Debunking the Latest “Married Jesus” Hoax

When these stories start to burble up in my RSS feeds, I always swear I’m going to ignore them and wait for them to go away. Just paying attention to them makes people dumber.not_this_crap_again (3)

This one was an easy call, because the articles had the “tell” of pure BS right inside: the name “Simcha Jacobovici,” mostly famous for outlandish claims like the Talpiot Tomb theory, the forged James Ossuary, finding proof of the Exodus, and similar cringe-worthy nonsense. He’s about as credible as that guy who keep claiming to have the body of a bigfoot in his freezer, and I’m not even exaggerating.

Somehow, Jacobovici and his pet conspiracy-theory academic Barrie Wilson have managed to sucker the British Library into supporting his latest bid for attention and money, just in time for a book and media blitz to coincide with the holiday season. It serves everyone’s purpose, I guess:  they get coverage for their books, people remember that the British Library exists and is filled with genuine treasures, and the media gets eyeballs and the chance to stick a knife into Christianity, which they hate.

So What Is The Discovery?

That’s the hilarious part, because:

1)  There is no discovery! It’s an old and well-known pseudepigraphal text called “Joseph and Aseneth,” about which I’ve written from a theological perspective. They’re trying to hide this fact by referring to it as “The Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor” (aka Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor) , but that’s simply the larger text in which the Syriac text of”Josepeh and Aseneth” (a late translation of an an earlier Greek text) tale is embedded.

2) Jesus and Mary are never mentioned in it!

The original is a fascinating story about the patriarch Joseph and his marriage to the Egyptian Aseneth, mentioned in passing in Genesis 41:45, and deals with her conversion from idolatry to monotheism.

The only way they can get headlines is by turning an allegorical, novelistic tale of a well-known patriarch into a discovery about the historical Jesus by replacing “Joseph” with “Jesus” and “Aseneth” with “Mary Magdalene.”

Why?

No reason, really, except a complete misunderstanding of early Biblical exegesis, particularly that practiced in Alexandria, which sought Christ in every Old Testament text and tried to draw out the Christological meaning from those texts.

But no, that’s not it! It’s “encoded,” you see, to hide the Real Truth That Will Destroy Christianity Forever No Seriously Guys For Reals This Time.

They see mention of the Lord and the incarnate Word in surrounding (not the main) text and the tale becomes, not a theological lesson, but an encrypted history, because the original writers foresaw that, 1500 years later, a couple of dudes would need make payments on their beach houses.

There is controversy about the text: whether it’s purely late Jewish or a Christian adaptation of Jewish material. It may come from  a Second Temple Jewish context without a Christian influence, or it may be an adaptation of a Jewish original into a Christian allegory. My essay points out some of the Eucharistic elements which might make this second suggestion a viable reading.

They’re trying to make a big deal of the “secret” text “discovered” in the British Library, but of course the Syriac version of “Joseph and Aseneth” was not lost at all. Scholars just hadn’t settled on a context for it.

Let’s even pause a moment and ride along with Barrie and Jacobovici to read this as a Christian text. It’s all very allegorical if it is, and if we do read “Joseph” as “Jesus,” what we have then is an allegorical tale of the marriage of Jesus to the Church, which would be a common image used by early Church writers, particularly of the Alexandrian school. An allegorical reading would be a sensible reading supported by similar texts.

The idea that this proves the literal, historical fact of an actual marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is supported by nothing more than wishful thinking and the desire to undermine Christianity and score an easy payday. There is no text (not even a trace of a text, and texts do leave traces even when they’re gone) that suggests a literal marriage of Jesus. None. That’s a curiously modern obsession.

Try to remember what happened with the last Jesus is Married story that sucked up all the media oxygen, and recall the wisdom of Michael Crichton and his Gell-Mann Effect.

This junk comes around without fail every year. I hate covering it, but I hate fraud and ignorance worse.

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Available Online

A fragment of Isaiah from Cave 1, Qumran

In a giant upgrade to The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, the Israel Antiquities Authority is making 10,000 multispectral images available to all via the web.

The entire site has better searching, browsing and indexing. You can search by keywords, or browse by language, location (including cave-by-cave), or content.

The scrolls are being specially photographed using a state-of-the-art system developed by NASA, and the results are eye-popping. The multispectral imaging captures 12 wavelengths (7 visible, 5 invisible), revealing depths of detail in both text and material that would otherwise be unseen by the naked eye. This allows us to peel away layers and recover lost or obscured text. Infrared photos from the 1950s are also included.

The site is very responsive, with fast load times and the ability to zoom in close for each image.

The IAA intends to place every scroll and fragment on the internet. I remember when simply looking at a photograph of a scroll was considered an illicit activity, so this is big news.

