitation, indeed, will remain a major centerpiece in the entire book, even as it is transformed in by different Jewish groups throughout the centuries.

From here he demonstrates how different bodies of sources have been misread by scholars, both Jewish and Christian, with anti-sacrificial and anti-temple biases. For example, the line between priest and prophet has been too sharply drawn: many prophets were priests and often had a high view of the temple and, even those in exile, envisioned a future rebuilding of the temple and the reinstitution of sacrifice. Prophetic critiques of sacrifice are not anti-sacrifice, but anti-improper sacrifice. Moreover, many of the “ethics” attributed to the prophets can be found in Leviticus, if you know where to look. Finally, Klawans argues a false dichotomy has been set up between the “ritual” of the temple and the “symbolic actions” of prophets. Since he has argued that sacrifice is itself a symbolic system, then both priestly and prophetic actions are symbolic.

The second half of the book, dedicated to the second temple and a little beyond, is divided up in more of a thematic manner. Klawans firstly carefully distinguishes between two concepts of the temple prevalent in the second temple period, which are not mutually exclusive, but are in tension: temple as cosmos and temple in the cosmos. The first is the idea that the temple represents the cosmos and the second that the temple is a copy of the heavenly temple. This distinction is largely developed, as far as I can tell, from George MacRae’s famous article from thirty years ago, concerning eschatology and the heavenly sanctuary in the Epistle to the Hebrews, a document he argues employs both concepts. Klawans claims, however, that, perhaps excepting Hebrews, no single text contains both concepts (I have not tested this hypothesis myself, but if true, it is definitely a helpfully clarifying insight). One of the interesting results of the second concept is the need for a heavenly priesthood to correspond to the earthly one; thus, they tend to have a highly developed angelology. In these texts, moreover, imitatio dei often slips into imitatio angeli, although, as I have been taught, this latter term should probably be imitatio angelorum. He then turns to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which largely employs the heavenly temple view, to discuss how they have been misread. He basically argues that the Dead Sea Sect had an extremely heightened view of the temple, and it is for that reason that they had to abandon it, due to the ritual and moral defilement of the temple. They then believed that their community substituted for the temple at that time, but, against previous scholarship, he argues that the community saw this substitution as provisional (there would be a future temple or reinstatement of proper temple protocol) and comparatively deficient to a physical temple. In the rather novel idea that their community was the temple, the Dead Sea Sect represents the last form of imitation: imitatio templi. Klawans also argues that the Rabbis always looked forward to the future reinstatement of the temple and its sacrifices, and attempting to emulate the temple’s sanctity by “templizing” rituals pertaining to food and prayer.

Finally, Klawans turns to the New Testament. He argues that many passages have been incorrectly interpreted in a supersessionist manner: the last supper and the overturning of the tables in the temple. He argues that the last supper passages, in both the gospels and Paul, do not, in themselves, indicate a replacement of the sacrifices of the temple, but rely upon that imagery to indicate the seriousness, legitimacy, and efficacy of the ritual meal. They are metaphors not meant to “spiritualize” sacrifice, but they “borrow from” sacrifice, operating upon the assumption that temple sacrifices are efficacious. He then argues that Jesus’ actions in the temple were not anti-temple, but probably had something to do with Jesus’ attitude toward the poor. This relies upon an extending discussion on the nexus between property and proper sacrifice, that you should only sacrifice something you truly own. Klawans argues that the pigeon sellers and the money changers would have had the most monetary impact on poor pilgrims, who should not have to pay or offer what they could not easily afford, and this situation, in particular, would have raised Jesus’ ire.

But the New Testament is not without its anti-temple polemics. Given that much of what Klawans is responding to partly derives from particular passages in the New Testament that are supersessionist and perhaps the root of Christian supersessionism, it is surprising that he only devotes about two pages to all of these passages: Acts 7, Revelation 21-22, and Hebrews (pretty much all of it). Indeed, speaking of Hebrews, Klawans says, “This text is the basis of Christian supersessionist approaches to the temple, and, by extension, it is the ancestor of many modern scholarly approaches to the temple and its ritual" (243). Considering that such a text would be, therefore, central to Klawans’s argument about the difficulties caused by such texts for modern scholarly readings of other texts, it is very disappointing that Hebrews receives only a paragraph’s worth of attention. Indeed, while Hebrews is the most anti-priestly, anti-sacrifice, and anti-temple of any document I know, it is, because of this, the most priestly document in the New Testament at the same time. The priesthood, the temple, and sacrifice take on a heightened importance because of the polemic against them. It relies upon the old earthy-heavenly temple correspondence, turning it on its head, making the correspondence more oppositional, but it also is very “templizing,” to borrow Klawans’s term. The importance of the heavenly temple, Jesus’ priesthood, and Jesus’ sacrifice all depend upon sacrificial and temple imagery, but also employing that imagery in a supersessionist way: the heavenly temple is better, Jesus is a greater priest, and his sacrifice is more efficacious. I am also surprised that Klawans failed to mention the destruction of the temple passages in the New Testament, the most famous of which is in John 2:19-22.

