Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Really Old Torah Scroll at University of Bologna

Reported in BBC News: 

The University of Bologna in Italy has found what it says may be the oldest complete scroll of Judaism's most important text, the Torah.
The scroll was in the university library but had been mislabelled, a professor at the university says.
It was previously thought the scroll was no more that a few hundred years old.
However, after carbon dating tests, the university has said the text may have been written more than 850 years ago.
The university's Professor of Hebrew Mauro Perani says this would make it the oldest complete text of the Torah known to exist, and an object of extraordinary worth.
The university says that in 1889 one of its librarians, Leonello Modona, had examined the scroll and dated it to the 17th Century.
However, when Mr Perani recently re-examined the scroll, he realised the script used was that of the oriental Babylonian tradition, meaning that the scroll must be extremely old.
Another reason for the dating is that the text has many features forbidden in later copies under rules laid down by the scholar Maimonides in the 12th Century, the university says.
Ah, the importance of proper labeling.  Of course, the Leningrad and Aleppo Codices are still older, but they are codices and not Torah scrolls.

Monday, May 20, 2013

News of a New New Testament

There have been several discussions of the project spearheaded by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament.  See the description here:
It is time for a new New Testament. 
Over the past century, numerous lost scriptures have been discovered, authenticated, translated, debated, celebrated. Many of these documents were as important to shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs as what we have come to call the New Testament; these were not the work of shunned sects or rebel apostles, not alternative histories or doctrines, but part of the vibrant conversations that sparked the rise of Christianity. Yet these scriptures are rarely read in contemporary churches; they are discussed nearly only by scholars or within a context only of gnostic gospels. Why should these books be set aside? Why should they continue to be lost to most of us? And don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians? 
To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in A New New Testament. Reading the traditional scriptures alongside these new texts—the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Mary, Paul’s letters with The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Revelation to John with The Secret Revelation to John—offers the exciting possibility of understanding both the new and the old better. This new reading, and the accompanying commentary in this volume, promises to reinvigorate a centuries-old conversation and to bring new relevance to a dynamic tradition.
There have been a series of contributions to the Huffington Post on this new publication:

There are at least two posts directly discussing or written by Hal Taussig, the general editor:  see here (for an interview) and here for a more recent piece by Taussig himself posted today (5/20/2013).

There are two pieces (here and here) written from a Jewish, Rabbinic perspective, both of which seem to be particularly fond of The Thunder: Perfect Mind.  And then a more general discussion here.

Jim Davila has noted that it sounds a bit gimmicky (and it does), but anything to give attention to apocrypha.

The council that voted on which texts to include consisted on 19 members; they added 10 texts.

The ten texts are: Prayer of Thanksgiving, Gospel of Thomas (no surprise here), Odes of Solomon, The Thunder: Perfect Mind, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth, Prayer of Apostle Paul, Acts of Paul & Thecla, Letter of Peter to Philip, Secret Revelation of John.

The council included:

  • Margaret Aymer -- Associate professor of New Testament and area chair of biblical studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga., and a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
  • Geoffrey Black -- General minister and president of United Church of Christ.
  • Sister Margaret Brennan -- Member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
  • Lisa Bridge -- Program manager for children and youth ministries at Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church in New York City and an expert in yogic and Buddhist traditions.
  • John Dominic Crossan -- Professor emeritus in religious studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar.
  • Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer -- Editor of a forthcoming collection of spiritual essays by female Jewish scholars.
  • Bishop Susan Wolfe Hassinger -- Retired bishop of the United Methodist Church and the bishop-in-residence and a lecturer at Boston University School of Theology.
  • Bishop Alfred Johnson -- Retired bishop in the United Methodist Church and pastor of (United Methodist) Church of the Village in New York City.
  • Chebon Kernell -- Pastor of First American United Methodist Church in Norman, Okla.
  • Karen L. King -- Professor of divinity at Harvard University.
  • Celene Lillie -- Doctoral candidate in New Testament studies at Union Theological Seminary.
  • Stephen D. Moore -- Professor of New Testament at Drew University Theological School.
  • J. Paul Rajashekar -- Professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
  • Bruce Reyes-Chow -- Social media consultant and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
  • Mark Singleton -- Professor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., and an expert on yoga.
  • Sister Nancy Sylvester -- Member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor -- A professor of religion at Piedmont College, author and Episcopal priest.
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow -- Director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a leader in Jewish renewal and peace movements.
It raises the question, though:  if you were to add anything to the New Testament (or if you were to recommend an ancient Christian text for people today to read that is not in the current NT), what would it be?  (And, though not addressed in this project, if there were any books in the NT you would like to see removed, what would it be?)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