Ancient Settlement Uncovered in Israel

A 2,300 year old village dating to the Seleucid Dynasty (or perhaps earlier) has been uncovered during work on a natural gas pipeline. The settlement reached its peak in the 3rd century BC, and by the time of Herod (1st Century BC) was abandoned.

The settlement was found not far from Mitzpe Harel in the Jerusalem hills. It will be excavated and the pipeline routed around it.

From the Israel Antiquities Authority:

The excavations, which covered about 750 square meters, revealed a small rural settlement with a few stone houses and a network of narrow alleys. Each building, which probably housed a single nuclear family, consisted of several rooms and an open courtyard. According to Irina Zilberbod, excavation director on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, “The rooms generally served as residential and storage rooms, while domestic tasks were carried out in the courtyards.”

The site, whose name has not survived, is nestled at the top of a spur 280 meters above sea level, with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. These large tracts of land were used as they are today to cultivate orchards and vineyards, which were the economic mainstay of the region’s early settlers.

The excavations have shown that the site reached the height of its development in the Hellenistic period (during the third century BCE), when Judea was ruled by the Seleucid monarchy following Alexander the Great, and that it was abandoned at the end of the Hasmonean dynasty.

The excavations yielded numerous and varied finds from all occupation periods, including basalt and limestone grinding and milling tools for domestic use, pottery cooking pots, jars for storing liquids (oil and wine,) pottery oil lamps for domestic use, and over sixty coins, including coins from the reigns of the Seleucid King Antiochus III and the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus.

It’s not unusual to find villages that were abandoned between the Hasmonean Dynasty and the reign of Herod the Great. Herod’s massive building projects likely drew residents from these small villages to more steady work on the Temple Mount.

Sirach: An Online Manuscript Collection

The Book of Sirach (Latin: Ecclesiasticus) is a beautiful wisdom work that blends Greek and Hebrew thought. It’s the last of the Old Testament books composed, and was probably written only two centuries before the first of the New Testament texts, providing an important glimpse into the development of faith and philosophy between the OT world and the NT world.

The last century has seen the recovery of various important manuscripts of Sirach, first from them middle ages, and then later, fragments from Qumran. These manuscripts are scattered in collections in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, making close examination and comparison of text a difficult thing. A new project called The Book of Ben Sirah is making that job much easier by attempting to unite all extant manuscripts into a single site. (Only the pages at the Bodleian Library are not included for rights reasons, but the site includes links to them.)

Right now, there are just hi-res scans up, but transcriptions, translations, and resources will be added now that the project is live. Check out the link to get a glimpse of these important manuscripts.

Francis/Netanyahu Meeting Cancelled (Actually, It Was Never Even Planned)

Last week, a report began circulating in the Israeli press that President Benjamin Netanyahu would be meeting with Pope Francis when Netanyahu traveled to Rome this week. The report set off a firestorm in Israel because of rumors that a visit by the pope to Holy Land was contingent upon the return of certain holy sites to the Church:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be traveling to Rome next week to meet with the pope; they will discuss, among other things, the transfer of certain holy sites to the custody of the Catholic Church. “It turns out,” says HaModia, “that the new pope has set a public declaration of the transfer as a condition for his promised visit to the land.” One of the sites in question is David’s Tomb, “which the Catholics have claimed as their own for hundreds of years.”

HaMevaser reports that Rabbi Haim Miller has appealed to Knesset Members in an effort to stop the deal from going through. Miller claims that it is better for the pope not to visit Israel than that the tomb be handed over to the Catholic Church, even if this causes a rift between the Vatican and Israel.

This sounds like a lot of nonsense, but there was no chance the meeting was going to happen since it was reported in the press before it was even planned, and you don’t get on the pope’s schedule with one week’s notice:

In a diplomatic foul-up, the announcement made last week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would meet with Pope Francis in Rome was retracted on Monday after it emerged that the Vatican had never scheduled it, Haaretz reported.

The pope’s staff said they only learned of the meeting through media reports. Efforts by Israeli officials to put such a meeting on the calendar at the last minute in order to avoid embarrassment after having announced it last Wednesday proved futile.

It was explained that protocol at the Vatican is such that a request for a meeting only a week in advance is unheard of and out of the question.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement: “As opposed to what was claimed, a meeting was planned this week between the prime minister and the Pope during his trip in Italy, but due to a scheduling conflict, it was postponed.”

Francis is still intending to visit Israel in March:

Pope Francis will make his first visit to Israel in March.

The pope told his close friend, Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, of his lifelong dream to visit the Holy Land, and of his intentions to visit Israel and Bethlehem, Channel 2 reported on Sunday.

According to Channel 2, the pope hopes his visit will bring a message of reconciliation.

