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More on the Qumran Latrines

22nd December 2006

Ha’aretz has an article on the Qumran Latrines by Ran Shapira (“The hidden latrines of the Essenes“) that is worth a gander. Here is an excerpt:

Anthropologist Joe Zias, of the Hebrew University Science and Archaeology Department, recently found positive evidence of the Essenes’ adherence to these rituals. Together with Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and parasitologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, Zias found the latrines that were used by the Essenes in Qumran. The three researchers say that, in addition to shedding a great deal of light on the unique culture of the Essenes in Qumran, the discovery represents an archaeological bonanza: Additional proof that the Essenes wrote the scrolls. Zias explains that when feces are left on the desert floor, exposure to sun and wind quickly annihilates intestinal parasites. But when feces are buried in the earth, intestinal parasites may survive for many months and their eggs may be preserved for as long as 2,000 years, as in the case of Qumran.

The presence of the eggs of intestinal parasites, typically present in human intestines, in a relatively limited area, in the place described in the scrolls and by Josephus, led researchers to conclude that they discovered the bathroom of Qumran’s ancient residents. “Only ascetic members of a sect that paid such close attention to hygiene would bother to walk hundreds of meters beyond their camp to relieve themselves, and invest the necessary energy to dig a pit in which to bury their waste,” Zias concludes.

For what it is worth, I agree with Joe Zias. I find the non-Essene hypotheses that disconnect the scrolls from the community not as plausible as a modified Essene hypothesis. See here and here for other posts on this discovery.

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries, News, Qumran | Comments Off

Bono, the Red Campaign, and Advanced Capitalism

21st December 2006

By now everyone has heard about Bono’s latest “Red Campaign” to raise awareness and money for AIDs relief in Africa. It’s been everywhere — in the news, and more importantly, on Oprah (if you haven’t heard about it yet, then check out this website). This campaign is meant to mobilize first world consumers by providing “red” buying options for which their manufacturer will donate some of their profits to AIDs relief. The website emphasizes that this isn’t a charity, but more of a business model. So now you can go and purchase red shirts from The Gap, a red iPod from Apple, a red phone from Motorola, and “red” sneakers from Converse, and know that when you purchase such an item some of the profits would go to AIDs relief in Africa.

Now, one one level I don’t think this is a bad campaign. In our consumer-oriented, image-obsessed society people who perhaps wouldn’t give otherwise will buy themselves a new toy (read: iPod) or designer apparel and at least some money is being raised for a good cause. But I think it is a horrible shame that charities have to use so many gimmicks to get people to donate some money to a worthy cause. Why can’t people just give?

My Edmonton colleague across town at The King’s University College, Stephen Martin, has raised some other questions about the appropriateness of this campaign. Here is an excerpt of his post on the Red campaign:

So here’s my question: insofar as global capitalism is the nurturing soil of the empire that maintains Africa’s people in bondage, is Bono not engaging in a massive legitimation of savage capitalism, and thereby assuaging the conscience of the Beast? Are not The Gap, American Express, and the like analogous to the cult parodied in Revelation 13 as the “False Prophet” who compels people to obtain a special mark, else they can neither buy nor sell? Can “ethical” capitalism save the world from the effects of “savage” capitalism? It reminds me of that other argument about [usually our] “righteous” and “just” violence saving the world from [usually their] “terrorist” violence.

I encourage you to read the entire post; it is quite provocative to say the least. He definitely raises questions about the appropriateness of “getting into bed” with advanced capitalism, though I know that Bono will metaphorically “sleep” with (almost?) anyone if it helps raise support for an important cause. That being said, Martin’s concluding paragraph is worth reproducing:

George Grant used to warn his students “when you sleep with Nietzsche, it’s always you that end up pregnant.” Could the same be said of transnational capitalists? If so, I hope Bono’s using protection. He’ll be in my prayers. In the meantime I’ll say no thanks to the red iPod (and the measly ten bucks Apple will send to Africa on my behalf) and look at more constructive avenues.

I can’t afford an iPod, no matter what colour! So I guess I will just have to donate some money “gimmick free.” (And I would encourage you to do so by whatever means possible).