Overall, this is a fantastic book, and I am sure my dissertation will be peppered with references to its insights. It is both comprehensive in its coverage and comprehensible in its argumentation. His key methodological underpinning that purity, sacrifice, and the temple form an integrated symbolic system is very attractive, and his central thesis that this symbolic system was organized by the concept of imitatio dei (and all of its later iterations) and attracting the divine presence seem very helpful (it integrates much of the earlier scholarship on the temple that has had difficulty accounting for the divine presence, ritual, and temple symbolism in the same breath). Even if there may have been other "organizing" and "functional" factors not discussed (and I imagine there are), his analysis provides a platform for all future discussion of the complexities of the integrated symbolic system of purity, sacrifice, and the temple.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Religion and the Democratic Party

For over two and a half decades, the Republican Party has had a virtual monopoly in mobilizing strongly religious voters. Yet, two new tendencies are apparently buckling this trend. On the one hand, there are new fissures in the relationship between evangelicals and conservative Catholics and the GOP with the rise of environmentally-conscious evangelicals and the importance of immigration reform, the minimum wage, and opposition to Iraq among conservative Catholics. Indeed, if you take abortion off the table, then many new alliances and religio-political possibilities arise.

The other tendency is the stepping-up of religious language and a more comprehensive political strategy geared toward religiously-inclined voters among Democratic candidates. This latter trend is the subject of not only one, but TWO articles in the latest edition of Time Magazine. The first article discusses the religious background and the increased usage of religious language among Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. It also discusses the lack of a comprehensive political strategy to target possible religious voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections and how that is starting to shift. It also discusses Nancy Pelosi's lacing of her endorsement of stem-cell research with biblical citations and allusions. That we have three Democratic candidates who are all now speaking of their religious faith AND are all married to their original spouses (often an important issue for conservative religious voters) stands in odd juxtaposition to Guiliani (do I really have to explain this one?), McCain (whose attitude toward religious groups has been about the same as Howard Dean in the past--not too positive), and Romney (the wild-card question of how evangelical voters will respond to a Mormon candidate who has been painted as more opportunistic than even most other politicians). Indeed, of the three GOP candidates, Romney is the only one who speaks the language of faith fluently, while all three Democratic candidates can.

Overall, evangelical voters are slowly dropping out of the GOP, but they are not becoming Democrats; they are tending to identify now as independents. According to Time's numbers, in 2004, the percentage of white evangelicals who identified themselves as Republicans was 50% and today it is 40%. It is an incremental shift, but, considering how close many recent elections have been, it could be significant. In polls taken in "red" states, Obama is viewed as a person of strong religious convictions and his approval ratings are as high as Giuliani's.

But this heightented visibility of a more religiously friendly Democratic platform does not sit well with many parts of the Democratic party, who oppose all intrusions of religion into politics, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative. According to the article:
Defenders of abortion rights and gay marriage were concerned about the tactical and rhetorical shifts they were seeing. When Hillary Clinton called abortion "tragic" and said she dreamed of the day when the procedure would never have to be performed, the approach appealed to centrists. But it inspired pro-choice champions to argue that such rhetoric makes women feel guilty and plays into the hands of the right. Just as arguments rage within the right between fiscal and social conservatives and between libertarians and virtuecrats, the left has its own internal wars.

Perhaps bringing up abortion AT ALL plays into the hands of the right, which would love to keep the issue front and center, because that issue and gay marriage are now the only primary issues they can use to motiviate their religiously conservative base, since they are now beginning to lose them on other issues as mentioned above. On the other side of the fence, GOP strategists do not appear to be too concerned with the loosening of their monopoly of the "religion card." They simply do not think the Democrats can credibly pull it off as they did 30 years ago in the 1976 campaign with Jimmy Carter.

