The Earliest Biblical Painting?

Is this it?It comes from a house in Pompeii (buried by volcanic ash in 79 AD) and is believed to show Biblical scene of the Judgement of Solomon.

Bible History Daily has the whole story. Theodore Feder writes:

In the building known as the House of the Physician, excavators found a wall painting clearly depicting King Solomon seated on a raised tribunal and flanked by two counselors. As described in the Bible, two women have come to the Israelite monarch, each claiming to be the mother of the same infant. When Solomon orders the baby to be divided in half, the real mother, shown at the foot of the dais, pleads with him to spare the child and announces her willingness to relinquish her claim. The other woman is shown standing by the butcher block on which the infant has been placed. As a soldier raises an axe to do the king’s bidding, she seizes what she believes will be her portion, saying, according to the Biblical text, “Let it be neither mine, nor thine, but divide it.” It is obvious who the real mother is. The child is given to her unharmed as soldiers and observers look on, marveling at Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16–28).

The wall painting has now been removed and is on exhibit at the Museo Nazionale in Naples. While it is therefore well known to scholars, it has not previously been noted that this is the earliest depiction of a full-fledged Biblical scene known to us!

Was the painting commissioned by a Jew, an early Christian, a so-called God-fearer (gentiles who adopted many Jewish customs and beliefs, but did not converta) or simply an educated Roman?

There is good evidence that Jews lived in Pompeii. Kosher brands of the locally popular fish sauces were packed there and appropriately labeled Kosher Garum and Kosher Muria (garum castum, muria casta).1 A two-word inscription, Sodoma Gomora, also survives from a house front in Pompeii and may have been written by a Jew or, less likely, by an early Christian, either before the eruption of Vesuvius or by a digger soon afterwards. It is perhaps more affecting to imagine its having been hastily written in the midst of the eruption by someone who analogized the town’s impending fate with that of the two doomed Biblical cities.

Almost as intriguing is the big-head-style Socrates and Aristotle at the lower lefthand corner, intended to draw a connection between the wisdom of Solomon and the Greek philosophers.

Socrates and Aristotle

Germany: “Yep, We Still Hate Jews”

Did you know that Germany banned circumcision in May? True fact!


I … I just don’t know. I know some people get seriously het up about this issue [coughAndrewSullivancough], but I always assumed it was just gay guys and their phallic obsessions. I didn’t know a whole nation has suddenly gone nuts over penises.

I know what you’re thinking: this one of those guideline-type things, and they’re just recommending against it. Maybe they’ll just issue a warning or something.


A complaint was filed in Germany on Tuesday against Rabbi David Goldberg, the chief rabbi of the city of Hof in Bavaria, by a German doctor. The reason for the complaint was inflicting “physical harm” on a boy by circumcising him.

The case comes just as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, is visiting Berlin in a bid to garner support for the continuation of Jewish circumcisions after a court in Cologne ruled in May that circumcisions cause physical harm and are therefore illegal.

The doctor, a resident of the German state of Hesse, filed the complaint against Goldberg on the basis of the Cologne ruling. The public prosecutor of Hof, Gerhard Schmitt, confirmed the information in a conversation with the Jewish-German newspaper Juedische Allgemeine. Schmidtt added that it has not yet been decided whether legal proceedings would be carried out against the rabbi.

The problem arose after a doctor (not a mohel) botched a circumcision on a Muslim (not Jewish) boy, leading to Widespread Outrage and the general idea the Something Must Be Done to protect the precious foreskins of young German manhood from the death blades of the International Zionist Conspiracy. Or something.

Yes, this is real.

The complaint follows a court ruling banning the procedure for anything but medical reasons. I don’t know why a parental choice about circumcision is anyone else’s business, but some people care way too much about this subject. Go to an anti-circumcision site and read the deranged fantasies about children being strapped down and mutilated against their will by a barbaric religious cult. Good fun, in a Der Sturmerkind of way.