Posted in News, Popular Culture, U2 | 10 Comments »

Dead Sea Scrolls in Canada? I Hope So!

6th December 2006

When the travelling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit was beginning its rounds in the United States, I emailed the curator of the Royal Alberta Museum here in Edmonton about trying to get the exhibit up here in Canada. I received in reply a very polite letter indicating that with the major renovations happening … this wouldn’t be possible for a number of years. Bummer.
Well, it now looks like bringing the Scrolls exhibit to Canada may be in the works! I just read a news column in the Canadian Jewish News by Alex Gropper in which he notes the following:

Now that we’ve talked about the past, let’s move forward into the future. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has just been registered as a Canadian charity and has approached me for help in bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls to Canada, starting with a blockbuster exhibit at the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Negotiations have begun. Stay tuned to this column for more information.

This is exciting news. Now I just have to work on getting the exhibit to come to Edmonton!

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, News | Comments Off

The Christmas (His)Story

5th December 2006

Ever wonder about the historical accuracy of the Nativity Story? There are a couple recent news articles on this very topic.

Most recently, Yahoo!News issued a press release on the topic (“Professor Shows Accuracy of Bible’s Christmas Story, Debunks Popular Myths“) in which Dr. Jack Kinneer, New Testament professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) in Pittsburgh, responds to some of the questions about the authenticity of the birth narratives of Jesus.
Here is an excerpt:

Myth: We can only vaguely date when Jesus was born.
Reply: “Scripture, ancient history, and modern astronomy enable us to pinpoint Jesus’ birth within the winter months of 5-4 B.C.”

Myth: Matthew made up the appearance of a star.
Reply: “Modern astronomy calculations confirm extraordinary celestial phenomena during this exact time period.”

Myth: It is implausible that the Magi would have traveled from Persia to see the star.
Reply: “It is implausible that they would not journey to see it, as they were not kings, but astrologers. It was their job to study and interpret luminaries in light of ancient prophecies.”

Myth: Jesus’ birth was at the star’s appearance, several years before the Magi’s arrival.
Reply: “Herod’s decree to kill Hebrew sons two years old and under after the Magi’s visit presumes the birth of Jesus may have just occurred. Matthew’s Greek grammar describes the birth of Jesus as the timely setting of the Magi’s arrival.”

Myth: Jesus was two to three years old when the Magi arrived.
Reply: “He was no more than a few months old.”

Myth: The dating of Christmas on December 25 accommodates a pagan feast.
Reply: “It is a calculated estimation from when the angel appeared to Zechariah during his datable priestly duties.”

Myth: The Hebrew “virgin” birth citation is embellished.
Reply: “The Isaiah 7:14 quote was interpreted as “virgin” by Jews centuries before New Testament times.”

Myth: Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt was a long overland journey and stay of a number of years.
Reply: It was probably a brief boat trip and a stay of only a few weeks to a month, which fits the setting of historical political events.”

I don’t have time to comment on any of this right now (I really should be marking!), though I will say that some of his points are over-stated and simplistic (read on…).

Another recent story in the Times Online (“The Real Christmas Story“), Oxford professor Geza Vermes provides a different perspective and highlights four features of the traditional nativity story that do not derive from the gospels.

…The date of Christmas on December 25 does not appear until AD334 when in a Roman church calendar the Nativity of the Lord replaces the pagan feast of the Unvanquished Sun. Before the 4th century, the birth of Jesus was celebrated on January 6 (Epiphany), or April 21 or May 20.

The idea that Joseph was an old widower with a grown-up family comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, written in the 2nd century in an attempt to make less puzzling the by then current doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the gospel references to brothers and sisters of Jesus. The presence of an ox and an ass in the stable is also alien to the New Testament.