What most everyone seems to forget, and the topic of Time's second article about Dems and Religion, is that the Democrats were the FIRST to reach out to the evangelical voters with the election of Jimmy Carter: the first president to claim to be "born again." Carter was, in fact, endorsed by the SBC and even Pat Robertson. They then abandoned him in the 1980 campaign and endorsed his rival, Ronald Reagan, whose evangelical credentials were, well, less than Carter's. In 1976, Carter took home over 50% of the evangelical vote, a feat not matched by any subsequent Democratic candidate. The only subsequent candidate who reached out to religiously-motivated voters was Bill Clinton, who could (and can) quote the Bible chapter and verse (I have heard him do it; I was at a service at Riverside Church a few years ago and he came and spoke after the service to the congregation, claiming that the MM or the RR do not have a monopoly on morality in the public sphere). But B. Clinton's religiously verbal capacities were not part of the overall political strategies of the Dems at the time. A shift in political strategy is evident, but actual results may be harder to come by or even assess. Indeed, if a Dem receives a higher percentage of the religious vote that has tended to go toward Republicans (most likely the green evangelicals and immigration reform, anti-war conservative Catholics), will it be because of a credibly religiously-oriented Democratic candidate or the lack of such credibility by any Republican candidate (with the exception of Romney, but...)? And, by doing this, do the Dems risk abandoning a loyal part of their constituency that prefers no intrusions of religion into politics (no matter how rhetorical, tactical, or substantive)?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vatican Library Closes

The scholarly community is in mourning as the Vatican Library closes for a THREE-YEAR rebuilding. A Columbia professor of mine who studies medieval Christianity gave me a heads up on this when I was leaving for Rome around the end of May. As Paleojudaica reports, scholars were sitting elbow to elbow with piles of manuscripts trying to finish their research before the inevitable closing.

So, what do we do for the next three years?

Oddly enough, a little over half of the Vatican's approximately 70,000 original docs are on microfilm at St. Louis University (a good Jesuit school), which will make St. Louis, originally my neck of the woods, of all places the new hub for those needing access to any vatican codex or manuscript for the next three years. Perhaps I will have a research-related reason to go home after all.

I have also heard a rumor from a source here in NYC that there are other microfilms of much of the library in Brussels, or some northern European city, but I have not received verification of this. Although, it would make sense that there should be some sort of copies of the Vatican materials laying around somewhere in case of destruction by fire, etc.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Tale of the Hasidim

Yesterday I was invited to join "Epherika" and her class to go to the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The Lubavitch is one of many Hasidic (alt.sp. Chassidic) Jewish communities. We had an absolutely fantastic time. Two rabbis led us around, taking us to a very active and wonderfully noisy synagogue with people praying and arguing about this or that point in the Talmud. We stopped at "770." We checked out a little Judaica store with just shelves full of books, shofarim, fantastic children's toys (such as Hebrew blocks, Hebrew mats, and even Hebrew balls), and music (I almost bought a Matisyahu album--I think Matisyahu comes from Crown Heights, but I could be mistaken). We saw some rare books and scrolls that they have in their library. We went to the mikveh, where they separated the men from the women and gave us separate talks and tours. Interestingly, the women had a convert while we had one of the rabbis. And, finally, they took us to a very good kosher deli.

That was the itinerary, but the interest only begins there. Throughout the tour, the students in the class and the rest of us gave a flurry of questions, which, I think, they handled rather well. We pressed them on difficult issues, such as the division of mens and womens roles in the community; the formation, role, and importance of the family in the community--everything is about the family (an interesting side note: at the synagogue, the question was asked why the women were up in the gallery and the men on the floor, and the answer was the synagogue was not as important as the home where the woman rules); birth control; the possibilities, legal process, and social ramifications of divorce; with the emphasis on family, what happened if someone did not get married; and, with that, their view of homosexuality (by the way, check out the movie, Trembling before G-d, which is not solely about homosexuality and hasidic Jews, but a lot of the same issues are there). They believe everything revolves around the family (and their deceased Rebbe of course), and so, interestingly enough, they believe a man has a duty to get married (in fact, it is a commandment), and so, therefore, if he has an "inclination" or "yetzer" for other men, he still must get married to a woman and have children.

Although we did not agree with everything they said, there is an attractiveness to that way of life. Many of us appreciated that they did often say what they truly believed and did not dissemble even though they knew their answer would not be popular. On some issues they did have an almost enjoyable way of dodging a question: basically by doing what Hasidic Jews do--tell stories. They would tell us stories somewhat related to the question, but never answering the question (you had to really press them at times by repeating the question and showing how their story did not quite answer the question). The other way was almost Talmudic. For example, in the issue of divorce, by discussing the general case, and then bringing up so many exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions that one lost track of what the original question was.