Julius Streicher meets Rob Liefeld

Germany decided that this Final Solution business had resulted in a spot of bad PR, so they’d just go ahead and functionally ban Judaism in their country with a BS ruling that criminalizes the brit milah, still held by the vast majority of Jews to be a Biblically-mandated sign of the covenant. (Yes, there are Jews who reject circumcision and have created various workaround welcoming rituals, but they’re in the minority.)

And before you start revving your dudgeon into high gear: I’m half German. So, honestly: save it.

Now I’m really going to blow the mind of the Uncut Lovers Club with this headline: Declining rates of US infant male circumcision could add billions to health care costs.

A team of disease experts and health economists at Johns Hopkins warns that steadily declining rates of U.S. infant male circumcision could add more than $4.4 billion in avoidable health care costs if rates over the next decade drop to levels now seen in Europe.

In a report to be published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine online Aug. 20, the Johns Hopkins experts say the added expense stems from new cases and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and related cancers among uncircumcised men and their female partners. They say the study is believed to be the first cost analysis to account for increased rates of multiple infectious diseases associated with lower rates of male circumcision, including HIV/AIDS, herpes and genital warts, as well as cervical and penile cancers. Previous research focused mostly on HIV, the single most costly disease whose risk of infection is decreased by male circumcision, a procedure that removes foreskin at the tip of the penis, hindering the buildup of bacteria and viruses in the penis’ skin folds.

According to the team’s analysis, if U.S. male circumcision rates among men born in the same year dropped to European rates, there would be an expected 12 percent increase in men infected with HIV (or 4,843); 29 percent more men infected with human papillomavirus (57,124); a 19 percent increase in men infected with herpes simplex virus (124,767); and a 211 percent jump in the number of infant male urinary tract infections (26,876). Among their female sex partners, there would be 50 percent more cases each of bacterial vaginosis (538,865) and trichomoniasis (64,585). The number of new infections with the high-risk form of human papillomavirus, which is closely linked to cervical cancer in women, would increase by 18 percent (33,148 more infections).

Stupid doctors and their stupid facts!

UPDATE: I have a feeling this post is about to get buried by angry anti-circumcision comments. I already had a bunch and I’ve let some post. I don’t have time to monitor this right now, and it’s just not a debate that I intend to host, so I’m turning off comments. Bottom line: it’s a parental choice, end of subject.

Where Dead Sea Scrolls Go, “Controversy” Follows

From the moment word of Muhammed edh-Dhib‘s discovery in the Judean desert began to circulate in scriptural and archaeological circles, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been shadowed by controversies. As a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review throughout the sturm und drang of the “liberation” of the scrolls in the early 1990s, the Strugnell controversy, and the theories and counter-theories about their origin, I followed the whole story in wearying detail. No one really cares any more, since the text–not the wounded vanity or past sins of an academic elite–is the important thing here, but I’m reminded that nothing–absolutely nothing–is said about the DSS without some controversy erupting from some quarter, often expressed in an alarmingly personal and insulting manner.

I’m not sure I can say why this is, except for the scrolls’ mystique of “hidden wisdom” that some once believe would rewrite Biblical history. The wife of a friend once assured me that the Vatican was keeping the scrolls secret because they would “blow the lid off the lie of Christianity.” The DSS, of course, were composed by the Essenes (an ascetic Jewish sect), not Christians, some time between the 2nd century BC and first century AD. Although this overlaps with the origins of Christianity, and thus illuminates one aspect of the culture in which Christianity took root, the texts themselves have no Christian connection whatsoever. (No, Robert Eisenman‘s ravings are not true. Not even close.) Oh, and the Vatican never had control of the scrolls. Other than that…

We’ve now seen all the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are quite clearly sectarian documents from a minor, but fascinating, group, as well as extensive copies of the Hebrew scriptures and some pseudepigrapha. What they tell us about these people, their time, and these texts is priceless, but only by way of fine-tuning what we already know: not by rewriting history. They show–contra Bart Ehrman–that the texts of scripture were actually fairly well preserved and consistent over time, with the variations in texts amounting to little more than minor alterations of language and syntax, and occasional compression or clarification.