As for the kings or wise men, they were neither. Matthew calls them magi, magicians or stargazers, without mentioning their number. The figure of three is no doubt deduced from the reference to the gifts left by them: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Luke’s Gospel supplies most of the New Testament ingredients of the Christmas tale after a preliminary report on the angel Gabriel’s annunciation of two miraculous conceptions: that of John the Baptist by the post-menopausal Elizabeth and that of Jesus by Mary, a young virgin from Nazareth engaged to Joseph. Luke’s chief topics are the census decreed by Augustus and implemented by the governor of Syria, Quirinius. Both the census and Quirinius’s role in it are historically questionable as, apart from Luke, we have no evidence of a census in the kingdom of Herod or that Quirinius was in charge of Syria while Herod reigned. There was a Roman census of Judaea conducted by Quirinius, but this occurred ten years after the death of Herod in AD6.

Further peculiarities of Luke, taken over by tradition, are the birth of Jesus in an animal shed on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the angelic choir and jolly shepherds, and Jesus’s presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem on the 40th day after his birth. Matthew’s story starts with Jesus’ family tree, meant to demonstrate his messianic descent from King David through Joseph. Matthew becomes self-conscious, however, when his list reaches Jesus and seeks to avoid a phrase that would imply that Jesus was Joseph’s son. So instead of the standard formula, A begot B, B begot C, he writes: “Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.�

However, some old Greek, Syriac and Latin manuscripts tell a different tale: “Joseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was betrothed, begot Jesus.� Church tradition asserts, furthermore, that the ancient Jewish-Christian sect of the Ebionites maintained the biological paternity of Joseph.

This is the first Matthean surprise, but he heightens the drama of Joseph’s discovery that his fiancée is with child, a child that is not his. A decent man, he decides to repudiate Mary quietly without subjecting her to the rigour of Jewish law, in which sexual misbehaviour by an engaged girl is adultery punishable by death. But amid this trauma, he has a dream and learns from an angel that Mary’s condition is due to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in her is fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.�

But this prophecy can be interpreted as a virgin birth only if it is read in the Greek Bible, where the word parthenos is used. For the original audience of the gospel message, who perused the Hebrew text of Isaiah, the person who conceived and bore a son was not a virgin, but an almah, a young woman. Reassured by another dream, Joseph proceeds with the marriage, but abstains from “knowing� his wife until the birth of Jesus.

In Matthew there is no census, no journey from Nazareth, nor a stable in Bethlehem. In his Gospel the oriental visitors, followers of the miraculous star of the Messiah, find Jesus in Joseph’s home in Bethlehem. The Magi are directed there after the Jewish priestly interpreters of Scripture have deduced that the Messiah would be born in that city.

Envisaged from a literary angle, the two dramatic elements characteristic of Matthew, Joseph’s psychological torture, and the panic inflicted on him by Herod’s murder plot — a story strongly reminiscent of Pharaoh’s attempt in the Book of Exodus to destroy the infant Moses and all the newborn Israelite boys — are both absent from Luke’s happy and charming tale.

Thanks to the skilled editorial hand of the Church the originally dramatic Nativity story has developed into our merry feast of Christmas.

Vermes has recently published a book on this subject: The Nativity: History and Legend (Penguin, 2006; Buy from | Buy from

While I can’t really say more than that right now, I can refer you to one of the best scholarly works on the subject: Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1999; Buy from | Buy from

Posted in Christmas, Nativity Story, News, Press Release | 1 Comment »

Cameron and Jacobovici producing The Tomb

5th December 2006

According to a news release on CNW Group, filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici (of The Exodus Decoded fame) have wrapped production on The Tomb (working title), a new biblical documentary-drama about the life of Jesus (at least that is as much as I could figure out from the press release).

Here’s an excerpt from the release:

The feature-length documentary uses present-day research to shed new light on events from the Bible. Drawing upon archaeology and forensics, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Jacobovici reveal facts that point toward a potential discovery of historic significance concerning the New Testament.

Mr. Jacobovici, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker responsible for The Naked Archaeologist and Deadly Currents, directed the drama sequences, which will provide essential context for the documentary’s findings. He has described the Biblical recreations as some of the most historically accurate ever filmed.

Said Phil Fairclough, Executive Producer for Discovery Channel: “This is going to be a stunning documentary that confirms our commitment to telling the most important factual stories. We’re delighted to be working again with James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, who between them bring an unbeatable combination of documentary rigor and cinematic gloss.”