One other fascinating aspect of the community is how they revere their late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. He died in 1994, but they believe his spirit still guides them, and so do not have another Rebbe. They view him as a prophet, as the transmitter of the continuing revelation of God that began at Sinai, even after his death. Today, if you have a question for the late REbbe, you can write a letter to him with the question, and then you put in a book of his writings, and the answer will lie hidden on that page (this almost seems like the Homeric Oracle, in some ways, but in others it is like "inspired" exegesis in which the exegesis of scripture or, here, inspired writings is a source of new inspired revelation). You can also go to a website that has all of his writings, post your question, and see if there is an answer in his digitized writings. They refer to him as "His Majesty King Messiah." And the way they revere him reminds me of the way that Christians revere saints. HIs picture is everywhere in the community. IN the deli where we ate, they had a television constantly replaying his speeches and gatherings.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the two rabbis were very patient with us, accommodating, kind, honest, and, in Epherika's words, absolutely lovely.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Queen Hatshepsut Update

As predicted, the Discovery Channel will be airing a special on a mummy that has recently been identified as Queen Hatshepsut based upon a tooth (see my post from June 27). The special is this Sunday, July 15, at 9 pm. Since I do not get the Discovery Channel, somone will have to tell me how it goes. But if you are like me and do not have cable (or limited cable), check out the cool website DC has set up for this.

Friday, July 6, 2007

"Faith without Works is Dead"

The New York Times has a lengthy article today on Hillary Clinton and Faith. It basically gives a history of her background as a Methodist (often modified by the adjective "liberal") and how that drives her social and political activism. Much of the article talks about how her increased references to her religious background during her campaign have been interpreted (from calculated, politically motivated, and convenient to sincere). I do not think I am one to judge; only she knows her sincerity. I would say the same thing about W. Of course, faith and politics is a huge ball of yarn that is difficult to untangle, but here is question concerning just one strand of it: Cannot a politician of any persuasion have a sincere faith (whatever that means) even if it is exploited for votes? Or, put another way, just because a politician's faith is invoked to get votes, does that make her or his faith less sincere?

Critical Edition of Codex Tchacos

I have been away for the last week and was happy to see when I returned that my copy of the critical edition of the Codex Tchacos was waiting for me in the mailroom. Of course, it is entitled the "Gospel of Judas together with the Letter of Peter to Philip, James, and a Book of Allogenes from Codex Tchacos" with the Gospel of Judas in much larger print than the other titles for marketing purposes, to be sure. But I am particularly excited to read the books getting less press. Two of them, the Letter of Peter to Philip and James, are attested in the Nag Hammadi Codices, and so FINALLY we can see variant readings of the same text and begin to discuss issues of transmission history in ways that we cannot for most NHC documents. But the real gem, in my view, is the tentatively-titled "Book of Allogenes," which appears to be almost a midrash on Jesus' temptation in the desert and the Transfiguration all wrapped into one, but instead of saying "Jesus" the text speaks of ''Allogenes" or the "Stranger/Foreigner/Alien." I have only skimmed the contents of of this volume, but it contains introductory essays on the codicological analysis, the particularities of the Coptic dialect in these four tractates, and so on, photographs of the text, a coptic reconstruction of the text, English and French translations, and an index of the Coptic words used in each tractate, particularly proper names and places, etc. I can't wait to dive into these texts.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Controversy of the Cologne Mosque

The New York Times reports that the residents of ancient city of Cologne, which hosts the greatest cathedral in Germany, is split concerning the building of a new mosque on the site of a converted factory. As the article reports, there are already dozens of mosques in Cologne, which, by the way, hosts one of the largest Muslim populations (approx. 120,000 people mostly of Turkish descent) in Germany, but they are all in tucked-away factories and warehouses that do not attract much attention. This new mosque would be Germany's largest and would give Cologne's Muslims a more conspicuous place of worship they can take pride in, and, even being Germany's largest mosque, it would not compete with the famous cathedral in proximity, size, or grandeur. More conservative elements of the population, nevertheless, have petitioned for the suspension of the project, citing the "common historical background" of non-Turkish German residents against the relatively "new" Turkish immigrants. Note in the article that the mayor of Cologne, who ultimately supports the project, cites the purported inability of many Turkish immigrants to speak German as one of his qualms. It seems, therefore, that this building project has turned into an issue of what constitutes "Germanness."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Book Note: Peter Schaefer's _Jesus in the Talmud_