He dreams of embracing Rabbi Skorka in front of the Western Wall, in order to send out a message against anti-Semitism.

Last week, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein visited the Vatican and invited the pope to visit the Holy Land and be his personal guest in the Knesset.

“I’ll come, I’ll come,” Pope Francis responded.

 

Ancient Jerusalem’s Economy Powered by Animal Sacrifice

The Journal of Archaeological Science had published a study of animal remains uncovered around the Temple complex in Jerusalem, suggesting that animals raised and traded for temple sacrifice drove a large portion of Jerusalem economy:

An analysis of bones found in an ancient dump in the city dating back 2,000 years revealed that animals sacrificed at the temple came from far and wide.

“The study shows that there is a major interprovincial market that enables the transfer of vast numbers of animals that are used for sacrifice and feasting in Jerusalem during that time period,” said study co-author Gideon Hartman, a researcher at the University of Connecticut.

The finding, published in the September issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, confirms visions of the temple depicted in historical Jewish texts and suggests the economic heart of the city was its slaughtering operation. 

At the time, Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis without any natural economic resources, as it was landlocked and far from most major trade routes.

According to the Talmud, a Jewish religious text, the city’s economic heart was the Holy Temple, the only place where Israelites could sacrifice animals as offerings to God. Parts of the animal that weren’t sacrificed as a burnt offering were often left for people to feast on.

Some passages in the text depict priests wading up to their knees in blood, and others describe 1.2 million animals being slaughtered on one day. And the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also describes an enormous slaughtering operation.

But historians wondered whether these descriptions were hyperbole or fact.

City dump

A few years ago, archaeologists unearthed a massive dump on the outskirts of the old walled city of Jerusalem. Dating revealed the dump was used between the start of King Herod’s reign in 37 B.C. and the Great Revolt in A.D. 66. [See Images of the Massive Bone Dump ]

Whereas most city dumps contain animal bones, this one contained an unusually large proportion of them for an agricultural society, Hartman said.

“Meat was not eaten on a daily basis. It was something that was kept for special events,” Hartman told LiveScience.

What’s more, most of the animals were young, suggesting they were raised for sacrifice.

Read more.

Spinoza’s Excommunication from the People of Israel

Humanities has a good article analyzing the causes for the uniquely vicious writ of excommunication pronounced upon the philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the leaders of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. The text is notable for its eye-popping condemnations, curses, and vitriol, particularly since it was written before Spinoza had published any controversial opinions.

Let’s learn from our Elder Brothers in the Faith: this is how to kick someone out of your religious community:

 The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the [rabbis’] consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

Can I get an Amen!

I’m sure I’m supposed to be all enlightened and hand-wringy about this bilious blast against “intellectual freedom,” but my only reaction was, “More, please.”

Spinoza’s metaphysics wasn’t worth a bucket of cold donkey snot. He was functionally atheist, transforming God into “Nature” and then making him not-God by robbing him of anything resembling power, will, or, intellect. He denied the inspiration of scripture, creation, the covenants, the law, miracles, and everything except a limp humanistic: “Be nice.” He did the spadework for the worst elements of the so-called Enlightenment, and  his influence gave us of two centuries of bone stupid commentary on scripture.

Boil him down to his essence, and you get nothing deeper than “The Force is with you.” I think he even wrote about midichlorians.

The Humanities article, by Steven Nadler, is worthwhile as a portrait of that particular Jewish community, and of the reasons they responded to Spinoza with such hate.

Hopeful Signs? UPDATE #2: Not a Hoax

The optimist in me says “yes.” The cynic says, “public relations ploy.” I try paying more attention to the optimist.

In any case, it’s welcome. From the President of Iran:

It’s worthwhile remembering that the Iranian people (particularly the young) tend to have positive feelings towards America, by and large. (They tend to despise the English, however.) Maybe if we stopped with the Middle East meddling and they throttled back on the crazy and the Jew-hating and the terror-exportation, some kind of peace could be achieved. I’ll take this message as a sign of hope.

UPDATE: Reader “Dale” sent this link saying it looks like a hoax:

Not only were the blessings not a diplomatic signal, they weren’t even really blessings from Rouhani himself, according to Iran’s official Fars News Agency.

Mohammad Reza Sadeq, an adviser to Rouhani, said the Iranian president doesn’t even have a Twitter account (although he kept referring to it as “tweeter”), let alone that he was behind the eyebrow-raising tweet purportedly from the leader of a country that wishes for Israel’s destruction.

UPDATE #2: Joanne McPortland tells me “Christiane Amanpour claims she just interviewed him. No hoax.”

Apostrophe to Zion: New Meaning for a Dead Sea Scroll?

