Burnt Biblical Scroll Deciphered by Digital Technology

A burnt scroll discovered inside in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, Israel can finally be read thanks to new technology. At first considered a lost cause because it was both wrapped and burnt, University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales were able to digitally “unwrap” it to reveal the oldest lines of Leviticus (Lev 1:1-8) discovered since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The combination of high-resolution scanning and the team’s “unwrapping” software made the discovery possible. The scroll was discovered in 1970 at an excavation of Ein Gedi, and is dated to the 6th century AD.

The research team at UK produced the flattened, readable text from the micro-computed tomography of the Ein Gedi scroll via the following successive stages:

1. Volume preparation

The data scan from the micro-CT machine is processed in order to enhance the ability to see the structures in the scan: the surface of the material, and the ink that is written on that material.

2. Surface segmentation

The data scan is carefully partitioned into the surfaces on which there is writing.  This partitioning is automatic and uses computer algorithms that are being developed through research. The result is a 3-D surface that is positioned exactly in the data volume where there is evidence of surfaces and writing.  Because the surfaces are rolled up layers within the scroll, they are shaped like tightly coiled sheets of paper.

3. User guidance

The user revises and improves the surface estimates that were made automatically by the surface segmentation step. The user is guided by views of the data scan and a draft view of how the surface appears in the scan.

4. Texture rendering

The completed surface is rendered as a high quality 3-D surface with the texture (markings, structure and ink evidence) from its precise position in the original data scan. The rendering step also produces a flattened version of the 3-D surface texture. This unwraps the potentially curvy and coiled 3-D surface so that it is a single flat page.

This video explains the process using the tasty medium of pastry.

Pope Benedict, Creation, and Biblical Criticism

My paper “The Word in Creation: The Ratzingerian Critique of the Historical-Critical Method and Its Application to the Creation Accounts” is up at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Two of my preoccupations during my master’s studies were Creation (particularly the Augustinian understanding of Genesis) and the theology of Pope Benedict. This paper was where the two converged thanks to Ratzinger’s little masterpiece In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, which allowed me to explore his approach to Biblical criticism in the context of unfolding Genesis 1.

Here’s a bit of it:

Creation was not a preoccupation of the Israelites until after the Babylonian captivity, when they began looking back at their origins and—drawing on ancient tradition—developed the passages into the form we now know. What they tell the Jews is simply this: God was never just the God of one piece of land or one place. If he was, then he could be overthrown by another, stronger “god.” After Israel lost everything, and began encountering God again in their misery, they came to understand that this was the God of all people, all lands, and indeed, of all the universe. He had this power, first in Israel, then in Babylon, because he created the world and all that was in it.

In captivity, they heard creation myths such as that of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which tells of Marduk splitting the body of a dragon in two to form the world, and fashioning humans out of dragon blood. All of this dark and primordial nonsense is banished by the image of an earth “without form and void.” No more dragons, no more gods, no more violence and blood: just the pure power of creation from nothing, by a God who made man, not to suffer and struggle and die, but to walk in paradise.

There was order to creation, not chaos. It emerged from Reason, not madness. And it was spoken into being by the Word of God. Indeed, Jews believed that the Torah existed before creation. Creation happened to make the Torah known.

Furthermore, the shape of the creation account itself was meant to echo the Torah and to sanctify time and the week. Time becomes sacred in this account, with man laboring for six days in imitation of God, and resting to worship God on the seventh, in imitation of the “rest” of God Himself. The creation accounts thus build towards, and culminate in, the Sabbath, “which is the sign of the covenant between God and humankind.”24 In a very real sense, then, the creation account can be seen as liturgical: “Creation exists for the sake of worship.” That final day is a day in which humanity itself participates in the freedom of the almighty, provided to us in the covenant. We “enter his rest” (in the words of Psalm 95 and Hebrews).

Read the rest.

Hip-Deep Heaps of Quail!

Today’s infographic comes courtesy of Translation Follies. It purports to illustrate Numbers 11:31, in which the Lord sends quail in abundance to the Israelites.

From Logos Bible Software

From Logos Bible Software

Some Bibles, including the NAB, do indeed translate the passage as “at a depth of two cubits upon the ground.” Even the fairly literal NASB adds an italicized deep in the passage.

The Hebrew, however, roughly works out to “about two cubits the surface the land,” without mentioning depth. (The Septuagint uses the Greek ἀπό, which means “away from” the land.)

The RSV gets it right with the key word “above” rather than “deep.” That is to say, the birds flew low–two cubits, or about 3 feet–over a large swath of land, making them easier to kill, not that Israelites were wading hip deep in a sea of quail swarming on the ground.




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.”


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.