I just finished reading Peter Schafer's new book, Jesus in the Talmud. Previous discussions on this theme have revolved around whether or not the rare appearances of Jesus in Rabbinic literature can contribute to our understanding of the "historical Jesus." Notable in this respect is the highly erudite and ultimately fruitless study by Johann Maier entitled, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Ueberlieferung. Schaefer seeks to move beyond such questions and discuss why Jesus is portrayed the way he is in the Talmud (basically, and to no one's surprise, in a very negative light). His thesis is that the Talmud's occasional discussions of Jesus--when Jesus usually is NOT the primary topic under discussion, but is merely used as an example for another point--provides a "devastating counternarrative" to the gospels. "Counternarrative," by the way, is Schaefer's favorite word in this book. To demonstrate this, he engages in close readings of all the relevant passages (the proverbial drop in the yam ha-Talmud), divided in terms of theme of Jesus' lifecycle (birth and family, growth and maturity, as a disciple, as a teacher, Jesus' magical powers, execution, Jesus' disciples, and Jesus' afterlife in hell). Throughout, he makes insightful observations, tracking down the context of the verses quoted by the rabbis to demonstrate often very clever polemics in the war of verses. At the same time, sometimes one feels that his claims are not necessarily wrong, just a bit exaggerated--how, for example, can a few really short passages in the entire rabbinic corpus be a "devastating counternarrative." Devastating to whom? Sometimes his close readings are very tenuous, but he admits as much himself. But the final chapter is where he makes his most important observations. He notes, for example, that most of the evidence and the most vociferous "counternarrative" (I would have used the word polemic) comes from Babylonian sources and not Palestinian sources. The Palestinian sources that do discuss Jesus focus upon his magical abilities or the magical power inherent in his name. In contrast, the Babylonian sources portray Jesus as a wayward disciple, a heretic, an idolator, who was the sexually immoral bastard son of an equally sexually improper mother. He is also portrayed here as suffering in hell, sitting in boiling excrement. Schaefer relates this to the historical situation of Jews living in Palestine after the rise of Constantine and the ever-increasing power of one branch of Christianity that become more and more oppressive to Jews living in the Roman Empire; thus, it would have been dangerous for them to be critical of Jesus himself. In Persia, however, in the century after Constantine came to power, Persia' number one enemy, the Romans, became identified with Christianity. Judaism and Christianity had been tolerated (or not tolerated) to roughly an equal extent, but, in such an environment, opposition to Christianity would not have only been tolerated, but probably encouraged. His second, equally interesting observation, is that these passages, especially when going back in looking up the context of verses cited, show familiarity with parts of all four canonical gospels, but a heightened familiarity with John, the most anti-Jewish gospel. This is why he uses the word, "counternarrative," because the Talmudic passages invert the claims made in the gospels, often alluding to specific details, such as the date of Jesus' crucifixion (preferring John here), mocking parthenogenesis, and even pouncing upon tensions within the gospel texts themselves. He postulates that they probably gained familiarity through either Tatian's diatesseron (a harmonization of the gospels that shows a preference for John) or the Peshitta, both being Syriac documents.
Schaefer does a good job of taking the conversation beyond the sterile question of whether or not this or that passage contributes to an understanding of the historical Jesus. And while he puts things into context, and presents a clever inversion of gospel events, I am still left waiting for the next step--addressing the purpose of these few scraps of "counternarrative." For example, in b. Sanh 43a, which discusses Jesus' execution, it says that Jesus was close to the government (malckut). In his analysis of gospel narrative and talmudic counternarrative, this must be commenting on something in the gospels. He suggests the reluctance of Pilate to execute Jesus as suggesting that Jesus was close to the government. I find this unsatisfying, especially when reading back from his last chapter. If these texts were written or at least incorporated into the Bavli in a post-Constantinian period, then they probably reflect that context in some ways. Saying that Jesus was close to the goverment at this time period probably reflects the role Christianity was beginning to play in the Roman Empire, becoming not only tolerated, but primary, and then oppressively dominant (it was close to the Malchut). This gets me back to an earlier question--to whom is this devastating? To whom is this addressed? Perhaps it is addressed to Christians (especially Jewish Christians) living in Persia, saying that their leader was nothing better than a heretic and idolater that led people astray, now suffering in hell, and their fate would be the same if they did not repent. On the other hand, the stories about Jesus as a wayward disciple and a bad teacher seem to be directed inward (as polemics often are) at people within the rabbinic movement. He is the extreme negative exemplar of what can happen if you do not behave correctly, if you challenge rabbinic authority (this is where the discussion of magic is prominent), or if you do not forgive your students' behavior (one story is that Jesus wanted to repent of a minor infraction, but his rabbinic teacher would not let him, and THAT is what led him to idolatry). Schaefer, to be fair, does occasionally bring this up, but I wonder if oftentimes monitoring insiders' actions is not just as an important aspect of these "counternarratives" as the clever literary exercise that Schaefer lays out.