I’m still enjoying Slacktacular August with a reduced blogging schedule, but I thought this was a fascinating little slice of the philology world that shows how scholars grapple with ancient languages and shifting meanings.

In this case, it’s the Hebrew root “taph-bet-ayin,” which has various modern meanings: “to demand,” “to investigate,” “to prosecute.”

The “Apostrophe to Zion,” found in the Psalms Scroll of Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the word “tit’ba’e’ch,” and none of those meanings work in context. (An “apostrophe” is one of the rhetorical figures, meaning an address to an abstract idea or personification.)

Here’s the entire psalm, which is quite beautiful, as translated by Vermes, with the problem lines highlighted.

Apostrophe to Zion

I will remember you, O Zion, for a blessing;
with all my might I love you;
your memory is to be blessed for ever.
Your hope is great, O Zion;
Peace and your awaited salvation will come.
Generation after generation shall dwell in you,
and generations of the pious shall be your ornament.
They who desire the day of your salvation
shall rejoice in the greatness of your glory.
They shall be suckled on the fullness of your glory,
and in your beautiful streets they shall make tinkling sounds.
You shall remember the pious deeds of your prophets,
and shall glorify yourself in the deeds of your pious ones.
Cleanse violence from your midst;
lying and iniquity, may they be cut off from you.
Your sons shall rejoice within you,
and your cherished ones shall be joined to you.
How much they have hoped in your salvation,
and how much your perfect ones have mourned for you?
Your hope, O Zion, shall not perish,
and your expectation will not be forgotten.
Is there a just man who has perished?
Is there a man who has escaped his iniquity?
Man is tried according to his way,
each is repaid according to his deeds.
Your oppressors shall be cut off from around you, O Zion,
and all who hate you shall be dispersed.
Your praise is pleasing, O Zion;
it rises up in all the world.
Many times I will remember you for a blessing;
I will bless you with all my heart.
You shall attain to eternal righteousness,
and shall receive blessings from the noble.
Take the vision which speaks of you,
and the dreams of the prophets requested for you.
Be exalted and increase O Zion;
Praise the Most High, your Redeemer!
May my soul rejoice in your glory!
Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Revised and extended 4th ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 241–242.

The phrase “the dreams of the prophets requested for you,” doesn’t really make any sense, but “requested for you” is about the only modern understanding of “tit’ba’e’ch” that fits. Essentially, it means “the dreams the prophets requested for you” or “investigated for you.”

Two doctoral students–Hanan Ariel and Alexey Yuditsky–suggest that the word also has a lost meaning, which is not usual. (For example, try to imagine future scholars puzzling over the social implications of the former usage of the word “gay” if only the modern meaning of the word was known to them. The lyrics of the theme song to The Flintstones take on a whole new meaning.)

[I]n Arabic, which is as close to Hebrew as say French is to English – the root taph-bet-ayin means “to go after,” “follow,” “overtake.”

Aha, thought the students: what if the mystery verb titbaech bore a rare meaning, not commonly known – not “seek” or “demand,” but “follow,” overtake”?

No modern references on Hebrew give that meaning to the root taph-bet-ayin. Yet not only Arabic but other similar Semitic languages as well ascribe to the root the meaning of “going forward” or “following after.”

And thus, Ariel and Yuditsky suggested that “the dreams of the prophets requested for you” actually means “The prophets’ vision will overtake you”.

In other words, ancient Israelites used taph-bet-ayin to mean follow, chase, overtake, not sue. That meaning fell into disuse over time, Ariel and Yuditsky surmise.

Actually, there is evidence of using taph-bet-ayin to mean “follow.” As Prof. Menahem Kistler helpfully pointed out to Ariel, the midrashic work Sifrei Devarim tells of scholars “who went abroad and traveled and arrived in Ptolemais” (that is, Acre). In this story, the word for “went” or “traveled” was based on the taph-bet-ayin root.

While about it, Ariel and Yuditsky also offered quirky new interpretations of two other mysterious phrases in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scholars had been puzzled about the word “taamol” in the Raz Nihyeh (known as “The Secret of the Way Things Are,” or the “Sapiential Work Scroll”). The students decided that again unusually, here it means “to bear” or “to suffer.” That verse means, they say – “Do not rejoice when you should mourn, so that you will not suffer during your life.”

In another place in the work, the Hebrew words avad b’ruach — which could be translated as “worked for the wind/spirit” — appear. Based on verses in scripture, they suggest that the expression refers to a slave who receives no compensation for his work — in other words, one who toils for nothing.

The idea of being overtaken by the vision of the prophets is a much more satisfactory understanding that the idea of prophets requesting a vision for the People of God. It’s not a huge story, but it’s a microcosm of the good work possible with some elements of modern criticism, and the reason we can’t dispense with its techniques.