DNA of Minoans

New studies have traced the mitochondrial DNA, which traces maternal lineage, of Minoan remains to determine their racial background, at least partially so. And, of the bones and teeth that they could get a sample, it has a stronger correlation to European DNA than others.  See this article by a person with a spectacular last name.

Hanging Gardens of Nineveh?

According to Stephanie Dalley of Oxford, whom most of us know from her Myths from Mesopotamia, the hanging gardens belong to an engineering feat of the Assyrian King Sennacherib rather than the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar.  From the Guardian:
She [Dalley] was astonished to find Sennacherib's own description of an "unrivalled palace" and a "wonder for all peoples". He describes the marvel of a water-raising screw made using a new method of casting bronze – and predating the invention of Archimedes' screw by some four centuries.
Dalley said this was part of a complex system of canals, dams and aqueducts to bring mountain water from streams 50 miles away to the citadel of Nineveh and the hanging garden. The script records water being drawn up "all day".
Recent excavations have found traces of aqueducts. One near Nineveh was so vast that Dalley said its remains looked like a stretch of motorway from the air, and it bore a crucial inscription: "Sennacherib king of the world … Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh …"
She basically re-translates old Assryian and Babylonian tablets that she claims were mistranslated when they were discovered, and she traces the later Greek and Roman sources and their confusion about the Hanging Gardens.  Her newest book is coming out on the topic.

Late-Antique Egyptian Sex

When did late-antique Egyptians have the most sex?  Evidently that is a question some archaeologists are asking.  From the Huffington Post:

So far, researchers have uncovered 765 graves, including the remains of 124 individuals that date to between 18 weeks and 45 weeks after conception. The excellent preservation let researchers date the age of the remains at death. The researchers could also pinpoint month of death, as the graves were oriented toward the rising sun, something that changes predictably throughout the year. [See Images of the Ancient Egypt Cemetery]
The results, combined with other information, suggested the peak period for births at the site was in March and April, and the peak period for conceptions was in July and August, when temperatures at the Dakhleh Oasis can easily reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). 
The peak period for the death of women of childbearing age was also in March and April (exactly mirroring the births), indicating that a substantial number of women died in childbirth.
Evidently different from other Mediterranean countries when sex dwindled in the hot summer months, Egyptians were having more of it.  The article suggests that it would have coincided with the summer flooding of the Nile and, therefore, with the most obvious symbol of Egyptian fertility.  There is also a quick discussion of contraceptives.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rest in Peace: Geza Vermes

I just saw on Jim Davila's blog that Geza Vermes has passed away.  I only met him once, when he spoke at Barnard College at the invitation of Alan Segal.  He was immensely polite and, while a bit quiet, was very engaging.

He will be best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially his affordable English translation, which was my own introduction to the Scrolls, as well as his extensive work on Christian origins and the historical Jesus.

UPDATE (5/8/2013):  I just saw that Mark Goodacre has some reflections here, including some important notes on his contributions to the study of Jesus.  He has more here and here.

UPDATE (5/9/2013):  James Tabor has further reflections here.

UPDATE (5/10/2013):  I just saw that James Crossley has some provocative thoughts on how Jesus and NT scholars more generally have been both profoundly impacted by Vermes (even when we don't know) and have in many ways failed to learn the lessons Vermes teaches in his books.

UPDATE (5/13/2013):  Martin Goodman has a good, extensive obituary on the Wolfson College website.