And Then We Shall Die

1 Kings 17:7-16 contains one of those arresting sentences  that show the depth of suffering and living death people can reach before being restored to life by the Lord:

[Elijah said] “Please bring me a little water in a vessel so I can drink.” As she went to bring (it), he called to her: “Please bring me a bit of bread in your hand.” She said: “By the life of YHWH, your God, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in the jug and a little oil in the flask. Here I am gathering a few sticks, so that I can go in and prepare it for myself and my son. We shall it eat and then we shall die.”

Strozzi: Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta

God has sent Elijah to Zerephath, a foreign land outside of the power of his persecutor, Ahab. Zerephath is in Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and is the homeland of Jezebel and her god Baal. (Indeed, this story is part of a larger sequence showing the victory of God over Baal.) It is strange, then, that this foreign window recognizes him as an Israelite holy man and uses the phrase “By the life of YHWH, your God…”

A terrible drought afflicts the land. People suffer and die. The dryness of the land is reflected in the spiritual dryness of the people. It’s a sign of the growing insufficiency of the old law and the coming of a new law which will be written directly on the hearts of man by Christ.

Elijah gives us a foretaste of that new law when he is the conduit for a miracle. The woman’s action call to mind the story of the widow’s mite: she is ready to give the last measure of her grain to this stranger. Does she do this out of faith and hope, or out of despair? She has already decided she and her son are dead, and is resigned to the fate she had planned, but does this holy man stir something new in her?

There in a barren, dried land of famine, with no more than a handful of meal and a few drops oil–poor, miserable, spiritually dead without a true god (she refers to “your God” when speaking to Elijah)–she is as dead as the living can be.

And yet the presence of God comes to her in through the prophet, and a small flicker of grace prompts her to give her last mouthful to this man and thus prove by her works the goodness still alive in her heart.

What these passages offer, of course, is a powerful pre-figuration of Christ. Elijah is sent to the lowest of the low (a widow would have been utterly dependent on others to survive); he is sent to non-Israelites; he is the means by which a miracle of food is affected, as the grain and oil are replenished; and he follows this with another miracle by raising a boy from the dead.

Even the passing phrase she utters about “collecting a couple of sticks” suggests deeper meaning: isn’t the cross a “couple of sticks”? She has done what we must all do to be saved: she has taken up her cross.

Jesus himself mentions the widow in Luke 4:24–26, using this passage to explain that he will be rejected by his own but accepted by gentiles:

Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

Why was the widow of Zarephath favored? Partly to show the power of the true God against the false gods, but also to show how God lifts up the lowly and rewards those who give freely. It also looks forward to the day in which God will extend to all humanity the favor He has shown Israel.

Something even more powerful beats within this story, however, with powerful themes of want, suffering, and death. The woman and her son were near death. In the next story, the widow’s son does die, and is brought back to life. (Note: Some exegetes believe, without good reason, that these two stories are about two different widows.) Death stalks these passages like a beast devouring the innocent, laying waste to vast stretches of humanity.

T.S. Eliot, describing The Waste Land, shows us “fear in a handful of dust”: another image of death. But in this passage, we see death defeated by no more than a handful of meal.

That meal will be transformed by Christ into the Eucharist, which provides a food that gives life far beyond what a mere cake of grain and oil can do.

We all must die to be Christians: die to our troubled pasts, the world, our selfishness, our disordered desires, our sin. There is no new birth in Christ without death. There are a thousand little deaths that come before the last death, and in those little deaths new life springs forth. We become new creation in Christ as the one passes away.

The handful of grain the window gave to Elijah was once a seed, which fell to the ground and died, and in dying produced many seeds. If we allow ourselves to truly trust in Christ, to lift up his cross, and join him in death, then we too will spring up as new growth, with a new life that will never end.

Is The Fate of Ark of the Covenant Revealed in Hebrew Text?

Unless “somewhere in the middle east” or “in the hands of angels” is your idea of a location, then … no, but that didn’t stop LiveScience from attaching a click-bait headline to their story on the new translation of the pseudepigraphal “Treatise of the Vessels.”

The translation is important, however, since it marks the first English appearance of the “Treatise,” and brings this curious work to a wider audience for the first time.

The text does not mention the location of the Ark, but remarks that it and other treasures “shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David …”

The translation is found in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, co-edited by James Davila, who writes at PaleoJudaica and teaches at the University of St. Andrews. As Davila says in his introduction, “Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel …”

The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic “Copper Scroll,” one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon’s Temple.

The Treatise of the Vessels (Massekhet Kelim) is recorded in the 1648 Hebrew book Emek Halachah, published in Amsterdam. In the book the Treatise is published as Chapter 11 (one of its two pages shown here). The two pages also contain material from other book chapters.