Monday, July 2, 2007

New Rome

The New York Times has an article today that discusses the similarities, both flattering and not so flattering, between the U.S. Republic/Empire and the Roman Republic/Empire. These are comparisons that have been kicked around for years (centuries, actually). The original founders often compared the burgeoning government with the Roman Republic and Empire, focusing on the positive aspects and warning of the negative aspects (note, though, that some of what they viewed as positive, we would view in a more negative light, and so on and so forth). For the nineteenth-century interest, just look at the architecture in D.C.!!!

Today this comparison abounds in politics, popular media, scholarship, and on the street. For example, if you ever stop and listen in the halls of Union Theological Seminary, it seems that this is almost all you hear with the important and clearly overblown and exaggerated caveat that Jesus and Paul were obviously ANTI-empire (the NT evidence is a bit more complex with some passages that are anti and some that are pro, but mostly concerned with other issues). The seminarians use Jesus and Paul (and, let's not forget John of Patmos, who in my view, is a much more likelier candidate than Paul) as exemplars of resistance, giving a biblical basis for resistance to today's empire. Revelation is clearly anti-Roman Empire, but I do not think it is anti the idea of an empire, just who is ruling it. Let me throw in, due to personal interest, the Epistle to the Hebrews, which, like Revelation posits an alternative, but relies upon the model of the Roman Empire, especially the Roman patronage system, in addition to Hellenistic kingdoms to imagine this alternative with God and Jesus (God's number two) at the top (perhaps like a Vespasian and Titus?). Paul's attitude is ambivalent at best. Was Jesus anti-empire? He was executed by the Roman state, which might indicate some resistance to the state in some way or, at least, some disturbance often related in scholarship to his actions in the temple. Yet, Paul, whose writings are ambivalent on this subject, was also executed in Rome, according to tradition, during the reign of Nero (along with Peter). Perhaps it boils down to what Jesus meant by the "kingdom of God/heaven" (pie in the sky, political revolution, future eschatology, or that hybrid category of "realized eschatology") and "render unto Caesar." Overall, in my view, we do a disservice when we wash over those parts of the Bible that do not fit our theological, social, and political views (NT scholarship seems to be worse about this than Hebrew Bible scholarship) by either ignoring them, twisting them, reading them out of context, or, in this case of Pauline scholarship, harmonizing them to remove the appearance of contradiction, rather than acknowledging the problematic aspects and proclaiming them as theologically problematic, the latter of which is something that feminist biblical scholarship has been very good at doing. A few years ago, UTS had a "New Testament and Empire" conference, which, I have just learned, will be reprised this coming academic year (more precise info has not yet been released to me). I will be curious to see what progress in this area has been made.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Brown Watch: The Distancing Begins

Gordon Brown, the new British PM, appointed several people of various degrees of opposition to the Iraq War to his cabinet. This distances Brown from both Blair and Bush (btw, it seems that lately you need to have "B" name to be the leader of an English-speaking country--the 2008 election should break that current trend), although it is a bit less of a subtle move than I had expected. This will make Brown's first diplomatic meeting with Bush very interesting indeed. Of course, they may just look for common ground in areas like troops in Afghanistan, but the message is clear: the UK under Brown's leadership is no longer going to be the US's closest ally in Iraq. But, in an undertoned manner, Brown has only verbally indicated that he would examine Britain's role in Iraq.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Queen Hatshepsut

Zahi Hawass, the Egyptologist and secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo (but you probably know him as that guy who is on every single television special about ancient Egypt), believes that a DNA analysis of a tooth proves that a particular "obese" female mummy found in the Valley of the Kings a hundred years ago is Queen Hatshepsut (r. 15th Century BCE), one of the most powerful Queens of ancient Egypt. The DNA analysis shows genetic similarities with the mummy of Ahmose Nefertari, the matriarch of the 18th Dynasty. I think the Discovery Channel will be covering this.