Mr. Cameron has previously produced Expedition: Bismarck (2002) and Last Mysteries of the Titanic (2005) for Discovery Channel.

Added Chris Johnson, Senior Vice President, Programming for VisionTV: “As Canada’s multi-faith broadcaster, we are excited to be part of a project that promises to have profound meaning for Christians and non-Christians alike. We have been privileged to work with Simcha Jacobovici before, and look forward to the results of this new collaboration with one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, James Cameron.”

Jacobovici is also co-authoring a book with Charles Pellegrino related to the documentary, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History (HarperCollins, February 2007; Buy from | Buy from

This looks to be another slick production of questionable historical and academic value, much like Jacobovici’s other efforts (e.g., his Naked Archaeologist series). At the very least it should be a conversation starter.

Posted in Archaeology, Documentary, Film, News | 4 Comments »

Verhoeven’s “Christ, the Man”?

30th November 2006

Cinema Blend is reporting a rumour that Paul Verhoeven, director and Jesus-Seminar member, is planning on making a Jesus film. I have heard this rumour before, but it seems that this rumour may have some basis in reality:

The rumor comes from the frequently unreliable guys at WENN, so don’t believe it until someone else confirms it, but it is true that there has long been talk of Paul working on such a film. The working title once rumored for it was Christ, the Man, and apparently there’s now some movement on the whole thing again. The current incarnation is supposed tell Jesus’s story as if he’s not a god made man flesh but instead just a dude. Verhoeven plans to completely ignore all the superstitious mumbo jumbo surrounding him and focus on Big J as a guy navigating the complex political and social landscape of his time.

It seems that the boobs, guns, and gore director has an insatiable interest in the Christ figure. He’s a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who use historical methods to determine who Jesus was. One problem though. He’s afraid it’ll get him lynched.

He reportedly tells Empire Magazine, “My scriptwriter told me not to do the movie in the United States because they (Christians) might shoot me. It’s not a joke at all. I took that very seriously. So I took his advice and decided to write a book about it first.”

I can’t find any corroboration for this rumour, but I don’t think Verhoeven really has to fear for his life.

Posted in Film, Jesus Films, News, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Hebrew or Israeli? Linguistics and Zionism

30th November 2006

Reuters has an article by Dan Williams (no relation) on maverick scholar Ghil’ad Zuckermann, entitled, “Hebrew or Israeli? Linguist stirs Zionist debate.” Zuckermann argues that modern Hebrew should be renamed “Israeli” and give up any claim to pure descent from the Hebrew of the Bible.

Here are some excerpts:

Israelis are brainwashed to believe they speak the same language as (the prophet) Isaiah, a purely Semitic language, but this is false,” Zuckermann told Reuters during a lecture tour to promote his soon-to-be-published polemic “Hebrew as Myth”.

“It’s time we acknowledge that Israeli is very different from the Hebrew of the past,” said Zuckermann, who points to the abiding influence of modern European dialects — especially Yiddish, Russian and Polish — imported by Israel’s founders.

Some critics throw Zuckermann in with revisionist academics who made their names questioning the justice of the 1948 war of Israel’s founding in what had been British Mandate Palestine.

Early Zionists were quick to assume Hebrew as part of an ancient birthright to land also claimed by Palestinian Arabs.

“His attitude toward modern Hebrew is less that of a professional linguist than of someone driven by the agenda of post- (if not anti-) Zionism,” wrote an Israeli contributor to the American newspaper Jewish Daily Forward.

Professor Moshe Bar-Asher, president of Israel’s Hebrew Language Academy, likened Zuckermann to Noam Chomsky, a renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist who in recent decades became a freewheeling critic of U.S. foreign policy.

“I think Zuckermann is a very good scholar, but he risks wasting his efforts by mixing up linguistics with politics,” Bar-Asher said. “He stirs up a lot of antagonism.”

There is continuity and discontinuity between Modern and Classical/Biblical Hebrew, so while I think differentiating between the two as scholars do is necessary, I’m not sure that calling “Modern Hebrew” “Israeli” is the best solution. Perhaps, akin to “Canadian English” or “American English”, “Israeli Hebrew” is a potential option.