Here’s an example from Deuteronomy 5:15 (changes in italics): Continue reading

The Dead Sea Scrolls Come to America

I wrote some quick personal reactions to the “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” exhibit when I first saw it. Now my full article is up at the National Catholic Register. It’s a good exhibit, and if you’re in the Philadelphia region, you need to check it out, or check in this fall to see if it’s continuing it’s tour across America. Maybe it will land at a museum near you.

Here’s a bit of the story:

PHILADELPHIA — A small selection of the Dead Sea Scrolls is touring America, supported by the largest set of Holy Land artifacts ever to travel outside of Israel. Following a successful run in New York, the touring exhibit, called “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” will be at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until October. Its next stop has not yet been determined.
At the heart of the exhibit: 20 pieces from texts discovered in caves overlooking the Dead Sea.

In 1946 (or possibly 1947), a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave and heard something smash. He was disappointed to find crumbling scrolls, along with some of the pottery in which they had been stored, rather than treasure, but the scrolls themselves would prove to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.

By 1956, 11 more caves were discovered and explored, resulting in the recovery of more than 100,000 fragments from 900-plus different documents.

Catholics were involved in the process from early on, with Dominican Father Roland de Vaux leading the project and heading up the excavation of the nearby settlement of Qumran. It was Father de Vaux who made the link between the scrolls, Qumran and a community of ascetic Jews called the Essenes.

Described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder, the Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished perhaps as early as 200 years before the birth of Christ and seemed to have faded away following the Jewish Revolt. At some point, most likely during the uprising against Rome, the scrolls were secreted away in the caves for protection, and when the community was lost, they were forgotten until their discovery 1,900 years later. (Although this is the dominant theory, some scholars take sharp exception to this interpretation of the evidence of the scrolls and the remains at Qumran.)

The finds shed important light on a period of Jewish history and life in which Christianity also began to grow. The scrolls included pieces of every Old Testament text except for Esther, and thus are particularly important for understanding the textual history of the Bible.

As Father Patrick Brady, chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, observes, “The Bible was a handwritten text, and, over centuries, copying errors creep into the text. The oldest Old Testament manuscripts that we possessed before the discovery dated to the eighth century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer us manuscripts, some of which date back to 200 B.C. The DSS documents include things written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Among them were parts of three Deuterocanonical documents: Sirach written in Hebrew, Tobit written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and part of Baruch in Greek. These discoveries show the fluidity of the canon at that time.”

The find also included texts by the community, scriptural commentaries and other writings which illuminate the life of the people who made and treasured the scrolls. They form a vital part of understanding the life of first-century Judaism, the textual history of the scriptural canon, and the fertile religious soil in which the Church took root and grew.

As Father Brady says, “They allow us to see how some Jews lived, thought and worshipped in the first century and broaden our understanding of the Messianic and eschatological expectations of Judaism when Jesus began to preach and teach about the Kingdom of God.”

Read the rest.

Gaza Christians Claim Forced Conversions

Haaretz is reporting that dozens of Christians in Gaza held a rare pubic protest against persecution at the hands of Muslims. The group is claiming that two Christians were forcibly converted to Islam and are still being held against their will. The Christians rang a church bell and chanted, “”With our spirit, with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus.”

Police in Gaza say that the two Christians converted of their own free will, and are staying with Muslims voluntarily out of fear of retribution from the Christians. However, Gaza’s embattled Christian population tends to keep a very low profile. It would be extremely unusual for them to make such a public display without cause. Among Gaza’s 1.7 million people, barely 1,500  Christians remain.

More from Haaretz:

“If things remain like this, there’ll be no Christians left in Gaza,” said Huda Al-Amash, mother of one of the converts, Ramez, 25. She sat sobbing in a church hallway alongside her daughters, Ranin and Rinad, and a dozen other women. “Today it’s Ramez. Then who, and who will be next?”

The two converts, Al-Amash, and Hiba Abu Dawoud, 31, could not be reached for comment. Abu Dawould took her three daughters with her, further enraging the community.

On Monday, groups of men and women stood in groups in the square of the ancient Church of Saint Porphyrius, angrily chanting,” Bring back Ramez!” One man angrily hit the church bell.