Changing of the Guard

I am sure almost everyone who would be reading this blog (unless you accidentally stumbled upon it), knows that Tony Blair steps down today and his successor, Gordon Brown, becomes PM. He wanted to be PM ten years ago, but Blair beat him to the punch. From what information I have garnered, Brown is more intelligent than Blair, but, as I saw him give a speech on CSpan, he definitely lacks Blair's charisma, which has been so useful in foreign relations. Speaking of which, Brown's foreign relations policy seems to be pretty much the same as Blair's, at least, as pertains to Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not think there is much perceptible difference in domestic issues either, although I am not sure here. For the differences between the two, the New York Times reports (for entire article, hit the hyperlink on "Tony Blair"): "The new Prime Minister has promised accelerated domestic reform on schools, housing and public health and changes in the way Britain goes to war, giving parliament more of a say. In a series of written responses published in The Independent newspaper today, Mr. Brown acknowledged that “mistakes were made in our planning for what happened after the removal of Saddam and I think it’s important to learn the lessons and to go forward.”" I do recall all of these issues arising from his speech when he gained leadership of the Labour Party. Let's see what speeches today brings.

Brown, though, has a tough sell in the next few months. He must appear different than Blair, he must be something new or bring something new to the table, but he cannot be too critical of Blair. So, we have a person whose policies are basically the same as Blair's, but he lacks Blair's baggage and his charisma. On the other hand, personality-wise, he seems like a person who is not going to be subservient to Bush (Blair is called "Bush's Poodle" in the UK). Here's the question of the day: how long will Brown last? Or, in other words, since I cannot file this post under religion or antiquity, should I put it with phenomena or ephemera (I am leaning towards the latter).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Coptic Resources

Because I have been engrossed in Coptic language, including the gritty text-critical issues, etc., for the past year, I have decided to add a few online sites (which I lifted from "Forbidden Gospels") to my sidebar. So, for all the aspiring Coptologists out there, check these sites out, and if you know of any more, please send them to me!

The Search for Lost Causes

Last night I watched a PBS special on the search for Atlantis, that ultimate ancient place older than Egypt that was supposedly highly advanced, often used to illustrate the possibilities and ultimate failure of an aggressive utopia. Of course, the special was not all bad, because you get to see amazing past societies in the Mediterranean and S. America, what technologies we know they had, and speculation about why they could not sustain themselves (natural disasters, disease, etc.).

I thought that was the end of the search for lost causes, until I started reading the blogs today. Paleojudaica has posted that someone thinks they know where the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus as the Last Supper, is. According to, Alfredo Barbagallo, an Italian archaeologist, claims that it is buried under the sixth-century Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, one of the seven major churches pilgrims used to visit when coming to Rome. Let's not all hold our breath, though, because the Vatican Commission of Sacred Theology still has to determine whether they will open the catacombs where the holy cup is supposedly buried. (Of course, even if they find a cup down there, it still will take a LOT of ingenuity to convince the world it is, indeed, the Holy Grail.) Maybe they ought to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and things despaired of.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Happy Summer Solstice!

Today is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere! Not that it has 25 hours instead of 24, of course, but the most daylight of any day of the year (for those of lucky enough to have good weather as we happen to be having in NYC). Such an event is also an important religious holiday, especially, it seems, in the ever overcast environs of northern Europe. In case you do not know, thousands of people gather every year for the summer solstice at Stonehenge (note for full disclosure, I pulled this link off of Paleojudaica's posting), the famous stone-age site that remains a riddle to this day. So, happy summer solstice! Let's all find a way to celebrate the sun in our own ways. (I do seem to recall that "Paideia" held a winter solstice party a few years back.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Because I love watching movies, I watched AFI's top 100 movies tonight on CBS. The American Film Institute first uncovered what it perceived as the top 100 movies 10 years ago. Of the top ten, only one movie has retained its original position from ten years ago: Citizen Kane remains number 1. In case you were wondering, the first Godfather is number 2 and Casablanca is number 3 (ten years ago Casablanca was 2 and Godfather, 3), and the most recent addition to the top 100 list is the Lord of the Rings trilogy (although not even close to top ten), largely due, I think, to its use of special effects.