Do my Jewish/Israeli readers have any opinions?

Posted in Hebrew, News | 5 Comments »

How Historically Accurate is the Bible?

30th November 2006

The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel offers a couple responses to the question, “How Historically Accurate is the Bible?” The first response is by an orthodox rabbi who believes “completely in the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible” on the basis of the uniqueness of its message:

The Bible internally proves its own accuracy. No people who were simply inventing their history would invent such things as apparent character flaws and mistakes in their heroes and founders. The sheer honesty of the Bible helps prove its accuracy. And the lack of precedent for and the sudden appearance out of nowhere of so many ideas in the Hebrew Bible that are fundamental to Western civilization also prove its historical accuracy.

Another answer is offered by a pastor of a Disciples of Christ church, who approaches the Bible “with prayer and scholarship” and affirms “the Bible is ‘true’ – and some of it even happened!” (italics added). Here’s an excerpt:

But reading the Bible as history misses its gift and grace, which lies not in its historical or scientific accuracy, but in the profoundly creative way it guides the search for meaning and hope. The search is so deeply rooted in the human spirit that the Bible stories predate an age of literacy. Traveling orally, the sacred words were passed from one generation to another attempting to make sense of the root of the human experience: love, suffering, joy, evil, hope.

Maximalism and minimalism in the popular press. So, what do you think?

Posted in Historiography, News | 1 Comment »

Jesus Doll Rejected and Spurned by Marines

16th November 2006

Associated Press is carrying an article about how the Marine Reserves’ Toys for Tots program rejected and spurned a donation of 4,000 Talking Jesus Dolls.
Here is an excerpt:

A suburban Los Angeles company offered to donate 4,000 of the foot-tall dolls, which quote Bible verses, for distribution to needy children this holiday season. The battery-powered Jesus is one of several dolls manufactured by one2believe, a division of the Valencia-based Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co., based on Biblical figures.

But the charity balked because of the dolls’ religious nature.

Toys are donated to kids based on financial need and “we don’t know anything about their background, their religious affiliations,” said Bill Grein, vice president of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, in Quantico, Va.

As a government entity, Marines “don’t profess one religion over another,” Grein said Tuesday. “We can’t take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family.”

Michael La Roe, director of business development for both companies, said the charity’s decision left him “surprised and disappointed.”

“The idea was for them to be three-dimensional teaching tools for kids,” La Roe said. “I believe as a churchgoing person, anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the Bible.”

This doll was featured in my previous post “Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch 7 – Jesus Kitsch” and has fully articulated limbs, including hands and fingers that can gasp and hold. This “Messenger of Faith” comes with hand-sewn cloth outfits and sandals and quotes over a minute of Bible verses (John 3:16; Mark 12:30-31; John 3:3, 15:5, 20:29 — listen for yourself).

talking_jesus1.jpg talking_jesus2.jpg

To top it all off, this Jesus looks kind of buff! While Talmida thinks the doll looks like George Michael, I think he looks more like country star Billy Ray Cyrus.

(HT The Lesser of Two Weevils)

Posted in Humour, Jesus Junk & Christian Kitsch, News, Popular Culture | 3 Comments »

2007 Rugby World Cup Tickets On Sale

9th November 2006

RugbyCanada.jpgSo, if you are thinking of buying me a Christmas present, you can always buy me some tickets to the 2007 Rugby World Cup since tickets go on sale today. Of course, you would have to buy me airplane tickets to France as well, since that is where the World Cup is being held next year.

Team Canada will have an uphill battle since we will playing in Pool B along with Australia, Wales, Fiji and the winner of the top team from Asia. Australia will be the toughest challenge. I also like Wales, but that is more because I have Welsh heritage. Canada’s first game is against Wales in Nantes on 9 September 2007 and will then we play Fiji in Cardiff on 16 September, Asia 1 in Bordeaux on 25 September and Australia in Bordeaux on 25 September.

I can’t wait. Rugby is the best game in the world!

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Posted in News, Personal, Rugby | 3 Comments »