“People are locking up their sons and daughters, worried about the ideas people put in their head,” said Al-Amash’s mother, Huda.

A Thank You To My Readers, and a Bit of Housekeeping

Thanks to all the readers who have used my Amazon links when accessing the Amazon site. It’s a small thing to do, but it yields great rewards for bloggers involved with the Amazon Affiliates program. Because of all your clicking, I was able to pick up a big, expensive tome needed for my studies: Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, by Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Y.H. Rawnitzky.

This isn’t a brick: this is a cinderblock. It’s almost 1,000 pages long and oversized, and is a staggering collection of rabbinic lore from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the midrashic literature. The beauty of the collection is that it focuses on the aggadah, which is the non-legal portions of the tradition, and groups them according to theme and topic, fully indexed by scripture citation and keyword. It’s something I really wish I had for Logos, and I imagine they’ll get to it eventually.

I kept various copies of this book out of the library for almost 8 months, so it’s good to finally have my own to mark up. The texts of the aggadah developed almost simultaneously with the emergence of Christianity, and provide a window into rabbinic perspectives on the texts of the Old Testament.

For instance, when I was doing exegesis on 1 Samuel 3, I wrote about the point in 1 Samuel 3:2 when we learn that Eli’s “sight is going dim.” This is not just his literal blindness, but also his prophetic sight and his ability to “see” the true will of Lord. The next line tells us that the “lamp of God had not yet gone out,” which is not merely a reference to the light hanging in the tabernacle, but also to the light of Eli.  As the midrash says, “No righteous man ever departs from the world until a righteous man like him is brought into being.” (Sefer Ha-Aggadah 114:59) The lamp is the light of Eli, fading but dim, and about to be extinguished in favor of the light of Samuel.

The book is jammed with material like this, and it’s a far more organized way to explore it than attempting to pour through the voluminous midrashic literature. So: thanks for book, and keep clicking!

In other news: Continue reading

Technology and Archaeology in the Holy Land

Thomas Levy, the Norma Kershaw Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands at the University of California (San Diego), gives a TEDTalk about the convergence of technology and archaeology in the Holy Land. In particular, he explains about “cyber-archaeology”: using the latest tech for visualization, data collection and management, and site analysis. New techniques are pumping out vast amounts of data, and Levy talks about the fascinating way they’re wrestling that data into usable forms.

The great thing about this application of tech (particularly visualization) to archaeology is that it renders  archaeological data into forms that can be comprehended by the general public. Due to hyper-specialization (a problem for most academic disciplines), scholars often create information of use to only a small handful of other scholars. This has its role, of course (I both read and write academic pieces in my area of study: theology), but unless the fruits of that research is made accessible to the public, it’s a pointless exercise conducted by an elite group for their own amusement.

Check out Levy’s work at The Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land.

Levantine DNA in Ethiopia May Support Biblical Story

Genetic researchers believe they’ve found evidence that people from Israel, Egypt, or Syria mixed with Ethiopians 3000 years ago. The timing of this appearance of the new DNA coincides with the historical period in which the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. According to legend, the queen returned to Ethiopia bearing Solomon’s son.

Professor Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, a researcher on the study, told BBC News: “Genetics can tell us about historical events.

“By analysing the genetics of Ethiopia and several other regions we can see that there was gene flow into Ethiopia, probably from the Levant, around 3,000 years ago, and this fits perfectly with the story of the Queen of Sheba.”

Lead researcher Luca Pagani of the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute added: “The genetic evidence is in support of the legend of the Queen of Sheba.”

More than 200 individuals from 10 Ethiopian and two neighbouring African populations were analysed in the largest genetic investigation of its kind on Ethiopian populations.

About a million genetic letters in each genome were studied. Previous Ethiopian genetic studies have focussed on smaller sections of the human genome and mitochondrial DNA, which passes along the maternal line.

Dr Sarah Tishcoff of the Department of Genetics and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, said Ethiopia would be an important region to study in the future.