Wipf and Stock

Wipf & Stock has unveiled a new design for its website, one that is more user-friendly. W & S does a wonderful service to the academic community by reprinting out-of-print titles (for the most part, biblical studies, ancient near east, some Jewish studies, and Christian history and theology). As "Forbidden Gospels" has already noted, it is the only place to get the old Crum Coptic Dictionary. Perhaps even more significantly or at least more broadly applicable is that they will do custom reprints if you can generate a demand of at least 20 copies--something to think about if there is an out-of-print book you want to use for a class (and if the class has an enrollment of twenty people or more).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen

What an odd thing a diploma is! I just received my diploma in the mail (b/c Columbia does not give it to you on the actual day of graduation--not that I actually attended graduation anyway), and I have found several aspects of it perplexing. For instance, the entire thing reads as follows: "The trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York to all persons to whom these presents ma come greeting be it known that Jared C. Calaway having completed the studies and satisfied the requirements for the degree of master of philosophy has accordingly been admitted to that degree with all the rights privileges and immunities thereunto appertaining in witness whereof we have cause our corporate seal to be here affixed in the city of New York on the sixteenth day of May in the year two thousand and seven" Other than the complete lack of punctuation (do commas and periods make it look less formal?), I am wondering what exact immunities I now have. For that matter, what privileges. I understand the privileges of a BA, and MA, and even a PhD, but what are the privileges of an MPhil? Finally, I must admit that I have never looked at the school seal very closely before, but it, too, is very curious. Most of it is in Latin, but there are a few parts of it in Hebrew. If your Latin is a bit shaky, the motto on the seal (which is the title of this posting), translates as "In your light we see light." In case there is any mistake concerning whose light this is, in Hebrew one sees at the very apex of the seal the tetragrammatron, YHWH, and proceeding from this tetragrammatron are rays of light. I am guessing that this light represents knowledge/scientia/gnosis. But, also relying upon a very important tradition in Jewish and Christian literature, often characteried as mystical, what if we represented the apex as a dark cloud of unknowing?


I have spent the past few weeks in the gastronomic paradise of Italia. I do not want to eat any more pasta for the next six months--enough is enough. But I do not think I could ever tire of gelato. I think my favorite combination (b/c I always ate gelato with at least two flavors) was chocolate and raspberry, which, incidentally, was the very first combination I tried. Perhaps some of the best food was in Bologna, the least touristy place I went and the city that boasts the first university in Europe (a close second goes to the University of Paris). The lasagna here was absolutely fantastic. Throughout Italy, there always seemed to be plenty of artichokes and zucchine, which, for me, was heaven since I love both. And, I have to say, the award for best olives in Italy has to go to the South (the area around Naples, the originator of pizza), but I must note that no place even approximated the olives I had in Greece. And, of course, I had the pizza.

Whenever you travel in space, you inevitably travel in time, whether looking at the ancient forum, the Colosseum, or even St Peter's Basilica in Rome, the medieval town of Siena, Renaissance art in Florence (especially wonderful in this regard are Fra Angelico's works in San Marco), or the former naval empire of Venice with its numerous canals (and no cars!). But one senses it most potently in the southern city of Pompei, an entire city eerily and perhaps frighteningly preserved due to a disastrous volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius in the first century. The streets are crowded (except the one shown here) with mobs of tourists and the inevitable ghosts of 2000 years ago, whether one goes to the ancient forum, the best preserved and oldest known amphitheater, the baker's shop, the ancient brothel, or the numerous private homes that one can now wander through. It is a city frozen in time in which perhaps the real ghosts (or phantoms of some presence out of place and in the wrong time) are us. Perhaps in two thousand years people will be wandering through my former haunts, taking pictures, analyzing them for research, or putting them on their walls, or posting them on their futuristic blogs. Tourists will come in droves and scholars will examine every nook and cranny to try to understand everyday life in hoary antiquity. Or, like most people and places in far-off times, we will be forgotten. Which is worse--to be exploited for knowledge or irrecoverably lost?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


In the face of beginning to dissertate this year, I have decided to join the world of bloggers in order to remain connected to the outside world. The name of my blog reflects a combination of interests. I study antiquity, but I am also fascinated by the construction of ideal alternate realities, usually referred to as heaven or utopia, alongside their inverse, hell or dystopia. I am particularly interested in how these constructions of heaven and hell interface with claims of religious experiences, such as with religious visions and auditions and so forth. So, welcome to antiquitopia, a "no place" in time--whether it is utopic or dystopic, of course, depends upon your perspective.