The treatise describes the treasures in an imaginative way. One part refers to “seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world.”

The “Treatise” is valuable and its translation welcome, but it tells us nothing about the location of the ark. Nevertheless, the article has some interesting details on the scroll that contained the original text, and is worth a read in full.

“Five Flat Rocks”

In case I didn’t convince you that $5 was a steal for some great gospel bluegrass from The Del McCoury Band, here’s a little more proof for your consideration. Just the thing to light up a dreary, damp Saturday morning:

Israel rebelled in peril back in David’s time
‘Cause Goliath was the champion of the Philistines
Israel was shaken, stricken by fear
But God called a champion though young in years

Five flat rocks from the river bed,
It only took one and the giant lay dead

Saul offered his armor,
But David said no,
I believe I’ll wear my shepherd’s clothes
Five flat rocks, a sack, and a sling
Look how God makes a king

But David had faith and he did know
The lion and the bear couldn’t take him on
So he knew he’d take the giant down
Ten foot tall, Lord, he hit the ground.

Five flat rocks, shepherd’s clothes
The angels were singing around God’s throne

Wine in the Old Testament

Bread was the ordinary food of the people, but wine was for celebration. It was a symbol of joy. It was considered so important in the ritual life of the Jews that people had the responsibility to provide wine for the poor during the feasts if the poor could not provide it for themselves.

Egyptian wine press and storehouse

The grape harvest was a festive time (Is 16:10) that includes feasting, singing , and dancing (Jeremiah 48:33, Judges 21:20–21). Wine was produced by gathering grapes into large vat, which would have been carved from stone, or made of wood or clay. This vat (called a “gat”) was connected to a lower cistern (a “bor”) via a pipe.

Grapes were pressed in the gat, with the juice passing through a pipe, strained using linen to remove husks and other unwanted bits, and ending up in the bor. It was stored in large receptacles of wood or pottery, sealed with pitch.

Wine had to stand for 40 days before it was usable as a drink offering. Once it had settled, it would be decanted into jars or skins (Matt 9:17). As with all wine, there were varieties by region, with red preferred to white, as well as blends. Some added water and balsam to old wine, sacred incense, honey and pepper, and different spices. There were myriad variations, levels of quality, and special wines for special occasions. The Jewish Encyclopedia identifies a number of them:

“Yayin” was the ordinary matured, fermented wine, “tirosh” was a new wine, and “shekar” was an old, powerful wine (“strong drink”). The red wine was the better and stronger (Ps 75:9, Prov 23:31). Perhaps the wine of Helbon (Ezek 27:18) and the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:77) were white wines. The vines of Hebron were noted for their large clusters of grapes (Num. 13:23). Samaria was the center of vineyards (Jeremiah 31: 5; Micah 1:6), and the Ephraimites were heavy wine-drinkers (Is 28:1). There were also “yayin ha-reḳaḥ” (spiced wine; Song 8:2), “ashishah” (hardened sirup of grapes), “shemarim (wine-dregs), and “ḥomeẓ yayin” (vinegar). Some wines were mixed with poisonous substances (“yayin tar’elah”; Ps 60:5). The “wine of the condemned” (“yen ‘anushim”) is wine paid as a forfeit (Amos 2:8), and “wine of violence” (Prov 4:17) is wine obtained by illegal means.

Merchant with wineskin

“The Lord gives us wine to make our heart glad,” the Psalms tell us. (Ps 104:15) Wine was a gift from God (Deut. 7:13, Ps. 104:15) and at the end of time, it would be provided in great abundance. (Jer. 31:12; Joel 3:18, Amos 9:13-14) That theme of abundance is key: bread meant life, but wine meant something extra added on to life. There was an element of luxury about it. It meant abundance, and was used in both feasting and mourning to celebrate good times (Eccles. 10:19) and to dull the pain of bad times (Prov 31:6).

Amos 9:13-14 provides vivid imagery of the importance of wine to the Jews:

13 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine…”

God’s promise of wine would have been a symbol of salvation to the Jews. It was against this background that Jesus made wine the source of his first miracle John, and then placed it, along with bread, at the center of the Eucharistic celebration.

For the references to wine in the Old Testament, click here.

For other posts in this series, click here.


Ancient wine press

All photos from Verbum Bible Software.

Bread & Wine | Life & Abundance

The moment when the Lord comes down and transforms bread and wine to become his Body and Blood cannot fail to stun, to the very core of their being, those who participate in the Eucharist by faith and prayer. When this happens, we cannot do other than fall to our knees and greet him. The Consecration is the moment of God’s great actio in the world for us. It draws our eyes and hearts on high. For a moment the world is silent, everything is silent, and in that silence we touch the eternal—for one beat of the heart we step out of time into God’s being-with-us.

Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

There’s something simultaneously humble and profound in the use of bread and wine to convey the presence of Christ in the world. Bread and wine were deeply important to both the ritual and physical lives of the Jews, and thus it was natural for Christ to use them as vehicles for his new covenant. In doing so, he both fulfilled and extended their role and meaning.

Themes of replacement and abundance are central to the gospel of John. Jewish institutions, rituals, and feasts are to be replaced with the person of Christ himself. In particular, wine and bread shall be provided in great abundance, in fulfillment of the messianic promises of the Old Testament.

Over the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of catechesis on bread and wine in the Old Testament, and the way it is transformed in John’s gospel.

I want to start by isolating all the passages referencing bread and wine in both the Old and New Testaments, which is an easy task to do with Verbum. Here are the results:

Bread in the Old Testament and the New Testament

Here’s the distribution of the word bread among the books of the OT and NT:

“Bread” in the Old Testament

The use of “bread” in the OT is complex, since the word (לֶחֶם lechem) could have various meanings in Semitic languages, with the root representing any staple food. Thus, “in Arabic one has laḥm, ‘meat,’ in Ethiopic laḥm, ‘cow,’ and in the South Arabic language of Soqoṭra leḥem, ‘fish.’ In Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic lḥm referred to bread specifically and food generally.” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman) The highest number of references are grouped in Exodus, Leviticus, and 1 Samuel.

“Bread” in the New Testament

In the NT, it’s a little simpler, with  ἄρτος (artos, “bread”) used pretty consistently.  As you can see, the Gospels represent the most frequent usage of “bread,” with John having the most at 20.

Wine in the Old Testament and the New Testament

“Wine” in the Old Testament

Isaiah has by far the most references to wine, and we’ll see why as we go through this catechesis. There are several Hebrew words that get translated into “wine,” but the most common יַיִן (yayin).

“Wine” in the New Testament

By contrast with references to bread, references to wine are more predominant in Revelation (again, for reasons we’ll see) than the gospels. The Greek word here is οἶνος (ŏinŏs, “wine”).

These two elements become the vector for intense meaning both in the Old Testament and the New. Even before the last supper, bread and wine were imbued with deep layers of significance for the Jews. As we’ll see in this catechesis, together they fulfill key elements of John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 7: The Burial of Christ

The Entombment of Christ (Caravaggio)

This post concludes a series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

This 100,000 year history of human burial converges on a single point and a single day: a Friday in Jerusalem around the year 30 AD. Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross, and his body is taken down at the request of a wealthy man from Arimathea named Joseph. The sun is setting and the sabbath is about to begin, when no burial will be allowed. Joseph must get the body of Jesus in a tomb or it will not be properly buried within 24 hours after death, as required by Jewish law.

Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph had the body laid in a rock-cut tomb which he had commissioned for his own family, but had not used. We know this is the case because Matthew tells us it was a “new” tomb. It’s rather extraordinary that a man would lay a non-family member in a new tomb made for his family, and explains the reverence we still have for Joseph. (Tradition holds that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the location of the tomb, but the church was leveled by Muslims in the 11th century, so very little of the original site remains.)

The specification of a “new” tomb would have said something different to the reader of Jesus’s time than it may to us. We consider “new” to be wonderful thing. But, as we’ve seen throughout these posts, being “gathered to your ancestors” was very important for the Jews. People were laid amidst their loved ones and relatives. There was a sense of connection to that which came before.

This was denied to Jesus. The tomb he was in was the tomb of a relative stranger. It had never been used, and thus there were no other remains to be “gathered to.” There were no grave goods with him: just a single winding sheet. He was unwashed, unannointed. This would have struck Jews of the time as a remarkably sad way to be laid to rest. He was alone in a strange place disconnected from his people: it’s a very forlorn image of despair even in death.

If Jesus had not been raised, perhaps he would have been moved to simple trench-cut tomb after the women finished cleaning and anointing his body. Or perhaps he would have laid on a bench in that rock cut tomb until a new member of Joseph’s family died. At the point, the stone would have been rolled away and another body interred. At some later date, after the flesh had decayed, his bones would have probably been gathered into an ossuary to make room for another body.

Layout of a typical burial chamber

But something else happened. The women were unable to perform their ablutions on the man they called Lord. Of all the burials and customs we’ve seen and discussed, from es-Skhul to the ossuary of Caiaphas, this one ended like no other.

Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave. The man Joseph laid in that new tomb would be the first born among all the dead.

Death itself was, finally, conquered.



Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land )Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Negev, Avraham, Ed. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

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