Commenting on the study, she said: “Ethiopia is a very diverse region culturally and linguistically but, until now, we’ve known little about genetic diversity in the region.

“This paper sheds light on the very interesting recent and ancient population history of a region that played an important role in both recent and ancient human migration events.

“In particular, the inference of timing and location of admixture with populations from the Levant is very interesting and is a unique example of how genetic data can be integrated with historical data.”

The scientists acknowledge that there are uncertainties about dating, with a probable margin of error of a few hundred years either side of 3,000 years.

Jumping straight to the Queen of Sheba seems like an awfully large leap, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless, and the time is suggestive.

“Dear Jew … Shield Your Eyes”

photo from The Forward

A group of Haredi Jews (those typically characterized as “ultra-orthodox” by the media) have placed a giant red billboard beside the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, warning in Hebrew “Dear Jew: You are entering a dangerous place. Shield your eyes.” The words “Shield your eyes” are also written in English.

Considering the kinds of speeds people do on the BQE, I really hope drivers aren’t taking that too literally.

The sign is a reminder for Jews to practice “Shmiras Einayim,” which is similar to what Catholics call “custody of the eyes,” but far more intense.  It’s aimed at orthodox Jews commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and is sponsored by a group called the Congregation of Yad Moshe. The orthodox have little regard for the temptations of Manhattan, and even less for its secular Jews. Depending upon who you read, it’s either a simple warning to help Jews remain pure, or a more pointed social/political message coming from the Haredi, who recently gathered in staggering numbers for a conference on the dangers of the internet. I vote for “both.”

Some will see this as Haredi simply being obnoxious and trying to assert authority over their members, while others will see it as a simple encouragement to piety in a wicked world. There are mixed reactions in various comboxes, even from Haredi. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but as I’ve said before, I’m genuinely sympathetic to people attempting to peacefully practice a traditional faith in the modern world, even when I don’t agree with either their faith or their methods.

Visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls in Philadelphia

As I mentioned earlier, I spent my morning at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia visiting the touring exhibit Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times. I have to write a news story about it for the National Catholic Register, but I thought I’d give you some quick impressions.

First of all: see it. If you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth it, wonder no longer. It’s a superb exhibit with over 600 artifacts: the largest collection ever to travel outside of the Israel. Any Christian, Jew, or Muslim–or anyone with an interest in Biblical history–will find it a deeply meaningful, perhaps even profound, experience. These are actual, tangible pieces of life from Biblical times. Objects used in the courts of the kings of Israel and Judah, and just items found in average households, bring the stories at core of our faith to life.

I’m not going to go into the background of the Dead Sea Scrolls right now. The Wiki entry is as a good a place to start as any for an overview. Short version: a group of ascetic Jews called the Essenes created a small community at Qumran, outside of Jerusalem, to wait out the apocalypse and practice being more holy than regular Jews. They produced a large number of scrolls, including almost all of the Hebrew scriptures, a number of apocryphal texts, and their own community rules and commentaries. These were hidden in caves near Qumran for unknown reasons, and discovered again in 1947, on the eve of the creation of the state of Israel. They are the oldest copies of scripture texts in existence, and provide a priceless insight in the religious milieu of the intertestamental period. The Essenes grew in the exact same soil as Christianity, and although the two movements were not related, each can tell us something about the other.

The heart of the exhibit are ten of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are kept in minimal light in a low circular display. There are, in fact, 20 scrolls traveling with the exhibit, but only 10 are shown at a time because of restrictions on exposure to light. There are some sizable fragments of the DSS, but none of the big marquee items like the Copper Scroll or the 27-foot long Temple Scroll. Obviously, those can’t travel. There are pieces of Psalms, Isaiah, Joshusa, Genesis, Exodus, and more.

One striking aspect of the Psalms scroll is the way the tetragrammaton is written in a different kind of script, called paleo-Hebrew. In other words, the copyist deliberately changed the form of his letters to an archaic style in order to write the name of God. Although some of the scrolls are almost impossible to read due to fading, discoloration, and low light, the Psalms scroll is clear and easy to read. Continue reading